There is simply no way to recapture the pure magic and magnitude of Wakanda and the Black Panther without Chadwick Boseman. Regardless of what side you fall on- move on or recast- the fact remains that one of the most powerful and resonating stories in the MCU lost one of their greatest stars. There’s simply no right answer to how to continue, and “Wakanda Forever” smartly chooses to recognize that from the beginning. Instead of glossing over the loss in some insulting off screen death, never to be mentioned again, the highly anticipated sequel decides to put all of the loss, grief, chaos, confusion and hope at the center of its story. Everything centers around Boseman, both fictionally and in real life, and that heartfelt sincerity powers the film to be an emotional rollercoaster that is sure to tug at your heartstrings the right way. We were never going to have a true sequel that felt the same without him, and this film decides to make this very struggle the catalyst for everything.
What it also gets right is putting the women mourning the loss of their brother, their son, their king, and their love as the key figures in need of grieving and discovery. “Wakanda Forever” explores how each of these different women were and are affected by the loss of someone dear, something wholly unique to not just a Marvel movie, but film in general. There is no white knight, no man in shining armor that shows up to solve all their problems. Ryan Coogler smartly sheds those tropes and avoids those pitfalls, and allows women to be the strength, heart and soul of Wakanda. There is so much that could go wrong, and though it struggles in some places and isn’t without its flaws, it gets what truly matters right, and that is really what matters most. This is a true love letter to Chadwick Boseman, and honors his memory in all of the right ways to deliver a proper and powerful send off.
Ryan Coogler returns to the director’s chair and reuniting with Joe Robert Cole to co-write the script. The film begins with the loss of T’Challa, and dives into the fallout across the world. Wakanda is believed to be vulnerable by other nations, and due to Queen Ramonda’s refusal to sell vibranium to anyone, they begin searching for it in other places. This causes the awakening of Talokan, an underwater empire ruled by the K’uk’ulkan, known to his enemies as Namor. The power vacuum is great, and Wakanda must now face a powerful new force they’ve never encountered before. And without their Black Panther or King, the survival of the entire nation hangs in the balance.
Let’s just get some of the flaws out of the way so we can move on and talk about all the good things “Wakanda Forever” has to offer. This is a rather messy film, with some strange editing choices and story beats that don’t quite fit together all the time. I love a good colonizer joke as much as next person, but everything having to do with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) feels forced and shoe horned in. Setting the obvious loss of its lead aside, it does struggle with identity, and feels a little too sprawling and fragmented to be considered whole. The film had a trio of editors, and “strange choices” is the wrong phrase. The editing often jarring, bouncing from place to place and scene to scene with very little cohesion. Though the script has some clear high points, there’s still a lot of fat on the pages that should’ve been trimmed in a few more passes. The film doesn’t need to be this robust and cluttered, especially when the core is so strong and emotionally resonating.
There is also the strong connections to the overall MCU, which in part matters to the present story, but in others really halts the film from truly soaring. “Black Panther” wasn’t just a phenomenon because of its cultural relevance. It was also a contained story that felt as if it could exist without any ties to what came before or after it. It was a breath of fresh air, and this could’ve had the chance to be that as well. In large part it does, but there are some building blocks that feel jammed into this sequel that hold it back from being truly great. Everything having to do with Wakanda and its people works and is impactful, and even their confrontations with Talokan feel like they belong in the world. But every time we venture out into the rest of the world, things feel more Marvel Studios than Wakanda, and it’s a pretty big misstep for something that at one time felt wholly unique and different. It isn’t enough to make “Wakanda Forever” a bad film, but it holds it back from being a great one.
Ok, back to the good things.
“Wakanda Forever” sports some of the most heartfelt and powerful performances from its entire cast. Though no one can replace Boseman, no one is trying to. The missing puzzle piece left behind by his absence is purposeful, and Coogler lets his cast pour their mourning into every delivery. How Angela Bassett hasn’t won an Oscar yet is beyond me, and though I don’t think she’ll sneak her way in here due the race being incredibly competitive, no one should scoff if she does.
She is devastating here, giving her all with every single line of dialogue. Additionally, Leticia Wright, Danai Gurrira, and Lupita Nyong’o are all given incredible moments to shine, and chew through scenery by pouring their real life emotions and grief into their characters. There is genuine loss here, and that sincerity is what drives “Wakanda Forever.” The performances are some of the best you’ll see, with even Winston Duke getting criminally less screen time but being a high point nonetheless. He and Dominique Thorne as the Riri Williams and the backdoor introduction to Ironheart provide most of the comic relief, and while I don’t necessarily need a Disney+ Series commercial in a “Black Panther” sequel, Thorne holds her own and makes a case for her being a worthy addition.
Newcomer Tenoch Huerta as Namor brings one of the few complex villains in the MCU to “Wakanda Forever.” He is as charming as he is volatile, and is a welcomed addition to the world of Wakanda. The film doubles down on representation, and does right by Talokan as a sort of Hispanic Atlantis. They are unmistakably the antagonists of the story, but not without purpose or genuine motivations. Namor doesn’t quite have the complexity of Killmonger in its predecessor, but he’s not the PS3 final boss CGI monster of “Black Adam,” either. The performances from the whole cast are top notch, and make up for a lot of “Wakanda Forever’s” narrative shortcomings. Their pain is our pain, and though the film is rather bleak and stays that way for a large part of it, Coogler wants us all to mourn with Wakanda and the people that mattered most to T’Challa. There is a real catharsis happening in real time in “Wakanda Forever,” and anything less sincere wouldn’t be as honorable or honoring as this sequel seeks to be.
We simply cant’ go in expecting the sequel we wanted, because we don’t have the one thing that would’ve allowed it be. “Wakanda Forever” is required to take on a different identity, and has to plot a different course ahead if we’re ever going to allow the country and its survivors to continue on in our hearts. For that, “Wakanda Forever” largely succeeds, staying true to its overall representation roots and giving us new, diverse heroes to root for while introducing whole new worlds that look like us and exist for us. “Wakanda Forever” wants us to remember Chadwick Boseman, mourn him, and never, ever forget him. But it also wants to move forward and carry his legacy forward, plotting the course for hope and love.
“Wakanda Forever” isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a perfect send off to a beloved hero. It is reminder that he will be missed, that it’s ok to miss him, and it’s ok to carry on in the world without him.
His legacy is forever imbedded in the X of our arms across our chest. Wakanda Forever, indeed.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.