Black Panther: Wakanda Forever begins and ends in a state of mourning. Certainly, it would be inappropriate for it to be structured in any other way. Any movie that opens with the Marvel Studios logo already carries the weight of all the interconnected storytelling taking place before and after it, but this particular outing is also knocking askew by external knowledge of the absence of its intended star. There was already an announced sequel to Black Panther, still the artistic high point for the MCU, and plans for it were well under way when the shocking news arrived that Chadwick Boseman, portrayer of the title character, had died after a lengthy struggle with cancer. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever isn’t only shadowed by that loss; at its deepest and most poignant, it’s resolutely about it.
First, the basic plot. The previously hidden African nation of Wakanda is reeling from the death of their king, and other nations see the absence of a leader who also happened to be a superhero as the opportunity to slide their scales of geopolitical ethics in pursuit of the rare resources to be found without their borders. At the same time, another land that’s been operating on the down-low enters the picture when Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), ruler on the undersea empire of Talokan, flutters his ankle wings towards Wakandan soil looking for allies against the rest of the world, a rolling proposal that he makes with widely varying levels of diplomatic care. For a while, he builds a rapport with Shuri (Letitia Wright), princess of Wakanda and surviving sister of the departed T’Challa,
And there’s more. A lot more. There are familial conflicts and military intrigue. Performers and characters continuing from the previous film need their moments — Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Winston Duke as M’Baku among them — and there’s newcomers to spend time with, too, both among the Wakandans (most notably, Michaela Coel as Aneka, a members of the country’s band of female warriors) and to keep the interstate of Marvel traffic moving (Dominique Thorne is introduced as Riri Williams, a teenaged genius set to front the forthcoming television series Ironheart). It’s a lot, and director Ryan Coogler (who’s also crafted the story and shares credit on the screenplay with returning co-writer Robert Cole) deserves credit for how long he keeps all the plates spinning with only minor wobbles. He, too, is eventually swamped out by the demands of bigger and bigger cataclysmic set pieces, but he’s the first director since Chloé Zhao to imbue an actual perspective and more complicated ideas into Marvel’s numbing blockbuster template. As was the case with Black Panther, Coogler is sure to give the film’s antagonist a motivation that’s not so easy to dismiss.
Coogler is also uncommonly strong when it comes to selecting his collaborators and giving them the room to do amazing work. Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s cinematography and Ludwig Göransson’s score provide immensely intricate and moving storytelling on their own terms. As before, costume designer Ruth Carter is the MVP nestled in the credits, taking her already thrilling craft from the first film and expanding it with both more eye-catching designs for Wakandans and a whole array of Mayan-inspired garb for the Talokan residents. In these respects, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a feast.
Back to the pall that hangs over the film and the catharsis it provides. If it’s generally a flaw that the Marvel movies are in a constant dialogue with the choices outside their narratives — the parceled our previews and other flashing-neon fan service — the flaw becomes a sort of strength in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. As the film considers the loss of T-Challa, there’s never a doubt that the ache portrayed is really for Boseman, by all accounts a kind and generous soul. Coogler shares his own shellshocked sorrow with the audience in a way that is tender and empathetic, and yet his also delivers the necessary assurance that moving on is part of the grieving process, too.