I don’t have to tell you that Black Panther is an amazing cinematic experience that should be viewed on the big screen with a large bucket of popcorn and a cherry cola.
The film brought in $700 million globally in only 12 days and proved to studio execs that a large POC-driven blockbuster could be a success. It owes its record-breaking success, in large part, to the quality of the narrative. As a whole, Black Panther is revolutionary, but in terms of the story arc, it is the most classically Shakespearean experience Marvel has ever made.
The nine elements of a Shakespearean tragedy consist of the tragic hero, the struggle between good and evil, hamartia, tragic waste, external conflict, internal conflict, catharsis, supernatural elements, and comic relief. Similar to Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, Black Panther consists of these 9 basics elements, and it does a much better job handling these themes than most other superhero films.
The tragic hero
The newly crowned king of Wakanda—T’Challa—stands in as our tragic hero. He struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow and lead his kingdom into a new age, but more importantly, he has never been directly challenged by an adversary that is his equal. (More on that later.) T’Challa’s need to be a good king competes with his hubris, which makes his fall from grace both meaningful and heart breaking.
A battle of right and wrong
The struggle between good and evil in this film is represented by the fictitious nation of Wakanda—set in real life East Africa sandwiched between Ethiopia and Kenya . They are a hidden nation full of amazing technology and resources that is kept under wraps by a “cloaking device.” For hundreds of years, Wakanda has chosen to remain in the shadows, keeping their wealth and technology to themselves and refusing to help their fellow man.
T’Challa’s fatal flaw
The young king T’Challa’s hamartia, or his “fatal flaw,” is that he is a good man, but he also wants to be a great king like his father. T’Challa often looks like a boy pretending to be king, never sure of his actions and questioning where his place is in the world. The film is constantly making him question where his loyalty lies, and why.
The internal conflict
The film’s internal conflict stems from how T’Challa wants to please everyone. He realizes the world is a messy place, but for hundreds of years, Wakanda has always kept to itself. All of the films in the Marvel universe are set in a “real world” environment, so Wakanda has essentially sat on the sidelines while its neighboring countries have struggled with extreme hardships. Now that T’Challa is king, he recognizes they have the ability to change the world, but to get involved would run counter to the country’s long-standing history of isolationism.
A fight from the outside
If T’Challa has a problem taking action, the villain of this film—Erik Killmonger—swings the pendulum in the opposite direction with extreme, erratic actions. Working as Black Panther’s external conflict and an analog for the African American experience, Erik Killmonger is a special-ops-trained, highly intellectual, ruthless American mercenary that has a secret connection to Wakanda that could change the country and the world. He is the direct equal to T’Challa in every way, essentially occupying different sides of the same coin.
Coming to a resolution
After a big CGI-fueled battle between T’Challa and Erik, they try to find some sort of atonement for the past under the majestic Wakanda sunset, with a monologue from Erik that leaves you morally torn and questioning who the true villain really is. Black Panther even includes elements of the supernatural, with a heart-shaped herb that is connected to the afterlife, and works as a rite of passage for all the kings of Wakanda.
Superhero films are rarely thought of as award-winning works of cinema. They are usually loud, CGI-heavy, popcorn-fueled commercials. It wasn’t until Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy that people even considered the potential of these movies. Now that we are approaching the climax of the superhero film genre with Marvel’s Infinity Wars I and II, superhero films have sluggishly matured into films that need to be taken seriously.
If it’s possible to put aside your biases of superhero films being large, empty spectacles, you’ll find that Black Panther, similar to the great works of Shakespeare, is a masterfully crafted story that can be enjoyed by everyone.