Following up one of the biggest blockbuster films of all time is no easy task. Doing so in the wake of the tragic passing of your beloved lead actor makes it even more difficult.
Director Ryan Coogler had his work cut out heading back to Wakanda for the sequel to 2018’s superhero hit “Black Panther.” The world was still coming to terms with the loss of Chadwick Boseman to colon cancer in August 2020, and the entire film had to be rewritten around his death. The pandemic along with on-set injuries also caused a slew of production delays. On top of it all, the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was looking shaky at best.
But against all odds, Coogler delivered. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a powerful film tackling grief and loss, honoring Boseman, while still functioning as a compelling sequel to carry on the mantle of the hero and further explore the world of Wakanda.
“Wakanda Forever” opens in frantic chaos. A prodigy and sister to the Black Panther, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is desperately trying to create a synthetic Heart-Shaped Herb in order to save her ailing brother. An unseen T’Challa (Boseman) is fighting for his life against an undisclosed illness, and time is running out. Much like Boseman in real life, we learn that T’Challa has been battling the ailment alone, not sharing his condition with the world until it was too late. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the Black Panther has passed on and the stage is set. This is going to be a movie about loss – how to cope with it, how it can corrupt, and how to overcome it.
With its king dead and the mantle of the Black Panther gone with him, the once superpowered nation of Wakanda is vulnerable for the first time. Outside nations wage attacks to try and gain access to the country’s vibranium resources, while more sinister threats lurk below the surface. When a mining crew finds vibranium on the ocean floor, they inadvertently incur the wrath of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a mutant god and the leader of the underwater Talokan race. With a centuries-old hatred for the surface world, Namor offers the Wakandans a proposition: align their two nations and wage war on humanity together, or be the first victim of his violent campaign.
Shockingly, as the 30th film in the MCU, “Wakanda Forever” doesn’t require much outside knowledge of the sprawling movie and TV universe. The first “Black Panther” film is obviously a must, and “Infinity War” and “Endgame” wouldn’t hurt, but that’s about it. Fans looking for the interweaving storylines, Easter eggs and cameos that have become the norm in these franchises will likely be disappointed by this refreshingly self-contained story focusing on the Wakandans. Even the mid-credits clip acts as a final bit of closure for “Wakanda Forever” instead of a teaser for what’s to come in Phase 5.
Rather than place its focus on other heroes or storylines, “Wakanda Forever” is extremely dedicated to Letitia Wright and her portrayal of Shuri. It’s no secret Wright and Boseman were beyond close, as evidenced in her moving tribute to him following his death, and Wright brings all of the real-life pain, emotion and grief to the film as she mourns her on-screen brother. Wright delivers a powerful performance that explores all the stages of grief, but spends quite a bit of time diving into her anger with herself for not being able to help. As the anger builds, Shuri’s inner turmoil makes for a compelling character study as she walks the tightrope between hero and anti-hero. Shuri’s relationship with her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is another highlight of the film, as the two process T’Challa’s death in very different ways, setting up an intriguing look at the spiritual versus the scientific.
Opposite of Wright is Tenoch Huerta, playing the film’s antagonist, Namor. It’s hard to categorize the character as a flat-out villain, considering his motivation is to protect his civilization from the dangers of the outside world that he knows all too well. Much like Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger in the series’ first film, it’s a case of right idea, wrong method. Sure, he has every right to protect his people, but eradicating the surface world with no questions asked isn’t the right way to go about it. Still, Huerta has plenty of moments where audiences will find themselves empathizing with his plight, and being swayed by the actor’s charm. Huerta delivers an incredible physical performance, particularly in his ability to subtly transition from wry smile to enraged glare in a matter of seconds.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o returns in “Wakanda Forever” as the War Dog Nakia, the former Wakandan spy and humanitarian, as well as T’Challa’s lover. More so than being a badass warrior and hero, Nakia serves as another vessel to demonstrate the various coping mechanisms in which people deal with grief. Nyong’o carries the weight of T’Challa – and Boseman’s – passing throughout her emotional performance, balancing her portrayal of pain and duty. Despite her fierceness, Nakia was always the tender heart in this franchise, particularly in her intimate moments with Boseman, and despite his absence, that warmth and hope is still alive and well thanks to Nyong’o.
Newcomer Dominique Thorne (Riri Williams), is another standout in “Wakanda Forever,” playing a brilliant MIT student who finds herself in the midst of the battle between Wakanda and Talokan. As the closest thing the MCU has seen to Tony Stark-level brilliance since Iron Man’s passing, Thorne is poised to pick up the mantle as Ironheart in an upcoming Disney+ series.
Still, “Wakanda Forever” certainly has some issues, and many of them are no stranger to Marvel films as of late. For the most part, the visual effects here are impressive, but some elements – particularly in the final battle in the third act, get a bit spotty. A few green screen sequences are fairly obvious, and the CGI making up certain characters’ suits is iffy. The climax as a whole largely relies on visual effects and borders on turning into the typical CGI slugfest that has haunted so many MCU projects, but “Wakanda Forever” also hones in on a one-on-one fight to help balance things out. The fight choreography and stunt work here is impressive and makes up for the issues plaguing the larger battle.
From grief and pain to thrills and excitement, and a surprising amount of humor, “Wakanda Forever” is a film ready to make its viewers feel. Boseman’s passing looms large over the film, and Coogler and company handle the actor’s death with care and precision, paying tribute to his legacy while never feeling gratuitous or out of touch. As Phase 4 comes to a close, “Wakanda Forever” is certainly one of the best things to come from it.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” releases in theaters November 11, 2022.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.