Just days after its much-anticipated debut, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is poised to continue Marvel Studios’ box-office dominance. But the new movie might also signal a major evolutionary shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s geopolitical world-building.
An inescapable aura of grief distinguishes director Ryan Coogler’s latest work from other MCU movies. The tragic absence of Chadwick Boseman — who passed away two years ago after a long battle with cancer — informs the execution of Wakanda Forever, and the stages of denial, sadness, and memorialization all come to life in ascendantly beautiful ways in the Black Panther sequel. Yet the spectrum of mourning sits right next to another collective grief, one that runs through generations.
Societies that have suffered through colonialism know a different kind of loss. The haunting echoes of ancestors who weren’t able to live their lives to the fullest. The struggle to hold onto foundational parts of a cultural history. The debilitating paranoia when a whole culture has to look over its shoulder, wondering when and how the colonizers will come. These feelings also move through Wakanda Forever and power the conflict between the film’s two main geopolitical factions.
I’ve always made the case that the Black Panther mythos are anticolonialist superhero folklore. Wakanda often gets called “the Unconquered Realm” in Marvel’s comics, and that nickname highlights one of the most important parts of the Black Panther narrative: the fact that the character’s native land was never colonized. By remaining hidden and repelling would-be invaders, the fictional nation grew in a way that allowed it to control its natural resources and internal development. The character’s publishing history teems with stories that invoke, intentionally or not, Black peoples’ resistance to marginalization and disenfranchisement. “Flags of Our Fathers”, “See Wakanda and Die”, “The Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda”, and other storylines all respectively reference historical moments like segregation in America’s armed forces, Ethiopia’s decades-long struggle against Italian aggression, and the Haitian Revolution.
That last piece of history is extremely important to Wakanda Forever’s conceptual recipe. In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first free Black republic after decades of war against French colonizers. But freedom didn’t stop the assault on Haiti’s people. For decades, Haiti paid billions in “reparations” to France after their former oppressor left the island nation. A few of Wakanda Forever’s pivotal scenes take place in Haiti, and [spoiler alert] its mid-credits scene reveals that the next heir to the Wakandan throne is being hidden on the island. This move embeds the anticolonialist subtext of the Black Panther mythos into its onscreen iteration. Wakanda represents an Afro-future that the global hegemony is afraid of: people who otherwise would have been slaves — with all the institutionalized deprivations that follow — finding the strength and agency to chart their own destinies.
Wakanda Forever also introduces a new fictional nation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one with a similar connection to the history of colonialism. In the movie, Talokan is the birthplace of amphibious mutant Namor, the near-immortal ruler who is the Wakandan heroes’ primary antagonist in the sequel. Namor stands as one of Marvel’s oldest characters, an antihero from the underwater realm of Atlantis. He debuted in 1939 with stories that pit him against the surface world and and his earliest adventure — written and drawn by comics legend Bill Everett — referenced his “crusade against white men.” Namor’s long, ongoing beef with air-breathers has centered on underwater bomb tests, unrelenting pollution, and all the other ways they abuse the Earth’s oceans.
The MCU version of Namor’s homeland was birthed by people escaping the encroachment of Spanish conquistadors. In the 16th Century, the first Talokans ingested a mutated plant that let them breathe underwater and established an offshoot of the Aztec and Mayan societies that the Spaniards were wiping out on the surface. If Wakanda symbolizes a what-if alternate history of uninterrupted Black progress, Talokan embodies the resilience of indigenous peoples who are stubbornly resisting erasure. When Wakanda and Talokan meet in this new MCU blockbutster, it’s the clash of a people who were never colonized and a people who will never submit to colonization again. That clash — and the tentative alliance that comes at the end of Wakanda Forever — represents the biggest geopolitical moment in the MCU’s fiction.
So far, the various international government programs to develop super-soldier supremacy have all competed with each other; in Black Widow, it’s implied that Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America prompted Russia to create their own patriotic adventurer with Red Guardian. Superheroes, in other words, are the new nukes. It’s an old comics trope that is making its way onscreen. But the Wakanda/Talokan alliance looks to be the first time two world powers (and their superpowered representatives) would work together.
Previous MCU projects like Captain America: Civil War and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have looked at how the emergence of superhumans, and meta-materials like Vibranium and the Super-Soldier Serum, could impact the balance of power across the globe. In Wakanda Forever, the fears of established world powers are given voice in the movie’s first act. When Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) attends a United Nations meeting in Geneva, diplomats from the United States and France express concern about the level of information they can access with regard to Wakanda’s military and technological capabilities. Ramonda delivers a damning rebuke to their hypocrisy by trotting out a crew of French mercenaries who attempted to breach one of her country’s research facilities. Despite that rebuke, this kind of brinksmanship can only escalate in the future.
Some of what we know about upcoming Marvel movies and shows hints that geopolitics will continue to be a going concern for the MCU. The next Captain America film will have “New World Order” as a subtitle, and is allegedly supposed to introduce the Israeli superheroine Sabra to the world stage. Another movie is being developed around the Thunderbolts, a team of enhanced agents who engage in deniable military operations. The MCU Thunderbolts roster looks to include the Winter Soldier, Red Guardian, Ghost, and Black Widow inheritor Yelena Belova, all morally conflicted characters who’ve done corporate or international espionage. Looking at both real-world history and the fictional saga of the MCU, more black-ops attempts to acquire Vibranium will almost certainly happen.
And the new Panther/Feathered Serpent alliance means that foreign powers looking to get the extraterrestrial metal won’t just be facing Wakanda alone. They’ll possibly be facing off against Talokan’s underwater warriors as well. The international relations with Wakanda and Talokan might mean that different governments will team up against them, setting the stage for characters like Captain Britain or the Canadian tech-hero Guardian to make their debut. The world leaders in the MCU who don’t already have super-people and superweapons in development know they’re at risk of getting left behind. Moreover, the nations that can readily bring those assets into play are Black and brown nations, which is very different than how it looks in the real world.
It’s a heady thing to imagine. Black and brown nations don’t get portrayed as being this powerful and their lack of power is, more often than not, linked to colonization. Growing up as the child of Haitian immigrants, I always heard about the financial, emotional, and psychological cost that Haiti continued to pay for daring to throw off the yoke of colonization. (If you’ve never met anybody Haitian, the first thing you should know is that we’re an exceptionally proud people.) With the release of this new Black Panther movie, Wakanda and Talokan represent alternate realities where oppressed peoples no longer have to keep paying the cost of racist colonialist oppression.
More bracingly, the two nations present the threat of revenge for crimes of the past. For right now, the most powerful countries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are rooted in cultures that have been othered and marginalized. And their superhero leaders stand ready to smack down any nation who might try to interfere in their affairs.