When Chadwick Boseman died in the late summer of 2020, the shock and sadness among his fans was virtually universal. His battle with cancer had largely been private, and even the people he worked with on his final projects were unaware of his diagnosis. Packed within the outpouring of surprise and grief was an incongruous question: How would the Marvel Cinematic Universe handle his absence?
That ask can have a ghoulish tinge of mercantilism — or at least a reminder of the ghoulishly unstoppable momentum of the Marvel corporate machine — but for many it was asked out of love. His role as King T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther inspired so many, so immediately, and the way he worked to develop that role was integral to the film. It was just as hard to imagine moving forward without him as it was to imagine abandoning the character’s legacy and potential.
That was what the production of Wakanda Forever had to navigate — the question of how to move forward in grief for their friend, colleague, and mentor, while still maintaining the icon he’d brought to life.
But Wakanda Forever doesn’t have a tribute to Boseman’s passing. It simply is a tribute to Boseman’s passing, from its first shot to its last. And in the way director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole navigate his loss, they turn the movie into the first installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that actually succeeds at tackling the subject of trauma.
[Ed. note: This piece contains significant spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.]
Blockbuster Hollywood brands have navigated the waters of cultural grief before, and recently: the Fast and Furious franchise with Paul Walker, Harry Potter with Richard Harris, Star Trek with Anton Yelchin. But the only truly commensurate challenge might be the modern Star Wars trilogy dealing with Carrie Fisher’s death. She wasn’t the face of the franchise, but like Boseman, she was a beloved personality with a singularly iconic role, and she was reportedly intended to be a central pillar of the trilogy’s third installment.
Despite promises to the contrary, Fisher did appear in Rise of Skywalker, through the use of unused footage from The Force Awakens awkwardly stitched into new scenes with different actors, different contexts, and CGI enhancements. Many viewers complained that her role felt more like necromancy than resurrection. Audiences had every reason to be apprehensive about the way Lucasfilm’s sibling, Marvel Studios, might handle a similar situation.
But it’s as if Coogler and the rest of the Wakanda Forever crew realized that if they tried to eulogize Boseman and simply move on, they would diminish both the eulogy and whatever disconnected events made up the rest of the movie. Instead, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s King T’Challa dies with Chadwick Boseman — he dies as Chadwick Boseman.
No one in Wakanda Forever says the word “cancer” out loud, but when T’Challa’s death comes only minutes into the movie, it has every hallmark of the public story of Boseman’s passing. Few of the viewers who go to see Wakanda Forever in its first weekend won’t feel a spark of recognition in the unexpected reveal of a terminal illness, a culture-wide outburst of mourning, and a family — some bound by blood, others by loyalty and love — left wishing they could have done more, could have had more time.
The scene is told through Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, without Boseman’s presence. (In fact, in the entire film, he appears only in short clips taken from previous MCU films, representing memories, not presented as current events.) That may have been a logistical choice, but it’s also an adroit, immediate way of establishing where the Black Panther franchise will turn now that it can’t orient itself around T’Challa: to his younger sister Shuri.
Shuri is not alone in grieving his death. All Wakanda mourns. The Dora Milaje mourn. Bassett’s turn as a leader steadfast in the face of her husband’s and son’s deaths is electrifying. Even the film’s antagonist, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), grieves in Wakanda Forever, inheriting his mother’s heartache over a culture destroyed by an aggressor. The true difference between Wakanda and Namor’s home city of Talokan, Coogler told Polygon via Zoom, is that Talokan was born in loss.
“The Wakandans never had to leave,” the director and co-writer said. “They don’t know what that’s like. Namor’s character looks at them through that lens. There’s envy there, but also, he feels that the Talokanil have a better understanding of how evil the rest of the world is, and how destructive it can be, because of what it forced upon them and what they had to give up.”
But Shuri’s grief — lingering, compartmentalized, and compounded by further events — forms the backbone of the movie. It’s the foundation that allows Wakanda Forever to straddle the line between superheroes in supersuits slugging each other with fists and a meditation on actual human loss, without tumbling down.
The MCU has been trying to talk about superhero trauma in one way or another since as far back as 2013’s Iron Man 3. Beginning in Phase 4, the setting has fairly exploded with trauma takes, especially in the Disney Plus shows, as creators look for ways to fill their longer run times with characters previously restricted to secondary roles, in stories that favored world-shaking stakes over emotional closure.
In WandaVision, the Scarlet Witch magically enslaved an entire town into playing out her denial. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we saw Bucky in a series of increasingly unprofessional therapy sessions, mandated by a court as penance for crimes he’d had no agency in committing. Moon Knight attempted to tackle punch-fights, Egyptian cosmology, Jewish heritage, and dissociative identity disorder simultaneously, and each suffered from the juxtaposition.
What all these stories have in common is a view of trauma-motivated behavior that puts emphasis on how it affects the people around the traumatized person, not about how it’s tearing the actual victim apart on the inside. Very few of these stories feel as though they’re coming from a place the creators have have been themselves — only, perhaps, what they’ve observed when interacting with a friend or loved one whose mental health is at an all-time low.
But even if you have no idea that Chadwick Boseman’s secret four-year battle against colon cancer shocked not only the world, but many of his closest colleagues, Wakanda Forever makes it obvious that its story and its performances come from people who are, if you’ll pardon the phrase, going through it.
When Shuri tells her mother that whenever she thinks about her late brother, it just makes her want to burn the world down, I immediately recalled a moment when I felt the same way. In the year after my mother died after her own unforeseen, all-too-short battle with colon cancer, I saw a stranger on the street who looked a little bit like her, but a decade older, and was instantly filled with a conflagration of rage.
It wasn’t rational, and it wasn’t something anyone other than my therapist would ever have to contend with, much less a town of innocent people, a military court, or a moon god. It was simply a grief-stricken shout about the stochasticity of death: How dare that woman get to grow old when my mother never will?
“Loss is an interesting thing,” Coogler said in our conversation, “because it’s not something that ever goes away. It’s profound that way, because we’re so used to things on the body, or in the physical, healing. If you get cut, you get shot, you get stabbed, the wound can heal sometimes. But those emotional wounds that weren’t healing — I don’t even know if that’s the proper term. [laughs] Because it implies that it’s possible; often it isn’t. It’s something that you’ve got to learn to live with, more than anything.”
Wakanda Forever doesn’t end when Shuri decides not to throw her people into a potentially endless existential war for the sake of grief-motivated revenge. It doesn’t end when her grief ceases to be a danger to those around her. The screen doesn’t go dark until she finally sits down to acknowledge that her losses belong to her, not the other way around — when her grief ceases to make her a danger to herself.
Coogler and his team handle Chadwick Boseman’s death by turning Wakanda Forever into a beautiful eulogy. And they handle Shuri’s ascension to the role he embodied by modeling how everyone else can find their own peace after a loss, even if they do it in their own ways, and on their own time.