This post contains MAJOR spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is, in more ways than one, a second act. It’s the sequel to its billion-dollar predecessor, the first standalone film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to center a Black superhero. But the film that is in theaters now is also the second version of itself, based on a script that writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole had to reimagine after the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman, the star at the center of the story’s universe. Grief became the thematic spine, imbuing the film with a sorrowful new purpose: instead of gathering audiences with Boseman as T’Challa, Coogler had to help them learn how to say goodbye.
The film opens on Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) lab. It’s chaotic, full of scientists running around as Shuri herself desperately asks Griot, her virtual AI assistant de ella, to give her stats on her brother’s dwindling health status de ella. T’Challa is nowhere to be seen, but it’s implied that he’s nearby. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) comes into the room with tears in her eyes and gives Shuri the devastating news: “Your brother,” she says, “is with the ancestors.”
The film then cuts to T’Challa’s elaborate funeral, showing the royals, the elders, and the Dora Milaje all dressed in white, in a ceremony presided over by Wakanda’s spiritual leaders, who pour libation onto the ground in T’Challa’s memory. They then carry T’Challa’s casket through the capital city, where people line the streets and dance, in celebration of the Black Panther’s life. T’Challa’s casket is then taken up into a royal talon flyer, which flies off into the distance. Then the traditional Marvel intro—typically, a montage of past MCU film moments fluttering into the form of the company logo—arrives. This time, it’s a silent montage of Boseman as the Black Panther over the years, a sobering but fitting tribute to the man who enlivened the franchise and nobly carried the mantle across four different Marvel films.
The opening to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is, in many ways, the only way to deal with Boseman’s death. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Coogler and co-writer Cole borrowed from real life as much as possible. The exact cause of T’Challa’s death is never revealed, but it’s repeated again and again that he died of an unspecified illness that he kept secret from his family until it was too late. It’s similar to Boseman’s real-life battle with colon cancer, which he kept secret from many up until his death in 2020. Letitia Wright has spoken about the shock of learning about his death from him with the rest of the world, telling Variety that she didn’t believe it was real and found herself repeatedly calling and texting Boseman’s number, waiting for him to pick up. “It haunted me for months that I couldn’t say goodbye to him or be around my Black Panther family to share in that moment,” Wright said.
That devastation is woven directly into the film. Shuri is unmoored by the loss of her brother, furious that her scientific gifts could not save him in his hour of need. When her mother of her, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, in thunderously good form) instructs her to burn her funeral garb in order to formally bring the mourning process to an end, Shuri refuses, struggling to find the same sense of spiritual closure that her mother seems to have found. She is consumed by her anguish de ella, to the point where she has to push her brother’s death out of her mind de ella. It makes her want to burn the whole world, a threat that later comes into play when she suffers a second major loss: the death of her mother, drowned by Namor when he decides to attack Wakanda after Shuri refuses to help him wage war on the surfaceworld. It’s a shocking second death, though it was, perhaps, always in the works; Coogler has said that prior to Boseman’s death, he had a sequel script ready to go that centered on T’Challa’s narrative. The film dials up its lessons on grief. Who do you become when you lose the people you love most? How do you survive that?
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is, in many ways, a meta act of grief, an artistic narrative layered over the very real loss of Boseman. Coogler takes the harder, but more realistic path of mirroring Boseman’s current cause of death, tangling with the difficulty of making a story about naked grief. in doing so, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever offers fans all over the world a chance to grieve him, too. The story does not rush ahead without him, but rather sits with his loss from him.