Brains of the Family: A Psychologist Examines Black Panther’s Shuri


While Black Panther’s T’Challa is arguably one of the coolest superheroes ever, his sister Shuri stole the show with her wit and intellect.


I came out of Black Panther feeling like I’d just eaten a gourmet dinner.  The best meals exquisitely balance a variety of dishes, ingredients, and sensations; each aspect is delicious in isolation, but in concert with the others they get kicked up a notch.  Black Panther has ideal portion sizes of action, drama, romance, humor, special effects, intrigue, and visuals.  It manages to be entertaining, thought-provoking, and soul-stirring all at the same time.


In other words, I loved it.  T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is probably the coolest superhero ever. So cool, in fact, that his debut in Captain America: Civil War earned him a spot on my list of top heroes for 2016.  He’s surrounded by a slew of interesting, well-developed characters portrayed by a top-notch cast.


My favorite among them is his younger sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright.



To be sure, T’Challa is a really smart individual.  But his younger sister’s intellect is next level.  A techie extraordinaire, she is Q to his Bond, Alfred to his Batman.  Not only does she equip and outfit her brother (including with a kinetic energy-absorbing, nanite-controlled suit), she designed the advanced infrastructure for Wakanda’s vibranium mining operation.



Shuri’s talents are medical as well.  She heals the critical gunshot wound sustained by CIA Agent Ross, played by Martin Freeman, to get him up and running in no time. And if that weren’t enough, she’s also unscrambled the brain of Bucky Barnes (nee the Winter Soldier).  How many doctorates does this woman have?!


In addition to being a genius, Shuri has spunk to burn.  She delivers some of the movie’s best lines, such as calling Ross a “colonizer” and referring to the stealth footwear she made for T’Challa as “sneakers.”  When the final battle erupts, she’s there for the throwdown, sporting panther-shaped blaster gauntlets:


Drop the mic.


Previously I defined my Heroism Quotient (HQ) and Villainy Quotient (VQ).  I rate pop culture heroes along five factors (0-20), yielding a Heroism Quotient (HQ) with a maximum score of 100.  The higher the HQ, the more heroic the hero.  The factors are inspired by the thinking of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who has explored heroism following his ground-breaking work on the roots of evil with the Stanford prison experiment.  


Here’s how Shuri fares:


1. Acting in service to others in need, or in defense of an ideal.

Shuri’s R & D career appears devoted to serving her royal family and the people of Wakanda, including all that her country represents.  When the chips are down, she steps up to help her brother reclaim the throne from an interloper.  She earns a strong 15 on this factor, penalized only for the fact that a significant motivator for her seems to be fun.  She really digs her gadgets, and it is important to love your job.  



2. Serving voluntarily.

No one appears to twist Shuri’s arm.  Actually, she’s chomping at the bit to get into the action.  She comes close to maxing out with an 18.  But as royalty, how much choice did she really have about her life path?


3. Recognizing possible risks/costs.

Shuri doesn’t find herself in harm’s way until the end of the story.  She plays an important role in a show-stopping chase scene midway through the movie, albeit remotely driving a car in Korea from her lab in Wakanda (mind-blowing).  She earns bonus points for trusting in Ross and even allowing him to use her tech, unsupervised, in her lab.  She also must have taken risks when helping Bucky.  She gets a 14.



4. Accepting anticipated sacrifice.

Again, Shuri really came through in the clutch for her brother and her country, helping avoid a global race war.  In so doing she certainly appeared willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.  If she had I would have been really mad, because I can hardly wait to see her in a sequel.  Give her an 18!


5. Anticipating no external gain.

This factor is about taking action for selfless reasons.  For instance, a mercenary would not score well here even if his or her actions did a lot of good.  What more could Shuri want that she doesn’t already have?  She’s a princess.  She’s wealthy.  Okay, I’ll dock her one point because maybe, deep down, she also was fighting because she wanted her awesome lab back.  19.


Sum these 5-factor scores and Shuri’s HQ is an outstanding 84, though still below Wonder Woman’s record.


Craig Pohlman is the co-author of CinemAnalysis: Learning about Psychology through Film.  He tries to be heroic at least once a week.


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