When you take away the spectacle, the visual effects, the easter eggs, the callbacks, and everything else that people love (and criticize) about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the success of this franchise still comes down to one fundamental thing: its characters. Marvel wouldn’t be where it is today if the studio hadn’t created exceptionally well-cast and empathetic superheroes—most of them flawed and human in some way—that audiences wanted to keep following for years even if sometimes the movies themselves were a bit wonky (hello, Thor).
And one of the most successful character adaptations for the screen was T’Challa, the Black Panther and King of Wakanda who was played to perfection by the late Chadwick Boseman.
Introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and given his own historic film in 2018’s Black Panther, Boseman became instantly synonymous with the role and became the face of the movie’s massive cultural impact. Boseman’s shocking death in August 2020 at the age of 43, after a long, private struggle with cancer, was a blow not just to the MCU but to the millions of fans worldwide who finally saw a persona and culture on the screen that represented them in a positive, forward-leaning manner.
We mention all this because there’s no way to discuss Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the long-awaited sequel to the 2018 Oscar winner, without the context in which the film is coming out. That it exists at all is something of a miracle. That it is easily one of the two best MCU movies of the troubled Phase 4, and one of the finest entries in the franchise’s 14-year history, makes it a wonder.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, his writing partner Joe Robert Cole, producers Kevin Feige and Nate Moore, and their entire cast and crew have created a film that is perhaps the most emotional and personal in a franchise often called out for what critics perceive as its assembly line mentality. It’s a sustained cry of both real-life and fictional grief, as both the filmmakers and the fictional characters grapple with an unimaginable loss and try to find a way to move forward.
It’s also a movie that follows in both the footsteps of the original Black Panther and Civil War (which it directly references) by providing a geopolitical and social backdrop for the action and drama upfront while also setting two distinct forces against each other that, under different circumstances, should be working together instead of trying to destroy one another.
As with all Marvel movies, we’ll keep the plot details light. But you know the bones of the story by now: As the film opens, Wakanda is mourning the sudden, unexpected death of T’Challa (documented in a brief prologue that doesn’t linger on the event itself). Sensing an opening, the rest of the world, represented by the U.N. but led by American intelligence, is eager to find a way to capitalize on the country’s seemingly weakened state and get a hold of that sweet, sweet vibranium under its soil.
But there is a new, unexpected wrinkle to all this. When a multinational drilling operation is attacked following the possible detection of vibranium deep under the ocean floor, Wakanda is immediately suspected. That’s because there is another player on the field: an advanced undersea civilization called Talokan, led by a powerfully enhanced mutant known as Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who reaches out directly to Wakanda’s Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) with both a deal and a threat.
What happens from there is an escalating series of moves and countermoves that to a large extent boils down to a three-way battle of wills between Ramonda, Namor, and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), who’s waging her own internal war between guilt and grief over the death of her brother and her desire to stop Talokan and Wakanda from imperiling each other’s futures, even at the risk of her own life.
While the first Black Panther had a clear lead in T’Challa and a clear villain in Killmonger (who also had a point-of-view that one could get behind, if not his means to deploy it), Wakanda Forever is much more of a classic ensemble film that takes its time for its plot strands to synthesize together.
While Shuri, Ramonda, and Namor are the main drivers of the story, all the returning characters from the previous film—including Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), M’Baku (Winston Duke), and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman)—have distinct roles in the drama that unfolds, as does Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a brilliant college student who unwittingly finds herself at the heart of the crisis.
The role that Riri ultimately plays in the story seems a bit superfluous as her journey goes on, and is one of the few weaker spots in a screenplay that largely earns its two hours and 41 minutes. Still, the movie never drags; it feels both intimate and epic, and more importantly, it’s operating on a level that’s somehow different from even some of the past standouts of the MCU.
It’s difficult to express, but as rousing and propulsive as the film is, there’s clearly a sense of melancholy suffused throughout it, which the cast and filmmakers turn into a furious, barely contained energy—as if they are channeling the sorrow they feel into something transcending that grief. Which is what Black Panther: Wakanda Forever becomes in the end, finding a grace that will cause even the most jaded moviegoer to blink back the tears.
Everyone steps up their game this time around, if that’s possible. It’s tough to think about Bassett and not recall the many great performances on her filmography, but it’s also hard to imagine her ever being this commanding, this regal, and this powerful. Wright, such a breakout in the first Black Panther, does even more incredible work here, balancing Shuri’s shattered psyche with the slow re-emergence of her idealism, and then capping that off with a newfound sense of responsibility.
Fans of Marvel’s long, fabled history will rejoice in finally seeing one of the very first Marvel superheroes, Namor the Sub-Mariner, on the screen, and only the most close-minded will not be able to enjoy his reinvention. Relative newcomer Huerta delivers all of Namor’s rage, love for his people, and deep intelligence in a fantastic breakout performance that hopefully positions this legendary character for a larger role to play in the MCU going forward.
The conception of the onscreen character retains many of his classic trademarks (those ankle wings! That shitty attitude toward the surface world!) while giving him a back story and cultural history that makes sense for 2022 and firmly separates Talokan from the neon-lit, Vegas-meets-ancient-Greece casino that was Atlantis in Warner Bros./DC’s Aquaman.
The design for Talokan is extraordinary, and the introduction of its warriors is genuinely eerie as they silently emerge onto ships, city streets, and Wakandan territory. But there’s great beauty in the undersea kingdom as well, which sets up one of the movie’s most powerful moral conflicts: Wakanda remains as glorious as ever too, thanks also to production designer Hannah Beachler, while DP Autumn Durald Arkapaw makes this one of the most visually stunning films in MCU history, not to mention the finest-looking of Ryan Coogler’s career.
Props must go as well to the VFX teams for also leveling up their game (amidst the many, and frankly justified, criticisms of late toward Marvel’s VFX work), with far fewer shots than usual looking wonky or even a bit unfinished. Ludwig Göransson’s pulsing yet mournful score pulls it all together, once again weaving African influences and cues into an orchestral tapestry that also hauntingly fits the mood.
Just as Phase 4 was almost a mirror of fictional and real events, with Marvel finding its way through COVID and its characters emerging from the aftermath of Thanos, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (which closes out Phase 4 on the highest note possible) serves the same purpose in a much more specific way. It’s a moving tribute to one of our brightest fallen stars, and a successful continuation of what made the first film such a groundbreaker. Let’s say it: Chadwick. Wakanda. Forever.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters this Friday (Nov. 11).