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Feb. 5, 2023

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5 ways ‘Wakanda Forever’ redefines superheroes

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“Black Panther” fans were feeling all the feels Friday when Marvel and Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated sequel to the 2018 blockbuster, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” was released in theaters.

As expected the movie starring Angela Bassett as King T’Challa’s mother, Queen Romonda; Letitia Wright as his sister Shuri; and Lupita Nyong’o as his partner, Nakia, is a cinematic wonder. The fight scenes — especially between Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king and protector of underwater civilization Talokan, and Wakanda’s powerful female army, the Dora Milaje — were so thunderous, my teeth rattled with each punch and fall.

The film is replete with M’Baku’s (Winston Duke) foreshadowing quips. The fate of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is revealed. And a series of montages eulogizing Chadwick Boseman’s skill, swag and style were so touching I cried.

“Wakanda Forever’s” strength, however, is in the way it moves the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward by introducing diverse superheroes (and antiheroes) from the comic book and entertainment franchise. Namor, Attuma (Alex Linvalli) and Riri Williams/Ironheart (Dominique Thorne) all make their big screen debuts. “Wakanda Forever” is the final film in the fourth phase of the MCU, the first of the franchise’s Multiverse Saga. These new characters are likely to show up in the fifth phase of MCU projects, which kicks off in February with the release of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and includes Disney+ 2023 series “Ironheart,” starring Thorne.

Marvel has been recentering the experiences of its superheroes on screen for years. “Captain America” was first played by Chris Evans, whose last appearance was in the 2019 film “Avengers: Endgame.” The 2021 Disney+ series “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” introduces a Black man (Anthony Mackie) as the new Captain America. The Black Cap grapples with his role as the protector of a country that considered him three-fifths of a man. Despite her strength and professionalism, She-Hulk (Tatiana Maslany) faces workplace discrimination in the Disney+ series “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.”

Here are five ways “Wakanda Forever” continues to redefine superheroes in real and fictional worlds by honoring the trauma, triumph and resiliency of marginalized people.

Stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.

  • New origin stories

Black Panther: In “Wakanda Forever,” Coogler writes a compelling story that explains how the heart-shape herb responsible for the Black Panther’s power is restored to the Wakandan fields (Killmonger destroyed it in “Black Panther”). We learn who the new Black Panther is and how they gain their powers.

Namor: Rather than become enslaved by Spanish conquistadors, members of a fictional 16th-century Aztec village take a magic potion that gives them the ability to breath underwater. Namor’s mother was among these villagers and she was pregnant with him. As the first child born to this underwater kingdom, he can fly and has superhuman strength. Namor is intent on keeping his world safe from Western superpowers: The colonizers.

Riri Williams/Ironheart: The high-tech flying superhero who will replace Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is 19-year-old Black woman Riri Williams, an MIT student. Williams builds an elaborate machine that can detect vibranium, the world’s most powerful natural resource, outside the fictional African country, Wakanda.

  • America isn’t always the good guy

American superheroes defend our country’s ideals on the big screen without question. In this evolving MCU, not so much. Early in the movie, Queen Ramonda attends a United Nations meeting where it’s clear Western nations including the U.S. are plotting to exploit Wakanda for its vibranium. Ramonda shows a video of the Dora Milaje defending their turf that implicate the French. America is exposed as an ally in France’s duplicitous plans.

Riri Williams’ vibranium sniffing machine angers Namor — Talokan is powered by vibranium, too and Namor is intent on keeping his underwater civilization from being plundered by the West. Williams’ work also piques the interest of the FBI, who are intent on using her to further their own ends. The Wakandans promise to keep Williams safe, even if it involves duping U.S. operatives.

  • STEM fuels Black girl magic

Shuri and Riri Williams are scientific and mathematical geniuses and it’s their intellect that clearly will help power the next phase of the MCU. Shuri is the brains behind the Wakandan gemstone tracking devices, the flying cars and the gizmos that explode when activated and stop armies in midair. I have a feeling Williams will invent suits for Ironheart that Stark never dreamed possible.

  • Women are formidable warriors

Spears in hand, the fictional Dora Milaje — based on the Agojie, the real women warriors who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey through the 19th century — go toe-to-toe with the French and underwater rivals the Talokan. These warrior women, like those featured in other MCU shows such as “She-Hulk,” “Captain Marvel” (Brie Larson) and the new Disney+ miniseries “Hawkeye” (Hailee Steinfeld) — rely on female intuition, wit and compassion, yet they are swift in their attacks that take down their enemies.

  • The ancestors matter

Namor and Black Panther rely on gifts from and sacrifices to their ancestors for their superhuman powers and inner strength. Death is not final in Wakanda. And like many cultures in the African diaspora, mourners wear white signifying the afterlife. Queen Ramonda and Shuri turn to meditation and prayer to mourn T’Challa, referencing the spiritual rituals many enslaved Africans could not maintain. In this latest phase of the MCU, Black superheroes reclaim these practice. Perhaps it will serve as a reminder that rituals and self-care and ritual are important.

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