Raw sadness pulses through Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Sometimes it seeps in as a ghostly presence – visible in unshed tears, crooked smiles and cryptic conversations – and sometimes it bursts through, like raging bile, or just swallows a person whole.
A respectful but heartbreaking tribute to Chadwick Boseman, the original Black Panther, the film doesn’t attempt to ‘replace’ him in any way, honoring his legacy with sensitivity and without an attempt at gut-wrenching manipulation. Having led the first Black Panther with such charisma and vindictiveness, his absence is felt poignantly, and the real emotions of the actors permeate the film and further twist the knife. It is also a lesson in learning that grief does not consist of five stages contrary to the common and common belief; it is never a linear process. This may be the first time a Marvel movie has shown the deep complexity and turbulence of grief and the many forms it takes. The films of the past decade have usually been pretty off-hand about it, made light of it, even though most of the heroes have lost countless loved ones. It was briefly touched on in Endgame and seen in WandaVision, but that’s as far as it goes before Marvel-esque humor takes over. However, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever confronts the huge task of reconciling a real tragedy on screen and serves as a tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, whose sudden death after a private battle with cancer in 2020 left behind a legion of devastated family, friends and fans.
The road to acceptance and goodbye can be an uncertain, uncomfortable rocky road, and Letitia Wright’s Shuri undertakes this journey. Shuri is immersed in the lab as a coping mechanism, to stop herself from oscillating between grief and guilt over losing her brother. But for once, this isn’t Marvel’s method of avoiding the ugliness of loss – the strain and exhaustion are etched into Shuri’s expression. His death has left a gaping wound, and if she were to dwell on it any longer, she would ‘burn the world down’, as she tells her mother, Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda. Shuri hovers between a plane of raw destruction and denial as her mother struggles to reconstruct her own world again. It’s a world of grieving women – Shuri, Ramonda, Nakia and Okoye, and they rule the world with T’Challa’s spirit at their side.
Ramonda herself is struggling on all sorts of fronts – the death of her son, the politicized attacks on Wakanda, and later the abduction of her daughter by Namor, a man who threatens to bring her homeland to its knees. Ramonda says few words, but the anguished words to Okoye after Shuri is taken show a woman reeling from the thought of being robbed of her only remaining family. Nakia has avoided Wakanda and is living in Haiti as the memories of T’Challa are too exciting for her. Still, Shuri and Ramonda shine the most in the film, exuding power in every scene.
Grief makes people unrecognizable. It tears Shuri from the inside after she loses ‘the last person who knew her well’. Consumed by bitterness and revenge, she does not want to be noble like her brother, but instead follows the path of bloodlust. Eventually, the pent-up and messy emotions that she had suppressed implode, almost how one would feel in real life. Her loved ones are all dead – a part of her is dead with them, she believes. Comfort and comforting words avail her not; it is time for action. She is now hardened as she sets out to destroy the underwater empire led by Namor (an excellent Tenoch Huerta) and finally, after the battle, she realizes that more blood is never the answer. Although this conclusion was expected, it was riveting to see her path to this understanding. At the end of the movie, she just quietly remembers her moments with T’Challa and sheds tears. The film drives home that healing is a hideously messy process, and that there may never be complete closure, but one can only come close to a rather broken and resigned acceptance, the stage of grief that no one really talks about.
This was far more gut-wrenching in comparison Spider-Man: No Way Homee after Aunt May’s death. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker’s call for revenge was far less compelling than Shuri’s and felt rather flat in the film’s final moments. Perhaps it was partly because the storytelling itself had become so messed up, with misplaced humor and cameos rolled into it, all culminating in a typically Marvel-esque showdown. Spider-Man trying to kill the Green Goblin didn’t drive home the same way Shuri trying to assassinate Namor did. Shuri’s rage and fury feels visceral and her dry sobs are piercing.
How to place Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in the MCU? It feels a disservice to list it as a superhero blockbuster; because it is so much more. The film itself feels far too nuanced, layered to belong in the MCU – from Namor, the antagonist (the word villain doesn’t fit here) a mutant with an underwater empire who loves his people deeply, to the various internal and external struggles of the Wakandans . In this mix, there are also twisted politics at play as the US is ready to quickly break up the African country. Even the humor isn’t the typical quiet Marvel joke that you can predict before the characters utter them – M’Baku and Okoye take the lead here, with their deadpan quips. The action sequences are riveting, especially Shuri’s bike chase scene as well as the final fight when she decides to become the Black Panther.
Black Panther Wakanda Forever is many things. It is a heartbreaking ode. It is also about love, loss and recovery. It is the struggle to reconstruct a world again with broken pieces. It’s about letting go, just little by little, because all at once it’s painfully impossible.