Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was a billion-dollar blockbuster, a Best Picture nominee, and a genuine cultural phenomenon, even beyond its place in the colossal Marvel mega-franchise. The 2018 superhero adventure won over audiences and critics with its striking Afro-futurist aesthetic, thoughtful social commentary, and engaging performances, led by 40-year-old actor Chadwick Boseman. Three years later, the entertainment world was shocked by the news that Boseman had succumbed to a long, secret battle with colon cancer. His loss made unprecedented waves on social media, and his family’s tribute announcing his passing remains the most-liked post in the history of Twitter. With a Black Panther sequel already in the works at Marvel Studios, Coogler and producer Kevin Feige elected not to recast the role, and instead fold Boseman’s death and its impact on the cast and crew into the narrative. Consequently, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a film about loss and mourning, but also a whole lot more. Though as long, noisy, and cluttered as any other superhero blockbuster, Wakanda Forever is a sincere and effective genre-mashing drama, and one of the better installments in the Marvel oeuvre.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Wakanda Forever is burdened with a long checklist of narrative and thematic objectives. First and foremost, Coogler and company are forced to address the loss of their lead character in a manner that respects the much more significant loss of their real-life friend and collaborator. Appropriately, Wakanda Forever opens with the off-screen death of King T’Challa from an unnamed disease that has caught his loved ones off-guard. Throughout the film, their differing processes of grief are touching and sincere without ever veering into treacly or exploitative, and the film is extremely selective about the use of Boseman’s likeness. What might be most remarkable about the handling of Boseman’s absence in Wakanda Forever (and I mean this in the most complimentary way) is that it never feels like he is missing from the film. Instead of having one performer take Boseman’s place as the lead of the sequel, everyone steps up. Wakanda Forever isn’t missing a Black Panther; the rest of the ensemble grows closer together such that there is no vacuum left to fill.
Of course, the film is still called Black Panther, so its story also needs to elevate a member of the first movie’s ensemble to the title role. In line to inherit the mantle is his sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), a genius scientist who blames herself for failing to cure T’Challa’s illness. Unlike her mother and brother, Shuri is not a spiritual person and does not believe in an afterlife. In the opening scene, as she works desperately to recreate the extinct herb that will restore her brother’s strength, she prays to Bast for success, pledging in return never to doubt her existence again. Shuri fails, and her doubt deepens, not only in Bast but in herself. The film’s action and political conflict become an avenue through which to explore that doubt, as well as her rage and despair over her terrible loss. Shuri may have the most complicated emotional journey of any lead character in a Marvel film and Letitia Wright is game for the challenge. Truthfully, though, this is an ensemble movie, and Wright is somewhat outshone by the dry wit and badassery of Danai Gurira’s General Okoye and by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, who gives the film’s big Oscar-baiting monologue.
The first Black Panther had a dash of James Bond in its DNA, and though Wakanda Forever doesn’t have quite as much swagger, it does mirror its structure of using slick spy-fi action as a precursor to an all-out war movie. The sequel doubles down on the political intrigue, exploring the consequences of a small nation in Africa ascending to the status of global superpower in the 21st century. Following T’Challa’s death, Ramonda takes the throne and attempts to keep Wakanda’s political rivals in check, including the United States. With the Black Panther gone, it’s up to T’Challa’s grieving family and friends to keep the aggressive global North from acquiring the key to Wakanda’s prosperity, an extraterrestrial metal called vibranium that can be found only within their borders. Or at least, that’s what they’ve always believed. The US military’s hunt for new vibranium sources disturbs a second secret nation, Talokan, the underwater kingdom of the mutant merman Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). Under the threat of war, the Wakandan royal family is forced to seek out and capture a young American scientist whose vibranium-detecting invention threatens to expose Talokan’s existence to the world.
The runaway success of the first Black Panther allows Wakanda Forever the confidence to casually indulge in what might have previously been considered risky decisions. The movie’s ensemble is predominantly female, and for once Marvel hasn’t tried to make a big deal about it on the press tour. Martin Freeman reprises his role as CIA Agent Everett Ross, but this time the token white guy is not on the poster and the US government is more openly (and realistically) antagonistic. Characters switch between languages frequently, even in mid-sentence, and a surprising amount of the dialogue is subtitled. Some of its musings about faith vs. science and innovation vs. tradition get buried under mountains of plot, but there’s plenty of food for thought to be found here.
The story moves at an even clip, but even so, Wakanda Forever runs an intimidating 161 minutes (or 1 Avatar). Much of the movie’s length is justified, as each plot development represents a new step in Shuri’s grieving process. On the other hand, some of the movie’s bloat is a symptom of its role in the larger Marvel machine. The first Black Panther got to function mostly on its own, but now that Black Panther is one of the pillars of the Marvel Universe, the sequel has been saddled with promoting upcoming studio ventures (most notably the Disney+ series Ironheart) on top of telling its own story. It’s not as glaring a problem here as it is in Iron Man 2 (and Wakanda Forever is a much better movie overall), but the extra appendages are just as noticeable. Like the first Black Panther, Wakanda Forever’s third act is its weakest, devolving into a big messy slugfest as Marvel films tend to do, and though the visual effects themselves are more fully baked than last time around, there’s a jarring plasticity to some of the characters and costumes on a design level. More than once, I was snapped out of the intimacy of the story by the sudden arrival of a blue CGI mer-person, which can only mean that the more grounded and fantastical elements of the movie are occasionally at odds.
However, as overgrown as it is, Wakanda Forever has strong enough bones to hold itself together. At its heart, it feels like a film made with a sense of purpose, a desire to honor a lost friend but not to do only that. One can easily imagine a version of this film that is a two-hour eulogy, not just for Chadwick Boseman but for the film that Ryan Coogler had intended to make with him. Instead, it’s both an affirmation of his legacy and an assurance that, though it might be difficult, life will go on without him.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.