Unpacking The Hurt – And Healing – Of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Photo: Courtesy of Marvel Studios.
This story contains major spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and interviews with the cast. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever picks up years after the events of Avengers: Endgame. In a fantastical world where literally anything could happen (a space titan just arrived on earth and wiped out half of the universe with the snap of his fingers), the Wakandans are facing a harsh new reality that they never could’ve imagined: a life without their precious king and hero T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman). 
The first ten minutes are enough to break your heart; we learn that King T’Challa had been terminally ill with an unnamed disease and ultimately succumbed to the illness, leaving his loved ones and his countrymen devastated in his wake. Their grief is compounded by fear and righteous indignation as the United Nations closes ranks, greedily eyeing the African country that they believe to be defenseless without the presence of their king. Even with Queen Ramonda (real life queen Angela Bassett in a performance that could very well get her a well-deserved Oscar nomination) on the throne doing her best to hold the nation together, Wakanda is in a precarious position as the West seeks to obtain the vibranium that powers it.
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Bad news always comes in threes, and that superstition also applies in Wakanda. Namor (played by Hollywood heartthrob Tenoch “Fine As Hell” Huerta), a mutant with super strength, winged feet, and the ability to breathe underwater, emerges from the depths of the sea to demand that Queen Ramonda and Shuri (Letitia Wright) side with him in wreaking havoc against the rest of the world in order to protect his underwater empire, Talokan. Namor’s got an army that spans the seas and the oceans, and he’s not afraid to use them against Wakanda if they don’t side with him. What follows is an all-out war before the two powerful kingdoms — and a multi-layered story of loss, rage, and redemption that had me leaving the theater in tears.

Wakanda Forever and Grief

Writer and director Ryan Coogler had a seemingly impossible Herculean task ahead of him with Wakanda Forever, charged with continuing the story of a beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe film without one of its most important characters and addressing the gravity of that absence with nuance and care. There was no shortage of opinions on what Coogler should do as the man at the helm of this project, but he forged his own path nonetheless. While it may not be realistic for anyone to ever fully recover from the loss of Bosmen, tying the loose ends of his death storytelling-wise meant that his life had to be mourned and celebrated appropriately in Wakanda and the MCU. 
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Coogler’s cast, still trying to heal from the death of their brother and friend, shouldered the same responsibility.
“We made this film with the intention of addressing and processing our grief and in doing so, offering a beacon of hope for people who have equally experienced loss, be it in Chadwick Boseman or in however many other ways we've been facing loss today,” Lupita Nyong’o (Wakanda War Dog and activist Nakia) told Unbothered in an interview prior to the film’s release. “Bringing this to the fanbase feels good. That's why we made it.”
“We continue to process the loss of our dear brother daily, and we know the world wants to take that journey as well,” added Danai Gurira, who plays Dora Milaje general Okoye in the film. “He was so deeply loved by people across the globe. I feel like there's something in this in the intention of this film and how beautifully Ryan devised it to be a tribute to Chadwick that I think will help people in that journey of processing his passing.”
As quietly devastating as Wakanda Forever is — I don’t think I will ever get over the (one more SPOILER warning) needless death of Queen Ramonda in the throne room — there’s a palpable air of hope for the future that serves as a balm to our heartache. With the heart shaped orbs restored and Shuri as the new Black Panther, we can rest easier knowing that Wakanda has a powerful protector within its borders. Even more reassuring was the emotional end credit scene which revealed that the late T’Challa and Nakia have a son together. Prince T’Challa, otherwise known as Toussaint (a nod to François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the general who famously led Haiti’s revolution in the late 18th century), has been tucked away in Haiti at the request of his father, who wanted him to live a life away from the pressures of royal life. Nakia hopes that outside of Wakanda, Prince T’Challa can become a more well-rounded person who will have a better understanding of the world and his role in it as a ruler than any of the Wakandan kings before him. For many, the existence of the prince is a sign that Wakanda will not be destroyed, and that Boseman’s memory will live on in perpetuity.
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In Black Panther, the Black women in T’Challa’s life were his guiding light and his support system, and after his passing, those same Black women are tasked with sustaining his legacy as well as securing Wakanda’s future. They are the lifeblood of this story.

Wakanda Forever’s Complicated Politics

Coogler is a director deeply interested in critiquing the relationship that the state has with its people (particularly the many ways in which governments have systematically destabilized and even destroyed whole communities), and Wakanda Forever speaks to that sociopolitical and historical curiosity. To further tease out that tension, this story juxtaposes the many stages of personal grief with the generational sorrow and rage that results from imperialism and colonization, using the motivations of the Talokanil as both a mirror and a cautionary tale for Wakanda.
Despite most of its neighboring countries being colonized by Europe — Wakanda is said to be located in East Africa near Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia — Wakanda’s utilization of vibranium allowed it to be unseen by and protected from foreign invaders seeking to lay claim to its government. Talokan has a similar origin story connected to vibranium but is an underwater kingdom that lies miles and miles beneath the ocean’s surface that is completely shrouded from prying eyes, and Namor would like to keep it that way; after all, being noticed by outsiders was the very thing that forced them to flee the surface world centuries ago to begin with. Though the risk of modern colonization is what drives much of both Wakanda and Talokan’s governing decisions, their respective approaches to said threat couldn’t be more different. Wakanda is perpetually on the defense, only participating in outside affairs when the safety of the entire universe is at stake (see the Infinity Stone arc) while Talokan is on the offense, preparing for a full-scale attack on the world. (Where were they during Thanos’ attack on earth anyway? Minding their blue business.) 
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Namor’s war strategy is both pragmatic and fear-based, rooted in the trauma of watching his people be murdered by Spanish colonizers as a child in the 1500s. Having witnessed the violence and destruction of the colonial world powers firsthand, he’s not willing to sit back and allow the Talokanil to befall the same fate after rebuilding their city to become an even greater force. What he wants is more than just restitution — Namor aims to prevent that power struggle before it even happens by completely crushing his opposition, including Shuri and Wakanda if she chooses not to rally to his cause.
Much of the criticism of Wakanda Forever involves frustration with its depiction of Black and brown people battling each other to the death while white governments sit back and watch from the side lines, which is a fair critique — it would seem that white supremacy, once again, is winning this fight. As was the case with fellow zealot and former Black Panther Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who also makes a crucial cameo in the film), people are arguing that Namor’s extremist politics are correct and that Wakanda would only benefit from joining forces with him; why shouldn’t the most powerful nation (on land) use its resources to annihilate all current and future threats to its safety? But that’s what makes Namor a good villain; his motivations are clear and valid. And fortunately, it seems like real solidarity between Wakanda and Talokan is in the cards. Even after being defeated by new Black Panther Shuri in hand to hand combat and yielding to Wakanda, Namor is uncharacteristically optimistic about a future of uneasy allyship between them. When other countries inevitably attack Wakanda, Talokan will fight at her side. Then the world will burn.
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Wakanda Forever and Representation

There’s no denying the cultural impact of Boseman’s Black Panther. In its introduction of the MCU’s first Black superhero, Black Panther started a cultural revolution that spanned the African diaspora. From Oakland to London to Accra, people around the world saw themselves in the film’s careful probing of the disconnect between Black Americans and other Black folks in the diaspora. Black Panther was just as important to other people of color, paving the way for other nonwhite narratives to take center stage in this superhero universe.
In 2021, Shang-Chi & the Legend of the Ten Rings featured Simu Liu the MCU’s first Asian lead, and Wakanda Forever does the same for the Latinx community — specifically the dark-skinned Latinx and Indigenous people who have been typically excluded from the mainstream. The character of Namor was originally white, ruling the kingdom of Atlantis from down below, but Coogler takes creative license to inject as realism into a story about an underwater civilization as possible. Inspired by Aztec legends and Mesoamerican Indigenous history, Namor is now K’uk’ulkan the Plumed Serpent God (better known by his enemies as Namor, a shorthand of “el nińo sin amor” or “the boy without love”), and Atlantis is now the sprawling metropolis of of Talokan. Namor and the Talokanil speak Yucatan Mayan and even have a unique hand gesture to accompany their fierce battle cry, “¡Líik'ik Talokan!”
With Huerta, a brown Mexican man with Indigenous ancestry, and Mesoamerican culture at the forefront of the story, Coogler and the MCU are further expanding this superhero universe and creating opportunities for new crosscultural storytelling and discourse. “Black Panther was so important for all of us in Mexico because we also felt represented,” Tenoch Huerta told Unbothered. “Now we have this new version of this amazing story that includes characters with Indigenous heritage and roots. And that's beautiful because the people in Latin America can embrace those roots — they can connect more with their Indigenous history and with their African roots as well.”
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“Historically, we’ve been programmed to be ashamed of our past, of who we are, to treat Indigenous culture like it was evil and stupid and backwards,” he continued. “But Namor and Talokan provide a new way for us to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel proud of our ancestors. This kind of project is helping us reconcile with our past and our heritage, so it's the perfect movie with perfect timing.”
Wakanda Forever also resumes the important work of placing Black women, notably darker-skinned Black women, on a pedestal — a novel phenomenon that has misogynoirists throwing tantrums in the theater and on the timeline. If they had their way, Boseman would have been recast with another famous Black man, and the plot would have carried on without a hitch, but Coogler had better plans for this particular chapter of the Black Panther narrative. In positioning Queen Ramonda and later Shuri as the head of state and continuing to highlight the necessity of the all-women army of the Dora Milaje to the stability of the country, he reminds us that even with M'Baku as new king, Wakanda is still a country powered by powerful Black women. In Black Panther, the Black women in T’Challa’s life were his guiding light and his support system, and after his passing, those same Black women are tasked with sustaining his legacy as well as securing Wakanda’s future. They are the lifeblood of this story.
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“As a Black woman, being able to represent us in a way that is heightened and intentional is beautiful,” Wright said of Shuri’s important role as the new leader of Wakanda. “I always try to do work that feels truthful, that feels impactful in whatever part I'm blessed to receive and blessed to represent, and Shuri, her mother, and her [comrades-turned-sisters] are just an extension of that.”
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Despite having years to steel myself, I wasn’t anywhere near prepared for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever because it was so much more than just another superhero film. It was an emotional catharsis of sorts, acknowledging the weight of our collective grief while also attempting to heal it scene by scene. With so much riding on the movie — honoring Boseman, representing Black and Brown cultures, and furthering the storyline of Wakanda — the stakes for this project were sky high and ocean deep, and for the most part, Coogler and his talented cast met those expectations, thoughtfully ushering us into the next chapter of Wakandan adventures with new leaders at the command. 
Watching this story without Boseman hurts, but like T’Challa in the ancestral realm, we know that true heroes never die; their spirits continue on in the hearts of those they leave behind. Wakanda is forever. The Black Panther lives. 

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