The Melancholy Return of “Black Panther”

The Melancholy Return of “Black Panther”

The Melancholy Return of Black Panther

After the death of Chadwick Boseman, the makers of the superhero movie had to reimagine the series. The result makes for a sobering and affecting sequel. 


Ryan Coogler’s biggest triumph in Black Panther was that he made a very hokey superhero cool. For longtime comic fans, Black Panther, who was created in the 1960s by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and was the star of the comic Jungle Action in the 1970s, represents the casual racism and lack of imagination that have plagued the medium. Although writers as talented as Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates have taken stabs at T’Challa and his mythical home of Wakanda, corniness has clung to the Marvel hero like a stench. Even well-written versions of T’Challa and his resource-rich, isolationist nation reek of the white gaze that he is supposed to defy. His power often seems to stem from his nobility rather than his identity or actions, a conservative vision of Blackness that clashes with the character’s colorful life as a crime-fighting guy in a catsuit.

Wakanda, too, typically lacks a compelling identity, often functioning more as a concept than an engaging setting. Even when taken lightly, Wakanda’s superlative features—most advanced and powerful nation, never colonized—raise questions. If Wakanda is so forward-thinking and ahead of the world, why does it have a monarchy? If it truly opposes the warmongering of the nations beyond its borders, why does it commit its brilliant minds to amassing weapons? Why does it even identify as a nation-state given its remove from world affairs and the global economy?

Coogler’s blockbuster 2018 adaptation didn’t resolve these tensions, but it grounded the comic book fantasia of the Black Panther and his homeland in the intimacy of his personal relationships and the splendor of his people. The film, led by an urbane Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa and a magnetic supporting cast that included Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, and Forest Whitaker, deftly balanced the pulp and politics of its source material. Coogler’s Black Panther was a monarch as well as a big brother, a puppy-eyed ex-boyfriend, and a questioning son, roles that Boseman slipped in and out of with feline grace as the film swung between sci-fi action and familial drama. The character and his Afrofuturist world offered a vision of Blackness that was universal yet rooted, spectacular yet domestic. Coogler unearthed a fresh Pan-African folktale inside a dusty comic book character.

The film, which grossed over $1 billion worldwide, was poised to become a series led by Boseman, but two years after its release, the star died from colon cancer at the age of 43. His death nearly pushed Coogler to quit filmmaking and necessitated substantial revisions to the sequel’s planned script. After Marvel announced that it would not recast T’Challa, Coogler and cowriter Joe Robert Cole incorporated the character’s death into the sequel’s screenplay. The world of Black Panther is completely rewired by this choice. A tale of hard limitations and pragmatic brokering, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever trades the wish-fulfillment and power fantasies of its predecessor for sober realpolitik. If the original film portrays Wakanda as a symbol of boundless Black excellence and strength, Wakanda Forever presents the country as a trick mirror that dupes anyone who gazes upon it, even Wakanda’s champions. The series’ royal symbolism and tech fetishism are still crutches, and Wakanda’s culture remains elusive beyond its Pan-African aesthetics and costumes. But Coogler’s rich reversals and revisions challenge many of the core ideas of the Black Panther mythos.

The film begins with T’Challa dying off-screen from an unknown illness. His younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a wunderkind inventor and scientist, frantically darts across her laboratory, hoping to conjure a miracle cure, but she fails and he dies. An elaborate public funeral featuring dancing and celebration follows, and T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), assumes the throne, but a year later Shuri and other Wakandans still struggle with the loss. Without the Black Panther, Wakandan identity fractures.

Seizing on this moment of presumed insecurity, other nations set their sights on Wakanda’s vibranium, the precious ore that powers its technology. Black Panther ended with T’Challa pledging to open up Wakanda to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation, but vibranium complicates that promise. Wakanda has a seeming monopoly on the substance, and when Ramonda refuses to grant access to it through diplomacy, countries turn to espionage. Wakanda’s soldiers foil those efforts, but the attempts underscore the country’s new global standing. Though it is technically a superpower, its would-be pillagers are willing to ignore its sovereignty to enrich themselves. Put differently, the world now treats Wakanda like any other African country.

The United States shows special interest in the vibranium rush, going so far as to set up a device to detect the substance in the Atlantic Ocean. That move draws the attention of Talokan, an underwater polity more secretive than Wakanda. It too has access to vibranium, and its superpowered leader, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), responds to the incursion with a bloody assault on an American expedition. The United States, unaware of Talokan, assumes that Wakanda is responsible for the assault, while Namor, incensed that his home is at risk of discovery, blames Wakanda for instigating the international interest in vibranium. He also issues a threat: If Wakanda does not help him destroy the vibranium-detecting machine, he will attack. The three superpowers become embroiled in a pulpy cat-and-mouse game that raises the stakes of Wakanda’s identity crisis: Is it an aggressor, a peacekeeper, or—as Namor forcefully proposes—an ally to other nations of color?

Superhero stories tend to be clumsy and sophomoric when broaching race, let alone imperialism, but Cole and Coogler balance thrills and ideas by yoking the action to geopolitics. The many fights, standoffs, and chases are all prompted by violations of space or breaches of agreements. Talokan, a Mesoamerican take on Atlantis that’s cast in shadowy deep-sea lighting, plays a key role in the constant line-crossing. Vibranium-powered, hidden, and monarchical, it mirrors Wakanda in every way except for its tragic origin story. A flashback to Namor’s turbulent childhood shows that the nation was founded in response to European colonialism, when a small group of Mayans took to the ocean for refuge from Spanish conquistadors. Unlike Wakanda, Talokan experienced colonization rather than merely observed it.

That background fuels Namor’s belligerence and disdain for negotiation. Huerta portrays the leader as haughty, his bared chest and forceful gait contrasting the dignified strut of the Wakandans. For Namor, a powerful state menaces and awes rather than concedes or compromises, a stance that challenges Wakanda’s commitment to diplomacy with countries it knows it cannot trust. As Namor and his army confront Wakanda and the United States, the story teases the prospect of a more bellicose, war-ready nation of color. The subtly image undermines Wakanda’s humanist posturing and aspirational aura—a provocation from Coogler and Cole. If Talokan’s and the United States’ resources make them militant and hubristic, what are we supposed to make of the isolationist Wakanda with its own stockpile of superweapons?

Black Panther’s zeitgeist moment turned Wakanda into a shorthand for Black pride, joy, and ingenuity—an awkward situation for a comic book monarchy. As academics seriously discussed the country’s political economy; as rapper T.I. likened Atlanta to Wakanda to discourage protests in response to police violence; and as khalid kamau, the mayor of South Fulton, Ga., declared his ambition to turn the majority-Black city into a “real-life Wakanda,” it became harder and harder to find deeper metaphoric value in the country. The third season of FX’s Atlanta poked at the outsize Wakanda mania in a scene mocking a 2018 viral video turned meme of kids from an Atlanta middle school dancing on desks after learning they’d be going to a screening of Black Panther. (Wryly, in Atlanta’s version, the film is Black Panther 2, and the dancing kid gets disciplined.)

The handful of post–Black Panther movies sharing its Pan-African themes have also underlined the limits of its hyper-aestheticized vision of Blackness. Beyoncé’s lush 2020 music film Black Is King erupts with Pan-African color and symbolism but flattens the continent into a beautiful and magical nowhere. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2022 historical action drama The Woman King tells the story of West African women warriors who inspired the female soldiers of Black Panther comics. The Agojie valiantly defend the Dahomey kingdom, which participated in the transatlantic slave trade, but their complicity in the system is simplified to make them sympathetic. Gritty, earth-toned, and interested in the denizens of a Black kingdom as much as its leaders, The Woman King is in many ways the anti–Wakanda Forever; but it still traffics in the shaky idea of Black royalty as a riposte to white supremacy, as if only kings, queens, and their armies are worthy of dignity and respect.

Wakanda Forever is just as guilty of this regal fixation, but its multiple perspectives on Wakanda deter a knee-jerk veneration of the country. Two of its main characters—Black American Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who becomes a bargaining chip between Talokan and Wakanda, and Wakandan expat Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who skips T’Challa’s funeral—defend Wakanda out of care for Shuri instead of loyalty to the state. Their participation in the conflict is personal. Namor and CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) also provide new angles for thinking about the country. When asked by her subordinate if she can imagine what the United States would do with Wakanda’s arsenal, Fontaine gleefully responds, “I literally dream about it”—a much more foreboding imperial fantasy. Coogler still paints Wakanda as strong and noble, but this array of viewpoints troubles the nation’s symbolism. He seems to speak back to the global audience of the first movie, folding all those outside eyeballs into the text and asking them to truly contemplate a world with a peerless Black superpower.

As the film’s conflicts come to a head, Wright’s Shuri becomes its centerpiece. Like Black Panther, Wakanda Forever is an ensemble film, especially in the first half, which finds the main characters wrestling with T’Challa’s death. Wright, who in the original mostly provided comic relief, initially shares the screen with Bassett and Danai Gurira as the Wakandan general Okoye. The more experienced actors carry these grief-stricken early scenes. But after clashes with Talokan sideline Ramonda and Okoye, the film’s emotional and dramatic demands fall to Shuri.

Wright is not as expressive as her costars and struggles to command scenes. But she approaches Shuri here with more curiosity than she did in the original, using the princess’s grief to establish a new identity for the character and her country. In Black Panther, Shuri was in many ways a nod to skeptics: Mocking Wakandan rituals and her patrician brother, priding herself on her intellect and dispensing jokes, she stood above the latent exoticism of the story. But after her talents fail to save T’Challa, that distance becomes a crutch, and the events of the film force her to reckon with her fallibility. If her technological genius cannot solve all her problems, what other skills must she hone?

Shuri’s soul-searching eventually leads her to become the Black Panther, a mantle she spurned because of its emotional baggage and her skepticism of Wakandan religious beliefs, which deify the figure. She initially dons the suit in the name of revenge after a brutal Talokan attack on Wakanda, but when she realizes that the showdown between Wakanda’s army and Namor’s could only result in a Pyrrhic victory, she decides to negotiate and preserve life—a choice her forebears probably wouldn’t have made.

In the film’s final reversal, after saving Wakanda and Talokan from mutual destruction, Shuri does not ascend to the throne. Coogler revisits the waterfall where T’Challa won his title in ritual combat in Black Panther, but Shuri does not appear. She has left her home for Haiti, a Black nation that was not gifted with a magical ore or a superpowered protector. As she sits on a beach with two other Wakandan expats, an alternative vision of her home flickers in the frame—one in which Wakanda is not ahead of the world or removed from it, but embedded in it.

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