Long live the Black Panther.
“In my culture, death is not the end. It’s more of a stepping-off point. You reach out with both hands, and Bast and Sekhmet lead you into a green field… where you can run forever.” These words that Chadwick Boseman spoke in his first appearance as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War echoed in my memory while watching Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a poignant and thoughtful reflection on the Black Panther legacy, what it means to people, and how we are expected to grieve and move forward when our king is no longer with us. Chadwick Boseman is gone. How is the Black Panther expected to survive without him?
After King T’Challa suddenly and unexpectedly passes away, the kingdom of Wakanda is left in a weakened, vulnerable state. The United Nations is after Wakanda and its precious Vibranium. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is struggling to balance her new life as a ruler and as a grieving mother. And while all of this is going on, a new threat emerges from the oceans: Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the king of the underwater nation of Talokan, who seeks war on the world for what the surface dwellers have done to his people. Now left to defend itself from both Talokan and the world, a new Black Panther must rise from Wakanda to protect the nation and its people.
It’s difficult to critique or even write about this movie without reflecting on what it was originally supposed to be. Before Chadwick Boseman tragically passed away from colon cancer in 2020, writer-director Ryan Coogler was knee-deep in writing the sequel and even completed a draft before Chadwick’s sudden passing. Coogler famously said after the fact that he “spent the last year preparing, imagining and writing words for him to say that we weren’t destined to see.” That’s the most heartbreaking part of all, knowing that Chadwick had a big part to play in this sequel that we’ll never get to see what could have been.
So when the movie feels like it’s supposed to be two separate movies, in a way, it’s kind of because they’re supposed to be. There are two intertwining narratives that are conflicting with each other in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The first and stronger one is the fact that T’Challa has passed away and the nation of Wakanda is grieving for their fallen hero. The second is a geopolitical thriller about two warring nations and how they can peacefully coexist in the same world together. Both of these premises are strong enough to carry an entire movie on their own. Juggling both of these narratives at the same time in a lengthy two-hour and 40-minute runtime feels crammed.
But I don’t blame Coogler for how convoluted the movie feels. The fact is he and the rest of his creative team were thrust into a very uncomfortable position and had to make a difficult choice — continue telling the story of Wakanda without its hero, or let its legacy die alongside Chadwick Boseman? Ultimately, Coogler and the rest of the cast and crew decided that the Black Panther mantle was far too important to be left alone or forgotten, though maybe they should have taken some time to grieve and flesh out the script a little more when the loss wasn’t so raw to them.
One thing I will say is that the performances are powerful in this movie — quite possibly even more so than in the first movie. But that’s somewhat to be expected. After all, the entire cast isn’t so much acting as they are expressing their true feelings of loss and grief. While the rest of the world lost a king, a superhero, and an icon two years ago, the cast of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever lost a colleague, a mentor, and a friend. That pain translates beautifully and meaningfully into their performances. Even traditionally comedic actors like Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Winston Duke carry a much more somber, serious delivery with their lines. And Angela Basset was straight-up fierce as Queen Ramonda. She had a couple of truly powerful monologues in the film that was effective in expressing her strength, her resoluteness, and her sadness all at the same time.
Even the newcomers were just as impressive. Dominique Thorne (If Beale Street Could Talk, Judas And The Black Messiah) takes over for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark as the new Ironheart, and while I was initially worried about how she would fit into this already packed story, she was a standout among the cast and gave the film some much-needed attitude and energy to help keep up the pace. And Tenoch Huerta especially crushed it as Namor. Far from the cheap one-dimensional supervillains Marvel is usually known for churning out, Namor is a much more complex, layered antagonist who is compelled to action not by world domination or destruction, but out of deep love, care, and protection for his people. He serves as an excellent foil to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, and it makes my heart hurt thinking of all of the great interactions we could have seen from these characters that we’ll never get to.
All in all, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not as great as its predecessor. Then again though, it doesn’t need to be. While the film makes you feel the weight of Chadwick Boseman’s loss and the hollow, empty feelings that come with it, it’s also incredibly healing and reassures you that tomorrow will still come, even when the ones we love are no longer with us. Chadwick Boseman may be gone, but let us be grateful that the Black Panther continues to live on — not just in the people of Wakanda, but in all of us.