Embracing Grief Helps 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Build on the Original

2018’s Black Panther was a seismic event. Partially built from the deep desire to see a Black event movie, and partially out of a desire to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue to add new variables to its equation, it was hard to be anywhere and not feel its impact. It lived up to the hype, too: a sprawling Black spy film, with production values not yet displayed in a Marvel movie to that point. The movie made significant tonal changes to the Marvel formula in terms of music, cinematography, writing, and direction.

Nearly everything started in Black Panther is continued in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, done better and even stronger than before by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. Coogler doesn't just return to Wakanda, but he expands on the world he's been building in an epic fashion.

In its latest anti-hero, Namor—a refreshing aspect of the Black Panther movies is that they feature anti-heroes moreso than outright villains—Wakanda Forever has a worthy successor to Killmonger's (Michael B. Jordan in the first film) throne. Namor has a similar political stance to Kilmonger, but is far more sympathetic both through his story and through the performance given by Tenoch Huerta (the 41-year-old Mexican actor making his stunning introduction into American film).

Namor comes not only with the same heartbreak as Kilmonger, but with yet another ethically-grounded purpose. This makes the tension between what he wants and what Wakanda needs thicker, more granular, and flavorful. The tragedy of the story—and the death of T'Challa, depicted in the movie's opening moments—feels more grandiose, especially in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s 2020 death.

namor wakanda forever
Marvel Studios

This reintroduces us into another theme borrowed from Black Panther: grief. In the first film, grief was glanced at but never explored in any thorough fashion. In a central Wakanda Forever scene, T’Challas nobility is brought up as a point of weakness; this was also a point of weakness in the exploration of grief. His nobility snuffed his ability to deal with grief in any way that might penetrate the vinyl material or glass tube the movie was projected upon.

Here, we get to see grief let loose and run amok. It's in the cavernous ferocity of Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) anger, the weighty austerity of Queen Ramonda’s (Angela Bassett) resolve, and the purity of Namor's desire to protect. In all these ways, grief becomes not just touched upon, but reckoned with—strongly building upon its predecessor.

Wakanda Forever also got stronger by subtraction. Subtracting Martin Freeman's Everett Ross from the story's CIA confines—he runs a bit rogue this time around—isn’t as good as subtracting him all together, but it's an improvement. When the CIA loses its one good guy, they are left undeterred by any “Good apple” that stops them from being a rotten bunch.

marvel black panther review
Marvel Studios

In the movie's greatest loss—that of Chadwick Boseman—it's provided a chance to continue to build on something the first film established: Wakanda's female-centric kingdom, and the way that ultimately informs some of Wakanda Forever's best political themes.

The women of Wakanda step up fiercely, both in the context of the world presented on screen, and as performers in the movie itself. Aside from Namor—who steals the movie on the back of Huerta's electrifying turn—it's the women who really shine and together form the soil of this movie's garden of delights. Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira give stellar performances each in various shapes of grief, and newcomer Dominique Thorne brings a jolt of energy as young MIT student Riri Williams that audiences will likely be excited to see again in next year's Ironheart series on Disney+.

The rest of the cast isn't far behind—Winston Duke, back with a beefed up role as M'Baku and Michaela Coel, in a new role a a Dora Milaje warrior, provide the levity, and Mabel Cadena (Namora) and Alex Livinalli (Attuma) bring presence to their roles without much there in terms of development.

wakanda forever
Marvel Studios

That character development (or, again, lack thereof) may be the place where Black Panther lags behind its predecessor. Its runtime—at 2 hours and 41 minutes long—is also not as tight as it could’ve been, and though there isn’t a whole lot that needed to be trimmed, it could definitely have used some.

On the whole, the movie is stronger from all other standpoints, as it successfully takes tragedy and turns it into something we can process as we watch these characters we know and love process in real time. This is a far more empathetic, vulnerable, and most importantly, distinctive film than the last.

With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Marvel set out to not only honor the legacy of a late star, but also for the chance to create a strong, signature artistic project. Just as with the first Black Panther—and with his other films, including Creed and Fruitvale Station—Ryan Coogler proved to be more than up to the task.

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