Black Panther: Wakanda Forever closes Phase 4 with a thoughtful memorial that doesn’t treat fiction as an imaginative escape from the real tragedies of real life.
We didn’t need a whole lot of prep to ready ourselves for the weight of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The sudden and tragic death of Chadwick Boseman and the fairly swift decision to not recast his role, made it pretty clear a follow-up to the hit 2018 film would be a bleak and heavy affair. Impossibly tasked with pushing forward in a franchise that had only just launched without its face and anchoring talent, a Black Panther sequel seemed destined to explore how we grieve — both personally and collectively — in ways no other MCU entry could. The proximity of the loss is too near and its impact too great.
Instead of working against the grim grain of public expectation, Wakanda Forever drops you right into the heartbreak. The opening frames force fans to directly confront the late actor’s passing with a bit of exposition that takes few liberties with the facts surrounding Boseman’s death. It’s bold, unsettling, and instantly crushing, setting a rare tone for a Marvel movie out the gate. As the story zooms out, Letitia Wright‘s Shuri and Angela Bassett‘s Queen Ramonda are refocused as the emotional and administrative core of Wakanda, but loss becomes less central than how those affected choose to honor it. Set some time following the infamous Endgame blip (in which Boseman’s T’Challa is snapped out of existence along with half the world’s population), Wakanda Forever picks up in the local and international aftermath of a traumatic global event. It’s a year after T’Challa’s death, Wakandan leadership is still struggling to fill the void left by its spiritual and ceremonial figurehead, and new threats are quite literally washing ashore to challenge the country’s sovereignty. Chief amongst them are Namor, a wing-footed leader of the submerged kingdom of Tolocan, which is tracking to have as explosive of an entrance onto the geopolitical stage as its vibranium-rich rival.
Like the original film’s villain, Namor commands more empathy with each minute of screen time. He’s cunning, regal, and devoted to the heavy-handed protection of his culture and its history. But where Killmonger was categorically ruthless in executing a comprehensive coup of Wakanda, Tenoch Huerta’s Namor seems almost reluctant to display the full breadth of his god-like power. And by the film’s end, it’s unclear if we ever actually got to see it.
The film does offer some needed resolution to its cast and the personas they bring to the screen, but closure remains at a distance. Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay, leaves room for fans to wonder and feel without restraint in the most blown-out and expansive glance at the technologically-fortified nation yet. It’s not the tightly-wrapped curtain call most MCU films close with. But it also doesn’t make a spectacle of the sadness lingering over the story. The appeals to sentimentality, ritual, and the open-endedness of mourning are genuine and tactfully deployed while maintaining an emotional density typically reserved for an Endgame scale event. However, building up to — and past — those tender moments takes a toll on the flow of the film at times. Climactic battles get abruptly halted to nudge the story along. Characters emerge and drift back into the wings without much development. A complex colonial critique is present but undermined by being tucked into a series of punchlines. And the plot arguably verges on being too stuffed for its own good.
But as the closing title of “Phase Four,” Wakanda Forever stands as a stark alternative to standard Marvel fare. According to Coogler, it might have always been that way, even if Boseman was physically a part of the equation. And while it may feel like a new tone for Marvel, it is only reclaiming one that has felt too peripheral in the vast IP pool of films and TV titles that comprise this phase of the MCU. Over the last four years, only one of the studio’s early television properties (Wandavision, ) dealt with grief so head-on, which, in retrospect, feels an oddly detached choice for Marvel given the general state of worldwide unrest. Rather than presenting an imaginative escape from the perpetual tragedy of our real lives, Wakanda Forever matches the pitch with a gorgeously thoughtful memorial that honors the fallen and proves the MCU can still take itself seriously. For better, and in some cases, for worse.