Black Panther: Wakanda Forever passes the torch while processing unimaginable loss

(from left) Danai Gurira as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
(from left) Danai Gurira as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Who could possibly replace Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther? This is the question, both in real life and on film, that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever attempts to answer, with varying degrees of success. A meditation on grief that aspires to exercise as many emotional and intellectual muscles as the physical ones that ripple across its superheroes, Ryan Coogler’s follow-up to the ground-breaking blockbuster Black Panther is overlong and overstuffed, precisely in the way a thoughtful filmmaker leverages his earlier success for extra creative leeway—for good and ill. Yet without a proxy, or heir, to both the character’s authority and the actor’s charisma at the center of its story, Wakanda Forever cannot help but fall short of its predecessor, no matter how insurmountable a challenge that already might have been, even without an unimaginable loss at its center.

In the wake of the unexpected death of T’Challa (the late Boseman), the nation of Wakanda goes into collective mourning. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) once again commands the throne, navigating both requests from world powers to share her country’s advancements and the grief of her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright), who throws herself into her inventions after failing to save her brother. But when a U.S. oceanic outpost is destroyed during an expedition to mine Vibranium, the core element of Wakandan technology, everyone in the world assumes Ramonda’s regime is responsible—including Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the king of the underwater civilization of Talokan, who is determined to protect his realm at all costs.

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Brokering a temporary truce with the Talokans, Shuri volunteers to find the scientist who engineered the mining device that threatened Namor’s kingdom. She and Okoye (Danai Gurira) identify Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne)—a brilliant MIT student who did not know who she was selling her technology to, or for what purpose—and bring her back to Wakanda for protection. But when Namor is not satisfied by Ramonda’s promises to stop Williams from developing future devices that will help the rest of the world acquire Vibranium, he announces plans to wage war against Wakanda as a prelude to taking over the entire planet with his massive underwater armies.

Without knowing for certain, it seems possible that the Namor/Talokan story in Wakanda Forever unfolds exactly the way it would have without Boseman’s tragic and untimely passing—and may explain why the film is understandably, if unnecessarily, long. Although a bit of cognitive dissonance is required to process the very real death of the first film’s lead actor in a world where characters come back to life with an ease that feels especially cavalier, Coogler treats Boseman’s absence with extreme sensitivity and reverence, using his characters’ sadness to help viewers, and one imagines the filmmakers, work through their own. A funereal tone hangs over every scene, and gives the motivations of its new villain added dimensions as he and the Wakandans engage in uncommonly complex—and thrillingly unresolved—discussions about military might, cultural sovereignty, and the balance between justice and vengeance.

Unfortunately, whether as a matter of the writing or the performances, there’s no one on-screen capable of taking over for Boseman as the franchise’s main character, and Coogler’s follow-up feels his absence all too acutely. Wright, Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and especially Angela Bassett are all incredible on screen, but they are each occupied with the duties of a supporting character; mind you, it would be a thrill to watch two hours of Bassett as Ramonda marching fiercely into the halls of international diplomacy to dress down various world leaders, but suffice it to say that in a movie about a costumed superhero, even her natural authority and elegance might prove a bit action-deficient.

As a result, the thankless responsibility falls to Huerta to portray the kind of leader who would typically anchor a film like this, and though he gives an indisputably star-making turn, it still feels like a villain—even one as well-reasoned as him—shouldn’t be the most important, or interesting, character in this hero’s tale. Meanwhile, Riri Williams functions more as a plot device than a real character, the only inclusion here that seems to more actively serve the larger MCU than the film in which she’s appearing, and Dominique Thorne doesn’t quite distinguish herself well enough to care about her character in a film already overloaded with emotional touchpoints.


Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever | Official Trailer

Then again, it’s a testament to Coogler’s skill as a storyteller that he’s getting better and better at making viewers experience complicated and contradictory feelings in stories that for better or worse are too frequently known for empty crowd-pleasing. There’s a battle in the film where the people we are “supposed” to care about are winning, and he rightfully makes it feel kind of wrong, and that’s just one example of his masterful navigation of tone and theme. After profound tragedy, what does revenge accomplish, Coogler asks while pointing at all who shroud their power in moral righteousness. It’s not an unfamiliar question for fantasy stories, but in the literal wake of a death that cannot be rewound, un-snapped, or otherwise retconned, its answer feels more important than ever.

In which case, Wakanda Forever doubles down beautifully on the first film’s celebration and showcase of marginalized cultures, first by expanding its depiction of the late T’Challa’s eponymous country, and then by adding Namor’s native Talokan in all of its magic and beauty. The new film delivers on action that’s as intense—if perhaps not quite as cleanly executed—as before, and offers a humanistic spotlight for the motivations, and stakes, of everyone involved. And, ready or not, it passes the Black Panther’s torch. Is this massively ambitious, unfairly burdened sequel as good as Black Panther? Definitely not—and it probably could never have been. But in a mythology where death is more often used as a narrative device than a true measure of loss, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever magnifies the truth that the title character’s world will endure, even if he doesn’t—and there are at least as many lessons to extract from his absence.

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