The death of Chadwick Boseman, who played the titular superhero in Marvel’s 2018’s smash-hit Black Panther, was a loss for Hollywood, the far-too-early exit of an emergent major talent. It also sent Marvel’s planned film franchise into disarray—very far down the list of concerns after Boseman’s death, but one that the industry’s biggest machine would have to address somehow.
The result of those efforts is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (in theatres November 11), in which director Ryan Coogler both dwells on a tragedy, picks up what’s left, and moves on. That’s an unenviable task that Coogler bears with dignity, even as the pressures and requirements of brand maintenance demand more and more of his attention.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever begins with prince T’Challa’s off-screen death, felled by disease just as Boseman was—a grim way to start things, but probably a necessary one. It’s commendable that Coogler and crew don’t try to give T’Challa some grand digital send-off, instead letting him slip away quietly. That’s the respectful thing to do: better to acknowledge blunt reality than, in some perverse way, try to improve upon Boseman’s death, to make it bigger, more bombastic, and heroic.
The pallor this opening casts across the movie is considerable. Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s spunky scientist sister Shuri, is allowed little of the playfulness that made her such fun in Black Panther. As she steps into the center of the frame, she must knuckle down and get serious, laden with the grief and anger that give Wakanda Forever its somber weight.
This was unavoidable, probably. And yet, one still selfishly, bitterly misses the lively energy of the first film, its spirit of righteous celebration and reclamation. An attempt at some levity comes in the form of Riri (Dominique Thorne), an MIT wunderkind who finds herself in the middle of a civilizational war because of some new, world-changing tech she invented as a lark for one of her class projects.
But Riri is mere setup for franchise adventures to come; in the contained world of Wakanda Forever, she’s mostly a digression that the film soon forgets about. (Her introduction does at least lead to one zippy chase scene through Cambridge.) The bigger plot of the film involves a whole new secret society, one that, quite like Wakanda, was created as a refuge from the forces of white colonization and genocide. Suddenly, amidst its sorrow, Wakanda Forever sets off on an adventure involving Mayans and a whole heap of supernatural mythology.
The Marvel ship must forge on, after all. What would one of these movies be at this point without a new chunk of comic book lore brought into the fold of the universe? The underwater god Namor (Tenoch Huerta) may register as a bit too close to Aquaman, but he does at least allow for some interesting discourse on the vast reach and ruin of the European empire. It’s a pity that the film sets Namor’s people and Shuri’s against one another—shouldn’t they be allies, bonded in their mutual struggle against centuries of exploitation and murder?—but that thorny tension mirrors the tricky struggle of Black Panther, which presented a villain who was, in his radical revolutionary thinking, also kinda right.
Coogler’s is a more thoughtful film than many of its Marvel brethren. Because it had to be, and because Coogler is a filmmaker adept at sussing out the deeper human dimensions lying under the surface of genre. His were probably the only hands in which this particular movie could be trusted; he satisfies studio mandates to the best of his abilities while also attending to his own sadness, and his own social and political interests.
Lest you think it’s all gloom, Wakanda Forever does have its bright, undeniable pleasures. It’s refreshing to see a Marvel film so anchored by women. Wright, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and others are commanding presences, standing proud and formidable in Ruth Carter’s glorious costumery. The film’s lush visuals—its rendering of bustling old-town Wakanda, of a mysterious city under the sea, of gleaming tech and natural landscapes—are sumptuous and considered. There is much to be admired here, care for craft and detail on a higher plane than other Marvel fare.
Still, some will no doubt miss the tight focus and energy of Black Panther. This sequel is more scattered, a vast expansion with a hole at its center. In their mourning, the film’s characters are tossed to the wind, atomized on their own sad trajectories. But so, it seems, is the film itself, keeping busy so it doesn’t get dragged down in the undertow of its despair. One wishes that Coogler and company had more time to process, collect themselves, and figure out the truly best way forward, rather than grafting different characters onto a story once meant for T’Challa. But economics waits for no period of reflection, and so they have done their timely contractual duty in as noble a fashion as, perhaps, was possible.