The Tragic Fight Scene That Defined Black Panther

The Atlantic looks back on the key film moments of 2018, this time a brawl at a waterfall in Ryan Coogler’s superhero masterpiece.

Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in 'Black Panther'
Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (Walt Disney Studios)

Over the next week, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. First up is Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. (Read our previous entries here.)

By the time we revisit the waterfall in Black Panther, about 75 minutes into the film, every viewer understands the stakes of the place. Warrior Falls is Wakanda’s ceremonial proving ground, a spectacular but deadly setting that maintains the status quo of the fictional African nation. Earlier in the movie, T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) claims the mantle of king by defeating a challenger, the hulking M’Baku (Winston Duke), in single combat at the site. It’s a moment that lays out the various political powers at play in this secluded country, and the value still placed on tradition even though Wakanda’s technology has reached unparalleled heights.

The return to the falls is spurred by Erik Stevens, a.k.a. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an outsider raised in the United States who is seeking to claim T’Challa’s throne. A forgotten cousin whose dad was killed by T’Challa’s father for threatening to expose Wakanda’s innovations to the world, Erik is an interloper, but his royal blood allows him to declare a challenge. On the day of the fight, he’s dressed not in formal Wakandan attire like his opponent and the rest of the onlookers, but in his U.S. military fatigues and armor. When handed a traditional spear, he splits it in half by kicking it.

Watching Black Panther for the first of several viewings in 2018, I was struck by just how incongruous Erik’s appearance is in this scene, even though I had just learned of Wakanda’s rituals myself. That’s how effectively Black Panther communicates the rules of an entire civilization to its audience. Every Marvel movie requires a little world-building, but Black Panther goes further, investing viewers in what feels like a living, breathing culture. When T’Challa falls in battle to Erik, this loss isn’t only personal—it also snaps the very world order in two.

The director, Ryan Coogler, and his cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, shot the battle specifically to evoke a feeling of darkness and gathering rain clouds (which required building massive structures to block out the sun). When Erik stabs T’Challa and brings him to his knees, the mood is oppressively grim; at that point, the tribal elder Zuri (Forest Whitaker) even intervenes to stop the fight because he can see the desired result slipping away.

“Is this your king?” cries Erik, as T’Challa swings wildly at him. “Him? He’s supposed to protect you! ... Nah, I’m your king.” Erik brashly admits to his status as an outsider, trained by Western powers as a soldier, stripped of his humanity by the world that Wakanda keeps itself separate from. In returning to his homeland, Erik is looking to seize power and demand justice for those of African ancestry around the world, the ones who couldn’t enjoy the spoils of Wakanda’s advances. It’s why the scene plays as both devastating and weirdly thrilling; there’s a twisted sense of justice to Erik’s approach.

As my colleague Adam Serwer beautifully wrote, Black Panther is Coogler’s attempt to reckon with the utopian notion of Pan-Africanism and how it clashes with the harsh realities of slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism. Erik wants to deploy Wakanda’s military force for what he sees as a greater good, but he’s been curdled by the ideas of the country he grew up in. “Killmonger’s plan for ‘black liberation,’ arming insurgencies all over the world, is an American policy that has backfired and led to unforeseen disasters perhaps every single time it has been deployed,” Serwer wrote.

With Killmonger’s triumph in this fight scene, Wakanda’s hermetic peace has been destroyed and the morality of its self-imposed isolation undermined. By contrast, the earlier waterfall battle, between T’Challa and M’Baku, is bathed in sunlight; it ends with M’Baku yielding proudly, having proved his tribe’s worthiness. Because of Wakanda’s cloistered approach, Erik was kept from those traditions, which helped to warp him into the man he became, one with righteous intentions but with less regard for human life. In any other Marvel movie, he might be framed as a simple villain; in Coogler’s hands, he’s genuinely tragic. The significance of Erik’s transgression is clear, but without the director’s loving care for detail, it wouldn’t feel so seismic.

Next Up: Annihilation