Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now streaming on Disney+ and is reportedly performing very well for the service. It seems safe to talk about what is the movie’s central premise without fear of being accused of “spoiling” it. Following the death of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the mantle of Black Panther falls to his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). It’s one of the biggest problems with the movie.
Of course, it makes sense for Shuri to assume the role of Black Panther. After all, she has donned the costumed identity at several points in comic book continuity. Shuri is a relatively recent creation. Whereas T’Challa was introduced in July 1966, Shuri did not appear until May 2005. When T’Challa was recovering from injuries, Shuri took over his superhero persona, claiming the mantle of Black Panther in August 2009. She has carried the identity at various points in the years since.
Indeed, the idea that Shuri would succeed T’Challa in Wakanda Forever was such a foregone conclusion that it seems absurd to describe it as a spoiler. There were plenty of articles built around speculation that it could be any member of the cast, and pre-release interviews with actor Letitia Wright and director Ryan Coogler danced awkwardly around what was an inevitability — but the truth is that it was never likely to be anybody but Shuri.
There are a few reasons why Marvel Studios would have been excited to cast Shuri as Black Panther, even beyond the obvious precedent in the source material. As Deadpool 2 joked, these major studios need a new generation of performers “young enough to carry their own franchise for 10-to-12 years.” Wright was a young actor who wasn’t yet an established movie star, but who built dramatic credibility on projects like Russell T. Davies’ Cucumber and Banana and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.
However, there is a sense that Wright’s lack of movie star experience may have been a double-edged sword for Marvel Studios. Wright became the center of a social media controversy after sharing a video that made unsubstantiated claims about the safety of the COVID vaccine. Wright has largely sidestepped questions on the issue, although it seems to have been the reason that she parted ways with her entire American team of representatives.
There were reports that Wright shared anti-vaccine sentiments while filming Wakanda Forever in Atlanta, which Wright herself denies. When the CDC implemented guidelines that all non-immigrant, non-citizen air travelers be fully vaccinated, there were concerns that this would restrict her ability to return from London for reshoots in Atlanta following an injury on set. The issue was quietly resolved. Still, it seems like Wright has generated quite the publicity headache for the company.
However, setting aside the behind-the-scenes drama, Shuri is perhaps the least interesting aspect of Wakanda Forever. She is largely motivated by grief and anger over the loss of her brother, but Wright is overshadowed by Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, Shuri’s mother. Ramonda is mourning her son. It is a powerhouse dramatic performance that anchors the film, and Bassett has earned considerable praise for her work. She is currently the favorite for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Wright worked well in a supporting role in Black Panther, but she doesn’t fit as comfortably into the lead role in Wakanda Forever. She is a talented performer, yet there is something unquantifiable about movie stardom. Boseman had it. Bassett has it. Wright may yet develop it, but it is not yet on display. Does Wright have a single moment or line delivery in Wakanda Forever as memorable as Chadwick Boseman’s work in Black Panther or Angela Bassett’s in Wakanda Forever?
There’s also the sense that Shuri is the least interesting choice to assume the role of Black Panther, the symbolic protector of Wakanda. After all, there is something thorny in the idea of this progressive utopia built around the unquestioned moral authority of absolute monarchy. Shuri doesn’t earn the title; she inherits it by accident of birth. It’s a promotion based on nothing more than an accident of birth. It’s the divine right of princesses.
Of course, this is part of the power fantasy that informs so much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is born to wealth and privilege. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the prince of Asgard. Even the universe’s token “little guy,” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), seems to romance his way into the superpowered dynasty established by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). T’Challa becomes Black Panther and king of Wakanda following the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani).
Still, the best of these movies challenge that assumption and that divine right. Thor: Ragnarok explores the colonialism upon which Asgard was established, destroying Asgard at its foundations. Even the original Black Panther questions these ideas of monarchy. “You’re a good man, with a good heart,” T’Chaka warns his son in Black Panther. “And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” Indeed, Black Panther ends with T’Challa embracing the idea of reforming and changing Wakanda.
At the end of Black Panther, T’Challa reveals Wakanda to the world, ending its longstanding policy of isolationism. He establishes outreach programs around the world, to empower children who are victims of oppression outside Wakanda’s borders. These are good ideas and suggest that T’Challa seeks to modernize his nation. It would make sense for Wakanda Forever to develop that theme and to look beyond the monarchy for its national heroes.
After all, many of the best Black Panther comics have explored and interrogated this contradiction between the lofty ideals of heroism and the cynical realpolitik of monarchy. It’s a major theme in Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers run, which is a major influence on Coogler’s Black Panther and is actually quoted in the film itself. It nestles at the heart of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s A Nation Under Our Feet, another work that inspired the film. It’s perfect fodder for Wakanda Forever.
“Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?” asked Coates in an editorial at the start of his run. It’s a very interesting question, particularly in the context of debates about the future of the constitutional monarchy in Britain. Wakanda Forever never directly broaches the question, and the fact that the film lands on Shuri by default shuts down any number of potentially interesting avenues. Why must this power be passed down by rules of inheritance?
So, if not Shuri, then who? The Black Panther cast is so wonderfully stacked and so deep that there were other viable candidates. Most obviously, Lupita Nyong’o is third-billed in the closing credits, behind Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. Just in terms of seniority, there is a credible argument to be made that Nyong’o was the best choice. After all, Nyong’o is one of the best actors of her generation, winning an Academy Award for her first ever feature film role in 12 Years a Slave.
It seems fair to acknowledge that Hollywood has never really known what to do with Nyong’o, who has bounced around relatively thankless roles in major franchises like Star Wars but who remains a captivating presence on the big screen. The year after her supporting turn in Black Panther, Nyong’o delivered a stunning set of performances in the dual lead role of Jordan Peele’s Us. Her work on Us garnered near universal praise, and many would argue it was unfairly overlooked by awards bodies.
Nyong’o is precisely the kind of actor who could carry a franchise like Black Panther, particularly as the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe shifts away from older anchors like Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans. Nyong’o is an actor of comparable prestige and experience to Brie Larson or Benedict Cumberbatch, a veteran performer with a body of work that includes both accessible genre fare and challenging dramatic work. Nyong’o was the best choice, creatively.
Nyong’o’s character, Nakia, is also a good choice in narrative terms. Nakia is presented as a voice of progressivism in Black Panther, advocating for Wakanda to take a more active role in the world rather than preserving the status quo. Nakia is one of the characters who pushes T’Challa to make the changes that he does at the end of Black Panther, and so her assumption of that mantle would be a logical and organic conclusion to that arc. It would complete T’Challa’s reformation of Wakanda.
Frustratingly, Wakanda Forever largely marginalizes Nyong’o’s character, Nakia, revealing that she left Wakanda after T’Challa’s death. Nakia doesn’t appear until 58 minutes into Wakanda Forever. She does get her own subplot and action set pieces, but she’s never really given her own agency in the story. In the post-credits scene, it’s revealed that she has a son (Divine Love Konadu-Sun), named T’Challa after his father. It is a waste of Nyong’o’s talents and of Nakia’s potential.
To be fair, Nyong’o may not have wanted to be tied to a long-term deal with Marvel Studios and may have scheduling issues that would prevent her from accepting such an obligation. After all, she sat out both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. However, there are no such issues with Danai Gurira, who played Okoye. Gurira is perhaps the breakout performer of Wakanda Forever and has proven willing to work with Marvel Studios on projects like Infinity War, Endgame, and What If…?
Indeed, Okoye is also a perfect candidate to assume the role. She is a sworn protector of the realm, a member of the elite fighting force known as the Dora Milaje. At the climax of Black Panther, Okoye chooses her loyalty to her nation over her loyalty to her husband (Daniel Kaluuya), when he allies with an attempted coup. That’s an interesting counterpoint to the familial loyalty baked into absolute monarchy, and it would set up interesting stakes for the future of Wakanda.
These are interesting characters played by compelling performers, who would give some real dramatic and thematic heft to the succession arc at the center of Wakanda Forever. Unfortunately, the film opts for the safest choice, and the results are disappointing.