This article contains Black Panther: Wakanda Forever spoilers.
The Ancestral Plane is a personal thing for each person who accesses it. This truth was made explicitly clear in the original Black Panther movie. During that 2018 landmark superhero epic, the metaphysical space is revealed as a destination reserved for members of the Wakandan royal family. New arrivals to the afterlife (or simply visitors stopping briefly by, thanks to the Heart-Shaped Herb) see a uniquely individual paradise that best suits the events and memories from their own lives.
For Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, that came in the form of a psychedelic savannah wherein his father was waiting. For his wrathful cousin it was in the Oakland apartment from his childhood where he knew his father for a short time.
So when Letitia Wright’s Shuri arrives at her own version of the Ancestral Plane in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, viewers’ excitement and anxiety is piqued. When she utilizes an artificial Heart-Shaped Herb, where will the next plane of existence take her? And who will be waiting for her? I think most audience members, including myself, were anticipating one final bow for Angela Bassett as the regal Queen Ramonda. I also had a moment of anxiety that they’d do something vaguely tasteless and use digital technology to insert the late Boseman into her vision. (Disney has done it before as seen with Carrie Fisher’s “appearance” in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.)
Thankfully, it was something else altogether. As Shuri arrives in a purple encrusted version of the Wakandan throne room, a space where she saw her brother ascend to the role of leader of Wakanda (and where her mother died), most of us thought we’d get that tearful farewell to Ramonda. As Shuri approaches the throne, she even sees long hair from over the back of the chair, suggesting her mother has returned to her.
… And yet, it turned out to be Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the wayward cousin who briefly visited the Ancestral Plane before joining it permanently.
On a certain level, it’s the typical Marvel Studios cameo in which an old familiar face returns to take a brief bow and likely receive a round of applause from audiences. On the other hand, it works at something much more poignant and provocative that writer-director Ryan Coogler is going for in Wakanda Forever.
Shuri is of course horrified and outraged to see the man who attempted to murder her brother as the spirit that greets her on the other side. Worse still, she has good reason to blame Killmonger for the death of T’Challa. If Erik had not burned all the organic Heart-Shaped Herbs after his own afterlife rendezvous, Shuri would’ve had the resources to save T’Challa’s life (in the MCU, anyway).
Killmonger stole T’Challa’s throne and murdered her brother, and even after they were able to bring T’Challa back, Killmonger’s actions indirectly allowed the previous Black Panther to die again. Why should he be allowed to greet her now?
Killmonger doesn’t defend his actions; he merely points to the reasons he’s here: Erik represents everything T’Challa chose not to be, and everything that Shuri could yet become. T’Challa had a naturally diplomatic disposition; he sought to build bridges between the outside world and Wakanda, and when he had the opportunity to execute the man who murdered his father, he chose justice instead of vengeance by allowing Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to stand trial. Given how Marvel Studios has rather glibly returned to Brühl’s admittedly entertaining performance in Disney+ shows and upcoming movies since then, preventing the character from facing true consequences for his evil deeds, perhaps Killmonger has a point.
Shuri isn’t her brother, and thus Killmonger has come to be a devil on her shoulder. And yet, he’s also a convincing Spirit of Absolutism. Incremental change is hard, excruciatingly slow, and rarely ever permanently won. Killmonger was thus never about building bridges—he sought instead to burn his adversaries’ roads and infrastructure until they were completely isolated and subdued.
Shuri has every reason to feel the same way after the death of Ramonda. Yes, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) killed one of the guards that Namor (Tenoch Huerta) assigned to imprison the princess in the kingdom beneath the waves. But this was after Namor’s men already acted in aggression against Wakanda and attempted to kill Okoye (Danai Gurira), and later threatened Ramonda with the idea that Shuri was a hostage.
In other words, it was a single tragic death brought about by Namor’s own violent notions of realpolitik negotiations. His response to that death? Murdering dozens (maybe hundreds?) of innocent Wakandan civilians and intentionally assassinating Queen Ramonda, Shuri’s mother. The glorified merman then threatens existential genocide against Shuri’s people unless they submit to his conquest. A bit ironic for a man with justly dim views on colonization.
On a personal level, Shuri has every justification for wishing to see the light fade out of Namor’s eyes. And Killmonger appears to her because she “called him.” Subconsciously, she needed an ancestor she knew who could inspire her thirst for revenge.
It’s a brutal and effective reason to bring Jordan back. The appeal of the Killmonger character is he always had a point. His motivations and ideals were extreme, but arguably justified. It was just the means in which he wished to go about achieving those ends that made him a villain. He would have condemned much of the world to sectarian warfare to finally reverse the insidious and lingering legacy of the African diaspora.
And he is now pushing Shuri to a justifiable end: an eye for an eye revenge for the murder of Wakanda’s queen (and Shuri’s mother). Of course as M’Baku (Winston Duke) later points out, such revenge would leave them all blind and incite a generational war between two advanced societies built around Vibranium technology. Killmonger never cared about the bloodiest details though, and his return allows Shuri to not as well.
It’s a meaty reprisal for Jordan and proves once again that the Black Panther movies are a cut above the rest of the MCU.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in theaters.