The King is dead, long live The Queen.
Director Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige were faced with a very difficult choice following the tragic passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman in 2020. Coogler finished the sequel's script just before his lead actor died, and had to decide whether to recast the role of T'Challa or start from scratch with a completely new story.
The eventual announcement that the studio intended to forge ahead with what came to be known as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever without Boseman or a new take on the hero was divisive, but it's hard to imagine anyone finding fault after seeing what a fitting, powerful tribute to both the man and character Wakanda Forever proves to be.
The sequel begins on a heartbreaking note, and retains a fairly sombre tone throughout. Though there is some humor/levity (this is an MCU movie at the end of the day), Coogler is fully aware of the weight of the story he's telling, and allows the film's emotional moments the room needed to register without rushing to the next gag. While previous Marvel/superhero movies have touched on some of the same themes, Wakanda Forever lays its characters bare in a way we really haven't seen before, as those closest to T'Challa attempt to come to terms with his death and cope with the grief in their own ways.
Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is forced to move on relatively quickly as she shoulders the responsibility of leading and protecting her people while rival nations seek to exploit Wakanda's Vibranium reserves. Okoye (Danai Gurira) continues to do her duty as the leader of the Dora Milaje, but struggles with what she sees as a crushing defeat. Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) distances herself completely, leaving Wakanda before the funeral. Shuri (Letitia Wright) refuses to accept her brother's death, and the guilt she feels for not being able to save him eventually gives way to devastating rage.
Unfortunately, just as the pain of T'Challa's loss is beginning to subside (for some, at least), our heroes find themselves thrust into the middle of a potentially world-ending conflict, as the ruler of the aquatic civilization known as Talocan, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), targets a young scientist named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) whose findings may ultimately spell doom for his people.
Wright's personal views have come in for a lot of backlash, so don't be surprised if you see her contribution to this movie downplayed or outright ignored in some reviews. It can sometimes be difficult to separate the artist from their work, but the fact of the matter is, she delivers a truly incredible performance here and is deserving of whatever praise does come her way. The entire cast is on form, though, with Bassett, Gurira and Huerta all equally impressive.
The Narcos: Mexico actor brings a calm dignity to his take on the Submariner, but we get glimpses of a barely-contained anger bubbling beneath the surface. Namor is only doing what he believes he must in order to keep Talocan safe, but his willingness to do whatever's necessary to achieve this takes him to some very dark places. The same can be said of Shuri, to some extent, which makes the inevitable battle between Wakanda and Talocan all the more intense and tragic.
We've come to expect a few well-constructed action sequences from Marvel Studios at this stage, but Wakanda Forever really does feature some pulse-pounding set pieces. A fierce encounter between Okoye and some Talacon (Talocanean?) warriors on a bridge after an exciting car chase stands out, as does the somewhat shockingly brutal face-off between Namor and our new Black Panther.
Yes, you probably have a pretty good idea which character takes up the mantle (or do you?), but just in case, you'll find no spoilers here.
Though Wakanda Forever is very much a standalone story in many ways, its less successful elements stem from the now seemingly unavoidable requirement to lay the groundwork for what's to come. The addition of our future Ironheart doesn't seem too jarring because Riri is integral to the plot, but her scenes do still feel a little tonally at odds with the rest of the film. Another subplot - which we won't get into - is even more tacked-on, and screams of studio-mandated set-up for... well, you'll find out soon enough!
It's a shame, because this is a long movie, and although a good chunk of its 2 hr, 40 min (give or take) run-time is justified, trimming or cutting certain scenes entirely really wouldn't have hurt the story and arguably made for an even better viewing experience.
And yet, any issues really do feel like nitpicks when the craftsmanship on display is taken into account. Coogler expertly weaves exciting super-heroics, poignant family drama and political commentary together with an audacious hand, and the result is not only the best Phase 4 instalment (by some margin), but one of the greatest MCU movies so far - period.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the best sequel we could have hoped for without Chadwick Boseman. Ryan Coogler has built a respectful, mature, beautiful monument to his friend and T'Challa, whose legacy is in the safe hands of a worthy successor.