Grief has come to the MCU in a profound, unchangeable way with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Sure, past movies have shown our heroes dying in noble moments of self-sacrifice or being snapped into dust by a merciless god. But the death of Black Panther‘s leading man Chadwick Boseman means audiences will experience a deeper level of loss with this much-anticipated sequel. And co-writer/director Ryan Coogler does not run from it. While the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe epic boasts bold action sequences, globe-trekking adventure, and heroes and villains with fantastical superpowers, it is moored by mourning. And this might make Black Panther: Wakanda Forever the superhero movie for this moment.
Th past three years has brought profound loss to our modern world, largely because of an insidious illness. It seems no coincidence that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole use an unnamed illness to kill T’Challa in Wakanda Forever’s cold open. His death occurs offscreen with little explanation, reminiscent of the abrupt death of Boseman, who died of a cancer he’d kept private. We witness T’Challa’s sister Princess Shuri (Leticia Wright) and his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) react to the news with agonized tears. The opening Marvel logo credits play, but instead of a montage of Avengers and their superpowered colleagues, this time all the images are of Boseman in action, playing not over a thrilling orchestration, but the rush of wind.
In one sense, it feels wrong that a force like T’Challa, the Black Panther, could just be gone this way, so abrupt and so final. But because it reflects our cold reality, it feels infuriating and fitting. The plot of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is eerily meta, in that it asks how you carry on when the center of your orbit is gone forever. There’s bigger, more action-packed plotting at play in this sequel. But its core throbs with the conflict between Shuri and her mother, whose grief and beliefs are in radiant contrast, and how it could determine Wakanda’s next chapter.
Through their mother-daughter battles — born of love and broken hearts — Coogler poses questions that hit hard. What to we owe to those we’ve lost? Is their legacy our responsibility? Or are we responsible for our own legacies? Might their memory bolster us or blind us to what our futures could be without them? With the King dead, it’s up to the women who loved and led alongside him to determine the future of Wakanda and the future of the Black Panther. Along the way, they will not only battle the rage that comes with grief but also a dangerous enemy from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever introduces a fascinating new villain with Namor.
Considering how critics and audiences fell hard for Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther, Tenoch Huerta has big shoes to fill as Wakanda Forever‘s Big Bad, Namor. Born from a Yucatec-Mayan civilization fleeing the ravages of European colonization, he is a self-identified mutant, who can breathe underwater, fly above land, and deliver a punch that’s compared to the Hulk’s. And he’s got a bone to pick with Wakanda.
Credit: Marvel Studios
Coogler plunges audiences into an aquatic utopia, untouched by conquest and peopled by blue-skinned warriors, who can breathe sea water, and use orcas and whales as their personal conveyances. Between this underwater wonderland and Wakanda, Coogler offers audiences an enthralling environment to escape to, brought to vivid life with a collision of sci-fi and cultural dress, the latter masterfully made by Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter. But the biggest thrills undoubtedly come from watching these mythical nations face off, the women warriors of the Dora Milaje crossing spears with gilled assassins whose battle gear resembles deadly marine life. They’ll battle on land, on sea, and in the air. While many night scenes might leave you squinting to catch every blow of hand-to-hand combat, the big finale is thankfully in broad daylight, allowing every character their proper spotlight and every new super suit some savoring close-ups.
The action ranges from car chases to daring escapes, 3-on-1 brawls, and sprawling battles, punctuated by water grenades that essentially cause tidal waves. But all of this would be shallow spectacle if not for Huerta, who grounds Namor’s journey with a low-growling confidence and an unflappable regality. Few men could so confidently swagger in green hotpants with CGI wings fluttering at his heels. But Huerta makes this grandiose design feel as natural as breathing. Beyond that, he proves a solid scene partner to Wright, laying out his provocative plot as Killmonger did for T’Challa, creating a chaotic chemistry that might have you wondering who you’re rooting for…and if you’re shipping Shumor.
The loss of Chadwick Boseman means a major shift for Leticia Wright.
Attempting to fill the void left by Boseman, Wright must get serious, furrowing her brow to discuss matters of state, family legacy, and emotional growth. She handles this shift well, bringing a maturity to the pesky little sister without entirely losing her bear-poking edge. Danai Gurira’s Okoye bears the brunt of her pestering now, which gives the kick-ass action star a chance to play more with comedy this time around, while Winston Duke returns with a big grin and bigger energy to the role of M’Baku. As for Lupita Nyong’o, without T’Challa as her lover, her part has become a puzzle piece connecting plot lines — but she’s nonetheless dazzling in this service role. Meanwhile, Bassett is a queen through and through, delivering Ramonda’s every pronouncement with such bone-deep assuredness that it’s absolutely exhilarating.
For her part, Wright has surrendered the role of wisecracking sidekick to new-to-the-MCU Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a tech prodigy whose inventions get the wrong kind of attention. Setting up another MCU series, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever gives us a crash course in this kid genius, painting her as a working class survivor, who’s hustling her college classmates with homework help…when she’s not creating world-changing tech in a garage. If you already know Riri’s deal, I’ll assure you this sequel makes room for some spectacle aimed directly at her fans. If she’s new to you, don’t Google — just enjoy the ride. Though Thorne is walking into a celebrated cast that boasts some of Hollywood’s top talent, she holds her own as the street smart and booksmart DIY superhero. And I frankly can’t wait to see more of her.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever tries to fill the hole left by Boseman with a lot. Like, a lot.
From his first appearance in the MCU, Baseman brought a grandeur and gravitas that might be impossible to match (or recast.) So, rather than go that route, Coogler and his company give audiences more of what else they loved from Black Panther: more jaw-dropping hand-to-hand combat, more wondrous women warriors kicking ass, more glimpses of the miraculous Wakanda, more fierce fashion, more star power, more Black superheroes with undeniable charm.
Credit: Marvel Studios
But amid all this more, the plot gets a bit convoluted, and at times even baffling. If you take a moment to step back from the moving music, beautiful people, and onslaughts of stupendous stunts, you might notice that Namor’s initial plan — which causes beef with the whole of Wakanda — doesn’t actually make much sense. Without spoiling the detail, he’s trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and no one — not even the two world-class geniuses this movie boasts — points that out. But perhaps all the fun and emotion the sequel offers is enough to overlook its logistical faults?
Though there’s some plot messiness in the mix, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever undeniably delivers in terms of action, star power, and superhero spectacle. But what hit me hardest is its exploration of grief, an emotion that is transformative, clumsy, ugly, and cruel.
Here, all of Wakanda grieves for T’Challa, but the experience is different for those who grieve a son, a brother, a lover, a friend. Amid all the boom boom splash, Coogler gives space for Black Panther fans to feel the loss of Boseman in the sacred communal space of the theater. Here, where the larger-than-life heroes onscreen cry, remember, and rage over their loss, we are invited to feel it with them — and not just the loss of Boseman, but the loss of anyone whose absence rocked your whole world. Through Shuri, Okoye, Ramonda, and Nakia, Coogler gives us several surrogates for our own stages of grief, essentially welcoming in all those who mourn, no matter how they mourn. By the end of the movie, you won’t be healed. But maybe your journey will be a few steps along, aided by the catharsis of a good cry.