This article was originally published in November after Wakanda Forever’s theatrical release. We are recirculating it now that the film is streaming on Disney+.
The 2020 death of Chadwick Boseman left Marvel Studios with two choices: Recast his role as T’Challa, the Black Panther and king of Wakanda, or pay tribute in the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In opting for the latter, writer-director Ryan Coogler was tasked with not only telling a story about the death of T’Challa but also about who inherits the title of Black Panther in his absence. Trailers for the film played coy with the identity of T’Challa’s successor, but the movie itself is quite straightforward about it, revealing the answer from the get-go.
Spoilers follow for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Drumroll, please … the new Black Panther is Shuri, T’Challa’s genius younger sister played by Letitia Wright.
In fact, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is Shuri’s movie through and through. (Can you really blame Disney for hiding that fact in the film’s marketing, though, given some of Wright’s controversial statements surrounding vaccines?)
The scientifically gifted Shuri is the natural choice for a number of reasons, starting with the ceremonial importance of the Panther as a symbol of royal lineage. Granted, given the caliber of the movie’s ensemble, plenty of women could have theoretically followed in T’Challa’s footsteps — from his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), to his former sweetheart Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) to the fearsome general Okoye (Danai Gurira) — but from the moment the movie begins, Wakanda Forever establishes Shuri’s journey to suiting up as Wakanda’s famed protector.
In the first Black Panther, Shuri was referred to as “a child who scoffs at tradition,” an idea that informs her story after her brother succumbs (offscreen) to an illness that she’s powerless to prevent, despite her technological prowess. Her very first line in Wakanda Forever is a prayer to the Panther goddess Bast, with the caveat of “if” Bast happens to be real. Even in Shuri’s most desperate moments, she can’t fully bring herself to believe in Wakanda’s traditions. After T’Challa dies, she throws herself into her work and avoids feeling all the messy emotions that often accompany grief. Her mother Ramonda tries to nudge her toward religious rituals and beliefs as a means to cope, but the princess refuses.
This is the perfect setup for a story in which she eventually takes up the Panther mantle. In T’Challa’s first MCU appearance, midway through Captain America: Civil War, his father T’Chaka (John Kani) was assassinated, leaving T’Challa to don the superpowered ceremonial garb himself after triumphing in a ritualistic battle with rival leader M’baku (Winston Duke). T’Challa’s arch nemesis Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) later earns the same title in 2018’s Black Panther by apparently killing T’Challa, further associating the mantle of Black Panther with death. The battle for the throne, and thus for the mantle, is a visualization of the idea of continued lineage, with a mask that anonymizes its wearer in order to draw a direct ceremonial line between generations of Wakandans who previously donned it.
This is also the case when Shuri becomes the Black Panther in the pages of Marvel Comics — yet another reason she’s a fitting choice onscreen. A number of characters apart from T’Challa have worn the Panther mask on the page, but many of them are either past ancestors, future descendants, or multiversal variants (like the lily-white Steve Rogers; the Ultimate comics were strange). Shuri is among the most prominent inheritors, and as far as characters introduced in the movies thus far, she remains the only living candidate since Killmonger is dead.
Shuri’s very first comics appearance (in the second issue of the 2005 Black Panther run by writer Reggie Hudlin and artist John Romita Jr.) introduces her via flashback as a potential Panther candidate, though one who’s eventually outdone by T’Challa. Years later, under Marvel’s Dark Reign banner of story lines in 2009, Hudlin and artist Ken Lashley finally chronicled her ascendancy, albeit in a protracted fashion. New characters wearing familiar faces was the flavor of the day: In the Dark Avengers series, Wolverine’s mantle was inherited by his son Daken, and Norman Osborn’s Iron Patriot stood in for both Iron Man and Captain America. Shuri graced the cover of 2009’s Black Panther No. 1, which told much of her story in flashback after Doctor Doom attacked T’Challa and left him for dead, leaving Wakanda without a Black Panther to protect it. According to Queen Ororo (the X-Men’s Storm, T’Challa’s wife in the comics), Wakanda needed a Black Panther, and Shuri was the most suitable candidate. The next six issues followed her trials as she painstakingly earned the moniker.
T’Challa eventually recovered, leaving Wakanda with two different Black Panthers for the first time. But of course, in Boseman’s absence, the movies have been forced to tell a vastly different story. In Wakanda Forever, the role of Black Panther has a proximity to death that feels even more immediate than it did in Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War. In a meta-textual sense, Shuri’s initial refusal to take on the identity speaks to how no one is really capable of living up to Chadwick Boseman.
When Shuri finally does embrace tradition, it’s a decision born at first out of selfishness. Shuri desires vengeance against Namor (Tenoch Huerta) when her mother is killed and, in a major and unexpected cameo, a returning character only eggs her on. But in the end, her arc mirrors T’Challa’s in Civil War: She turns her back on revenge in favor of mercy, choosing not to kill her adversary at the last second, even when she has every reason to indulge her bloodlust.
Does Shuri’s version of this journey feel rushed? Undoubtedly. T’Challa’s arguably was as well, but within the strict confines of the MCU, gestures that are purely symbolic often supersede those that might be more grounded or emotional. Shuri’s change of heart arrives without much hesitation, dilemma, or meaningful emotional impetus. But for all its flaws, one thing the film does get right is picking Shuri as the next in line.