[This story contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.]
“The living are not done with you yet,” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) tells Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016). While those words don’t belong to filmmaker Ryan Coogler or co-writer Joe Robert Cole, they seem to inform their thinking on the socio-political landscape in Black Panther (2018) and its sequel Wakanda Forever. This is evident in the way Coogler’s films invoke the ancestors, but also the ways in which they reference the history of colonialism, capitalism and racial strife.
In a cinematic universe that has largely focused on looking ahead, Coogler takes the time to not only look back, but to wrestle with the past in a meaningful way.
Black Panther ends with T’Challa going before the United Nations and revealing Wakanda to the world and promising to share its resources. The ending speaks to the nobility of T’Challa, but it also emphasizes the fact that Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) were right to question Wakanda’s isolationist practices. The scene echoes Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) press conference at the end of Iron Man (2008), in which he revealed to the world, “I am Iron Man.” Yet, T’Challa as king rather than industrialist, puts far more at risk than Stark did. It isn’t simply the identity of a man that is at stake, but a nation.
These stakes come to the forefront in the opening minutes of Wakanda Forever in which Ramonda (Angela Bassett) addresses the United Nations, six or seven years after T’Challa’s optimistic speech. Many nations see Wakanda as a threat. They don’t want their education or resource centers, but their Vibranium. When France strikes a Wakandan research base, with the intent to steal Wakanda’s most precious resource, we are reminded that despite talk of peace, colonialism still drives the world. And one nation’s ability to combat it simply puts another nation in the line of fire. Enter Talocan, an underwater Mayan civilization led by the mutant Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who suffers the consequences of T’Challa’s nobility in an ignoble world.
The US’s theft of Riri Williams’ (Dominique Thorne) Vibranium-finding technology, which holds its own historical basis in the American theft of developments created by Black women, pits Wakanda and Talocan against each other. This resulting clash of an African nation against an Indigenous Latin American nation, with the life of a Black American woman caught in the middle, has frustrating connotations that are not unintentional.
It is easy to jump on the idea that Wakanda Forever plays into a race war that, though not necessarily entirely accurate in terms of the minutia of diaspora, pits Black people against Latino people. But through Coogler and Cole’s purview, the past is prologue. We bear witness to two historically marginalized peoples, who both suffered the effects of colonialism and slavery, being pitted against each other by white oppressors while their future hangs in the balance.
For superheroes, there’s always a fight, always a war being waged on some level be it global, national, communal or personal. Yet, superheroes are not soldiers. They hold onto their ethical fiber rather than make morally compromising decisions that result in finality. Superman began as a class-conscious character, the “champion of the oppressed,” who in his debut, saved a wrongly convicted woman from the death penalty and took down a corrupt senator. Captain America was created as a rallying cry to inspire the Allies against the growing threat of fascism. And while these concerns are perhaps outside the purview of the everyday, the immense popularity of Batman speaks to more immediate and grounded concerns about injustice. The implausibility of his mission, winning a war on crime, keeps readers coming back again.
Since his 1966 debut, Black Panther has encapsulated all of these crusades. He is an outsider contending with truth and justice, a warrior who has run up against invaders and fascist conquerors time and again. Black Panther, both within the Marvel Universe as a mantle passed down, and in our real-life world as a fictional figure created to fill a void in comic book representation, is living history and his crusade is born out of that past.
The fight between nations in Wakanda Forever is just another expression of the battle we’ve seen in historical and contemporary America in which white America blames the joblessness on Mexican immigrants while simultaneously making it increasingly difficult for Black Americans to find jobs. Black and Latino people are both victims of American agendas that work most effectively for white people, and Coogler speaks to that by presenting Wakanda and Talocan as two nations with sympathetic plights and leaders, who while fallible are advocates for their people.
While there is the potential for allyship, and well-intentioned white liberalism as symbolized by Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), the US is often incapable of manifesting empathy or revolution for two marginalized groups. Instead, it trades conversations about Mexicans being kept in cages and ICE for focus on Black Lives Matter and police brutality, while solving neither. Rarely, if ever, can white liberalism spread its attention between two or more affected groups, which we see in Ross helping the Wakandans but throwing the Talocans to the wolves that are American intelligence, despite the US being the ones who struck first. Marginalized people fighting to be heard, fighting for their rights too often creates a scenario in which the oppressed are forced to fight each other for the opportunity to be given validation. It is that inherently messy situation we see reflected in Wakanda Forever‘s central battle.
Killmonger’s plan in the first Black Panther, in which he sought to use Wakandan tech to wipe out the rest of the world’s colonizers, would have prevented this battle. It would have been morally wrong of course, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been effective. But his solution would end the crusade of the Black Panther, preventing the longevity found in the impossible battle for a united world. Although some fans speculated and even desired Killmonger to return to the realm of the living and take up the mantle of Black Panther, his agenda, while perhaps the most logical and realistic means to end the threat against oppressed people, is the antithesis of superheroism that ultimately separates superhero from soldier.
Namor’s plan is not so different, but he strikes with the confidence of being seen as a god, only concerned for his people and not the people who also share his skin tone as Killmonger did. It’s easy for Shuri (Letitia Wright) to reject Namor’s invitation of godhood, even after feeling betrayed by her own god, Bast. But, the all-too human shadow of Killmonger haunts Shuri’s journey to lead as either queen and superhero or queen and soldier. She chooses superhero, sparing Namor’s life and striking an uneasy alliance that promises further battles ahead and that the crusade of the Black Panther will continue, running parallel to our own real-world battles.
At the end of Wakanda ForeverCoogler sets up the future by once again reflecting on the past in the film’s mid-credits scene, in which Nakia, at her home in Haiti, reveals to Shuri that she and T’Challa have a son whose Wakandan name is T’Challa. and whose Haitian name is Toussaint.
Obviously, the child’s name being T’Challa is the biggest talking point among fans. But perhaps more significant is the name Toussaint, an unmistakable reference to Toussaint Louverture, a Haitian general who led the Haitian Revolution against the French.
The revelation of the future king’s name not only reframes the initial strike by France at the beginning of the film but also speaks to the importance of him being raised away from the pressures of the throne and in Haiti, where he can grow up to see the direct effects of colonialism that are still very much prevalent in the country. It is a reminder that these superheroes and their potential successors are not gods living above the world, but within it and subject to the same injustices. Wakanda Forever is a reaffirmation that the living are not yet done with the past, and the cycle of oppression and revolution continues because it is the way of our world, and thus the way of our superheroes don’t solve our problems, but who illuminate the battles behind and ahead of us.
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