This post contains MAJOR spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Shuri needed an ancestor.
In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the princess of Wakanda (Letitia Wright) finds herself completely bereft of family after the death of her brother T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman) and her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). The death of T’Challa happens at the start of the film—a tragic, elegant response to the real-life death of Boseman, who passed in 2020 after a long, private battle with colon cancer. But then, halfway through the film, the queen is killed by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a shocking twist that sees Shuri’s grief become compounded with a bloodthirsty need to become the next Black Panther to exact her revenge. She finds a way to recreate the heart-shaped herb, then drinks it and wades onto the ancestral plane, where she hopes to find her mother or brother. But she doesn’t.
Instead, she finds Erik Killmonger, her righteously sadistic cousin, played by Michael B. Jordan.
In the ancestral plane, which looks like the royal hall in Shuri’s vision, Killmonger sits on the throne that the queen once inhabited, wearing all-white garments and a smug expression on his face. It’s a major twist; Killmonger dies at the end of the first Black Panther, felled by T’Challa. But is his presence in the ancestral plane all that surprising? Well, not really.
Shuri is, after all, on the verge of going to war with Namor. Vengeance has consumed her heart (a callback to T’Challa’s dilemma in Captain America: Civil War), and all she really wants is guidance on how to act on her bloodlust, from someone who will encourage her to keep moving toward the dark. Grief has made her graceless, and even though she’s horrified to see Killmonger sitting on the throne, she listens to him monologue about the importance of striking back against Namor and making sure her mother didn’t die in vain. After all, he notes, Ramonda died while protecting Riri (Dominique Thorne), a daughter of the “lost tribe.” The violent nature of her death deserves a violent response.
Shuri is swayed by Killmonger’s case, powered by a snarling, gleeful performance by Jordan, who’s enjoying every second of his return as the anti-hero. Compared to the grounded, heartbreaking scenes that came before it—Ramonda and Okoye’s furious, tear-laden fight; Shuri’s discovery of her mother’s death—Killmonger’s return is a touch camp. But once he dispenses with his sardonic greeting and starts making his case to Shuri, things get deadly serious again. For all his violent faults, Killmonger was a deliciously complicated antagonist in the first Black Panther, a militant young man who wanted Wakanda to share its plentiful resources with Black people across the diaspora. However, his plan to enable global uprisings are untenable, leading to a fatal fight between himself and T’Challa in the film’s final moments.
Fans have wondered for months if Killmonger was going to return in some way to the Black Panther universe. There was one theory that after he requested to be buried at sea, his body was recovered by the people of Talokan, the Atlanteans who live underwater and are ruled by Namor, the key antagonist of Wakanda Forever. There were also, of course, variations on the theory that he would return in the ancestral plane, since it’s the one liminal space where the dead can float in and out with narrative dexterity. It’s the latter theory that rises to the fore—confirming that, yes, Killmonger really died. But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.
Considering the tragic loss of Boseman, Killmonger’s return is a welcome tether to the first film, a reminder of Boseman’s reign and everything his character fought for. It’s also the continuation of a cinematic tradition: it’s not a Ryan Coogler movie without Jordan, who has starred in all of the director’s projects, from Fruitvale Station to Creed and, now, both Black Panthers. Killmonger’s return, however brief, was a fitting scene, an embodiment of the close bonds created by Black Panther, on and offscreen.