[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever]
How do we deal with grief, with pain and loss? These questions linger in the background throughout the entire film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Marvel’s latest superhero movie. Most fans knew that Marvel had to address the real world death of the beloved actor and original Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, who died on August 28, 2020 after silently suffering from cancer for four years. What fans may not have been expecting, however, was that the entire film would be dedicated to exploring how people process grief after the loss of a loved one.
The film itself begins with the death of T’Challa, the Black Panther and king of Wakanda, from an unnamed and sudden illness. The previous film from 2018 focused on his rise to the mantle of hero and king. In Wakanda Forever, the film opens with T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, desperately trying to find a way to save her brother. When T’Challa dies, Shuri and their mother, Ramonda, process their grief and loss in starkly different ways.
After the passing of her son, Ramonda reassumes the mantle of queen. She actively leads her country and protects it from those who would want to take advantage of its natural resources (namely the metal vibranium). Even amidst her responsibilities as queen, she has taken the time to face and accept the reality of her son’s death.
Shuri, by contrast, suppresses her feelings of grief by throwing herself into her work. She’s a brilliant scientist, and she refuses to linger on the pain of losing her brother. Early in the film, Ramonda takes Shuri to an uninhabited part of Wakanda so that they can be alone to complete the grieving rituals on the first anniversary of T’Challa’s death. Ramonda takes her funeral dress with her and burns it on the fire in front of Shuri and encourages her to do the same.
But Shuri is not at all ready. She says that if she were to spend more than a few minutes thinking about her brother, she would want to burn the world down. She does not accept her people’s spirituality and flat out denies the reality of life after death. In her mind, this is all an illusion or a construct. Her strongest emotion at this point is still anger, which is an early stage in the grieving process. Her mother asks her how her own purely scientific materialism is helping her process her brother’s death.
Before Shuri can answer this question from her mother, the antagonist Namor enters the scene. He appears from underwater completely undetected by the defense forces of Wakanda, a supposedly impenetrable land. Namor, who has wings on his ankles, comes from an underwater nation called Talokan that also possesses vibranium. He wants to protect his people from having their resources stolen and demands the help of Wakanda in capturing an American scientist who constructed a vibranium detector which could lead to war with his people.
Namor’s people are descended from Mayans, and he harbors hatred towards humanity for how colonizers treated his people upon their arrival to the Americas. Namor is the protector of his people, and he’s not opposed to the use of force. He tells Shuri and Ramonda that if Wakanda will not help, they will be treated as an enemy and will be the first nation destroyed by the fierce Talokan army.
At one point, Namor’s people capture Shuri, who was trying to save the American scientist, a young girl named Riri Williams. While in Talokan, Shuri has the chance to explore Namor’s land, and she sees the beauty of their culture and its people Shuri recognizes that Talokan is not so different from Wakanda. After Shuri is rescued, during which a Talokan servant girl is killed, Namor and his army attack Wakanda. In the process, Queen Ramonda dies saving the young scientist Riri from drowning.
In the midst of the pain and grieving of losing her mother, Shuri is able to synthetically create the heart-shaped herb that gave her brother the power to become the Black Panther. She ingests the herb and her spirit travels to the Ancestral Plane where she hopes to encounter her brother or mother. Instead, she meets her cousin, N’Jadaka, the villain known as “Killmonger” from the previous film. Killmonger tells Shuri that her brother T’Challa was too noble, and that prevented him from truly protecting his people. If Shuri wants to save Wakanda, says Killmonger, then she’s going to need to adopt his methods. He was willing to do whatever it takes to gain and maintain power.
Shuri initially rejects Killmonger’s advice. But she recognizes that she only took the herb to gain the power she needed to get revenge for the loss of her mother. Before she took it, she didn’t even believe that the Ancestral Plane existed. Upon her return, she gains the powers and abilities of the Black Panther. Then she enacts a plan to proactively destroy Namor and his Talokan army.
Shuri, in her battle with Namor, is able to exploit his weaknesses and has him alone and isolated. Driven by anger and rage, she eventually immobilizes Namor. Just as she is about to plunge a spear into Namor to fulfill her vengeance, Shuri hears her mother call out from the ancestral Plane, urging her to have mercy on Namor. Between that call and realizing the similarities between the two civilizations, Shuri shows mercy and offers a truce. Namor agrees.
The film ends with peace and an alliance between the two nations. In the final scene, Shuri completes her mourning by finally burning her funeral dress and finally lets herself cry both in sadness for her brother’s death and in gratitude for his life.