Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is all about endings -- and new beginnings. Grief is the central element of a movie that mourns the loss of star Chadwick Boseman, a real-life tragedy that makes the blockbuster action film the most downbeat Marvel adventure yet. But the ending, in which Shuri faces her grief for her lost brother T'Challa, suggests the hope of renewal.
Wakanda Forever hit Disney Plus on Wednesday, so let's pick apart that emotional ending and speculate what's next for Black Panther's corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spoilers, obvs!
Directed by Ryan Coogler, the new Marvel film features two nations brought to the brink of war despite their many similarities. Both Wakanda and the undersea kingdom of Talokan possess the powerful and rare metal vibranium, and their people have kept themselves hidden from covetous rival nations. Now that Wakanda is exposed to the world, Talokan's charismatic ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta) fears his watery kingdom will also be threatened by the superpowers of the surface. But the two nations turn against each other, and Namor leads an attack that kills Wakanda's Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett).
Having already lost her brother T'Challa, Wakanda princess Shuri is enraged by the death of her mother. Played by Letitia Wright, Shuri is the heart of the film. The story begins with Shuri in denial: first, denial of her brother's death, and then denial of her own grief. She also rejects Wakandan tradition, refusing the mantle of the Black Panther and placing her faith in technology instead of nature.
Ramonda's death forces Shuri to face her denial. Accepting Wakandan tradition and reconciling her technological skill with the gifts of the natural world, she's able to synthesize a new form of the mystical Heart-Shaped Herb that grants superpowers to whoever imbibes it. Shuri dons a new Black Panther suit and finally joins the revered lineage of Wakanda's protector.
She's not the only member of the crew who gets new duds. Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Aneka (Michaela Coel), two of the Dora Milaje warrior cadre, don Shuri's blue exosuits to even the odds as the Midnight Angels. Teenage genius Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, from 2018's If Beale Street Could Talk and last year's Judas and the Black Messiah) gets a high-tech Iron Man-style upgrade to her homemade suit. It isn't really explained why her armor is so Iron Man-like -- in the comics she's supported by Tony Stark and adopts the name Ironheart, but in the MCU Stark is long gone and the film never suggests any connection between them.
Shuri leads Wakanda's warriors aboard a massive warship to retaliate against the Talokans. Her motives are clouded: The herb took her to the ancestral plane where each Black Panther consults with their forebears, but instead of hearing the wisdom of her mother, Shuri encounters the previous film's villain, Eric Jordan, aka Killmonger (played in a sizzling cameo by Michael B. Jordan). "Are you going to be noble like your brother," Killmonger taunts her, "or take care of business -- like me?"
So it's the vengeful and violent philosophy espoused by Killmonger driving Shuri as she faces Namor in a one-on-one duel to the death. Her plan to trap Namor in a giant hairdryer seems to be working until he manages to blow up their jet, sending them smashing onto a rocky beach for a final confrontation. Shuri clips one of his foot wings, but he brutally impales her. "I am not my brother," she insists, refusing to give up the fight. Namor utters his catchphrase from the comic books, "imperius rex," but Shuri counters with a triumphant "Wakanda Forever!" and blows them both up.
With Namor apparently defeated as she holds a spear to his throat, Shuri finds herself thinking back over the events of the film. Shuri reflects on how her country's beauty and life are mirrored in the undersea realm that so beguiled her. In the comics, Namor the Submariner is ruler of Atlantis, but the new film emphasizes Talokan's Aztec heritage to thematically link these two peoples oppressed by European colonizers (and, let's face it, to differentiate itself from DC's Aquaman movies). Finally, Shuri sees her mother, Ramonda, in the ancestral realm, who urges Shuri to show the world who she really is.
Shuri urges Namor to yield, to spare both their people. "Vengeance has consumed us," she says. "It will not consume our people."
Thankfully, Namor yields. The two rulers return to stop the battle, although it's a bit late for everyone who's already died in this tragically pointless conflict. Namor returns to Talokan defeated, much to the disgust of his wife, Zamora. But Namor shows his cunning: Now that the two countries have formed an alliance, the conflict with the surface world that he desires is surely inevitable.
In the meantime, Wakanda returns to normal. Shuri plants the new heart-shaped herb. Having fished Riri's mid-1970s Plymouth Barracuda muscle car out of Boston's river, she sends the teenage genius back to Chicago to watch the Bulls. Okoye frees Everett Ross from a prisoner transport, presumably to offer his sanctuary as they did Bucky/the Winter Soldier in previous films. Finally, as the people of Wakanda gather at the ceremonial waterfall for her coronation, they're surprised to see M'Baku (Winston Duke) challenge for the throne instead.
Shuri is taking a break not just from Wakanda but from royalty, hitchhiking across Haiti to visit Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), another who has chosen exile from their homeland. She heads for the beach to burn her funeral robes, finally completing the grieving process and finding some form of closure -- or at least, starting a new chapter. As flames consume the robes, she cries for the first time as she thinks of T'Challa, seen in clips of Boseman. Rihanna's new song Lift Me Up plays as the credits roll (another new Rihanna track then follows as the credits continue).
Of course, this being a Marvel film, it isn't the end -- and moments later a post-credits scene returns to Shuri and Nakia with a emotional revelation.
Black Panther will return
The ending of the film sets up the next adventure for the people of Wakanda and their friends and enemies -- the credits end with the caption "Black Panther will return." Marvel has yet to announce whether there'll be a Black Panther 3, but Wakanda Forever has set many of them on new and interesting paths -- and potentially into conflict with each other. Shuri has rejected her royal birthright, whether or not she continues to act as Black Panther. Nakia must live with her potentially explosive secret. Riri prepares for her own MCU TV show, Ironheart, coming to Disney Plus in late 2023. CIA boss Valentina Allegra de Fontaine will presumably be hunting her ex-husband Everett Ross, which may cause trouble for Wakanda as she recruits superpowered antiheroes to form the morally dubious Thunderbolts team (who will headline a movie in 2024). Beneath the ocean, Namor watches -- and waits.
It remains to be seen whether Wakanda Forever's downbeat tone will affect its box office performance or if Coogler and Co. will return for another Black Panther movie. But it seems pretty clear this ending will lead to a new story.