At the beginning of the week, I posted Part I of my Black Panther analysis – it covers my view of the structural building blocks of the screenplay/movie. Today, I’ll look into T’Challa’s character arc, his goals, wants and needs and how these change during the course of the story.
Please note: all opinions and conclusions are my personal take on the subject. I neither picked the script writer’s mind nor do I claim to have the ultimate truth on how to interpret this story. This is an exercise in character arc analysis – nothing more and nothing less. If you don’t agree with parts of my point of view, please feel free to discuss in the comment section.
For all who have not yet seen the movie, please be aware of major spoilers if you read on – obviously I’ll have to go into detail when analyzing the story’s character arc.
Additionally, and because character arcs and character motivation has been one of my chief research topics on the craft in recent month. If you are not familiar with the Lie/Truth vs Want/Need – method, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog. It’s a treasure!
T’Challa’s Character Arc – Overview
Want: Be as good a king for Wakanda as his father was
Perceived goal: resolve the one failure of his father and protect Wakanda through continued isolationism
Need: find his own way for his kingship and Wakanda’s future
Lie: T’Chaka was a paramount king and to prove myself worthy I must carry on like he did.
Truth: Wakanda’s power can do good for more people than just its own citizens.
T’Challa’s Character Arc – Detailed Analysis:
Starting with two major setup-scenes, the movie then summarizes the recent tragic events in Vienna via a newsreel and establishes T’Challa on the move with Okoye in a highly advanced aircraft. T’Challa, trained and educated by his father T’Chaka has been prepared to succeed to the Wakandan throne one day. But T’Chaka’s death in Vienna is untimely, understandably upsetting T’Challa emotionally and pushing him into the new role without proper time to prepare. Still, he’s determined to fulfill his duty and prepare to be as good a king as his father was. T’Challa holds the believes and values he learned from his father dear. In a way, he starts out with two misconceptions: he learned and firmly believes that isolation is the only way Wakanda can whether the times relatively unharmed and the Lie that his father was a paramount king and a wise man, nearly infallible.
After T’Challa defeats Jabari Tribe leader M’Baku in ritual combat, he sheds the status of an interim king and wins the crown rightfully. During his anointment as Black Panther, he meets his dead father on the spiritual plane. There, he expresses his fears of not living up to the standard he thinks everyone is expecting from him and that he demands of himself, too. Assured by his father’s spirit and reminded of the necessity of maintaining Wakanda’s isolation to keep it safe, he returns to present time, soothed and determined to do right by his people. His main goal, being a good king, solidifies in keeping things the way they always were.
But not everyone in Wakanda is d’accord with the current secrecy and isolation approach. Even Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-lover, worked tirelessly to help suppressed and persecuted people of other nations. She’s done it in the past, she’s set to go on with it now. Their different views on this issue lead to tension between T’Challa and Nakia and repeat the underlying overall conflict of the story on a personal level. In fact, we see T’Challa confronted with the Truth (aka Wakanda can do good in the world if it chose to employ its resources to help) when T’Challa and Okoye extract Nakia from a mission abroad to join the upcoming enthronement ceremony.
One of the few failures of T’Chaka’s reign was that he never brought justice upon Ulysses Klaue for attacking Wakanda, killing many people, W’Kabi’s parents among the dead. When, after years of evading Wakandan justice, Klaue is expected to make an appearance in Busan to sell stolen vibranium, T’Challa does what he thinks must be done to achieve his two main goals in the process. On the one hand, he now has the chance to right the one wrong his father was unable to correct during his lifetime: capture or kill Klaue in order to settle a longstanding request by W’Kabi and bring about atonement for his parents’ deaths. On the other hand, he’ll bring back a stolen vibranium artefact that might compromise Wakanda’s secret and therefore fulfilling his goal of maintaining the isolation of the country.
With these new plot goal set, T’Challa sets out for Busan in company of Okoye and Nakia. They mess up and Klaue ends up in CIA custody, with Agent Everett Ross in charge. When Klaue’s team, Eric Stevens among them, breaks him free, Agent Ross saves Nakia from a bullet. Torn between the urge to pursue Klaue to fulfill his promise to W’Kabi and Nakia’s plea to bring Agent Ross to Wakanda and save his life there, T’Challa, to Okoye’s dismay, opts for the latter and acts in accord with the Truth – using Wakanda’s assets to do good.
Up to the midpoint, T’Challa has learned on at least two major occasions how Wakanda’s power made a significant change for the better: The human trafficker Nakia was spying on, were thwarted and the kidnapped women freed, and Agent Ross’ full made a full recovery in Shuri’s lab. But that’s not all. T’Challa, having seen one of the attackers in Busan wearing a ring like his own on a chain around his neck, goes straight to Zuri and pressures him for the truth about a past long buried. He learns of a decision his father made long ago that now bears grave consequences. The image of his father as infallible and perfect king begins to totter. And it encumbers him with guilt for the actions, a need to make it up this wrong.
Unfortunately, the moment to do just that comes when Eric Stevens aka Killmonger delivers Klaue’s body to M’Kabi, securing his confidence and pitching him against T’Challa. Eric Stevens is the antitheses to all the things he believes in and still, he feels indebted and rattled by the revelation about his father’s and Zuri’s deed. He agrees when he is challenged for the throne. But T’Challa is encumbered by his doubts and has trouble keeping up with Killmonger. When Zuri is killed after trying to intervene, it’s the last straw. He is thrown over the waterfall and left for dead.
On the brink of death, his mother administers the heart-shaped herb to T’Challa and he once more visits his ancestors on the spiritual plane. Here, he confronts his father over the abandonment of Eric Stevens, ultimately leading to him becoming the monster that’s on the throne right now. This marks the destruction of the first part of the Lie: when he realizes that his father was human after all and not free from error. He vows to do better and returns to fight for his people, his country, and his throne.
Restored to the Black Panther power, he learns about Killmonger’s plan to wage war with Wakanda’s weaponry. The new king is striving for ultimate power, not seeing how this makes him just like the white suppressors he’s so eager to fight. T’Challa witnesses, how part of his people openly support this strategy.
During the climax, he resumes his battle with Killmonger. He has relinquished the Lie (My father was infallible and to be a good king I must do as he did) but has not yet incorporated the Truth (Wakanda can do better and help their brothers and sisters abroad) In a way he still pursues the original goal (keep Wakanda’s secret from the world) that was but a perceived solution to his want to be a great king like his father, while the real solution would be to embrace Wakanda’s long-neglected responsibility to use its resources to do good in the world.
When Killmonger is fatally hurt and reveals himself as a deeply troubled human who has never found a safe haven to grow up in, T’Challa realizes that he needs to find a better way. Eric Stevens is but one person gone astray due to lack of support, lack of a caring community, lack of peaceful opportunity. Eric chooses death. He can’t go on, facing imprisonment, knowing he did not succeed in bringing about change for the suppressed he was fighting for.
With Eric dead, all five tribes joined for the first time in peace and mutual respect, T’Challa sets about changing Wakanda’s way, reaching out and offering help. With the post credit scene in front of the United Nations where his father died giving his speech, we circle back to the beginning and T’Challa fully commits to the new role Wakanda is to play from this day forth.
Black Panther is a powerful movie with a strong and valuable message: If you possess the power to do good, you should not shy away from it. Or, as we know it from the Spiderman motto: with great power comes great responsibility. 😉
Themes include progress vs. conservation, suppression, responsibility, and destiny.
Do you agree? Please comment!
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