Following the unprecedented success of Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe provided a shaky transition into the Multiverse Saga. While the post-Thanos era has featured a number of standout projects, on the whole it has been inconsistent and has often felt directionless. (Especially before K.E.V.I.N.—I mean, Kevin—Feige provided some much-needed clarity on the MCU’s release road map at Comic-Con in late July.) Lackluster visual effects, and concerns about poor working conditions for the overworked and underappreciated VFX artists behind them, became more pronounced as movies and TV shows arrived at a faster rate than ever. The increasing pace of projects seemed to take a toll on their overall quality, too.
When you pair those factors with the devastating news of Chadwick Boseman’s death in 2020 following his private battle with colon cancer, the challenges facing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever were as formidable as those surrounding any previous MCU release. The film would not only have to deliver a conclusion to Phase 4 and a followup to 2018’s beloved, landmark Black Panther, but it would now have to serve as a tribute to a generational talent. And writer-director Ryan Coogler and the tremendous cast of Wakanda Forever came through on every level.
The much-anticipated sequel scored a massive box office haul in its opening weekend, securing $181 million domestically to become the biggest November opening of all time. But more surprising than its ticket sales is the film’s willingness and ability to tackle loss and grief in ways you don’t see in your average superhero flick. Wakanda Forever weaves in the loss of King T’Challa—and Boseman—as a central plot line. It’s a fitting end to a phase of MCU projects that often dealt with the losses suffered during the Infinity Saga; Phase 4 began with the series that featured the memorable line, “What is grief, if not love persevering.” At the same time, Wakanda Forever lays down crucial groundwork for Phase 5 and the leadup to the eventual conclusion of the Multiverse Saga, Avengers: Secret Wars.
There’s a lot to unpack from the second-longest MCU film to date, so let’s discuss my biggest takeaways from Wakanda Forever.
The New Black Panther
After Boseman’s passing, the fate of Black Panther was in doubt, with the question of who could pick up the Black Panther mantle looming over the franchise’s future. Would Marvel Studios have the nerve to recast the role of T’Challa after a series of iconic performances from Boseman? Would Killmonger somehow return to life to reclaim the throne? Or would the responsibility fall to either T’Challa’s partner, Nakia, or his sister, Shuri?
When the second trailer for Wakanda Forever was released in early October, Marvel Studios all but anointed the candidate who always had been the most likely answer: Shuri. After all, there was already a precedent for this transition of power in the comics: When T’Challa is nearly killed at the hands of Doctor Doom (after essentially being set up by none other than Namor) in a Black Panther story line written by Reginald Hudlin in 2009, it’s Shuri who assumes the role of Black Panther.
When T’Challa falls into a coma in the comics, Shuri inherits a responsibility that she had been preparing for her entire life, but had never been called to fulfill as she stood in the shadow of her legendary older brother. There’s a sense of entitlement and overconfidence on Shuri’s part when that long-awaited moment arrives, as if she had already earned the right, and her hubris—and years of growing jealousy—nearly prevent her from becoming the next Black Panther. What makes Shuri’s ascension to the role so poignant in Wakanda Forever, by contrast, is the real-life loss of Boseman that necessitated the decision to have T’Challa pass away in the MCU. This version of Shuri never wanted to be Black Panther; at first, she rejects the idea, deeming the tradition a relic that would no longer be needed in light of the powers that modern science could provide.
It isn’t until late in the movie that Shuri actually dons the Black Panther suit for the first time, and that moment only comes after Queen Ramonda’s death pushes her daughter to successfully synthesize an artificial version of the heart-shaped herb. Shuri’s grief and anger about the loss of T’Challa, conveyed via a moving performance by Letitia Wright, becomes the crucial motivator behind her eventual transformation into Wakanda’s next protector. With a little push from a delightful cameo by Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, it’s also what drives her to nearly kill Namor and start an eternal war with Talokan.
In the end, Shuri stops short of breaking bad, as she’s able to find a peaceful solution to Wakanda and Talokan’s conflict. (Of course, that happens after she basically fries Namor into a Filet-O-Fish, but the old man is back on his feet in no time. No harm done, I guess?) As for what’s next for Shuri, Wakanda Forever leaves that question fairly open-ended. She’s relinquished her right to the Wakandan throne, endorsing M’Baku (Winston Duke) to rule in her stead; about eight years after M’Baku lost in ritual combat to T’Challa on challenge day, the leader of the Jabari Tribe is now positioned to become the next king of Wakanda. Shuri might hold on to the privilege and burden of being Black Panther regardless, or maybe she’ll relinquish that right as well in order to get back to tinkering in her lab, given that she never aspired to be a superhero in the first place.
Whatever the future holds for her, the film ends with Shuri finally finding closure, having successfully ended the cycle of violence that comes with the thirst for vengeance—just as T’Challa did at the end of Captain America: Civil War, when he captured the man who killed his father. As Shuri embraces her pain and allows herself to begin healing at last, she’s immediately rewarded by the chance to meet her secret nephew during the film’s mid-credits scene.
“Bury your dead, mourn your losses. You are queen now.”
After killing the great Queen Ramonda, Namor delivered one of the coldest lines in the history of the MCU. Thanks in large part to a menacing-yet-charismatic performance by Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Namor immediately becomes one of the greatest antagonists to appear in a Marvel movie. (And shout-out to Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter for making him look the part, while having to account for certain scenes being filmed underwater, no less.) The ruler of Talokan is not a typical superhero villain who has simplistic motives that makes him easy to root against. Namor’s compassion as a king, and the love he has for Talokan and its citizens, shine through in every scene.
Along with being a fantastic antagonist and something of a living god, Namor self-identifies as a mutant—a label that brings us one step closer to the X-Men’s long-awaited arrival in the MCU. The word “mutation” was used to describe Kamala Khan’s genetic makeup in the season finale of Ms. Marvel, but Namor’s usage of the word carries extra weight as it becomes the first significant mention of mutants in an MCU movie. (A version of Professor Xavier from an alternate universe does appear in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, with Patrick Stewart reprising his iconic role from Fox’s X-Men movies. But considering his fate in the movie, that doesn’t mean much for the future of MCU’s primary, Earth-616 universe.) After his mother ingested an underwater equivalent of Wakanda’s heart-shaped herb while he was still in the womb, Namor is born with pointed ears and winged ankles. He also has an elongated lifespan and the ability to draw oxygen from water as well as from the air, unlike his fellow Talokanil, who have to wear masks while roaming around on the surface.
Despite impaling Shuri, the Feathered Serpent God is ultimately defeated by the new Black Panther, as he rather anticlimactically goes out with a whimper. Nonetheless, Namor will live to fight another day after Talokan’s loss at the end of Wakanda Forever. As he tells Namora during their final conversation in the film, he believes that the surface world will soon come for Wakanda and its vibranium, and then the similarly isolated nation will turn to Talokan for aid. The statement feels less like a prediction than it does an inevitability, and Talokan’s tenuous alliance with Wakanda will be crucial to the shifting geopolitical landscape of the MCU moving forward. With Namor leading a kingdom that seems to be full of more mutants (I mean, nameless soldiers are out here surviving seemingly fatal stab wounds and riding on the backs of whales), the antihero is set to become a pivotal figure in Phase 5 and beyond. Talokan can longer exist as a hidden utopia.
In the same film that ushers in a new Black Panther and introduces one of the first Marvel Comics characters ever created, we also meet Iron Man’s spiritual successor: Riri Williams, the teen-genius inventor better known as Ironheart.
When we learn about Dominique Thorne’s Williams in Wakanda Forever, she’s unknowingly become the cause of an international incident—one that sets the film’s main conflict between Talokan and Wakanda in motion. At only 19 years old, the Chicago native has achieved what no other scientist in the world ever could: She’s built a device capable of detecting vibranium. And Riri did so without even seeming to understand the true gravity and import of that achievement; she created it for an undergraduate college course in the span of a few months, partly to prove her professor wrong, and partly because she could. “To be young, gifted, and Black,” she laments to Shuri, sarcastically quoting the title of the Nina Simone song.
Of course, the vibranium detector gets Riri into a heap of trouble that brings her to the brink of death on more than one occasion. But it also forges a bond between Williams and Shuri, and grants the former temporary access to the most advanced lab in the world. That’s about as good an internship as you could get as a college engineering student in the MCU.
In the comics, Riri’s first appearance doesn’t come in a Black Panther comic, but in the pages of Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato’s Invincible Iron Man run in 2016. The 15-year-old Williams reverse engineers an Iron Man suit using one of Tony Stark’s older designs and materials she stole from campus at M.I.T., which eventually draws the interest of Stark himself:
With Stark’s blessing, Williams begins her journey as a superhero, and even becomes the protagonist of Invincible Iron Man when Stark falls into a coma during the events of the 2016 crossover event Civil War II. Despite being comatose, Stark is ever-present, having preemptively created an AI duplicate of his mind that could help train and guide Riri:
And with Stark’s guidance, Riri becomes a hero in her own right as she later takes on the name Ironheart, joins the young superteam called the Champions, designs her own suit, and eventually returns to M.I.T., where she’s given a lab of her own at the start of her own solo series, written by Eve L. Ewing.
In Williams’s MCU introduction in Wakanda Forever, her ties to Iron Man are less pronounced: Williams is still a student at M.I.T., as Stark was, and Shuri asks her whether she’s developing Stark tech when she takes a peek at one of Riri’s designs at her not-so-secret lab in Boston. (There’s also the federal agent who hilariously screams, “Oh shit, she’s got an Iron Man suit!” when Riri shows off her fledgling Ironheart designs soon after.) But with the MCU’s version of Stark no longer alive following the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, the decision to introduce a slightly older Riri in Wakanda Forever with Shuri becoming more of a partner feels fitting. And the fact that we still have so much more to learn about Riri’s origins also puts the character in a similar position to where she starts in the comics.
“One of the beautiful things about Riri is that when we meet her both in the comics and on screen we’re meeting someone in the middle of their day-to-day,” Thorne told Collider. “We’re sort of getting to peek in at someone’s life in the middle of it. We haven’t really gotten the origin story that we might expect when we hear that a new hero is being introduced.”
Thorne is a scene-stealer in Wakanda Forever, providing much-needed comedic relief in what is, without a doubt, the most emotional MCU movie to date. At the end of the film, she has to return her fancy new Ironheart suit to Shuri’s lab, but she will surely be able to reproduce some variation of it upon her return to Chicago. (And Shuri even gifts her a repaired version of her late father’s beloved muscle car as a souvenir.) There’s still so much we don’t know about Riri’s past, but thankfully, there will be an entire Disney+ series in late 2023 devoted to properly introducing the character—and it just got the best extended preview one could ever ask for.
The Future of Wakanda and the MCU
Wakanda Forever goes beyond establishing or reestablishing the importance of new and returning characters, as it also tremendously reshapes the geopolitical landscape of the MCU. After T’Challa announced to the United Nations that Wakanda would end its longstanding commitment to isolationism in order to share its knowledge and resources with the rest of the world, the political balance of the MCU changed forever. The global powers suddenly had an unparalleled competitor that didn’t rely on the strength of superheroes or super soldier serum for military might (although it had the former too), because Wakanda possessed the most valuable resource—and potential weapon—of all: vibranium.
This vibranium race at the heart of Wakanda Forever is a fascinating development, as we see world powers competing to acquire the substance by any means necessary. Queen Ramonda (played by the incredible Angela Bassett) delivers a mesmerizing speech and display of strength in front of the United Nations as she makes an example of France and its mercenaries, who have made an unsuccessful attempt at plundering one of Wakanda’s research facilities. The United States, meanwhile, is desperate enough to effectively steal and deploy a college student’s homework assignment in order to search the depths of the ocean for the coveted metal. It’s this development that draws out Talokan, as its king realizes that the time has come when he and his people can no longer hide from the rest of the world. And so another nation equipped with vibranium enters the picture.
As Ringer contributor Ron Seoul-Oh wrote in greater detail earlier this week, this race for vibranium could shape the events of upcoming films like Captain America: New World Order and Thunderbolts, as well as unannounced projects related to Doctor Doom and his nation of Latveria once the iconic villain joins the MCU in the not-so-distant future. Thunderbolts, in particular, has a direct throughline thanks to the rather forced presence of CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in Wakanda Forever. As she gleefully admits to Agent Ross (who was apparently her ex-husband this entire time), Val dreams about what the U.S. could do if it had Wakanda’s vibranium resources. And given the extended recruitment of superpowered individuals we’ve already witnessed in Black Widow and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, she appears to be assembling a team to make that dream a reality.
As for the future of Wakanda, M’Baku takes over a nation entering turbulent times—and matters are only going to get more complicated from here. The general of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira), has been relieved of her duties, finding a new calling as something of a superhero of her own as she holds on to her Midnight Angel armor—a design that was notably introduced in the comics during a conflict with Doctor Doom. The new Black Panther is on sabbatical in Haiti, but even in the unlikely event that she decides not to return, she’s provided Wakanda with the invaluable gift of more heart-shaped herbs to guarantee that the nation’s protector will live on.
And speaking of Shuri’s trip to Haiti and the future of Wakanda, Wakanda Forever delivers one final surprise in its sole stinger, as Shuri is introduced to Nakia and T’Challa’s son, whom his parents decided should grow up away from the pressures of the throne. Though his Haitian name is Toussaint, the boy reveals his Wakandan name and title to be Prince T’Challa, son of King T’Challa. It’s a touching, somber note on which to end an emotional film. The emergence of a new T’Challa provides Shuri with a hopeful path on which to move forward, and also supplies a narrative route for Marvel to continue the iconic character’s story while still paying homage to the original.
Wakanda Forever is a long film that feels a little messy at times, as it attempts to advance the MCU’s greater agenda while standing on its own as an uncharacteristically dark and heavy superhero entry that grapples with a real-life loss through the lens of a fictional one. It’s impossible not to wonder what this film would’ve looked like had Boseman been alive to reprise the role again; it would have been riveting to watch the dynamic between two iconic rulers from the comics in T’Challa and Namor, who was always going to be the antagonist. But Coogler and Co. managed to process their own profound senses of loss in order to achieve what had once seemed to be an unachievable task in and of itself: putting together a film that could rival Black Panther and double as a beautiful tribute to Boseman and the character he brought to life. And in the process, they delivered a film that could help reinvigorate the MCU as it closes one chapter and opens another.