Growing up King: Coming-of-Age in Black Panther
There is so much to talk about when it comes to Black Panther, both the film itself and its impact. 90% of those things, if not more, I’m highly unqualified to talk about as a white-passing Lebanese girl. I encourage all of Sartorial Geek’s readers to look around at what the black community – especially young viewers – have to say about the film.
In the areas I do feel qualified to talk in – representation of women, depiction of “fantasy tech,” and nailing the Rule of Cool – they’re still on the ball. And I could happily write dozens of essays on everything this film did right, and all the scenes I’d point to as examples for future writers.
But what my eye was drawn to, as it usually is in Marvel films, was the coming-of-age story seated in this film. Because while all of the Avengers have some degree of “growing up” in their MCU-side origin story, Black Panther went far deeper and far more classic in its version of this.
The Psychology of Entertainment
Let me introduce you two my two favorite guys: Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. I know, I know, if you hear “hero journey” one more time you’ll probably cringe yourself inside-out, but hear me out.
Jung was Sigmund Freud’s #1 frenemy. The two got on well enough that they went on vacation together, but their ideologies could not have been more different. To Freud, everything was sex; to Jung, everything was internal symbolism. Jung worked with the concept of “archetypes,” where each of us has multiple sides to ourselves that can be represented as different characters. Think of the animus and anima, or the ever-present Shadow. Those were all his ways of depicting elements of our own personality in a way that we could understand, so we could work through our problems.
A wonderful side effect of this? Jung’s archetypes hold true pretty much universally. And that’s where Campbell comes in. He was a mythologist who used, among other things, Jungian psychology to tie the stories of humanity together and find the similarities between them. Ever notice how every culture has a flood myth, or a Cinderella story? That’s the sort of thing Campbell explored.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll get a big kick out of Campbell’s work, because the original trilogy follows his definition of the Hero Journey pretty much point-for-point.
The Shadow and the Father
Coming-of-age stories are a classic trope, because becoming an adult is (to some degree) something we all do. We hit an age when we have to come to terms with which elements of ourselves can stay and which need to change. We have to reframe our views of our parents to some degree. And we have to do a lot of soul-searching with regards to our self-worth.
Two of the biggest things that anyone – real or fictional – has to overcome in their growing-up process is their Father (or their gender-matched parent/guardian) and their Shadow. The Father can be in a literal sense (proving your equality to your actual parent) or a figurative one (moving past your parents’ expectations of you). In fiction, the Father might not even be a literal parent; it could be an authority figure who is objectively more powerful than the hero. For example, Harry Potter’s “Father” to be defeated isn’t James (except for a few instances of having to move past James’s mistakes), but Voldemort – a powerful authority figure similar to Harry.
The Shadow is a tougher one to pin down. The Shadow is you – it’s just the part of you you really don’t like. It’s everything about yourself you wish you could get rid of, or you’re afraid you could be. Your anxieties, your bad habits, your biases, et cetera. In real life, we have to come to terms with our Shadow, and rather than trying to disown it, accept that it’s a part of us and see ourselves as a whole person. In fiction, you can absolutely kill your Shadow – it’s a very hardcore, to-the-point symbol for overcoming the negative part of you.
With the potential exception of Guardians of the Galaxy (with Peter Quill’s coming-of-age story actually occurring in the second move), every Marvel superhero experiences their coming-of-age in their first self-titled movie, with new takes on the various elements of that trope. But with Black Panther, the writers went a serious extra mile with the symbolism.
The challenge where T’Challa faced M’Baku could easily have been the extent of his coming-of-age story. Pinned to the edge of a waterfall while a rogue leader shouts everything bad about you, and yet being able to refuse to kill that rogue leader because they are needed, is definitely an on-the-nose symbol for embracing one’s Shadow self.
But it doesn’t end there. Not at all. Because the twin intertwining plot threads of Black Panther – the battle with Killmonger and the conflict with T’Chaka’s past decisions – directly encompass both essential elements mentioned above.
Embedded in Wakandan tradition is the idea that each incoming king must speak to his father before him before finally taking the throne. It’s almost a reassurance that, instead of wresting power from his forebear, he is being granted it. T’Challa’s early conversation with T’Chaka is one of two equals. That rite will become important later in the film – and be flipped on its head in the process.
And then there’s Killmonger: potentially the MCU’s most sympathetic villain thus far. He embodies a new way of thinking for Wakanda – but in a very different way, guided by a very different background and motivations. Under any other circumstances, he could have sat comfortably at T’Challa’s right hand as an advisor.
While it’s highly unlikely that many people are left who haven’t seen Black Panther, I still want to be sure to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Suffice to say that the film sets up a very visual cue for Killmonger to serve as T’Challa’s Shadow, and it’s visible during the climactic scene.
And, going back to Jung, there’s one more thing to bear in mind. From a symbolic standpoint – whether we’re talking about dreams or movies – levels take on a very important meaning. Think of films like Fight Club or even the original Jumanji: the higher in a house you are, the closer to the conscious mind you are. Basements and underground facilities are symbolic of the subconscious: a place underground where your own psychological battles play out. Bear that in mind next time you see a hero and a villain fall through the floor into a dark underground battleground.
As with pretty much any entertainment, bearing all this in mind isn’t essential to enjoying the film. You can watch Black Panther as a cultural statement, a puzzle piece in the MCU, or just an opportunity to watch people in cool costumes beat each other up. But as we assemble a growing team of heroes, all coming into their own before the upcoming Infinity War, it’s worth a moment to see how the filmmakers are allowing us to watch them grow in real time.
Kara Dennison is a news and features writer for Crunchyroll, Viewster, and VRV. She also works as community manager for Onezumi Events, and is the co-creator of the light novel series Owl’s Flower. In her spare time she enjoys fencing, playing bass, and overanalyzing geek entertainment.