[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]
Early on in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Angela Bassett’s Ramonda reminisces about how she came to terms with the sudden death of her son, King T’Challa. In her moment of greatest despair, she says, she felt a presence that guided her to a quiet riverbank. There, surrounded by the splendor of nature, she found peace, at ease with the knowledge that her boy was not truly gone—a part of him would always walk beside her. Her more practical daughter, Shuri, disagrees with this assessment, however, insisting that the experience was simply a grief-induced "projection."
I admire this agnostic approach to the franchise’s mythology—particularly how it forces the viewer to reevaluate the first film’s spiritual subtext. Is the Ancestral Plane a literal afterlife, wherein the Black Panther can interact with the souls of his predecessors? Or is it actually an elaborate mind palace, and the “phantoms” that inhabit it merely reflections of each visitor's own psyche and conscience?
Coogler confronts this ambiguity head on during the movie’s most dramatic turning point. Reeling from the fresh trauma of her mother’s murder, Shuri abandons rationality and scientific skepticism, ingesting a synthetic facsimile of her homeland’s sacred herb and performing a ritual that should—according to legend—allow her to communicate with the ghosts of her forebears. But her hopes of reuniting with T’Challa or Ramonda are immediately shattered when she encounters the specter her treacherous cousin, N’Jadaka (a.k.a. Killmonger), who encourages her to channel her impotent rage into bloody action. Instead of negotiating a peaceful resolution to the hostilities between Wakanda and Talokan, he argues, she must retaliate against the aquatic empire by assassinating its ruler, Namor—even at the risk of escalating the conflict. After all, “getting the job done” occasionally requires setting the world ablaze.
Considering the young heiress’ anguish over the recent tragedies in her life, is it any wonder that the apparition offers such ruthless counsel?
Fortunately, when the moment of truth arrives and Shuri has her enemy at her mercy, she decides to follow her brother’s example, rather than seeking misguided retribution for his demise. As T’Challa spared Zemo at the end of Captain America: Civil War, so too does his sister and successor choose to forego vengeance, acknowledging that a truce between Wakanda and Talokan will ultimately benefit both nations.
This cathartic climax is the loveliest callback in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not the shallow fan service or sequel bait that the Disney machine has trained its audience to expect; on the contrary, it is a compelling narrative parallel (what George Lucas might call a “poetic rhyme”) that enriches the underlying themes of the story being told.