The world was shocked when Chadwick Boseman passed away in 2020 at the tender age of forty-four, just two years after finding superstardom as King T’Challa in “Black Panther.” His passing left the future of the “Black Panther” franchise in flux. Would it be possible to make a “Black Panther” movie without the Black Panther?
The second film in the series, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” answers the question. The new film has all the action you expect from a blockbuster Marvel movie, but also acts as a eulogy of a sort to the late actor and his most famous character.
“Wakanda Forever” begins on a sombre note, acknowledging the passing of T’Challa. “Your brother is with the ancestors,” Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) tells daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright). After a grand funeral fit for a king, director Ryan Coogler moves the action forward by one year.
Queen Ramonda, still healing from the wound left by T’Challa’s passing, is forced to defend her kingdom from international poachers intent on stealing their most valuable resource, a rare metallic ore with energy-manipulating properties called Vibranium. “We mourn the loss of our king,” she informs the United Nations, “but don’t think for a moment that Wakanda has lost its ability to protect her resources.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. military discovers a cache of Vibranium, previously thought to only exist in Wakanda, at the bottom of the ocean. But before you can say “Wakanda Forever,” the expedition is attacked by sea people, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), “feathered serpent god” of an ancient race of teal-skinned underwater people who look like they could have been extras in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
Namor’s kingdom of Talokan also has Vibranium, and now that Wakanda has made the ore’s awesome power public knowledge, his nation is under threat from people who want what they have. That puts Wakanda at odds with an enemy unlike any they’ve fought before, an army outfitted with Vibranium weapons.
With a 2-hour-and-41-minute runtime, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” takes on a lot. It’s a study in loss and grief mixed with big time Marvel action set pieces. In addition, Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole have woven an indictment of colonialism into both the history of Wakanda and the Mayan-influenced backstory of Talokan. It makes for rich subtext in the storytelling, even if the movie occasionally has a rough time balancing all its elements.
If those missteps can be forgiven, its simply because “Wakanda Forever” isn’t a typical Marvel film. It exists outside Marvel Cinematic Universe. That means there is no connection to the other Avengers films, and it is better for it. Instead of feeling as if it is a puzzle piece of a larger picture, it is its own thing, a movie able to walk a different path and get away from the increasingly rigid structures of the late period MCU movies. The mix of the intimate and epic is what makes this movie work, both as a tribute to Boseman and as blockbuster entertainment.
The ensemble cast is very strong, but it is Bassett who leaves a mark. As Queen and T’Challa’s mother, she is majestic and melancholy, a woman attempting to balance duty with grief. “I am Queen of the most powerful nation in the world,” she says in anguish, “and my entire family is gone. Have I not given everything?” It’s a powerful moment and a poignant exploration of the weight that comes with loss coupled with obligation.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has a few draggy moments, but its determination to be its own thing makes for compelling viewing.