Released two years after Chadwick Boseman’s passing, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” serves as both a moving tribute to the late actor and a masterclass in how to grieve our departed loved ones without letting those emotions control us.
Boseman’s T’Challa was a courageous, thoughtful, and extremely intelligent leader, a living embodiment of Black Excellence on the big screen. As a middle school teacher, I could easily see the incredible impact that the character had on my students. When I read that Boseman had passed away, my first thoughts were of them and the way they would process the terrible, shocking news.
The sorrow felt by those who loved Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of the Wakandan king was quickly accompanied by confusion and even anger when Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, unexpectedly announced that the character of T’Challa would not be recast within the cinematic universe. For many, this decision to connect T’Challa’s fate with the untimely passing of his actor felt like a rushed dismissal of Chadwick Boseman’s legacy and did not match the precedent set by characters such as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series and even Superman. Ryan Coogler, director of 2018’s Black Panther, was given the daunting task of creating a sequel that could acknowledge the titular star’s absence, honor his wonderful legacy, introduce a significant Marvel villain, and set fans’ minds at ease about Wakanda’s future within the MCU.
I believe Coogler succeeded at his task.
Instead of Michael Giacchino’s iconic Marvel Studios fanfare, stark silence accompanied a logo adorned by images of T’Challa. The usual bustle of excitement that emanates from a theater filled with MCU fans immediately quieted. This opening was not triumphant. It was reflective. I was appreciative of this tonal shift. I watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever mere hours after learning that Kevin Conroy, the quintessential voice actor for Batman, had passed. Under those sorrowful circumstances, it was all too easy for me to connect my current state of grieving with the events onscreen.
For fans who are supportive of the #RecastTChalla movement or who simply did not want the character ushered out with such finality, I’m sure the funeral scene was a somber disappointment. I would certainly describe myself as a fan who wanted to see T’Challa remain in the MCU somehow, perhaps even as a variant. Nevertheless, I thought that the funeral was a beautiful blend of traditions from Africa and the fictional nation of Wakanda. Coffins bearing Wakandan royalty ascend upward rather than be buried underground, and watching T’Challa’s coffin slowly rise into an awaiting spacecraft was an especially powerful visual.
“We have lost our protector. Now is our time to strike.”Ramonda
The sudden loss of a monarch, particularly one that is so heavily depended on to protect his nation’s resources, was sure to cause major political uncertainty for Wakanda and its supposed allies around the world. The scene in which Ryan Coogler depicts this conflict is early in Wakanda Forever and further establishes Queen Mother Ramonda (portrayed by the always resplendent Angela Bassett) and the Wakandan warriors accompanying her (the Dora Milaje) as the commanding presences that they are.
PHOTO #3: Ramonda addresses world diplomats following a foiled attempt to steal vibranium (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever)
While Ramonda’s anger is palpable in this scene, her daughter Shuri (portrayed by Letitia Wright) is shown to be distant and removed from the sudden loss of T’Challa. She secludes herself away in her lab, conversing mainly with an AI. Shuri’s grief is compounded by the guilt she feels for not being able to recreate the heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther their powers. That herb could have saved her brother’s life.
On the day of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s United States theatrical release, a student asked me if I was going to watch the movie. When I responded in the affirmative, he asked the question that many MCU fans had been asking for months: “How do you have a Black Panther movie without Black Panther?”
For moviegoers who are familiar with Marvel Comics, Shuri becoming the new Black Panther will not be a surprise at all. She first became Wakanda’s foremost protector in 2009’s Black Panther (Volume 5) #1 while her brother was trapped in Limbo. (This is the Dark Reign storyline in Marvel Comics. Check it out!)
Letitia Wright’s portrayal of Shuri in 2018’s “Black Panther” was met with largely positive reception. She and Chadwick Boseman seemed to effortlessly fit into their roles of stoic brother and spirited sister, and Shuri was later revealed to be an invaluable asset to the Avengers during the climax of “Avengers: Infinity War.” Nevertheless, many fans were apprehensive about her becoming the Black Panther. Some even suggested that the crude but charismatic leader of the Jabari tribe, M’Baku (portrayed by Winston Duke) be given the mantle instead. It is incredibly fitting that he is the character to introduce Shuri in her new role.
“She has done it. The Black Panther lives!”M’Baku
M’Baku was my favorite character in the first “Black Panther” film. I truly enjoyed every moment that he was onscreen, particularly due to the natural chemistry between him and each character he interacted with. I was very pleased to see that Winston Duke’s performance was yet again a highlight in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Ryan Coogler utilizes M’Baku wonderfully both as an outspoken member of the nation’s Tribal Council and as a mentor to Shuri. I hope that we are able to see those two establish a close friendship in any future films.
“The world has taken too much from you…for you to still be considered a child.”M’Baku
After Queen Mother Ramonda is tragically (and very unexpectedly) killed by Namor, M’Baku and Shuri share a quiet moment together. The above line from that conversation seemed to be written as a direct answer to those who believe that Shuri’s age or even maturity should be reasons for why she should not become the new Black Panther.
As someone who correctly assumed that Shuri would be stepping into that role but was unsure if it was too soon, I was very impressed by how Ryan Coogler and his fellow screenplay writer Joe Robert Cole used the overarching theme of healing after the loss of a loved one within her “origin story”. When Shuri first appeared in her customized Black Panther costume (much to the surprise of the Tribal Council), the people at my theater erupted into applause. It was a triumphant, joyful moment, and I immediately felt much more at ease about Wakanda’s MCU future.
“The Black Panther has never failed to protect Wakanda.”Shuri
It is unknown if T’Challa as a character will ever be seen again within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chadwick Boseman’s inspiring legacy can be remembered and honored in any future projects that feature Black Panther without effectively benching the character he made a household name. For many fans, especially younger fans to whom Boseman’s T’Challa represented poise, opportunity, and promise, permanently retiring the character would be a disservice.
Nevertheless, in the meantime, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has provided a well-written “pause” in T’Challa’s story while also establishing his sister Shuri’s origin story in the role of Wakanda’s protector. Letitia Wright’s raw, emotional performance confirmed for me that she was well-chosen to step into the spotlight. I look forward to seeing where else Ryan Coogler and other MCU directors will take her character.