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If you happened to gasp during Shuri's trip to the Ancestral Plane in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, then congratulations — you helped Michael P. Shawver earn his Marvel Studios paycheck. "It’s the best part of my job, to be honest with you. It might be the best part," the sequel's editor tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom when our discussion turns to the subject of subverting audience expectations.
In particular, he's referring to the surprise cameo from Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, the central antagonist of the first Black Panther. Shortly after the death of her mother, (Letitia Wright) successfully synthesizes a new Heart-Shaped Herb from the piece of jewelry that Namor the Sub-Mariner (Tenoch Huerta) gifted to her.
The Panther-to-be ingests the magical plant and finds herself in a water-logged version of the Wakandan throne room, but not before we see brief flashes of the late Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Based on King T'Challa's own experiences with the Ancestral Plane in the 2018 original where he met with his father, Wakdana Forever viewers likely immediately assumed the princess will be reunited with her mother.
"That was the goal," Shawver says of the blatant misdirect. "But there were are a lot of details put in [to make it work]. Lupita, when she has the Heart-Shaped Herb potion … we’re looking at Shuri and Nakia says ‘Ramonda.’ We put that in the audience's mind. Obviously, that's who Shuri just lost. So that plus that equals the start of the [expectation]."
The camera slowly pans around the throne itself until Killmonger is revealed to be the one sitting in it, a subconscious representation of the princess's unbridled fury, grief, and desire for revenge. "Ryan had always intended that Killmonger’s hair looked like Ramonda's crown in the shot where [Shuri] gets out of the water," Shawver — who worked alongside co-editors Kelley Dixon (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) and Jennifer Lame (Tenet) — explains. "So if you look when she gets out of the water, you can actually see this circular shape, which reminds you of her crown."
"I was in a theater when she’s revealed as the Panther with the suit for the first time," he continues, referring to another one of the movie's big moments. But, that Killmonger scene probably got the most gasping reaction from a crowd."
Killmonger insists that Shuri is more like him than she cares to admit, but the latter rebuffs his claim and, upon waking, lies about who she saw. The idea of taking on the mantle of Wakanda's protector solely for the sake of vengeance comes back around during the final battle with Namor. While impaled on a rock, Shuri remembers what Killmonger told her: "Are you gonna be noble like your brother or take care of business?" It's the perfect motivation to fight through the pain, remove the spear lodged in her midsection, and continue fighting.
Shawver says the flashback inspiration came to him "late one night and I had to get up and do it, because if I died in the next 30 seconds, no one would see this idea ... I did it and was like, ‘This is great! We get to see Killmonger again!’"
However, the cameo almost didn't happen before. "But in that [initial] version of the ending, it didn’t work. We went through all these different iterations and then did the whole 360 and then that came back and it's now in the movie because everything else kind of worked. It's really just about, about being open."
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in theaters.
In the mood for more epic sci-fi? Jordan Peele's Nope is now streaming on Peacock.