The most moving portion of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, director Ryan Coogler’s follow-up to his franchise-rejuvenating 2018 triumph Black Panther, comes before the movie proper begins. In place of the familiar Marvel intro—a comic-book–style flip-through montage of heroes from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe—comes a somber, elegiac tribute to a single figure: the Black Panther himself, T’Challa, beloved leader of the Afrofuturistic utopia of Wakanda, as played by the late Chadwick Boseman.
Boseman’s death in mid-2020 came as a complete shock, the actor having kept his diagnosis of colon cancer secret from all but his closest loved ones. You didn’t have to be a Marvel superfan to feel the tragedy of his sudden loss at the age of 43, in the same year he delivered a startlingly raw dramatic performance as a tormented trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Especially within the superhero genre, built around the presumptive indestructibility of both its individual protagonists and its larger brand identity, the sudden and irreversible loss of a character like T’Challa is a hard blow to reabsorb into the MCU’s system. Some viewers, me among them, at first thought after Boseman’s death that the character should have been pulled from the Marvel lineup altogether, the way we retire the number on the jersey of an irreplaceable athlete.
But in Wakanda Forever, though Coogler doesn’t (and perhaps for contractual reasons can’t) reinvent the superhero system from the ground up, he does something both fascinating and long overdue: He spreads the usual singularity of the Marvel hero (his status, á la Star Wars or The Matrix, as “the one”) across three or four different characters, all of them women. To a much greater degree than I would have thought possible, Wakanda Forever is a gajillion-dollar comic-book blockbuster about something as complex and interior as the act of female mourning, split among at least four different strong woman protagonists. It’s only in the later stretches, when this leisurely 2-hour-and-40-minute epic makes the inevitable Marvel turn toward external, CGI-driven action, that it loses the intimate power of its urgently grief-focused first hour.
Coogler and his co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole skillfully and sensitively layer the real-life loss of Boseman onto the fictional loss of T’Challa, beginning the film with a scene that thrusts the audience in medias res into the character’s offscreen death of unknown causes as his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda’s greatest scientist, frantically attempts to engineer a cure in her impossibly high-tech lab. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), now the country’s leader, accepts her son’s fate with heartbroken stoicism, observing the traditional rites, including in a solemn (and dazzlingly choreographed) public funeral procession. But Shuri, who’s more skeptical about her culture’s belief in ancestor worship, has a hard time moving on from her brother’s death. A year into the grieving process, she still blames herself for not having found a technological solution in time to save him.
The death of T’Challa leaves a power vacuum in global politics, one that it appears will be filled by whoever can gain supremacy through the use of vibranium, the meteorite-derived element that is Wakanda’s most precious resource and the fuel for its hyperadvanced technology. The United Nations attempts to persuade Queen Ramonda, who appears before the assembly in full regalia, to share the precious metal, but when their efforts fail, multiple major world powers, led by the United States, search for alternate sources. The discovery of a new undersea source of the element leads to a new global complication: A secret underwater civilization named Talokan, ruled by the Mayan god-king Namor (Tenoch Huerta), begins carrying out attacks on the vibranium mining ships, and Wakanda is wrongly suspected of being behind these stealth operations.
Namor, a Mesoamerican god who gets around via tiny fluttering wings on his ankles, first appears to the queen and the princess of Wakanda in the guise of peacemaker, asking for their help in resisting the colonial superpowers that seek to rob both cultures of their resources. But when that help is refused, he vows to wage all-out war on the Wakandan people, beginning by kidnapping Princess Shuri and Riri Williams, the young American science whiz who’s responsible for designing the technology that detected the vibranium. (If you’re left with the distinct feeling that this character, played by Dominique Thorne, has been shoehorned into the story to launch a connected Marvel property, you’re right: She will become Ironheart, a hero destined for her own Disney+ spinoff TV series, but in the context of this movie, she is mainly a superfluous tagalong.)
Once the action of Wakanda Forever gets set into motion, the movie starts to feel hopelessly busy, with separate story arcs involving the Wakandan Jabari tribe (led by the always scene-stealing Winston Duke as M’Baku), the whereabouts of T’Challa’s wife Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the mythic past of the Talokan people, which, like that of Wakanda, is painfully entangled with the history of colonial violence. This overstuffed plot means that some of the film’s most emotionally powerful scenes, like an electrifying dreamworld encounter between Shuri and an unexpected figure from her past, get sandwiched between CGI-crammed battle sequences and left too little time to resonate with the audience.
But when Coogler’s camera, wielded by cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, is exploring the vibrant culture of Wakanda or the eerie Atlantean caverns of the Talokan kingdom, this film is capable of awe-inspiring spectacle. In particular, the recurring image of Talokan warriors riding into battle on the backs of giant whales transported me to a realm of childlike wonder. The spectacular costumes by Ruth Carter surpass even the glory of the original, from Shuri’s high-tech tracksuits to the seaweed-and-pearl–bedecked garb of the Talokan royalty. Still, when the film’s focus shifts from worldbuilding to franchise management, there is a distinct dip in energy: A lengthy action setpiece near the end, with the Talokans and the Wakandans battling to the death on a ship at sea, could have been imported from any big-budget superhero movie. As soon as the scale becomes human again, as in the final one-on-one faceoff between Shuri and Namor, Coogler’s signature attention to emotional and psychological nuance returns. But the movie never fully resolves the tension between these two modes of storytelling, one intimate and one epic. While it’s frequently moving and occasionally thrilling, the gears sometimes grind audibly on the shift in between.
Wakanda Forever’s most original gesture—the aforementioned dispersion of narrative focus among multiple grieving women (Ramonda, Shuri, Nakia, and the Wakandan warrior Okoye, played with fierce gravity by a tremendous Danai Gurira) rather than a single, all-powerful man—gets undercut by one late scene that appears to hint at a reinstatement of the rule of primogeniture. It’s a deflating note to hit at the end of a movie that, for most of its running time, has been courageous and patient enough to let its audience as well as its characters sit with the reality of an unjust and irreparable loss.