Black Panther: Wakanda Forever brings a barrage of emotions with its long-awaited release. Sadness, eagerness, and trepidation may sum up some of these, and you would be correct in feeling all of them when going into the film. That being said, those walking in for the first time with great nerves can rest easy because Wakanda Forever is an excellent film despite the obvious hurdles.
In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, we find a nation in a vulnerable state amidst the death of its king. With Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as the sovereign of the African nation of Wakanda, the Queen does what she must for her people and her family while dealing with unbearable grief. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, no less a parent who has just lost a child. As the Queen does her best, it becomes evident that things are slowly being pulled apart at the seams – especially because the world’s other countries are looking to Wakanda for vibranium, some even going to extreme lengths to try and steal whatever they can.
Wakanda’s Princess, Shuri (Letitia Wright), buries herself in her work, and the Wakandan General, Okoye (Danai Gurira), is busy keeping the nation and its vibranium safe with the help of the Dora Milaje, including Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Aneka (Michaela Coel). However, when an attack on a U.S. mining ship goes awry and the Wakandans are blamed for this act of aggression, a rapid-fire succession of events take place that puts a target on Wakanda’s back – including drawing the attention of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the King of the underwater oasis known as Talocan. Like some other parts of the world, Namor also has a bone to pick with Wakanda, leading to one of the most riveting conflicts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.
2018’s Black Panther was a remarkable feat, not only in the comic-book film genre but for cinema as a whole. It was the first Marvel Studios film helmed by a Black director (Ryan Coogler) to feature a predominantly Black cast. It was the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the first MCU film to win an Oscar, taking home statues in multiple categories; Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design, to be exact.
In addition, Black Panther made $1.3 billion worldwide at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film from a Black filmmaker. It is currently the fourteenth highest-grossing film of all time but was the ninth highest upon its debut four years ago. All of this is to say that its sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a lot to live up to. However, I am also here to say that even if this film doesn’t meet the exact heights of its predecessor, it shouldn’t matter.
While Black Panther: Wakanda Forever deserves all the praise and recognition it receives, the film is, first and foremost, a tribute to Chadwick Boseman, his portrayal of T’Challa, and a moving representation of the emotional journeys grief can take us through. Therefore, it is wholly too different from its predecessor to compare the two. This all becomes apparent upon a first watch. Sure, Wakanda Forever is a sequel (in the technical sense of the word), but make no mistake, it stands very much on its own. Although some of the same characters remain, this follow-up is forced to tell an entirely new story amidst a tragic event outside the confines of a movie set.
Director Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole do a fantastic job of honoring Boseman’s legacy, weaving the personal loss into the script. It gives the film the kind of raw earnestness and vulnerability that is required throughout its entirety. The exploration of grief from every angle is heart-wrenching yet necessary. It’s even more impactful when you see the stellar performances delivered by the actors in Wakanda Forever. No one ever misses a beat, which was undoubtedly difficult when processing their real-life heartache.
Shuri, the shining ray of laughter from the first film, is gone, having to grow up swiftly after the death of her father and brother in quick succession. As always, Letitia Wright owns the role. The world has hardened the young Princess in a short time, and she spends much of the movie trying to find herself. Wright is on another level as she moves through Wakanda Forever. The difference between this Shuri and the past Shuri is vastly different, and Wright never falters. Shuri feels guilty that she could not save her brother with all the technology at her fingertips. Her anger is bottled up, just waiting to erupt, and it does. In these moments of sadness and loss, her primary source of comfort is her work and, of course, her mother, Queen Ramonda. Wright and Bassett’s scenes together are some of the film’s best.
Angela Bassett, herself, is the undeniable standout of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Bassett’s Ramonda says in an exceptionally compelling scene, “I am Queen of the most powerful nation in the world, and my entire family is gone. Have I not given everything?” Bassett is nothing short of exquisite in her portrayal, balancing her anguish and duty. Her line delivery is impeccable, her vulnerability will make your heart ache, her grace will bring you to your knees, and her power is formidable. As Queen Ramonda, there is nothing to dislike about Bassett’s performance, and it’s beautiful to see where Shuri and T’Challa got some of their best qualities.
Newcomers Tenoch Huerta and Dominique Thorne as Namor and Riri Williams, respectively, make sure their marks are felt. It’s been a long time since a villain/anti-hero has felt so fleshed out in the MCU. Huerta stuns as the arrogant and flashy King of Talocan. The way in which Huerta owns the role of Namor with such menace and coolness feels ripped right from the pages of a comic-book (Namor solo film, when?!). You’ll effortlessly fall in love with his performance. Thorne as Riri is one of the connecting tissues of the movie as it pertains to the dissent between Wakanda and Talocan. She eats up the part easily and is handily hilarious, which is much needed considering the film’s heaviness.
Gurira’s Okoye, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and M’Baku (Winston Duke) are just as great in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Like Queen Ramonda, they are balancing their pain and responsibilities. While they are excellent as always (to no surprise), you just wish you could see more of them. Fortunately, we get to see more of Nakia’s talents as a spy, though more time between her and Queen Ramonda and Shuri is needed, especially considering Nakia’s relationship with T’Challa. It seems like a missed opportunity, but in the grand scheme, it doesn’t break anything the movie is trying to do.
One thing you can compare to the first Black Panther film is the world-building. Much like its predecessor, Wakanda Forever builds a new corner of the MCU for audiences to experience on-screen with Talocan. The change to make Namor from Talocan and not Atlantis (as in the Marvel comics) is executed flawlessly. Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter once again works her award-winning magic. The weaving of traditional regalia from various tribes and peoples in Africa for the first film was quintessential in the creation of Wakanda, and she does the same for Talocan. From Namor’s jewelry to the armor on his feet to his headdress representing the feathered serpent god, Kukulkan, Carter’s mastery of costuming builds a Talocan that pays great homage to ancient Maya. Every costuming element feels rich with history and gives the appearance of a well-lived but hidden world.
Something many fans worried about with this sequel was whether or not the themes of loss would be shoe-horned into the standard MCU formula. Of course, there is action and humor but it’s never forced into the story without purpose. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will have you thinking about the many shapes that grief can take, and it comes at you from all fronts. It’s not just the Wakandans dealing with it; the people of Talocan, specifically Namor, are processing despair too. Coogler and Cole do a spectacular job of showing the audience the film’s true intent. Although that creates a film vastly different from its MCU counterparts, it’s also necessary for the creatives and the cast. You can see their grieving process in real-time throughout the film, making Wakanda Forever a movie that stands alone amongst its peers, including its predecessor.
Not only is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever a love letter to Chadwick Boseman, but it is also an accurate depiction of how people cope with their remorse. During the Wakanda Forever global press conference, Coogler profoundly described loss; “What we wanted to look at was, you know, when you lose somebody, there’s a blast radius, like a bomb that goes off.” There is no right or wrong way to mourn, though emotional distress can lead people down a dark path. With this comes certain story-telling choices in the film that some will dislike, yet those moments will hit home for many who’ve experienced loss. It can drag us into the deepest and darkest depths imaginable, making someone feel like they’re drowning, and Wakanda Forever boldly showcases this (for better or worse). The film exhibits that grief is never one-dimensional and is all the better for it.