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This week, Anne pitched Black Panther as a great example of a genre in disguise. Last week we considered whether About Time was really an internal genre story—Worldview—marketed as an external-genre story, a love story.
With Black Panther, we may have a case of one external genre, the Society political drama, masquerading as another, an Action movie.
This 2018 Marvel blockbuster was directed by Ryan Coogler from a screenplay he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, based on the Marvel comic series by Stan Lee and Jawck Kirby.
In a rather complex prologue, a little boy asks his father to tell him the story of home. Millions of years ago, a meteorite made of pure vibranium, the strongest substance in the universe, struck the continent of Africa. Five warring tribes settled on the land and called it Wakanda. One rose to kingship and to the title of Black Panther by consuming the Heart-Shaped Herb, a vibranium-infused plant that gives him superpowers.
The Wakandans become technological giants, using vibranium’s limitless powers to conceal themselves from a world of increasing war, violence, and slavery.
The little boy and the father, we learn, are not in Wakanda, but in Oakland, California in 1992. There, the little boy plays basketball in the yard of a public housing project while his father and his friend James plot a heist upstairs.
Turns out the father is a Wakandan prince, assigned by his brother King T’Chaka to be a sleeper spy out in the world. When the king himself shows up and accuses him of selling vibranium to an outsider named Klaue, the friend James reveals himself to be another Wakandan sleeper spy, who reported him to the king. The prologue ends with the young son down in the yard, watching the high-tech Wakandan aircraft departing. We later learn that T’Chaka has killed his own brother for betraying Wakanda to Klaue.
- Beginning Hook – The story opens in the “present day.” When King T’Chaka is killed, his son Prince T’Challa must return home to Wakanda to become its king and Black Panther by proving himself in ritual combat. When he defeats his challenger from a rival tribe he must decide whether to kill him and get rid of an enemy, or let him live and show himself merciful. His good heart wins. He shows mercy, and commences his rule by considering all the peaceful good Wakanda could do in the wider world if they would open their borders and share their technology.
- Middle Build – T’Challa promises his ally W’Kabi that his first act as king will be to bring Klaue, the vibranium thief from the prologue, to justice at last. T’Challa and company capture Klaue but when a mysterious friend called Killmonger springs him from jail, T’Challa must go home to Wakanda without him, breaking his promise and losing an ally.
Instead, Killmonger kills Klaue, brings the body to Wakanda, and reveals himself to be the little boy from the prologue, an unknown cousin of the king, motivated by hatred and revenge for the death of his father back in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa to ritual combat, apparently kills him, and takes the throne with the intention of making Wakanda a world power using weapons made of vibranium. T’Challa’s loved ones must flee for their lives. But when T’Challa turns up alive, he must decide whether to challenge Killmonger and the whole four-tribe army of Wakanda with only a four warriors, or keep his loved ones safe. They persuade him to fight.
- Ending Payoff -When T’Challa and his tiny force are on the verge of annihilation by Killmonger’s army, the enemy he spared in beginning hook brings his army and turns the tide of battle. But when T’Challa ends up in single combat with Killmonger he must once more choose between mercy and death. He mortally wounds Killmonger, who lives long enough to see a Wakandan sunset and refuse T’Challa’s offer of healing, preferring death over the bondage that Wakandan justice would require. T’Challa later reveals that he has opened a Wakandan outreach center in the old housing project in Oakland where Killmonger grew up.
In an epilogue, T’Challa goes to the United Nations and offers Wakandan technology to the world.
Anne– Let’s have a look at the Society genre first. While this movie has all the fights, battles, and chase scenes of an epic action story, from the moment I first watched it at the theater last spring, I recognized it as Society. Society stories run along values of power and impotence, and we sometimes refer to them as Revolution or Rebellion stories.
The basic controlling idea of a generic Society story on the positive, prescriptive side is “We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants.” For the cautionary tale, it’s “Tyrants beat back revolutions by co-opting the leaders of the underclass.”
My take on the specific controlling idea here is “The good king prevails when his honorable actions and good heart convince allies to join him in defeating a tyrant.”
If T’Challa has an internal genre, I think it’s Status Admiration, like Maximus in Gladiator, though Kim’s got another view. T’Challa starts with high principles–a good man with a good heart, as his late father tells him during his shamanic visit to the afterlife–and wins out in the end by maintaining those principles while compromising on certain values in order for Wakanda to be both safe and successful. The presence of two strong Mentor figures–his late father in the afterlife, and his uncle Zuri, a priest, are strong clues to the presence of an internal genre.
Kim – I see T’Challa’s internal genre as Worldview-Maturation. He begins with a black and white view of Wakanda’s role and his role as King—to continue to protect itself and keep its power and resources hidden from the outside world. Nakia is the first to challenge this, which is a great set-up for Killmonger later who although not 100% right, he’s not wrong either. T’Challa begins naive about his father and clings to tradition but after much loss he comes to realize his ill-conceived goals of keeping Wakanda a secret forever and instead chooses to share it with the world. This is a significant worldview change and an active choice that represents this new sophistication.
Anne – My gut reaction even while this movie unfolded for the first time last spring was “Wow–this is a Society story!” Killmonger, the little boy playing basketball in Oakland, has come through life as the underclass, an African American rather than a member of the Wakandan royal family. He’s been a CIA black ops assassin, trained to take down governments during power transfers. He specifically tries to seize power in order to distribute weapons and power to the “two billion people in the world that look like us,” as he tells T’Challa.
I’ve got all the obligatory scenes and conventions of the Society story listed in the show notes, but I’ll just highlight the ones that are unique to the Society genre.
An Inciting threat to the reigning power: M’Baku’s challenge is the first threat, and though it’s overcome in Act One, it foreshadows Killmonger’s major threat later. While meeting his father in the afterlife, T’Challa says, “Tell me how to best protect Wakanda.” “You’re going to struggle,” his father says. “So you need to surround yourself with with people you trust. You’re a good man with a good heart, and it’s hard for the good man to be king.”
Protagonists deny responsibility to respond: T’Challa shows mercy, lets one enemy live, doesn’t let W’Kabi go with him on the mission to catch Klaue. “I’m not ready to be king…” In Shuri’s lab, he prefers the older technology.
Forced to respond, Protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy. Kim and I agreed that this obligatory scene isn’t met.
Each character learns what Antagonist’s object of desire is: T’Challa, Shuri, Okoye, Nakia, Klaue. It’s vibranium, which is directly behind Killmonger’s whole challenge. In the scene where Killmonger says he wants the throne, he specifically states his intention to distribute vibranium and its powerful weapons to the world.
Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails. T’Challa and his team apprehend Klaue in Busan, but lose him by realizing too late that the real Antagonist is Killmonger. 2) In the second ritual combat he is “killed” by Killmonger.
Protagonist, realizing they must change their approach to turn the power tables, reaches an All Is Lost moment. When Killmonger apparently kills T’Challa in ritual combat, T’Challa’s allies (Shuri, Nakia, Okoye and Ramonda try another tack: seeking military aid from M’Baku, the defeated challenger from the beginning hook.
The Revolution Scene. The core event of the Society story, when the Protagonists’ gifts are expressed and power changes hands. Power changes hands twice in this story: once when Killmonger defeats T’Challa and takes the throne, and again when T’Challa returns and goes hand-to-hand with him in the vibranium tunnels. This is the full revolution, the 360-degree turn back to order on a new level. T’Challa’s gift is that he’s a good man with a good heart. His mercy towards M’Baku in the beginning hook pays off when M’Baku saves his life then shows up with his army. And at the end of the battle, when Killmonger is dying, T’Challa allows him to see the sunset and give one of the best dying speeches in any movie ever.
The Protagonists are rewarded at the external, the interpersonal, or the internal level. T’Challa resumes the throne and wins romantic commitment from Nakia. By being true to his “good heart” and maintaining strong internal allies, he leads the people of Wakanda onto the world stage. Shuri and Nakie step into more powerful, fulfilling roles.
There is one central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that main character’s personality traits. T’Challa is the clear central character. His desire to protect his people and his land is embodied by General Okoye. His forward-looking, progressive values are reflected by his sister Shuri. His commitment to tradition is demonstrated through his uncle Zuri, the priest, and Killmonger represents his fears of what will happen if Wakanda comes out from behind its veil of secrecy.
Kim: I’d add Nakia’s desire to help others outside of their own borders, the fact that she cannot return home while others suffer, etc. (Mirrors Killmonger’s mindset, but not his methods)
Big canvas, external actual landscape or a large internal landscape. The canvas is worldwide, with scenes in the Bay Area, London, Busan, and the vast secret landscape of Wakanda itself.
A clear revolutionary Point of No Return. The moment when power shifts must be clearly defined and dramatized. When Killmonger apparently kills T’Challa, it appears that all is lost. His family has to flee, his general must choose honor over love and serve the new tyrant, his allies join the tyrant willingly.
The vanquished are doomed to exile. Only three Wakandan woman and one American man remain true to T’Challa, and they have to flee into the mountains.
The power divide between those in power and those disenfranchised is large. Though T’Challa is both a king and a superhero with amazing powers, his enemy Killmonger is far more ruthless and violent. This is well-represented by the countless kill-scars he has decorated his entire torso with, while T’Challa has shown reluctance to kill anyone.
Kim – I would also point out the power divide between those in power (Wakanda) and those disenfranchised (people of color worldwide) who do not have the tools to liberate themselves and live free. This comes out in a very compelling argument “speech in praise of the villain” we get from Killmonger. This point has already been said by Nakia, which gives it real weight. And then in the end when T’Challa does take the world stage to share their knowledge and create outreach centers–this is the sweet spot of justice.
Ironic, win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending. Not everyone can be saved. Killmonger undergoes a conversion, but only in dying. Wakanda can no longer be kept secret, and T’Challa ends by opening his country to the outside world, risking the destruction of their way of life.
I wanted to talk about the Life Values, because this is a way to really show the genre in play. In Society we’re looking at Power and Impotence. In Action we’re looking at Life and Death. When it comes to our Human Needs Tanks (Maslow’s Hierarchy), Action stories are in that base level of physiological needs, the life and death aspects of do we have resources to live. And Power sits in the Esteem tank, along with Performance and Status stories.
What we found in season 2 is that pretty much every story had these underlying elements of Society, and that really the way that people gain or don’t gain different levels on the hierarchy really comes down to “Who’s got the power.” So even though there is a lot of Life and Death stales in the Black Panther, and ultimately what they are trying to do is to liberate people who need these physiological needs met, it’s more about who has the power to do that, and they way in which it is done.
So I just wanted to hope through a few moments in the story that really highlight this aspect.
BH – Initial Life Values are established
The Powerful vs the Powerless in the prologue: underprivileged kids in Oakland, King T’Chaka in power, failed revolution by the brother.
Nakia’s mission to help woman who are being trafficked, T’Challa takes a moment at the end of that scene and really looks at them. This feels like the first challenge to his traditional worldview. Give power to others.
The ritual combat scene, even though there is life and death stakes here, it really is about power: they’re fighting for the throne. There is a theme that runs through this story about surrender. It shows up several times. Specifically before the ritual combat, T’Challa surrenders the power of the Black Panther. He willingly gives up his advantage to allow others to challenge him.
During the battle with M’Baku, even though death is possible, they are not battling for physiological needs, they are battling for power, for the right to rule. Even T’Challa’s choice not to kill M’Baku is about power.
T’Challa is officially crowned King, regains his powers as Black Panther.
Meets with his father in the ancestral plain. Here we have another aspect of society dynamic—between a father and son, the previous king and the new king. This scene further establishes T’Challa’s naive worldview—that his father was a good king and his role is protect Wakanda. These things aren’t untrue but they are not the whole truth which is what sophistication is all about.
So over the Beginning Hook we go from the King has been killed and T’Challa most likely will take the throne but other people can challenge him for it, to by the end he wins and is in power. So we go from a Life Value of Vulnerable (who’s going to be the King of Wakanda) to in Power (T’Challa is the King of Wakanda).
There is an excellent scene with Nakia: “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.”
“What would you have Wakanda do about it?”
“Share what we have. We could provide aid, access to technology, and refuge to those who need it. Other countries do it, we could do it better.”
“If the world found out what we are, what we possess, we could lose our way of life.”
“Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect ourselves at the same time.”
This feels like a version of Power Masked as Impotence, because they have all this power but they can’t do anything to help others because they are afraid of losing it, so their stuck. Also it shows the sophisticated worldview T’Challa will eventually embrace.
Get the call regarding Klaue. During a meeting with the Elders, W’Kabi points to the death of his parents and the need for justice as a reason to go after Klaue. This isn’t about physiological needs—it’s about the King of Wakanda gaining justice for his people. This is a key set up to the revolution that comes later. Here W’Kabi represents the disenfranchised—a person who was wronged and did not receive justice. (Later he is co-opted by Killmonger and tyranny takes the lead for a while.)
Right at the midpoint we get to see a rest of the prologue story—what it was really about. T’Challa’s uncle wasn’t betraying Wakanda for greed—he was trying to start a revolution for the disenfranchised all over the world.
When Killmonger shows up with Klaue’s body at the border, when he enters the throne room, when he announces his real name and challenges for the throne—its not about life and death / physiological human needs—its all about power.
When T’Challa is defeated (after surrendering his power of the Black Panther again) and Killmonger becomes King of Wakanda, it’s not about life and death, it’s about the right to rule.
When Killmonger has then burn the heart shaped flower, it’s about power. To ensure no one can challenge his power. Everett Ross explains Killmonger’s last and how he was trained to operate, strike during times of vulnerability like an election year or the death of a monarch. It is because King T’Chaka was killed that Killmonger is making his move now. Again, for power over the society.
The Queen Mother tells Nakia that she should take the herb, Nakia says I am a spy with no army. Power vs impotence. When Nakia and the others approach M’Baku and ask for his help, they kneel, surrender.
The final battle is a civil war—the men/warriors of the Border tribe fight for Killmonger and the women/Dora warriors fight for T’Challa. The ultimate victory is not about life/death but power. When the rhino is charging, Okoye steps in front of it and it stops and licks her face. Her love, W’Kabi surrenders and kneels before her, and all the other men follow suit. This is not an action scene—it’s a revolution.
Finally let’s look at the resolution (think about the purpose of the revolution).
When Killmonger is stabbed, T’Challa says, “Maybe we can still heal you.” Killmonger says, “Why? So you can just lock me up. Nah, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew Death was better than bondage.” He pulls the knife from himself and dies. This is a very key moment that shows the nuance of those Life Values—sometimes life is impotence and death is personal power.
Also T’Challa asks Nakia to stay, he has a way she can still fulfill her calling. They go to Oakland to open Wakanda Outreach Center, and begin to show the young men playing basketball there what’s possible.
And in the final post-credits scene, T’Challa takes the world stage to tell the truth about Wakanda and offer to share what they’ve learned. This is an act of sophistication and embracing Nakia’s challenge: Wakanda is strong enough to help others and still protect itself. T’Challa is no longer impotent as King to tradition but has found his own path. A way for a good man to be a good a king.
Anne – What can novelists gain by studying this film, and the principle of hiding a more nuanced and thoughtful genre like Society inside a story that has as much action as a story that actually fits the Action genre?
It’s risky, but if you get it right, this is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. We talked about this a little bit last week with About Time, which disguised a deeply internal genre story as a love story.
Here, we’re talking about one external genre masquerading as another. But, though Society IS an external genre, it shades over into internal very easily. On Shawn’s Gas Gauge of Need, Society stories occupy the Esteem tank. This is the human need for both self-respect and third-party validation. It involves belonging, your place in society, honor and trustworthiness. Society shares this tank with the external genre of Performance AND the internal genre of Status.
We seem to be in a time where we need stories about power–re-examining the groups who took power and the groups they took it from. Stories about taking it back, and what can happen when we do. And yet maybe you don’t want to write straight up social commentary, but deliver your political ideas in the form of a colorful, fast-moving story with popular elements like superpowers and a fantasy setting. This is a great work to study if that’s your aim.
Kim – No story exists in a vacuum. It’s essential that as creators we create with the awareness of how story elements affect an audience and therefore be intentional with our choices. This is the next layer of storytelling that goes beyond just “does the story work” to the subtext of our subconscious. What the story means to the author / characters, and what else the story means to the individuals and world that will read/see/hear the story. Keeping this in mind will take your story to deeper depths and higher heights.
Testing the Proposition
Leslie – This is such a great film to discuss because it gives us the opportunity to talk about the differences and similarities between Global Society stories and stories that have big motifs that relate to the way society should be, along with the world-building that suggests these motifs.
I can totally see where Anne and Kim are coming from. The story feels like society, and I was totally on board with this while watching it the first time. As I mentioned last week, our hearts, guts, and minds are important subjective tools for storytelling, so there is something to that feeling. We use our subjective tools along with the objective tools of the Story Grid methodology together in a system of checks and balances to craft stories that express our unique gifts in the world and meets reader expectations. Valerie goes through what we think the story is instead, but first I want to identify two elements beyond the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes that make the distinction clear to me.
Society stories are about power and impotence, but they are also a combination of action and crime that dwells within the self-respect and self-esteem human needs tank. That means that Action stories contribute elements (conventions and obligatory scenes) and there is some overlap between these two genres. But when we talk about power, we’re not only talking about physical power or fire power, but the power to influence behavior by controlling the story people believe about what’s actually happening. We see some of this in every story, but it’s vital in a Society story because the tyrants defeat the rebellion by co-opting its leaders, and the rebellion triumphs by exposing the hypocrisy of the tyrants. Those elements within Black Panther aren’t the heart of the story. The heart of the story is that one character (the villain) is bent on destroying society while one character (the hero) is determined to save it.
Who leads the rebellion? Who is the tyrant?
Society stories focus on two camps within society: the tyrant and the rebellion. If that’s the case, we should be able to identify these two camps clearly.
T’Challa is the hero and protagonist, and in Wakanda, T’Challa possesses power. He is the king because he inherited the position from his father and withstood a challenge from M’Baku. T’Challa does not wield power over the African people who live outside of Wakanda, the ones whom Killmonger wants to arm with vibranium. T’Challa might be in a position to help them, but that is not the same as wielding power over them.
T’Challa is not a member of an underrepresented class. He more closely represents an extension of a former tyrant (his father, T’Chacka, killed his brother, who was trying to rebel and wanted to share vibranium with underrepresented Africans around the world). T’Challa is the established power within Wakandan society, and as such, isn’t leading a rebellion.
Killmonger is not a member of the Wakandan Society. He has Wakandan ancestry, but he is not a member of the underclass within Wakandan Society. He doesn’t join the Society and seize power until the end of the story.
Killmonger is also not a leader of an underrepresented class within the society that is the focus of the story. His goal might be to lead people of African descent in the world, but that’s not what’s happening in this story, and the tyrant in question never comes on screen in this story.
Killmonger gains power by bringing Klaue’s dead body to Wakanda, but this is more of a hostile takeover from outside than a rebellion started by members of an underclass within society. He’s a well-trained member of a criminal gang (that ceases to exist once the others are killed). He co-opts members of Wakanda, but this happens late in the story and is not a threat to the reigning power, which is the inciting incident of a Society story.
While Black Panther can feel like a society story, it’s missing some fundamental elements needed to pull off the specific change within that type of story. So, what genre is a better fit for this story? Valerie covers the story spine, conventions, and obligatory scenes to zero in on the global genre.
Valerie – As Leslie said, we can completely see why Anne has proposed that Black Panther is a political society story that’s been marketed as an action movie. There are obviously social issues being raised here, so we have no argument on that point. In fact, in the DVD Extras, there’s a fantastic interview with the screenwriters and three writers of the Black Panther comics. They’re talking about how the story works on multiple levels and how including social issues was a deliberate choice.
However, just because there are social issues, doesn’t necessarily make the story global a society>political story. This is a Marvel superhero movie. Marvel has spent the last 10 years creating a series of films in which characters cross over from one story to another and, in Infinity War, are ultimately working together. They know their genre and they know their audience; and their audience knows the Marvel Universe! It would be pretty risky for the studio to switch genres when all these films fit together to create one large superhero story.
Even before analysis, it’s a safe bet that Black Panther is a straight-up action movie; and we’re arguing it’s specifically action>action epic>saviour.
However, it’s not enough to assume that, or say that it feels like an action movie. At Story Grid we’re all about concrete analysis, so we wanted to use the tools that Shawn has been teaching us to thoroughly test Anne’s premise in light of Marvel’s brand. To do this we decided to examine the story spine, the opening and closing images and the obligatory scenes and conventions.
Story Spine (15 Core Scenes): The 15 core scenes are those that we list on the foolscap; in other words, the 5 Commandments for each of the 3 Acts. They’re the spine of the story, sometimes called the throughline. They essentially outline the main plot of the story, and are in the global genre and turn on the global value. A story can have aspects of many genres, but to figure out the global genre, identify the 15 core scenes. In Black Panther, the story spine is as follows:
BH – Inciting Incident: King T’Chaka dies, Prince T’Challa succeeds his father (turns on life/death)
BH – Turning Point Progressive Complication: M’Baku challenges T’Challa in a fight to the death (turns on life/death)
BH – Crisis: Does T’Challa kill M’Baku or let him live? (turns on life/death)
BH – Climax: T’Challa urges M’Baku to yield so that he doesn’t have to kill him (turns on life/death)
BH – Resolution: T’Challa is crowned King and visits his father in the Ancestral Plain (afterlife) (turns on life/death)
(almost exactly 25%)
MB – Inciting Incident: Council learns that Klaue has stolen a Wakandan artifact, discuss whether he should live or die (turns on life/death)
MB – Turning Point Progressive Complication: Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the crown (the challenge is a fight to the death) (turns on life/death)
MB – Crisis: Does T’Challa accept the challenge and risk his life, or not? (turns on life/death)
MB – Climax: T’Challa accepts the challenge. (turns on life/death) [Note, the turning point, crisis and climax for the middle build are all in the same scene.]
MB – Resolution: T’Challa loses the challenge and is thrown over a cliff, Zuri is also killed, the royal family’s lives are at risk. (turns on life/death) [Note: the protagonist exists the story for the remainder of the middle build. His return marks the beginning of the ending payoff.]
(almost exactly 50%)
EP – Inciting Incident: T’Challa regains consciousness (turns on life/death)
EP – Turning Point Progressive Complication: T’Challa fatally wounds Killmonger (turns on life/death)
EP – Crisis: Does T’Challa leave Killmonger for dead, or try to heal him? (turns on life/death)
EP – Climax: T’Challa offers to heal Killmonger, but Killmonger would prefer to die than be a prisoner (turns on life/death)
EP – Resolution: T’Challa develops an outreach program to help those at risk (turns on life/death: save lives of youth at risk on site where T’Chaka killed brother)
(25% – almost to the minute)
Opening and Closing Images (aka Ins and Outs): Both Shawn and Steve (Pressfield) have been talking to us recently about the opening and closing images of a story. In the Level Up Your Craft course that we ran this summer, Shawn quoted Mark Twain when he said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
On his blog, Steve has recently published three articles about the same topic. He calls it the “ins and outs” of a story and I’ll link to those articles in the show notes.
Basically, the idea is this: a story’s “opening and closing images should look as alike as reasonably possible…At the same time, the Out should be as far away as we can make it, in emotional and narrative terms, from the In” (Steven Pressfield, Ins and Outs, Part Two). These images have to be on theme.
In the opening image of Black Panther, we see how Wakanda was created; in effect how it was born. We hear the story of how a warrior shaman was able to end the fighting (and death) and bring peace to Wakanda. This is exactly on theme with an action story. Life on Wakanda was preserved (and advanced!) when the protagonist (the warrior shaman) overpowered his antagonists (the other 4 tribes).
In the closing images (before and after the closing credits), we see T’Challa setting up outreach programs and choosing to work with the United Nations for the betterment of all mankind. Once again, life is being preserved because the protagonist (T’Challa) has overpowered his external antagonist (Killmonger) but has also overcome his internal antagonist (his need to hold on to the traditional ways and attitudes). This is still on theme with an action story.
While these scenes look alike (warriors/Black Panthers physically fighting their antagonists to bring peace), they’re different emotionally. The first Black Panther was fighting for Wakanda only (physical level), but T’Challa is fighting/working for mankind (emotional level).
Obligatory Scenes and Conventions: Finally, we looked at the obligatory scenes and conventions for an action story; specifically for the saviour plot. For a story to work, it must satisfy the obligatory scenes and conventions for the global genre (and sub-genre).
- An inciting attack by the villain: terrorists kill King T’Chaka
- Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action: T’Challa rejects Nakia’s suggestion to create foreign aid and refugee programs
- Forced to leave ordinary world, hero lashes out: T’Challa isn’t really forced to do anything. He’s the king and a warrior. He doesn’t hesitate at all to leave Wakanda in pursuit of Klaue. However, he is forced to leave his ordinary world of being a prince for the extraordinary world of being a King. He does lash out against this. Keep in mind that “lashing out” doesn’t always mean a big physical act—we saw that in the film Arrival. Lashing out is in keeping with character and the story. So, when T’Challa goes to the afterlife to visit his father, he expresses doubt about his ability to be king, and to live without his father. Expressing Drdoubt is as close to lashing out as someone like T’Challa can afford to get.
- Discovering and understanding the antagonist’s MacGuffin: There are two antagonists in this film; Klaue and Killmonger. T’Challa learns that Klaue wants the vibranium and Killmonger wants his throne.
- Hero’s initial strategy against villain fails: T’Challa fails to bring Klaue back to Wakanda, and fails to defeat Killmonger in the challenge.
- Realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, hero reaches an All Is Lost Moment: In the second afterlife scene, T’Challa rejects the traditional approach of the rulers who had come before him. Up to this point, he’d been a voice for the status quo (rejecting Nakia’s suggestions of foreign aid for example), but now he tells them they were wrong to turn their backs on the rest of the world; wrong to let their fear of discovering stop them from doing what was right. It’s at this point that T’Challa stops following the methods of his father and begins to make decisions based on what he believes.
- The hero at the mercy of the villain (HATMOV): Killmonger challenges T’Challa and wins.
- Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded: T’Challa’s real sacrifice is giving up Wakanda’s anonymity. Yes, he puts himself in physical danger when he continues the challenge with Killmonger, but that’s all in a day’s work for the Black Panther. However, when he decides to develop outreach programs and share technology with the UN, he is rewarded on a personal level; Nakia, Shuri and Okoye are all proud of him. Presumably, in future Marvel films, T’Challa will be rewarded on an external level as well.
- Hero, victim villain roles must be clearly defined throughout the story: T’Challa (as the Black Panther and King) is clearly the hero. The villain role is clearly fulfilled by both Klaue and Killmonger. The victim is society, both inside and outside Wakanda.
- The protagonist must be the hero: T’Challa, the Black Panther.
- The hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim: T’Challa wants to bring Klaue to justice. When Killmonger is revealed as a villain, T’Challa wants to stop him to save the people of Wakanda. Once peace is restored in his kingdom, T’Challa decides to also begin an outreach program to save those of African descent living in other countries (he starts in America).
- The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large. The villain is far more powerful than the hero: T’Challa/Black Panther is clearly more powerful than Klaue (even with the canon arm), however T’Challa and Killmonger are fairly evenly matched. Killmonger does overpower T’Challa in the challenge, which is interesting considering the King has special powers. I wouldn’t say the power divide is very large though.
- Speech in praise of the villain: When he identifies Killmonger for Shuri, Ross lists his successes and skill.
- Sub-genre convention—In the saviour plot, the hero fights against a villain intent on social destruction: Klaue wants to steal vibranium and sell it to the highest bidder. That could very likely destroy society, but that’s not his motivation. Killmonger, however, is intent on social destruction. He wants to destroy Wakandian society (and does burn the temple), and he wants to activate the War Dogs to incite a global revolution and use the vibranium weapons to destroy the colonizers.
This last convention, that is specific to the sub-genre, is one of the key ways that filmmakers introduced the society introduced the society elements into Black Panther. Rather than switching genres (from action to society>political), they chose a sub-genre of action that allowed them to explore social issues and themes.
Black Panther is an action movie, as all Marvel movies are. The sub-genre is action epic, or man against the state. As Shawn writes in The Story Grid, “these are stories where the hero must confront societal institutions or tyrants.”. There’s no tyrant in Black Panther, but T’Challa does confront Wakandan institutions—that is, the way things have always been done in Wakanda—and he finds them lacking.
Furthermore, the saviour plot (which is one of the plots of the action epic story) is when “the hero is up against someone who wants to destroy society” (The Story Grid). T’Challa is up against Killmonger who wants to use Wakandian weapons and technology to start a global revolution and destroy the colonizers.
This is why it’s so important for writers to take the time to choose their genre; not just choose, but pinpoint. We have to ask ourselves what kind of story do we want to write, and then, identify which genre will help us best tell that story. Writers need to make a decision from each of the five leaves on the genre clover.
The screenwriters knew they had to deliver a superhero action movie. That’s what the studio and the audience wanted. However, they also wanted to include social issues. So they selected the kind of action story that would allow them to do that.
So, the choice of sub-genre is one way that the writers were able to weave social issues and themes into an action movie without switching genres. But, they went further by constructing a world in which social issues are an integral part of the characters’ lives. For more on that I’ll hand it over to Leslie.
Leslie – Why does this feel like a Society story?
Our best guess, as Valerie mentioned, is that the society vibe in this film comes from the elements of the Savior plot, which gives us the object in contention (control of Wakanda’s valuable natural resource), three layers of conflict, and the well-crafted and complex world in which the story takes place.
Epic Subgenre, Savior Plot
In the Savior plot, the hero must defeat a villain bent on social destruction. Society stands in the role of victim, and it needs to be well developed because we need to understand why the villain wants to destroy society, what’s at stake, and what it means to the hero.
In a solid action story, the villain should have a point, a reason we may not agree with but that makes sense from his perspective. He sees himself as the hero of his own story, and Killmonger believes he is serving a higher principle and isn’t concerned about who gets in the way (as evidenced by his killing his apparent girlfriend).
As the present king in a long line who have protected Wakanda from the outside world, T’Challa feels deep responsibility, even as he feels drawn to finding ways to help Africans living around the world.
World-Building and Conflict
Because the protagonist and hero is the king of Wakanda, the view of Wakanda and its challenges is naturally from the top down. We see little of the everyday, mundane challenges of people within society, and more of the political. Wakanda is a rich and complex society, and one big question in the story—what to do with the powerful natural resources Wakanda controls—lends itself to all three layers of conflict (extra-personal, interpersonal, and inner) that also happen within a society story.
A clear example of this situation is The Sopranos. It would be tempting to call it a Crime story. But the life value in a crime story is Justice/Injustice, and the life value shift, that is the Core event occurs, when the criminal is exposed. We know Tony Soprano is a criminal from the beginning, so the criminal has been exposed, and it’s clearly not a caper or heist (focusing on whether the criminals will get away with their crime), so it must be something else. That something else is Society. The question is, can Tony Soprano hang on to power? A similar example is The Godfather.
The point is that we can have stories with motifs or subjects or settings that do not indicate what the global genre is. For the definitive global genre that appears on screen or on the page, we do better to look to the life value shift, the story spine, and the opening and closing images.
In Black Panther the subject matter includes the survival of society and who will wield power, but the primary conflict comes from a villain from outside Wakandan society who wants to spread powerful weapons to destroy the world, and the hero who wants to protect those resources and the world.
Kim – I disagree that Killmonger isn’t a representative of the disenfranchised—he grew up that way and now, after working his whole life to gain the status and power necessary to fight for throne of Wakanda, he does so in the name of people all over the world who don’t have resources to liberate themselves.
Life and death can (and often does) exist in a story but that doesn’t mean they are the global values at stake, and certainly doesn’t make the story a global action story. Horror, Thriller, War, Western all have these aspects as well. Games of Thrones has more life and death than probably any story ever but the “game of thrones” is about power and revolution.
If we pull back to the 30k foot view and ask ourselves what the story of Black Panther is really about, what is the prescriptive or cautionary tale, the answer seems extremely clear to me. The controlling idea and theme (aka what the story teaches us) isn’t about physiological human needs of life and death—it’s about power and how we use it. How those who have power can help the underprivileged and disenfranchised.
True power is gained when the ruling class acknowledges the responsibilities of their privilege and chooses to use it as a force of good for the underprivileged.
Anne – I never feel prepared to take on the opposition point for point. I think Leslie and Valerie have a valid perspective based on their close reading of the movie through the lens of Story Grid canon. Action-Epic-Savior and Society Political have some strong elements in common. Black Panther might be as good a case study for the Epic Savior plot as for the Society story, and it’s worth studying in either case.
But in Season Two, where we focused on movies by, for, or about people not at the pinnacle of white Western privilege, I began to see that the question of By-For-and-About is absolutely not something we can set aside. We’re dead wrong if we try to analyze a story without considering who created it, for what audience, about what group of people.
The Story Grid assumes a certain default, and that default is Western literary canon. This is a huge topic that I can only point to vaguely right now, but it’s a conversation that we can’t ignore.
For right now, I just want to try to articulate something about the By For and About of Black Panther that makes it primarily a political and even revolutionary story. I went to see it by myself at the movie theater shortly after it opened. I was about 20 minutes into it–enjoying it enormously–when I caught myself wondering something like “When is this movie going to become ‘normal’?” It was a startling moment, because of course what my subconscious mind was running up against was that I had seen precisely two people on the screen by that point who looked anything like me. This is something I’d never experienced in an American movie.
It was one of those cognitive dissonance moments, and it was when I stopped watching an Action movie and started watching a Society story.
In other words, while Leslie and Valerie may be correct in their point-for-point analysis of this as an Action Epic Savior story, the meta-movie here is a Society story. The fact that Black Panther is by, for, and about people of African descent makes it about power and impotence without regard to the content of the plot. The fact that a vibrant, powerful, peaceful, and advanced African nation has to be presented as a fantasy where European colonizers never got there makes it a Society story. and I can’t make that not matter, and I don’t think we, as story experts and editors, should try.
We encourage you to check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast season 2 episode 8 “Mr. Holloway Didn’t Like That” to hear about a historical example of two conversations (aka two genres) happening at once.
Jarie – Thanks everyone. Fantastic discussion from all four of you. One thing I’d like to add on this is how art inspires culture and visa versa. I wanted to look into the other famous use of the name Black Panther and that’s via the Black Panther Party, officially formed in October 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. That same year in July, the first mention of Black Panther, in Vol #1, Issue #56 of Fantastic Four, when he gives the Fantastic Four a “Jazzy Flying Fastback”. Black Panther would be a recurring character in Fantastic Four and then a member of the Avengers in 1968. He did not get his own standalone comic until 1977. Black Panther was Marvel’s first black superhero.
The creators of Black Panther, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, never revealed how the name came about or if their creation was meant to be political. At one point, the publishers at Marvel changed Black Panther’s name to Black Leopard (1972 Fantastic Four) to distance it from the Black Panther Party only to change it back several months later since the name was not as cool as Black Panther.
In an interview with The Comic Journal, Jack Kirby gives some insights into the Black Panther character (the terms are old school since it was the 90’s and Jack was 80 at the time of the interview):
GROTH: How did you come up with the Black Panther?
KIRBY: I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black. I was the first one to do an Asian. Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences. Remember, in my day, drawing an Asian was drawing Fu Manchu — that’s the only Asian they knew. The Asians were wily…
So there is no indication that Black Panther was politically motivated but clearly Kirby wanted to put characters in his comics that reflected his readership. Kirby doing that is an important milestone in the Comic book world.
For writers, you should consider making your characters reflect real life and the diversity of it. The power of seeing yourself, as a reader, in a character, is inspiring. It’s important that the richness of life, with its diversity, challenges, struggles, and beauty, be represented in your writing.
Has our analysis of Black Panther helped you to better understand subtle differences between Society and Action stories? Have you analyzed a Society story for your own work? Is there a novel or film that you think is an excellent example? Let us know on Twitter @StoryGridRT.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Mike DiMartino.
What about a story without a happy, triumphant ending–a cautionary tale? Does the Hero’s journey apply to cautionary tales and tragedies?
You can listen to Kim’s answer in the episode.
If you have a question about the Society Political genre, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave us a voice message.
Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.
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