"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" earns its inheritance by embracing loss and matriarchal power

Through Shuri and Wakanda's new nemesis Namor, Ryan Coogler allows the audience to grieve and find a way forward

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 15, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Letitia Wright as Shuri in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" (Annette Brown/Marvel Studios)
Letitia Wright as Shuri in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" (Annette Brown/Marvel Studios)

Is there another recent superhero movie that overtly invites open weeping before the plot kicks in? If there is, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" director Ryan Coogler overrides previous efforts by acknowledging the crater Chadwick Boseman's shocking death left in our collective spirit. The actor died in August 2020 at the age of 43 from colon cancer, which he kept a secret from nearly everyone save those closest to him.

What he gave the world as King T'Challa, the Black Panther, is irreplaceable and worth grieving, both in the real world and the version of Earth where a secret African nation is the planet's foremost superpower.

Two years after his loss, "Wakanda Forever" allows audiences to mourn as the film begins and honor his legacy as its chapter closes similarly: by honoring T'Challa's humanity through his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). 

Shuri's scientific genius bolstered Black Panther's battlefield dominance, responsible for augmenting the superhuman strength bestowed upon T'Challa by Wakanda's mystical heart-shaped herb with a uniform and accessories that made him just shy of invincible. But when an unspecified disease assails T'Challa's body from within, Shuri is powerless. 

The pre-credits sequence opens with Shuri, her team, and her assistant A.I. Griot frantically searching for treatment options for T'Challa, who is never seen, only to be informed by Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) that they're too late: "Your brother is with the ancestors," she says.

Still, there was never any question that the Black Panther must endure. The crass business matter of the hero's central role in the larger MCU franchise's longevity requires that, along with the mythological import Boseman brought to the role and Coogler realized in gloriously creating the African utopia for the screen.

But these also freight "Wakanda Forever" with incredibly high expectations. Some might even call them impossible to meet. 

There was never any question that the Black Panther must endure.

As Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole strive to honor Boseman's legacy, they take on several arduous tasks at the same time. "Wakanda Forever" introduces Namor (Tenoch Huerta), another superpowered savior who, in the spirit of Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, is noble and decidedly antiheroic. 

In the same way that shreds the genre's standard of positioning good heroes against irredeemable villains, "Wakanda Forever" defies the habit of defining lead supers as extensions of their fathers. 

Black Panther: Wakanda ForeverAngela Bassett as Ramonda in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" (Annette Brown/Marvel Studios)

Wakanda is under matriarchal leadership, ruled by Ramonda and defended by the elite woman warriors of the Dora Milaje, with a woman leading the world's most cutting-edge scientific lab.

Shuri and Namor eventually discover they have similar motivations, each informed by what their mothers taught them – and what happened to their mothers. 

As it incorporates all of these angles, the movie makes the case for Shuri's assumption of the Black Panther mantle, a decision that was going to be controversial regardless of whether Wright ever made her anti-vaccine views public

There's calcified misogyny within a segment of Marvel fandom, and Coogler and Cole are correct in ignoring that to dissect the meaning of loss and inheritance through Shuri's journey and Ramonda's – and in an auxiliary way, through Namor and the introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who's also due to inherit an open role in the MCU (to be further explained in her upcoming Disney+ series).

In "Wakanda Forever," resolving each term's meaning to the larger story is interlinked and, for once, resolved thoughtfully. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does a decent job with exploring grief insofar as it is considered to be a temporary madness each of us copes with in our way, whether by slashing through the globe's underworld criminal syndicates or holding an entire neighborhood hostage inside of a sitcom-perfect fantasy. 

This is part of the genre's focus on triumph over evil, even if that enacts a massive cost. That's why the exits of central characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and the Black Widow are simpler to accept; the audience may take comfort in recognizing that two of these three characters' stories were amply explored. 

Boseman's death represents something irretrievable, reminding us that we can only learn to live with loss, as Shuri ultimately must do. But her version of contending with losing T'Challa involves working through her pain, transforming the divine guardianship of Wakanda into a matter than can be handled through science and innovation. 

A key theme in the movie pits her rejection of the divine and spiritual against her mother's belief, choosing to believe in the innovation she can see as opposed to trusting in the ancestral plane that Ramonda, T'Challa and other royal allies believe guides their people. 

The movie similarly invites us to contemplate the variations between legacy and inheritance that loss brings to the fore. Shuri questions whether Wakanda needs a Black Panther in an age where technology enables her to produce suits that can transform her nation's army into a force with superhuman capabilities above their peerless fighting skills. 

That changes when she meets Namor. As the leader of another vibranium-enhanced culture descended from a Mesoamerican indigenous people, Namor is devoted to protecting Talokan, his hidden undersea empire.  

Black Panther: Wakanda ForeverTenoch Huerta Mejía as Namor in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" (Eli Adé/Marvel Studios)

Namor's people came into being when a strange disease decimated the village, and the vibranium-imbued plant that cured their illness also made living on land impossible, forcing them into the sea. He would rather wipe out the surface-dwelling world shaped by colonizing forces than negotiate with it.

But T'Challa's decision at the close of "Black Panther" to join the global community and share its technological knowledge is an altruism that may only be credited to a man who never had to be concerned about a colonialist threat. His outreach may empower the Black people Wakanda left vulnerable, but endangers Talokan, especially once word spreads of his death and the world's superpowers decide Wakanda is unprotected. 

Legacy implies something akin to a spiritual mandate. Inheritance, however, is trickier.

To Namor, Wakanda's choice is to either ally with him or perish, whether by the greedy governments of the Western world or his nation's wrath.
Namor carries forth a legacy earned by birthright, as an extraordinary child born to a mother who was among the first generation of his kind. Shuri, on the other hand, has leadership thrust upon her when she suddenly loses her mother on the heels of her brother's demise. And in the climactic moment, her ability to appeal to Namor's desire to honor his mother saves both of their people from mutual destruction. 

Legacy implies something akin to a mandate. Inheritance, however, is trickier to accept in that it's often unfairly apportioned and tacitly demands justification.  Shuri makes the journey to justification separately from Ramonda, through a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira) that takes her and Riri deep into enemy territory – and, spiritually speaking, apart from her mother by transforming her wild grief into purposeful loss by eventually putting on the Black Panther's suit.

Black Panther: Wakanda ForeverDanai Gurira as Okoye and Angela Bassett as Ramonda in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" (Eli Adé/Marvel Studios)

Namor isn't simply a leader to his people, as M'Baku (Winston Duke) counsels his fellow Wakandans. He's viewed as a god, which conveys a power all its own. Shuri may not believe in that, but she eventually comes to understand and believe in the power that comes from embodying a symbol.


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Predictably over the weekend, the hashtag #RecastTchalla trended on Twitter as the usual complainers griped about Marvel and Coogler's respectful if unwieldy solution to dealing with Boseman's death. This was always going to occur regardless of the way Coogler and Jones reconfigured the script to address the death of its star. Even the fact that they confirmed, via a midcredits scene, that T'Challa lives on through a namesake son borne in secret by Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) isn't sufficient. 

The thoughtful tribute to revolutionary history by having T'Challa's son be raised in Haiti and go by the name Toussaint doesn't matter either. Those folks would rather prioritize the two-dimensional comic book rendering over what Boseman made the Black Panther mean. 

This entirely misses the story's message, demonstrated in Shuri's final act of grieving. In that scene she does what she refused to do at her mother's side, closing her eyes to sit with the memory of her departed brother. Coogler gives us the view from her mind's eye of T'Challa smiling with love and admiration at her and the world around him – in effect, passing his mantle to her for safeguarding. 

"Wakanda Forever" may not be the perfect Marvel movie, but this scene and others prove its worthiness as a bridge – not merely between Phase 4 and Phase 5, as studio head Kevin Feige announced, but from the bleakness of loss to a stable place from which a new generation can move forward. 



By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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