This is a description of how the Black Panther movie follows the structure of ‘The Hero’s Journey,’ or the primordial monomyth at the heart of all narratives.
*** SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD ***
Watch the movie before reading this — it’s a masterpiece that I do no justice in describing.
This analysis follows the “Twelve Stage Hero’s Journey” as adapted by Christopher Vogler, rather than the original 17-part Monomyth as detailed by Joseph Campbell. Because, as this website describes, the 12 stages follow the more traditional 3-act structure of movies like Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz.
Follow along with the link below to see what the individual steps entail:
1) Our story opens in the “ordinary world” of Oakland CA. In a clever and compelling inversion of storytelling, the history, people, and culture of Wakanda are recounted, not to the protagonist T’Challa, but to his main antagonist and cousin, Erik Killmonger. On the first viewing, it’s easy to miss this sleight of hand swap between the characters, as the narration is overlayed by an interesting animation intended to be a sand-like Vibranium that sets up a visually striking contrast between the ‘ordinary world’ of Killmonger in Oakland and the ‘ordinary world’ of T’Challa in Wakanda, which is practically magical by comparison. This inversion not only “anchors the [villain] as human … and makes it easier for us to identify with him and hence later, empathize with his plight,” but also portrays Killmonger as a mirror-image reflection of our ‘true’ Hero. After this historical narration there is a brief scene in which T’Challa’s father accuses his uncle (Killmonger’s father) of treason, which returns later in the movie.
2) We are now introduced to T’Challa, who is already wearing the Black Panther suit (sans mask) as he watches a screen that is reporting the news of his father’s death, the previous king T’Chaka. T’Challa is next in the line of succession, and thus, his “adventure begins” with a “call to action” to take his rightful place as the new king. The rest of this scene acts as somewhat of a redux of stage 1) “Ordinary World,” but with T’Challa as the Hero instead of Killmonger (although, it would be somewhat hard to realize that the focus was actually on Killmonger in the opening scene). The screen he’s watching is in a Wakandan aircraft that is on its way to “save” someone from a heavily-armed convoy in the middle of Nigeria. This ‘someone’ turns out to be his ex-girlfriend Nakia, who actually didn’t need saving at all, and is angry that T’Challa interrupted her mission until she finds out that his father is dead.
3) T’challa was not there to save Nakia, but to ask her to join him at his coronation for moral support, showing us that he harbors “deep personal doubts as to whether or not he is up to the challenge.” He is “eager to accept the quest” but he has unspoken fears that manifest themselves through M’Baku, the warrior leader of the Jabari Tribe, who challenges T’Challa’s ascension to the throne by means of ritual combat. M’Baku voices his dissension about the ways in which Wakanda is straying from its traditional ways before T’Challa bests him in combat and he yields, making T’Challa the new king. We will eventually find out that M’Baku was truly the physical representation of T’Challa’s doubts, as he also fears the degree to which Wakanda is progressing (but in different ways than M’Baku fears). After M’Baku is defeated and no more challengers remain, T’Challa is coronated as the reigning king by drinking a potion made of “heart-shaped herb,” which seems to be some sort of Vibranium-laced plant that provides the Black Panther with supernatural abilities. This is approximately 20 minutes into the movie.
4) Immediately upon drinking the elixir, T’Challa lays down and is covered with sand in a special ceremonial cave. When he sits up again he finds himself transported to the ancestral plane, which at this point in the movie is inhabited by 5 panthers who are seen lounging in a tree. One of the panthers jumps down and transforms into T’Challa’s otherworldly mentor – his deceased father, T’Chaka. T’Challa takes T’Chaka’s hand and kneels in front of him, very emotional and excited to see his father again. But T’Chaka brings him to his feet and forcefully says something like, “Stand up. You are a king!” He then asks T’Challa why he looks so troubled, who responds, “I am not ready…” T’Chaka is confused and tells his son that he has trained his entire life to be king. But T’Challa replies “No, I am not ready to be without you.” T’Chaka looks somewhat concerned and says, “A man that has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father. Have I ever failed you?” to which T’Challa replies with a confident “No.” T’Challa then asks his father/mentor for the guidance he desperately needs: “How can I protect Wakanda and its people?” to which his father replies with “insight into the dilemma he faces/wise advice…”: “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
5) T’Challa awakens as he is pulled out of the ancestral plane/sandy pseudo-grave into an upright position by his advisor, Zuri. After he catches his breath, he excitedly says “He was there! My father…” And he is “now ready to act upon his call to adventure and truly begin his quest.” In his first meeting as the new king with the Wakandan council of elders, they discuss a Vibranium artifact that had been recently stolen from a museum (which we saw happen a few scenes ago). They discuss the recent theft of a Vibranium artifact by Ulysses Klaue – a man that T’Chaka had tried and failed repeatedly to bring to justice for long ago stealing some of their Vibranium. Unbeknownst to them, Klaue is in league with T’Challa’s cousin, Killmonger. Although the audience saw this and it was *heavily* implied, it is not yet explicitly stated. The elders and a friend named W’Kabi convince T’Challa to go out and bring Klaue, and the stolen Vibranium, back to Wakanda.
6) T’Challa, Nakia, and his main general Okoye venture out to an underground casino in Korea to intercept Klaue before he can sell his stolen Vibranium. Here, two “obstacles are thrown across his path” – specifically, 1) that the man buying the Vibranium is a CIA agent named Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) that recognizes T’Challa, and 2) that Klaue is prepared for Wakandans to try and stop his deal. A gunfight breaks out in the casino when one of Klaue’s guards recognizes Okoye when she accidentally gives an order to Nakia in Wakandan. Klaue escapes in the fighting, but they follow in a car-chase that showcases some of the interesting Vibranium technology utilized by the Wakandans. In addition, the chase also unites Agent Ross and the Wakandan team as allies in their mission to catch Klaue. T’Challa eventually catches up with Klaue, who almost goads the newly crowned king into killing him in front of hundreds of filming onlookers. T’Challa reluctantly spares Klaue’s life and the newly allied protagonist team takes him in to a nearby CIA safehouse for questioning. As Agent Ross is interrogating Klaue, Killmonger interrupts, spraying a barrage of bullets into the safehouse, stunning T’Challa with a grenade launcher, and snatching Klaue away. But before Killmonger escapes, T’Challa realizes he is staring down a much more dangerous and important adversary, as he notices Killmonger is wearing a necklace with a Wakandan royal ring on it. As the next few scenes unfold, Killmonger’s identity as a Wakandan is explicitly revealed when he kills Klaue in a gun-battle after an argument about going to Wakanda. This is almost exactly halfway through the movie (~1 hour in).
7) Agent Ross will clearly die from his gunshot wound unless they bring him back to Wakanda where their superior technology will easily be able to heal him. As they return home, Okoye argues with T’Challa and Nakia about bringing Agent Ross along with them. She rightly states that it is his duty as a CIA agent to report back to the U.S. government, which will destroy the secrecy and isolationism that Wakanda and its kings have upheld for thousands of years. T’Challa knows it is his duty to protect this secrecy, but he cannot sit by and watch his ally die when he knows he could easily save him. Here he meets the inner conflict between being a good king and being a good man that his father outlined for him in the ancestral realm. They take Agent Ross to the lab where T’Challa’s sister performs all of the research and development for the state — a literal cave embedded in the mountain of Vibranium at the heart of Wakanda. While she heals the wounded Agent, T’Challa goes to another literal cave where his advisor Zuri is tending to the heart-shaped flowers that provide the powers of the Black Panther. T’Challa confronts Zuri about the ring he saw Killmonger wearing earlier. Zuri initially says he cannot say, because he promised T’Chaka, the king, that he would keep the secret. T’Challa angrily yells “I AM THE KING NOW!” echoing his father’s wisdom. We flash back to the first scene in Oakland CA as Zuri comes clean that he was there when T’Chaka confronted his brother over his treasonous acts. T’Challa’s uncle (Killmonger’s father) tried to kill Zuri, but T’Chaka stopped him, killing him in the process. Killmonger was just a kid at the time, but they could not take him home because it would reveal that T’Chaka had murdered his brother. As this is happening, Killmonger is on his way to Wakanda. T’Challa cannot understand why his father would leave his cousin behind in Oakland, and he goes to talk to Nakia and “reflect upon his journey and the treacherous road ahead…” While T’Challa is talking to Nakia his sister gets word of Killmonger’s approach, and Agent Ross recognizes him as another CIA agent – describing what a dangerous and potent threat he is as a fighter, spy, and political saboteur — “this brief respite helps the audience understand the magnitude of the ordeal that awaits [T’Challa] and escalates the tension in anticipation of his ultimate test.”
8) Killmonger shows up at the border of Wakanda, where he is taken as a prisoner. In the throne room the elder council anxiously questions T’Challa about the intruder, Killmonger, while T’Challa sits and silently broods. When Killmonger is brought into the room his aunt (T’Challa’s mother) asks him what he wants, to which Killmonger replies “The throne.” After a tense showdown and an epic speech, Killmonger challenges T’Challa to ritual combat for control of the throne. T’Challa accepts. They fight and T’Challa loses. Killmonger throws him off a cliff, literally and metaphorically showing the descent into chaos. T’Challa fails and “life as he knows it will never be the same again.” Killmonger seizes the thrown and the people still loyal to T’Challa flee the city. A bunch of really important stuff happens here, but I’ve already written a ton, so go see the movie if you want the details.
9) T’Challa’s mother, sister, Agent Ross, and Nakia go to M’Baku to offer him a heart shaped herb so he can defeat Killmonger and take back the throne. Rather than accept their offer, he leads them to T’Challa, who is nearly dead in a coma, kept alive by the cold of the snow. They feed him the herb instead and perform the ancestral ceremony, allowing the unconscious T’Challa to face his father in the ancestral plane again. His father and 8 ancestors tell him it is time to join them in the spirit world, but T’Challa resists, telling them that they were all wrong – his father for leaving Killmonger behind, and the rest of the ancestors for keeping Wakanda a secret from the rest of the world. He comes to terms with the fact that he will have to drastically change the way he rules his country and interacts with the rest of the world.
10) T’Challa and his allies return to Wakanda just as Killmonger is sending off ships to wage war on the rest of the world. A battle ensues.
11) T’Challa and Killmonger begin to fight as Agent Ross struggles to stop the Wakandan warships from leaving the borders and starting a world war. Honestly, this was the weakest, most forced part of the movie that sort of ties the plot in with the rest of the marvel universe by reminding the viewers that there’s a world outside of Wakanda. This scene is the clearest indication to me that the Marvel universe does not deserve this movie, and indeed, the movie itself is made worse by association with the other superhero movies in the genre. But still, a phenomenal story that so far as followed the Hero’s journey almost too perfectly. Obviously T’Challa defeats Killmonger.
12) Again, many details to fill in here by watching the movie. But T’Challa makes moves to create outreach programs in the neighborhood of Oakland where his father killed his uncle, and the after-credits scene shows T’Challa announcing to the world that Wakanda will share its secrets and power with the world. There is then another after-credits scene which suggests that Captain America and his team has been hiding in Wakanda the whole time. The lead-in to Infinity Wars also suggests to many people that Thanos may siege Wakanda in an attempt to retrieve the Soul Gem (i.e. the philosopher’s stone). Seriously. Watch the movie. I do it no justice in this description.