[This post contains a lot of spoilers!]
There is a fantastic Easter egg buried in Marvel Studio’s latest box-office hit Black Panther. But this hidden gem is not the usual fodder for comic fan geek-outs or YouTube breakdowns. This Easter egg alludes to something surprisingly transcendent.
It is also the most utterly obfuscated Easter egg in Marvel’s cinematic history, so stick with me on this.
The narrative structure of Black Panther adheres to a form known as a chiastic story structure. This is noteworthy for religion scholars because many scriptural texts and narratives are structured in a similar way, including parts of the Hebrew scriptures, Biblical New Testament, Qur’an, and Book of Mormon (to name a few). This is also notable for media scholars because chiastic structures tend to be more common in oral storytelling traditions than literary ones. Accordingly, most film criticism fails to analyze narratives through an interpretive lens that might take elements of this structure into account.
A chiastic structure begins by setting up a number of premises about the way things are in an imagined world or scenario. Black Panther begins with a flashback to Oakland in 1992 where viewers see T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, as Black Panther confronting, and ultimately killing, his own brother. The scene takes place in an apartment in the middle of the night–remember that for later.
Next, the narrative returns to the present where T’Challa is about to become king of Wakanda following his father’s death (in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War). After T’Challa successfully becomes king he begins to pursue a villain named Ulysses Klaue who evaded his father for decades. The action proceeds straightforwardly this way until viewers reach a point where they think they can see how the story will resolve: the powerful new king of Wakanda will defeat the evil Klaue and all of Wakanda will live happily ever after.
Midway through a chiasm, the narrative begins to systematically undo each of the premises established earlier in the story. After taking the audience from the beginning to a potential endpoint in a linear fashion, which is more common to literary storytelling, the chiastic structure pivots at what seems like a perfect place for the dénouement and begins to dismantle or deconstruct the reality it has just created. In many ancient texts, this is carried out line-for-line. Each sentence or phrase in the second half is a kind of inverse parallel version of the actions that unfolded in the first half.
For example, the middle section of the flood myth in the book of Genesis includes lines that describe: animals being collected, entering the ark, and waters increasing. Then at the exact middle point of the story, God remembers Noah. The lines that immediately follow then describe the waters decreasing, exiting the ark, and animals being scattered.
A diagram of the complete Noah narrative:
Similarly, midway through Black Panther T’Challa returns to Wakanda after unsuccessfully attempting to capture or kill Klaue. A few moments later, the prodigal antagonist Killmonger arrives in Wakanda to deliver Klaue’s slain body. The ending an audience may have anticipated, that T’Challa would defeat Klaue and return victorious, turns out to be a diversion from the real narrative which has to do with what happened back in Oakland in 1992. How quickly we forgot that unresolved conflict introduced by the opening scene! This is another common feature in chiasms: testing the audience’s ability to remember details from early in the story.
But as the latter half of a chiastic narrative unfolds along this seemingly destructive path, the world inhabited by the characters slowly begins to transform into a new creation or recreation of their previous reality. Accordingly, Black Panther systematically mirrors many of the scenes from the first half of the film throughout the second. For example, there is another scene of ritual combat which Killmonger wins, another ritual ceremony through which Killmonger visits the ancestral plane, and so on. [If you’ve seen the film hopefully other parallel scenes like this come to mind.]
Finally, at the conclusion of Black Panther, the audience is returned to the same building in Oakland, now outside the apartment building in broad daylight, where we find T’Challa and his sister envisioning a new and different future following the ordeal they have just survived. T’Challa, as Black Panther and king of Wakanda, has returned to bless children as a benevolent paternal figure, whereas decades earlier his father, wearing the same mantles of Panther and king, had cursed a child by leaving him as an orphan.
So where is the Easter egg?!
Typically, the turning point in a chiastic structure is the point of some kind of divine or supernatural intervention. It is where God or gods enter the story, often for the first or only time. After I began to notice the chiastic structure in Black Panther, I wondered where this important center point was in the film, where the story turns from the first to second half of the chiastic structure. This moment occurs when T’Challa confronts Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a holy man and elder who is in the temple-like cave tending a garden which produces the “heart-shaped herb” that gives Black Panther his strength. Their confrontation is over the true identity of Killmonger, who T’Challa has just encountered for the first time. Ultimately, Zuri reveals the truth about what happened in Oakland in 1992 and the orphaned would-be prince he and T’Chaka left behind. This truth is a revelation. The “god moment” where a divine intervention would typically be located in a chiastic story is a key moment of truth-telling in the narrative of Black Panther. After decades of co-conspired silence and lies, Zuri testifies to what truly took place. One small, distant misdeed, decades earlier, has now matured into something that threatens Wakanda’s entire existence.
I believe this moment, at the very center of the film, is why Black Panther has struck a chord and resonated with audiences. It points to a broader theme of the film: justice begins with telling terrible truths and unveiling dark secrets in order to remember rightly. The transformation of a society is inaugurated by revelations and reckonings. Meaningful, lasting change emerges slowly through a season of, what may feel like, world-upending uncertainty. Our contemporary cultural moment has been rife with such radical truth-telling: Black Lives Matter, Me Too, March for Our Lives, the toppling of Confederate statues, and the list goes on. But while many of us feel these are bold and important steps in the right direction, it is also easy to despair and begin to question if there is an end in sight to this current chaos.
The chiastic structure is not simply a model of narrative construction; it is intended to reflect a certain kind of transcendent wisdom about the most dramatic episodes in our histories, and humanity’s cyclical seasons of creation, destruction, and recreation. The road to redemption and salvation for Wakanda begins with the airing of a single cover-up and one simple confession of past wrongdoing. Black Panther employs the chiastic structure in a way that centers the whole narrative around the reality-changing power of truth-telling and emboldens us to confront the demons of our own untold pasts and present as fearlessly and ferociously as big-screen superheroes.