Ryan Coogler’s sequel is a breathtaking exploration of grief and maternal love.
Black Panther’s highly anticipated sequel Wakanda Forever has finally arrived, and it rises to expectations as the best Marvel Studios film released this year. Director Ryan Coogler had the daunting task to balance a film that serves as both a loving tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer in 2020, and as a journey moving the Black Panther franchise forward. He succeeds on both parts, with both the most visually stunning settings of Marvel to date, and thoughtful depictions of each of the Wakandans’ journeys through grief. (As shown in the trailers, the film follows T’Challa’s death without focusing on the cause, a clever decision that gives his grieving loved ones center stage.) While the conflict between the Wakandans and the Talokan leader Namor presents an insightful look at the legacy of colonization, the beating heart of this film lies with the Black women who are processing the loss of their king, lover, son, and brother.
After a cold open that serves as sorrowful catharsis for the cast, filmmakers, and audience, Letitia Wright takes the lead as tech genius Shuri, who struggles with anger in the wake of her brother’s death. Wright gives an excellent, realistic portrayal of someone who doesn’t know where to put her sense of injustice and guilt, while also having to decide what’s best for her country in the face of potential war. Her thoughts are juxtaposed against her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who now rules the country with her quiet maternal strength and tries to help her daughter work through her anguish. Their largest differences of opinion are treated with empathy and care as they land on different sides of belief about the Black Panther—Ramonda embraces the role’s connection to Wakandan spirituality, while Shuri tunnels into her dedication of science, and believes the country’s designated protector is a mere relic.
Members of the Dora Milaje also return to provide visceral ass-kicking sequences, comedic beats, and increased emotional heft. Danai Gurira’s general Okoye is the subtle MVP of the franchise once again, mostly serving as a diligent second until her unwavering loyalty is tested in the second half of the film. As Aneka, newcomer Michaela Coel has some scene-stealing moments that test the traditions of the all-women warrior squad, a thread that would be great to continue if the fighters get their own project. Lupita Nyong’o’s master spy Nakia also returns after spending time in Haiti, bringing the same caring warmth that she brought to the 2018 film.
As Shuri steps into the leader role, she also encounters a new mentee in Riri Williams, the 19-year-old MIT co-ed and tech savant known in the original comics as Ironheart. The two women quickly form a kinship through their mutual nerdiness, and Judas and the Black Messiah actress Dominique Thorne brings an every-girl humor and electric wit that will make viewers excited for her upcoming Disney+ spinoff series.
In addition to the emotional beats, Coogler also builds on his deft interweaving of colonialism and its impact throughout the Black Panther franchise. After T’Challa revealed the existence of the country and vibranium to the global public, other world powers are after the nearly-indestructible natural resource. Viewers quickly learn that threat doesn’t just impact Wakanda, with the film introducing another kingdom that relies on the metal, an Atlantis-like underwater civilization led by Namor (exquisitely played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta). The king’s origin is inspired by Indigenous Mayan history, and the juxtaposition of these two fictional nations who have thrived without the involvement of colonial rule is both lovely and sad, when they’re eventually placed at odds.
Despite its many strong points, Wakanda Forever is not flawless. After a thrilling sequence that introduces the global plunderers seeking vibranium (a sequence that notably centers the Wakandan women), Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross returns in a subplot where the CIA operative slowly realizes that his superiors’ have shady motives against the Wakandans. The “well, duh” that elicits shows how his scenes feel superfluous in an already jam-packed film. Also, sequels always face a tough challenge with the need to surpass the original film, and the third act of the film is propelled by a new challenge placed on Shuri’s shoulders which replaces one of the central emotional drives of the film.
Black Panther became a cultural phenomenon upon its 2018 release because of its strong cultural, political, and emotional identity, built by a team who were rocked by the sudden passing of its noble heart. At its core, Wakanda Forever is a monumental feat that does justice for audiences that are both seeking whether the Black Panther will have a future as an MCU hero, and hoping to experience a communal celebration for a beloved actor and his groundbreaking role. The franchise lives in the same way Black and Indigenous communities have lived through hardship, experiencing love, sorrow, humor, anger, and everything in between as we move forward with an unyielding need to protect our loved ones and honor our ancestors. The heart of all these efforts lie with the women who will protect Wakanda in the face of a new, uncertain but always hopeful future.