Warning: SPOILERS for Black Panther!
In Black Panther‘s game of thrones between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger, was Killmonger the rightful king of Wakanda? Killmonger threw the hidden African nation into temporary chaos when he arrived in the country of his heritage and laid claim to the crown. Also known as N’Jadaka, Erik’s father was Prince N’Jobu, the younger brother of the late King T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa. So even though Killmonger is American by birth, as a royal blood relative, he had the right to challenge T’Challa to ritual combat according to Wakandan law.
From what little the film told the audience of how ritual combat works, the rules are simple: two men enter the waterfall arena and fight until one man either submits or dies. T’Challa had to drink the Heart-Shaped Herb to surrender the powers of the Black Panther to make it a fair fight. Therefore the fight is purely a test of skill: who is the better fighter?
The answer was obviously Killmonger. The outsider absolutely dominated T’Challa in a one-sided affair that left the royal family horrified at the eventual outcome. Sure enough, after destroying T’Challa, Erik hurled him off the waterfall to his (apparent) death. This victory has led to a lot of confusion amongst fans, and the true ruler is up for debate.
Now, it can be argued that T’Challa’s poor performance was because his heart wasn’t in this fight. He really just wanted to talk to his long-lost cousin. When the fight began, T’Challa pleaded for Killmonger to lay down his arms so they can “settle this another way.” Regardless, the fight commenced and the American proved he was superior. “Nah,” Killmonger boasted to the crowd after T’Challa plummeted,”I’m your king.” By Wakandan law, he was. It was cut and dry – for the moment.
Here’s where everything gets dicey. The fight technically was not over for two reasons: T’Challa didn’t actually die and he never submitted. Therefore, once Nakia and his family revived him with the last Heart-Shaped Herb, T’Challa was within his rights to call out Killmonger and continue the ritual combat. But there’s a problem: T’Challa was now cheating.
Zuri had already interfered in the fight. The Wakandan holy man blocked Killmonger’s killing stroke with his spear. Right there, T’Challa was dishonored due to outside interference, even if he didn’t ask for it (Killmonger promptly killed Zuri like he’d been wanting to since Zuri betrayed his father back in 1992). While we don’t know the penalty for interfering in royal ritual combat, it stands to reason T’Challa lost face at this point. It’s possible he lost the right to the crown right there. Furthermore, the Jabari also interfered by keeping T’Challa alive.
However, Killmonger had malevolent intentions as King. His plans to export Vibranium weapons and create a Wakandan Empire created enemies within the royal family. They outright plotted against him to restore T’Challa. So they did, and the Black Panther returned with his full powers and all of his tech to resume his fight with his cousin, under the technicality that he never died or submitted.
However, if we are saying that everything in the final act is an extension of the original battle, there’s still an issue. Even though the fight now seemed even – Killmonger also had superpowers and his own Vibranium suit – T’Challa by this point was clearly cheating. He had outside help: he was in constant communication with Shuri, who was feeding him tactics on how to use the magnetic field of the monorail against Killmonger. T’Challa also had another advantage in that he simply had more experience than Erik using Black Panther tech and weapons. The outcome was, of course, T’Challa ultimately winning by mortally stabbing Killmonger. But the fight was no longer fair. T’Challa gamed the system.
Despite Killmonger being the villain, he approached the ritual combat fairly. He adhered to Wakandan law and fought purely on his own merits. His mistake was failing to kill T’Challa or make him submit, so the fight never really ended. Thus, Erik was never really king. Strictly speaking, however, T’Challa was never the better fighter in a fair fight.
Related: Black Panther Ending Explained
The point is ultimately moot as T’Challa killed Killmonger. Thus, he is the king. But on the basis of who was better under the law of one-on-one ritual combat, Killmonger earned his right to the throne.
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