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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a breathtaking and cathartic step forward for the franchise

Marvel’s Black Panther sequel is a moving farewell to Chadwick Boseman and a heady rumination on the many different forms grief can take in the wake of death.

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A woman standing on a beach wearing a metallic headdress along with a flowing gown featuring an angular cutout across her chest.
Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda.
Image: Marvel Studios

Ryan Coogler’s first Black Panther film hit like a meteorite in 2018 and singlehandedly disproved the (still extant) notion that predominantly Black films can’t become global phenomenons that smash all kinds of box office records while also racking up critical acclaim. Even before Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death in 2020, the prospect of recreating the first film’s success was already a nigh-unimaginable task that led many to wonder how Marvel could ever hope to top itself with a sequel.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a bigger, more ambitious, and more stirringly poignant endeavor than its predecessor. But it doesn’t feel like the product of a studio merely trying to make a financially successful follow-up to one of its most popular and well-regarded films. Rather, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever plays like the triumphant celebration of an idea, the mournful farewell to an actual hero, and a promise of even greater things to come all rolled into one.

Set some time after the events of Avengers: Endgame and one year after the sudden death of King T’Challa (Boseman), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the story of how the vibranium-rich African nation and its people find the strength to keep going after the unexpected loss of their champion. Wakanda Forever stops just short of blurring the line between fiction and reality as the broad strokes of T’Challa’s death are detailed in its opening scenes that smartly and respectfully put much more focus on how his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and their mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), are devastated by his passing.

Much in the same way that Boseman was more than just an actor to many of his fans and peers, T’Challa was more than a superhero or a typical king to those who knew him, and Wakanda Forever centers that idea in a way that makes his legacy a central part of the film. A love for Chadwick and an undying reverence for T’Challa can be felt throughout Wakanda Forever. But the movie is careful to not be so bound up in those powerful emotions that it ever feels narratively inflexible or stuck in the past — a necessary choice that plays an important role in Wakanda Forever’s ability to move the ongoing tale of the MCU’s Black Panther forward.

Though Wakanda Forever never lets you forget that Wakanda and her people are in a nationwide state of grieving, it uses that grief as a jumping-off point to explore a number of the complicated consequences of T’Challa’s death and his actions in the first Black Panther. After an alien invasion, super terrorist attacks, and all of the other wild things that have been happening in the MCU, Wakanda finds itself in the uniquely difficult position of being seen as both the solution to and the cause of the world’s problems because of its vibranium.

As always, Wakanda’s ready and overprepared to deal with whatever incursions onto their land foreigners try to make in pursuit of their valuable metallic natural resources. But with Wakanda now openly existing as a powerful political actor on the world stage, Ramonda, as its sitting leader, has to be particularly judicious about how the nation engages with its peers, not out of fear for her people but out of a desire to keep disputes from escalating to the point of all-out conflict.

Wakanda Forever never lets you forget that Wakanda is in a nationwide state of grieving

Geopolitics is rarely what people show up to superhero movies for, but it’s the subject of some of Wakanda Forever’s most electrifying scenes that Bassett commands with a terrifying majesty and a significant part of what makes the movie vibrate with tension. Their presence is also one of the big ways that the movie organically creates space for characters like Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and M’Baku (Winston Duke) to take on larger roles as Wakanda’s various tribes grapple with what it means for there to be no sitting Black Panther.

One of the more truly impressive things about Wakanda Forever’s story is how its plot involving lines of succession and tradition in the context of mourning could have made for a gripping, compelling Marvel movie in and of itself. But instead of resting on those laurels, Wakanda Forever both amps things up and hearkens back to some of Black Panther’s most potent, challenging ideas by introducing the MCU’s takes on Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) and Namor (Tenoch Huerta).

In the same way that Killmonger’s villainy in Black Panther was shot through with a heartbreaking and genuine (albeit twisted) sense of justice, Namor’s entire character is defined by an unshakable love for his people and a willingness to do anything to protect them. Wakanda Forever establishes a fascinating connection between Wakanda and Talocan — the Mesoamerica-inspired underwater kingdom Namor and his fellow water breathers call home — that further upends the world’s balance of power in ways that make Namor a threat. But who that threat is truly posed toward is a question Wakanda Forever repeatedly poses and has different answers for as Namor and his generals, Namora (Mabel Cadena) and Attuma (Alex Livinalli), lead the charge to make contact with the surface world.

There’s a pointed critique of Western colonialism and the destruction of Indigenous people baked into the essence of Wakanda Forever’s take on Namor and Talocan that is going to draw many comparisons to Killmonger. But whereas Michael B. Jordan played his villain as a wrathful man longing to become king, Huerta’s Namor is a king who sees his superhuman genetic gifts as signs of godhood.

There’s a critique of Western colonialism and the destruction of Indigenous people baked into Wakanda Forever

Huerta brings a raw magnetism to his performance as a Namor who’s always just as ready to charm as he is to murder while sizing up other monarchs he deems worthy of his recognition and presence. In particular, scenes between Namor and Shuri stand out not for their visually dazzling qualities but because of the crackling intensity of the current running between them — two conflicted figureheads of state trying to be strategic about how they interact.

Wakanda Forever lets loose a similarly explosive energy in each of its bombastic, breathtaking set pieces that escalate in scale and stakes as Wakanda and Talocan come to butt heads in unexpected ways. But even though the movie’s action sequences are a marked upgrade over the first film’s, they ultimately end up playing second string to Wakanda Forever’s focus on the Wakandan royal family’s emotions — and the room it gives its cast to express what very much feels like their own unscripted sorrow for Boseman’s passing.

Tragic deaths that unmoor people from their sense of self are a fixture in comic books and the stories based on them. But it’s rare that you see a film choose to really spend time centering grief the way Wakanda Forever does: as an ongoing state of being that can take on new and surprising forms as people try to deal with their feelings. Wakanda Forever isn’t just two-and-a-half hours of people being sad and expressing their frustrations with how the life of someone they loved came to an end. That, along with a deep sense of clear-eyed hope for the future, is the core of the movie, and Wakanda Forever understands how holding space for both of those feelings simultaneously is key to its story being a cathartic one.

As wooly and uneven as Marvel’s Phase Four has often felt between its entry to the streaming space and its dalliances with the multiverse, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s a thrilling reminder of how sharp and smart the studio’s tentpole features can be. Rather than one-upping Black Panther, Wakanda Forever continues its story with a grace and care that’s more moving than any comic book movie has the right to be.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also stars Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Martin Freeman, and Lake Bell. The movie hits theaters on November 11th.