What made Chadwick Boseman’s death in August 2020 such a shock wasn’t just that he was so young (43), so vital (having just starred in the first billion-dollar black-led film), so beloved (again, billion-dollar film) and so talented (with pre-release Oscar buzz for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), but that it seemed so sudden. Despite being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016, before filming for Black Panther began, few people outside his family knew that he was sick. In retrospect, his gaunt appearance in later films, particularly Ma Rainey and Da 5 Bloods, both released posthumously, made it clear that he was not well, but he was even noticeably thin in Avengers: Endgame, the film which now marks Boseman and T’Challa’s final in-person appearance in the MCU. Yet, without him appearing on screen, Boseman is just as essential to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever as he was to Black Panther. The film as it is would not exist if it weren’t for him.
It’s impossible to watch the opening minutes of Wakanda Forever without feeling that Boseman’s real life tragedy informed how director/co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler handled the death of T’Challa. With the actor unavailable, the character dies off-screen of an unnamed illness that he’d kept secret even from those closest to him, leaving them just as shocked as the world was. Thankfully we’re spared any attempt to recreate Boseman’s passing and focus instead on T’Challa’s sister, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, struggling to synthesize a new heart-shaped herb in hopes of saving him. She knows it won’t work as much as we do, but that doesn’t make the announcement that the Black Panther is gone, or the silent, Boseman-centered Marvel title screen, any less tearful.
What follows, packed as it is with world building, fantasy science, and super-powered fight scenes, is a two-hour and forty-minute examination of grief.
This theme is most obvious in T’Challa’s family. As opposed to the wise-cracking, smartest-in-the-room little sister of the first film, Wakanda Forever finds Shuri in a somber mood. Gone are the jokes about shoes, replaced by an even greater retreat into science and technology. Meanwhile, their mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) towers in her role as queen of Wakanda, chastising the world for believing that the loss of their protector leaves the country exposed and ripe for plunder. Everything about Ramonda, from her manner of speaking to her posture to the way her clothing reveals the muscles in her shoulders, screams power, and Bassett matches this with a stunning Shakespearean performance. Yet, in her speech about loss, we can see how broken she is without her son. Where Shuri hides behind technology, Ramonda hides behind strength, both of them believing that somehow these traits will fill the hole left by T’Challa’s death. Other characters including Danai Gurira as Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, and Winston Duke’s M’Baku demonstrate their own forms of grief, but none are as intense as Ramonda’s or as profound as Shuri, with the former attempting to fill T’Challa’s role in both domestic and international politics, and the latter stepping into the role of focal character for the Black Panther franchise. While her grief understandably flattens the character, the variation in Wright’s performance between films demonstrates a strong range of where Shuri may go in the future.
Despite having no relationship to T’Challa, a similar level of grief drives Tenoch Huerta’s appearance as Namor. As the leader of a culture forced from their ancestral lands by colonial forces, Namor is woven perfectly into the overall themes of the Black Panther franchise. While this MCU version of Namor is vastly different from that of the comics, even down to him being the leader of Talokan instead of Atlantis, the alterations only make him a better fit for Wakanda Forever. The typical pale, speedo-wearing hyper-arrogant king of fantasy Atlantis wouldn’t have worked within the motif of Coogler’s Black Panther. However a Mayan-inspired figure decked in vibranium jewelry who’d taken his name from the Spanish colonists that labeled him “the boy without love” works so wonderfully that comic accuracy isn’t even considered. Namor does however drop a certain word that should pop in the mind of anyone familiar with the comics. It’s a credit to Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole that the character and his city are crafted into an exact parallel for Shuri and Wakanda. The two match so naturally that the inevitable conflict between them feels somewhat forced. It’s funny as well that such a revolutionary franchise features its heroes fighting to maintain the status quo.
Many of Wakanda Forever‘s weakest moments come from the conflict with Talokan. In addition to some faulty logic behind Talokan’s pursuit of “the scientist” as well as Wakanda’s absolute determination to protect that scientist to the point of inviting an existential threat, the fights which arise from this conflict aren’t nearly as compelling or inspired as the character interactions which precede them. Fluid as the fight choreography is, there’s little force behind the strikes. As with the first film, there are times when poor special effects distract from what the audience is supposed to be focusing on. It’s baffling that in a film which includes believable scenes of vehicles hovering and characters flying, one of the oldest and simplest effects – that of superimposing a real person over a fake background – stands out as clearly fake. More baffling is that this is common in many modern films. Wakandan technology is beautiful realized, Talokan’s underwater setting is so immersive that we barely register how unreal it is, and yet the simple effect of Namor flying over the city looks about as authentic as Humphrey Bogart shaking the steering wheel as grainy footage rolls on behind him. You’d think that after 80 years this simple effect would be perfected. Worse still, the final conflict between Wakanda and Talokan feels underwhelming as these two nations with huge armies and unfathomable technology fight in a single, small location over a canvas of nothing. It doesn’t help that three of the main characters sport full-face helmets, two of them brightly colored and all obscuring their expressions, making portions of this climatic action look like an episode of Power Rangers. Luckily by the time the film reaches that point the characters and their individual journeys are so richly established that the fights are less necessary for excitement than for changing relationships and furthering character development. Action sequences in Wakanda Forever are less about the physical conflict at the time than the emotional conflict in the future.
Yet, even with its faults and considerable length, Wakanda Forever is an undeniably excellent film. Where Black Panther was a very good film elevated by its real-world importance, Wakanda Forever is a more complete and confident piece of filmmaking. Having already proven themselves, and without the burden of carrying the hopes and expectations of an entire culture, Coogler and his cast and crew appear free to craft a film that is both epic and intensely personal. Most filmmakers, having less confidence and command, would use an overwrought musical score to heighten emotion, yet Coogler leaves many of the film’s most compelling scenes, including the bookending introduction and finale, in only the sounds of the characters and the world around them. In these scenes, and in the undercurrent of the entire film, we see how T’Challa’s passing, and Boseman’s, affected so many characters, the entire nation of Wakanda, and the producers of Black Panther itself. Yet the heart and catalyst of the film is Shuri’s individual grief. We see how she retreats from sadness, seeks out companionship, strives to redeem herself, and rages against her enemies before finally, in one of the Wakanda Forever‘s most beautiful scenes, again filmed in silence, accepts her loss. Although somewhat counteracted by the mid-credits scene which follows – a narrative necessity but a tonal distraction – this final scene further emphasizes Shuri’s growth on screen and Coogler’s growth off screen. There’s no final joke. No tease of future conflict. No cliffhanger to build up for a next movie. Just a woman, alone, finally allowing herself to grieve.
At the time of Chadwick Boseman’s death neither director Ryan Coogler nor producer Kevin Feige even knew of his condition. His loss cast an enormous doubt on the possibility of making a second Black Panther film. Coogler himself has stated that he wanted to walk away from the project. Boseman held the first film together. Without him, it fell upon Coogler himself to keep the second film going. It’s easy to see Wakanda Forever as both Coogler and the entire cast working through their own grief over the loss of their leader. Even without appearing on screen, Boseman has such a presence that he’s felt in nearly every second. The question is, now that the grief has passed, and acceptance has set in, where does Black Panther go next? That Wakanda Forever is as strong as it is, faults and loss and all, proves that the franchise and the talent behind it are skilled enough to live up to the creed of Wakanda: Death is not the end.