‘Wakanda Forever’ sheds light on Shuri and the complex dynamics of grief
When Shuri (Letitia Wright) is introduced as T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) younger sister in Black Panther, it doesn’t take long for audiences to realize that genius runs in the family. While T’Challa is imbued with the sacred powers of the Black Panther – and takes on the responsibilities of being both a superhero and a king for his people with solemn grace – Shuri is a prodigy, whose scientific knowledge and lab skills arguably surpass those of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Essentially, if T’Challa was James Bond, then Shuri was his Q: always available to create new gadgets or a Black Panther costume for his brother to use in battle. The joy Shuri brought to her work was infectious, and with Wakanda’s abundant supply of vibranium at her fingertips, she felt like she could do anything.
Fast forward to the opening scene of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and T’Challa, off-screen, is about to die. While T’Challa’s fate is a foregone conclusion, the result of Boseman’s tragic 2020 death from colon cancer, the footage illustrates Shuri’s belief that science can solve any problem. Even in her brother’s final moments, she desperately tries to find a cure for his undisclosed illness. When she’s unable to produce one to save T’Challa, Shuri’s grief is compounded by a sense of failure – such is the complicated nature of losing those we love far too soon. (To anyone reading this who hasn’t seen wakanda forever however, I would recommend bringing tissues to the theater.)
T’Challa’s absence looms large wakanda forever, especially when it comes to Shuri. Once a supporting character who leaned toward scene-stealing comic relief – “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” (The same could be said of Wright, whose expanded role has coincided with the actress expressing controversial anti-vaccine sentiments on social media.) A year after T’Challa’s death, Shuri is hard at work in her lab, only now she uses her job to shield herself from the rest of the world and avoid reckoning with her grief. Meanwhile, other world powers hope that Wakanda’s loss of its king will weaken it: the United States is practically salivating at the thought of acquiring the country’s exclusive vibranium reserve.
As Wakanda remains strong enough to keep rival nations on land from stealing its resources, a new adversary emerges from the depths of the ocean. Talokan, a Mesoamerican take on the Atlantis mythos, has its own underwater store of vibranium. Most importantly, Talokan is ruled by the mighty Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), an aquatic mutant with pointy ears and winged feet who is considered a deity by his people. Without access to the heart-shaped weed that gave T’Challa his Black Panther abilities – Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) had the crops destroyed in the previous film to prevent anyone from opposing his reign – Wakanda is genuinely vulnerable to a nation leveling the technological playing field.
As if that weren’t enough, Shuri and her mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), find themselves at odds over how to move Wakanda forward. On the one hand, Ramonda wants to preserve tradition and finds solace in the spiritual realm – instead of telling Shuri that T’Challa is dead when the film opens, she says he is with their ancestors. (Ramonda presides as ruler of Wakanda after T’Challa’s death.) Conversely, Shuri continues to embrace modernity with her technology and believes the Black Panther to be a relic of another time: everything who mattered was the person she loved behind the costume. It’s an admirable choice by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler to establish that friction between mother and daughter – rather than running away from the complexity of heartbreak, the sequel tackles those feelings head-on.
Because the extinction of the heart-shaped grass was integrated into the plot, the Black Panther the sequel spends most of its long run without anyone picking up the eponymous mantle. Of course the wakanda forever trailers have already confirmed that somebody would become the new Black Panther, with Shuri being the most obvious candidate. Technically, anyone who ingests the heart-shaped weed can achieve Black Panther powers (see: Killmonger), but that doesn’t mean they’re worthy. Perhaps the most effective way wakanda forever honors T’Challa – and by extension, the revered actor who played him – is to show how difficult it is to live up to the character’s ideals.
When T’Challa made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War, the character mourned his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), killed in an explosion perpetrated by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). For most of Civil war, T’Challa is fueled by revenge; ultimately, however, he realizes that killing Zemo is not the same as serving justice, and violence only breeds more violence. This is the first important step for T’Challa to become a noble leader for his people. Another comes at the end of Black Pantherwhen he reveals Wakanda to the rest of the world after sympathizing with Killmonger’s fury at the kingdom neglecting marginalized communities throughout its existence.
Shuri must follow a similar path of self-discovery in wakanda forever with nothing less than the weight of the nation’s future on his shoulders. Crossing paths with Namor, who despises the surface world because he forced his Mayan ancestors to retreat to the oceans, Shuri finds himself face to face with his own Killmonger equivalent: an antagonist whose motives are understandable, and which represents the temptation to let anger out. dictate your decisions. Namor sees Wakanda not as an enemy, but as a potential ally: two vibranium-fueled nations that can make the rest of the world pay for centuries of colonialism. It’s an attractive proposition: as Shuri tells her mother on the first anniversary of T’Challa’s death, she prefers to watch everything burn. Now Namor is ready to light the fuse.
Because this is the 30th entry in a crowd-pleasing cinematic universe that remains Hollywood’s most reliable moneymaker, it should come as no surprise that Shuri doesn’t break badly in wakanda forever. But the extent to which the character struggles with grief and lets rage consume her during pivotal moments is somewhat unprecedented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a world in which heroes rarely, if ever, fail to do the right thing. (The ideological divides between the Avengers in Civil war are immediately discarded once Thanos enters the equation.) Wright, in turn, delivers a powerful lead performance with far more nuance than was afforded to him as a supporting player. Shuri always offers a certain levity, especially when she shares the screen with newcomer Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who will star in her own Disney+ series next year. But Wright’s finest scenes lean into the emotional turmoil of a character whose harrowing experiences transcend his youth and who must find the strength to come out the other side as a better person.
If there were lingering concerns that the franchise would fail in Boseman’s absence, Wright’s on-screen work, bolstered by an ensemble cast that can rival that of any blockbuster contemporary, extinguishes them quickly. Basically, as long as Wright doesn’t create PR nightmares for Marvel like a Thespian Kyrie Irving, she didn’t answer a question from a Variety reporter on his COVID-19 vaccination status, which was a little clumsy – the future of Black Panther is in good hands. At the same time, there is no replacement for Chadwick Boseman, and wakanda forever never forget T’Challa’s profound influence on his loved ones. T’Challa may be with his ancestors, but his legacy lives on in Shuri, the new face of Black Panther franchise that is never more compelling than when it reflects the best qualities of its predecessor.