Marvel’s Black Panther embodies American exceptionalism. The theme is that offering foreign aid and sharing knowledge is not only a good idea, but a duty, and one on which a prosperous country’s survival depends.
Wait, you thought it was a superhero movie? Or a movie that celebrates black culture? Or a movie that celebrates women? It’s all those things too!
Moreover, critics are saying it’s a “Shakespearean” drama because of the nuanced characterization of the main villain, who believes so strongly in his mission that you’re half inclined to agree with him.
I’m glad that the unremittingly bleak and gritty Christopher Nolan style of superhero movie is increasingly giving way to humor, even in movies like this one that have serious and important themes.
If you haven’t already done so, see Marvel’s Black Panther so that you can join in the discussion of this cultural touchstone.
See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My beat sheet for Black Panther
In a kind of shifting, sparkly black sand style (kind of like Jor El’s reiteration of the prologue in the “debate” portion of Man of Steel), we see the story of the founding and early history of Wakanda told by a father to his son. A meteorite made of vibranium fell to earth in central Africa, in what would come to be the country of Wakanda, and gave the plants and animals special properties. Five tribes came to live there; after a period of war, one tribe hid itself away in the mountains while four formed an alliance and prospered technologically while keeping their success a secret from the rest of the world.
Outside a housing block in California, black American children play basketball using an improvised goal made from a milk crate and a board.
Set-up / Catalyst
Years ago, two black men plan some kind of armed assault but are interrupted by a knock at the door. It’s two guards and the king of Wakanda. One of the black men is a Wakandan spy and has been expecting them. He and the king greet each other warmly; they are brothers. However, the king has discovered that his brother has betrayed him by helping outsiders get Wakandan vibranium. The other man, it turns out, is also a Wakandan spy—a more loyal one. The king kills the traitor, his own brother, and leaves the building with the loyal spy.
That same king, at a more advanced age, has died in an explosion in a previous Marvel movie, we are reminded. From a cloaked hoverjet, his son, wearing a protective black panther suit, using advanced EMP devices, and assisted by his extremely competent shaven-headed female general, attacks a convoy, thus interrupting his ex-girlfriend’s undercover mission to help oppressed people outside Wakanda. He asks his ex-girlfriend to come home to Wakanda for his coronation.
A young American expert on African artefacts has led a South African criminal into a London museum (which is actually the High Museum of Art in my hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, which gives a lot of tax breaks to movie makers). They steal an axe that has a vibranium head, and we learn that the South African baddie has a strange, high-tech hand, a lovely deadpan sense of humor, and zero respect for human life.
Reaching home, the prince greets his grieving mother and sassy, scientifically minded sister (who reminds him that just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved). He visits a key clan leader as he tends to his battle rhinoceros. Then it is time for the coronation ritual.
Debate / Break into Two
The boss priest calls the four clans to meet at a special waterfall where they can challenge the prince for the right to rule if they wish. Nobody does, until members of the fifth clan arrive unexpectedly. Their leader challenges the prince and yields the fight after a manful struggle, and accepts the prince’s authority as king.
The new king drinks syrup made from a special heart-shaped herb and is buried in sand in a ritual that allows him to see and speak with his ancestors. He tells his dead father he’s ready to rule but not ready to live without him. The father says if the son isn’t ready to live without him, he has failed; the son says his father has never failed (which turns out not to be the case). The son asks about the best way to protect Wakanda; the father lauds his son’s concern for his people but warns that is hard for a good man to be king. (Don’t let them in, don’t let them see, be the good king you always have to be! Conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know… ‘cause if they know…)
Promise of the Premise / B Story
The new king visits his sister’s lab and gets equipped with some new toys, just like James Bond does when he visits Q. Then he takes his ex-girlfriend and his general to a South Korean casino to try to recover the vibranium from the South African, whom he and his countrymen at all costs want killed or brought back to stand trial. At the casino, he runs into a CIA agent (and a character the credits call a “thirsty gambler”, a cameo role played by the ubiquitous Stan Lee). The South African pulls the vibranium out of his pants where he’s been keeping it because he didn’t want to buy an expensive suitcase, but the general’s cover is blown as she’s reporting on the number of hostiles, and a fight ensues. The fight turns into a chase involving a car remotely driven by the king’s sister back home in the lab. Right about the time the king corners the South African, the CIA agent arrives on the scene, having picked up the king’s general and ex-girlfriend after their car was destroyed, and takes the South African into custody. D’oh!
The king and his general debate whether they should let the CIA agent talk to the South African, but in the end decide they have to. Unfortunately, the South African promptly starts telling the CIA agent all about the real Wakanda that the world knows nothing about. Worse, friends of the South African sidestep the king’s ex-girlfriend’s surveillance and blow a hole in the wall of the room where the captive is being kept and make off with him. Worst of all, one of the rescuers is wearing a ring that looks to be the king’s lost uncle’s. Who was the masked man with the ring? Could it be that a Wakandan has betrayed Wakanda?
Bad Guys Close in
The CIA agent has taken a bullet in the spine in the course of protecting the king’s ex-girlfriend. The Wakandans decide to take him back to Wakanda and heal him using their advanced medical technology, even though that will mean letting him in on national secrets they know he will dutifully relay to his superiors. If they don’t heal him, he will die, and that seems unjust. (An interesting precedent, right? Helping versus keeping a secret. Hm…)
The key clan leader is angry about the failure of the mission. He says the new king is just like the old king; all bark and no bite, essentially. The king questions the boss priest about his lost uncle’s fate. The priest at first refuses to give up the old king’s secret, but finally admits that the old king killed his own brother after that brother, seeing Africans suffering in the US and across the globe, started helping steal Wakandan vibranium in a bid to improve Africans’ lives. The traitor’s son, half American, half Wakandan, was left behind fatherless in the US. Because the old king didn’t take him in after killing his father, he grew up to become a powerful enemy of Wakanda and its king, his cousin.
The bitter cousin kills the South African and brings his body as a “gift” to Wakanda. The CIA agent identifies the cousin as a highly-trained, intelligent black-ops expert. The king tries (unsuccessfully) to hide his cousin’s true identity from his countrymen. His cousin challenges him for the throne, as is within his rights, since he is of Wakandan royal blood. His stated intent is to distribute Wakanda’s weapons to oppressed black people across the globe so that they can violently overthrow any and all the world’s oppressive governments… and join his Wakandan empire, on which the sun will not set. Ostriches all, except for that one key clan leader, the Wakandans really don’t want him to do that. However, they adhere to their traditions and allow him to challenge their king.
All Is Lost
At the edge of the waterfall, the boss priest, attempting to appease the bitter cousin and stop the battle for the throne, offers his own life and is killed. The king loses the battle and gets tossed over the edge, to the despair of his womenfolk, who flee the scene. The bitter cousin is crowned king.
Dark Night of the Soul
The bitter king drinks syrup made from the heart-shaped herb and speaks with the only ancestor in sight: his dead father, who grieves for how his son has turned out. He should have taken him back to Wakanda himself, before it was too late. Upon waking, the bitter king instructs the royal gardeners to burn all the remaining heart-shaped herb plants, and they do so. (Surprisingly, the movie fails to address the far-reaching consequences of this destruction: future Wakandan kings won’t have the black panther’s invincibility or be able to visit the land of the ancestors.)
The general decides to remain in the capital and serve the throne, no matter who sits in it, as it is her duty to do, but the ex-girlfriend disagrees about what duty consists of. She and the CIA agent, the mother, and the sister sneak away with the last of the heart-shaped herb to seek help from the fifth tribe.
Break into Three
Unsurprisingly, the true king is not dead. He was rescued by a fisherman of the fifth tribe and has been preserved in snow. The true king’s supporters give him syrup made from the last of the heart-shaped herb, which sends him into the land of the ancestors. He confronts his father and his isolationist ancestors, accusing them of a grave error, and says he cannot rest while his cousin sits on the throne, bent on building an empire. He wakes and asks the leader of the fifth tribe to bring his army and confront his cousin, but is refused. His sister gives him a black panther suit, and he goes off to stop his cousin on his own.
The true king arrives at the vibranium mine just in time to dispute his cousin’s first dispatches of weapons. He says that the challenge for the throne is incomplete, since he did not yield or die. His cousin says, Challenge, schmallenge, I’m king now, and activates his own panther suit. A huge, complicated battle ensues in which the key clan leader and his men attack the true king; the general and the royal guards (and the sister and the ex-girlfriend) attack the bitter cousin; Checkov’s battle rhinoceros is brought to an adorable screeching halt; the fifth tribe finally shows up and joins the good guys; and the CIA agent risks his life to remotely pilot the hoverjet to shoot down the airships carrying weapons to the border.
The good guys win the melee when the key clan leader surrenders to the general, whom he loves, but the two black panthers have a final showdown in the mine on the maglev train tracks. The true king manages to stab his cousin when the sonic field on the train tracks switches on and inhibits the powers of both their panther suits. Taking pity on his cousin, however, the king brings him to the rim of a canyon to see the beauty of the sun setting over Wakanda. The cousin acknowledges the beautiful view and then chooses to die rather than be healed and live the rest of his life locked up for his crimes.
Back at that same basketball court outside the housing development where his uncle was killed, the basketball goal has been upgraded. The king explains that he has bought the property and will use it to build an outreach center that will be spearheaded by his ex-ex-girlfriend. Then he lands his hoverjet on the basketball court, to the amazement of some local youths.
At a meeting of the United Nations, the new king of Wakanda says he is going to Let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore! Let it go, let it go, we’ve got hovertrains galore! I don’t care, what you’re going to say, fools will build their walls, their guns never bothered me anyway.
Bucky is being cared for in Wakanda by the king’s sister. You might remember if you’ve been watching the Marvel superhero movies obsessively that Bucky, a mind-controlled soldier, was unjustly blamed for the bomb that killed the old king of Wakanda. At the end of Captain America: Civil War, he went into stasis in Wakanda. (He’s clearly not in stasis anymore.)
Characters in Black Panther
I purposely didn’t use character names in the beat sheet plot summary, because proper nouns make summaries tough to read. However, I feel like the characters’ names should be in the post somewhere. Here they are.
- T’Chaka – the old king, killed in a previous movie
- T’Challa – the prince who becomes black panther and new king of Wakanda in this movie
- Okoye – general/bodyguard loyal to the Wakandan throne
- Nakia – the anti-isolationist ex-girlfriend of the new king
- N’Jobu – the traitorous dead uncle of the new king
- N’Jadaka / Erik Killmonger – the half-American, half-Wakandan son of the new king’s dead uncle, a bitter black-ops expert
- Shuri – the new king’s tech-savvy, sassy younger sister
- W’Kabi – the key clan leader who turns against the new king
- M’Baku – the leader of the fifth tribe
- Zuri – the boss priest, who witnessed the new king’s uncle’s death
I think it’s interesting that the only major white characters are a guy who’s mostly comic relief and a villain (who’s also pretty funny):
- Everett Ross – a grey-haired, white American central intelligence agent
- Ulysses Klaue – a ruthless but witty South African criminal with a prosthetic arm containing a Wakandan weapon