‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Tries (and Mostly Succeeds) to Balance Emotion and Spectacle

The king is dead! Long live the...
Black Panther Wakanda Forever

Sequels are an inevitability in blockbuster filmmaking, and that goes doubly so for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a massive franchise consisting of smaller franchises within. It’s an unstoppable machine as both filmmakers with creative differences and actors requesting too much money can simply be replaced with a simple snap of the fingers. But what to do when a lead actor dies? An actor whose solo feature became not just an immense hit but a cultural milestone? Chadwick Boseman‘s title portrayal in 2018’s Black Panther is undeniably iconic, and simply recasting him for a sequel was never truly an option. Instead of looking away from that truth, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever wisely leans in — heavily — with a story about loss, unchecked grief, and the need to move forward. Oh, and also the hunt for Vibranium, sneaky CIA agents, and angry Sea-Monkeys.

T’Challa (an offscreen, never-glimpsed Boseman) is dying. A mysterious illness is ravaging his body, and his sister Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) desperate race to develop a cure ends in failure. His loss is devastating, for Wakanda and for his family, and Shuri is still struggling one year later. While her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has assumed the throne, a power vacuum exists in Wakanda without a new Black Panther to serve as both symbol and protector. A new crisis takes precedence, though, when the world’s search for more Vibranium uncovers an underwater society populated by blue-skinned, water-breathing descendants of a Mesopotamian civilization.

Their leader, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a powerful mutant (his word, not mine) with superhuman strength and wings on his ankles which give him flight, begins killing off those aware of their existence. When an American teenager named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) builds a device capable of detecting Vibranium, she lands on Namor’s hit list even as Shuri — who sees something of herself in the young woman — offers her protection. It leads to violent conflict between the Wakandans and the sopping wet people of Talokan, and without a Black Panther to defend them, the odds seem stacked against Wakanda.

As a tribute to Boseman, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a beautiful remembrance of the man, the talent, and the character under his brief stewardship. As a movie, though, the results become a bit shakier. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler clearly has his sights set on delivering the former with heartfelt observations on grief, memory, and learning to let go of the past, and when the film moves in those lanes it’s a beautiful experience. Of course, this is Marvel, and that also means callbacks, roughshod character intros, and sloppy writing in the service of bombast.

This is an ensemble film, but it’s Shuri who takes lead as someone unable to move on from her brother’s death. There’s a purity to her grief, but there’s more to it as she’s a woman of science. She blames herself for being unable to save him and for being unable to recreate the heart-shaped herb. That same mindset leaves her unconvinced about the existence of spiritual planes where ancestors stand watch and await. The journey here is hers as she learns through those around her, friends and enemies alike, that we can move forward without having to let go of memories of our loved ones. The film’s heavy with dialogue, but it works in conjunction with visuals, unspoken themes, and affecting performances to drive the point home effectively, sincerely, and maybe a bit redundantly.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a very chatty film, and even with a runtime of two hours and forty-one minutes it might also feature the least amount of action of any MCU entry. That’s hardly a criticism as the films don’t need to be cookie cutter creations despite how often they may seem that way. The action we do get is as expected — never great but rarely dull — but it’s elevated somewhat by a change of scenery as much of it unfolds on or below the water. Namor’s people are fierce and powerful, and there’s minor awe to be found in wide shots of them scaling the sides of sea vessels en masse. Coogler and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw craft and create some stunning visuals here that tease the natural world as much as the MCU allows these days.

Huerta’s Namor makes for a compelling villain with a performance to match, but thematic, historical similarities between his fight and the one motivating Black Panther‘s Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) feel like easy picking at this point. Flashbacks reveal the history of Namor’s people, one filled with oppression, slavery, and illness, and it’s the rage he feels for them that fuels his ire and violent desires. He’s the bad guy, but we see his point. Namor lacks the personal connection of Killmonger, though, making his villainous weight a bit less substantial and affecting. The brief look at his undersea world also feels somewhat half-baked. The drum-playing octopus from James Wan’s Aquaman need not worry as Talokan is extremely light on personality and detail.

Plot shenanigans go where they must in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever with mixed results — some character appearances feel like filler, some strategic choices are laughably bad and designed solely to open the door to a specific set-piece, and the Wakandan people are still elitists subscribing to royal lineages and a refusal to even consider creating more than one Black Panther — but it’s the heart, not the brain that beats loudest here alongside a striking soundtrack and score by Ludwig Göransson.

Wright does great work on that front shifting from a comedic sidekick to a lead carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. She’s aided by a stellar supporting roster starting with Bassett’s powerful performance as the queen. Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o return with beats both emotional and action-oriented, and a carrot-munching Winston Duke brings smiles as the tough but tender M’Baku. They and others surround Shuri and the film with the love and support of friends and family who share in the burden of her grief. CG and explosions are around the next corner, but for sustained stretches, this is a film that values human connection.

Death in comic book movies is a frequent occurrence, but it’s almost never designed to be permanent. For the right price, you have to know that Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans would return for an Iron Man or Captain America cameo down the road. Boseman’s real-world death, though, and the MCU’s acknowledgement of it, means his Black Panther is gone forever (outside of recycled clips). That’s a powerful realization, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever shows that while grief takes time, it is possible to move forward with those memories intact. That there’s also a dude with wings on his feet is really beside the point.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.