There’s no denying Black Panther is a groundbreaking film. A blockbuster superhero epic featuring a predominantly Black cast and ushered to the screen by a Black director, the movie was a win for representation in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking and a first for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only has Black Panther raked in over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office since it premiered in February 2018, it also delighted critics and audiences alike, generating serious awards buzz in the process.
None of that would have been possible, though, without the fascinatingly layered characters populating the Black Panther universe. Comic book movies aren’t exactly known for complex characters. Yet, since Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has consistently populated its films with talented actors who can bring lived-in humanity to their larger-than-life roles. Black Panther took this to the next level. The film is full to bursting with nuanced characters, each with their own points of view, contradictions, and convictions. Setting these characters off against one another enabled Black Panther to speak to important issues. This made the movie viscerally relevant and topical in addition to highly entertaining. While we loved all of Black Panther's characters, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, and Letitia Wright’s Shuri were each more compelling than the last. Here, we explore what makes each of them so much fun to watch.
15 T’CHALLA: HE KNOWS HE’S NOT THE PERFECT LEADER
When T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka dies suddenly and T’Challa ascends to Wakanda’s throne, he’s already been Black Panther for a while. Still, that hasn’t prepared him for his new role as his country’s leader. Tearing it up in a super-suit is one thing, being the face of a nation on the world stage is quite another.
Despite his royal upbringing however, T’Challa isn’t an arrogant brat like another MCU prince was when we first met him (*cough* Thor *cough*). T’Challa is self-aware enough to admit he doesn't feel prepared to rule Wakanda. This makes him relatable. And his desire to listen and learn so he can get better at his new role makes him admirable.
14 KILLMONGER: HIS WORLDVIEW IS SHAPED BY DEEP EXPERIENCE
Killmonger’s desire to make the world a better place for people of African descent was instilled in him as a child. Born in Oakland, California, his father was T’Chaka’s brother Prince N’Jobu, who came to the United States on a mission for Wakanda. When N’Jobu saw the oppression and racism towards African Americans however, he realized that Wakanda’s technology could help, so he hatched a plan to share it. Unfortunately, T’Chaka found out and murdered his brother, abandoning Eric in Oakland in the process.
As a result, Killmonger grew up pursuing his father’s thwarted objective with single-minded determination. Given his upbringing in Oakland instead of Wakanda, his direct experience with the persecution those of African descent face, and his understanding of its history make him thoroughly committed to his mission.
13 SHURI: SHE’S A RELATABLE TEENAGER
There are many amazing female characters populating Black Panther, but Shuri was the unexpected surprise of the film. T’Challa’s kid sister, Shuri is a princess and a tech genius, so she could have been portrayed as a prissy royal or a quirky nerd. Instead, she’s impressively cool.
Regardless of her royal background, Shuri doesn’t take herself or those around her too seriously. She has no qualms about teasing her brother regardless of his status as king. In fact, she’s one of the few people who can make T’Challa laugh. She’s outgoing, fun, and wears both her genius and her princess status lightly, which make her endearingly human.
12 T’CHALLA: SURROUNDED BY SMART, CAPABLE WOMEN
Wakanda is an advanced nation, and not only technologically. Gender equality seems to be built into the country’s culture. In fact, the Dora Milaje, the elite team of fighters charged with guarding the king, are entirely female. Between that and his strong mother and genius sister, T’Challa has been surrounded by smart, capable women from the time he was born.
So, it’s little wonder that as an adult, T’Challa continues to value the women in his orbit. He respects their abilities and has no problem relying on them whenever necessary. He also accepts their choices, especially when it comes to his kinda-sorta girlfriend, Nakia, who chooses spy-work over a relationship with him.
11 KILLMONGER: HIS ANGER IS VALID
Given Killmonger’s uncle dispatched his father and left him alone in Oakland, taking no responsibility for Eric’s well-being despite their familial ties, Killmonger’s anger at T’Chaka is justified. That his desire for vengeance extends to his cousin T’Challa, is understandable too. After all, T’Challa lived the life Killmonger could have had.
Killmonger resents Wakanda for keeping its advanced technology to itself, instead of looking at the outside world and recognizing what it could do to prevent the horrible oppression of people of African descent around the world. By closing the country off to this reality, Killmonger believes they are aiding and abetting the problem, a valid reason for his rage.
10 SHURI: SHE’S THE SMARTEST PERSON IN ANY ROOM
Shuri may only be a teenager but she’s still the smartest person in any room. The MCU has its fair share of geniuses. Before Black Panther, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner spent years designing impressive technology that helped the Avengers in their numerous battles. Shuri, however, puts both men to shame.
Audiences witnessed her bright mind in action when the Avengers went to her for help extracting the mind stone from Vision in Infinity War. Despite the best attempts of others, Shuri quickly came up with and implemented a workable solution to the problem of which no one else had thought.
9 T’CHALLA: HE FIGHTS FOR WHO AND WHAT HE LOVES
When T’Challa is initially introduced in Captain America: Civil War, his first act as Black Panther is to attempt to bring the individual responsible for the bombing that killed his father to justice. This desire to fight for his country, his people, and his family continues in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War.
He uses his fighting skills to ensure Wakanda’s safety but also to stand up for what he thinks is right. Despite Wakanda’s isolationist past, T’Challa is willing to use the country’s technology to help those in need, including the Winter Soldier, when he believes it’s the morally correct path.
8 KILLMONGER: HIS GOALS ARE NOBLE
Killmonger’s tactics may not be noble, but his goals ultimately are. With a deep knowledge of the ways African people have been wronged throughout history and continue to face hardships in the present, Killmonger’s desire to help is honorable.
As one of the few people in the world outside Wakanda who is aware of the existence of its Vibranium technology, Killmonger understands how it could uplift oppressed Africans in a way no one else does. His goals may destabilize Wakanda and bring the country to the brink of war but his determination to see his plans come to fruition arises from a desire to make the world a better place.
7 SHURI: SHE HELPS FIGHT WHEN SHE’S NEEDED
Shuri doesn’t fight on the frontlines like her brother and the Dora Milaje. However, she designs all the tech they use with an eye towards keeping them safe and helping them win. Furthermore, when she’s needed, Shuri will jump into the fray.
During the battle between Wakandans in Black Panther, Shuri teamed up with Nakia to take on Killmonger, temporarily holding him off, and then joined the larger fight. In Infinity War she also briefly participates in the climactic battle. Shuri isn’t a trained fighter, but she’s not willing to let the people she cares about fight alone if she can help.
6 T’CHALLA: HE’S MERCIFUL
T’Challa repeatedly shows that he’s able to keep his emotions in check, keep level-head, and show mercy at times when others might lash out.
Despite his relentless pursuit of the man who killed his father, when he learns that Helmet Zemo was responsible, he prevents Zemo from taking his own life. Realizing that Zemo’s desire for revenge for the horrific demise of his family has consumed him, T’Challa concludes he must not go down the same path. Instead, he hands Zemo off to the authorities. He shows the same mercy to Killmonger. Offering to heal him after winning their climactic battle, he grants his cousin’s final wish to see the Wakandan sunset before he takes his last breath.
5 KILLMONGER: IF CIRCUMSTANCES WERE DIFFERENT HE’D BE A HERO
Throughout Black Panther, Killmonger displays an admirable set of skills. Yes, he can fight with the best of them, whether he's using weapons or engaging in hand-to-hand combat. However, Killmonger is also a brilliant strategist with the ability to patiently pursue a plan long-term. In addition, he has educated himself on topics he cares about leading to an impressive understanding of the world and the role of Africans in it.
All of these skills could have resulted in Killmonger becoming a hero had his circumstances been different. Each one of his skills would be a valuable feather in any hero’s cap. Had they not been the result a of an enduring rage, there’s no telling how much good Killmonger could have done.
4 SHURI: USES TECHNOLOGY TO HELP THOSE IN NEED
Shuri has used her genius to make Wakanda the most advanced civilization on the planet. The desire to keep the country's prosperity a secret has kept the knowledge of Shuri's technology from the world and has prevented her from using it to help others on a wide scale. Yet, that hasn’t stopped her from gladly helping those in need when they’ve reached her.
Although it was T’Challa who agreed to bring Bucky to Wakanda, it was Shuri who figured out how to deprogram him so he could no longer fall under HYDRA’s influence. She also healed CIA agent Everett Ross after he took a bullet at the hands of Killmonger. And if she had more time, she likely would have freed Vision from the mind stone.
3 T’CHALLA: HE KEEPS AN OPEN MIND
As a new ruler, T’Challa has a lot to prove. Instead of closing himself off from everyone and adopting a go-it-alone approach however, T’Challa keeps an open mind, learning from the perspectives of everyone he meets.
In particular, although Killmonger temporarily takes the throne from him and attempts to permanently remove him as an obstacle to his rule, T’Challa still manages to hear Killmonger’s grievances. It’s his ability to listen without judgment that helped him understand where Killmonger was coming from, despite his brutal execution. This led T’Challa to recognize the error of Wakanda’s ways and announce the opening of the isolationist country at the United Nations.
2 KILLMONGER: HE’S TOO COMPLEX TO BE A TYPICAL VILLAIN
Many comic-book villains are one-dimensional archetypes whose job is to oppose the hero at every turn. Their motivation is often thin and viewers go into the story knowing their ultimate function is to be defeated. No one would lump Killmonger into this category.
While Killmonger is certainly the villain of Black Panther, his complexity, his anger at what happened to him and his father, and the ultimate righteousness of his cause make him sympathetic. Although his quest for vengeance is his downfall, overtaking his desire to do good and leading to his brutal campaign to gain power and control over Wakanda, his story is still deeply resonant.
1 SHURI: SHE DEFIES ALL STEREOTYPES
Shuri is perhaps one of the least stereotypical characters in superhero movie history. She’s a non-princessy princess and a non-nerdy tech whiz. More importantly, she’s a Black female movie character who is respected for her skills and comfortable speaking her mind. She’s valued as a key member of the Black Panther team, not someone on the margins of the action.
Unlike many of the science-minded characters in the MCU, Shuri doesn’t have a superhero alter-ego. That means she isn’t destroying cities to save the world. She’s all about creation and improvement. She’s the rare character that's leaving a legacy she can be proud of without the existential conflicts many of the MCU heroes face.