Grief is an agent of change.
With its enormous power, grief can alter the sturdiest foundations: a brilliant young scientist princess, the most powerful kingdom in the world, a multi-billion dollar entertainment behemoth. Nothing and no one is immune. Change inspired by grief is inevitable. The question is, who or what do you become when it greets you?
That is the central question of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a film borne from grief. The untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman from pancreatic cancer stunned the world, evoking waves of mourning for a remarkable, transformative talent. His death threw the unshakeable Marvel Cinematic Universe into disarray, leaving the franchise’s future without its charismatic and regal leader. Wakanda Forever, the highly-anticipated sequel planned with Boseman in mind, was transformed overnight into something unprecedented and once unthinkable. While processing the loss of a colleague and friend, the world asked Ryan Coogler and the crew to do the same for us. (Even for those who callously pushed for Boseman’s character, who he played during his private battle with cancer, to be immediately recast.)
In the shadow of an impossible task, Wakanda Forever meets grief head-on, contemplating its role as a change agent. The film is unique within the MCU in how it grants the grieving process its complexities and complications. T’Challa’s absence is palpable, but sadness isn’t the only emotional response. Celebration, resignation, humor, anger, depression, and hope all spring forth. There is also depth, especially amongst Wakanda’s two highest-ranking women: Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright). Ramonda seeks comfort in Wakanda’s ancestral traditions and customs to guide her through mourning and as the country’s emboldened queen regnant. Shuri, the country’s brightest spark, has dimmed, retreating into the comforts and controls of technology.
Their different approaches compose Wakanda Forever’s most compelling tension between science and faith. Wakanda has always artfully balanced the two, with T’Challa fiercely advocating for both. But grief evokes change. The absence of son, brother, and national protector have pushed Ramonda and Shuri together emotionally, but apart ideologically. As the stewards of the nation’s ancestral and technological heritage, what does Ramona and Shore’s grief-stricken skepticism mean for their future, and Wakanda’s? Coogler acknowledges how T’Challa’s absence subtly upends the nation’s and its citizens’ equilibrium. It comes at a terrible time, as science and faith clash in other ways.
The world’s hunger for vibranium has put them in direct conflict with Talokan, an underwater Mesoamerican kingdom led by the mutant god Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) that has its own supply. Namor seeks Wakanda’s support in acquiring the scientist responsible for a vibranium detection machine, the unwitting MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). Namor believes he and Wakanda could ally against the surface world that has historically sought to pillage and control them for mineral and human resources. What will Wakanda choose, a foreign technologist who poses an existential threat or a potential spiritual ally whose methods could cause more tangible harm?
Coogler uses this side of his coin to breathe new life into his pocket of the MCU. While T’Challa’s loss rings thematically throughout, Wakanda Forever offers a world without him that can still rouse and exhilarate. Coogler’s direction feels weighty and consequential as ever, keeping us engrossed in the action’s increased scale and stakes. His handle on visual effects has improved. There is also plenty of humor, with Riri and especially M’Baku delivering some chest-clutching one-liners. It can be jarring at first if you walk into the film expecting tear-soaked catharsis. Where Coogler lands instead is more satisfying. It’s a place where wonder, in the gorgeous caverns of Talokan’s capital city, and fun, in M’Baku’s delightfully gruff interactions, can thrive alongside the sadness. It is a manifestation of, arguably, the MCU’s greatest single line, “what is grief if not love persevering,” beautifully realized within Black and Latino contexts.
Wakanda Forever is thematically rich and thoroughly entertaining, but it also struggles with its MCU obligations as other Phase 4 films have. Black Panther was a marvel partially because of its self-containment. Coogler explored Wakanda’s culture and politics, particularly its isolationist policy and international obligations. Here, Coogler tries to advance those conversations across two kingdoms while roping in other characters and setting up future projects. Coogler manages, but the strain is evident as C-plots and cameos interrupt genuine emotional and thematic momentum. It also pushes the runtime close to unnecessary, Endgame lengths. (A solid 20 minutes could’ve been chopped with little story consequence.) The film succeeds regardless, but it further enforces the reality that the MCU may be unsustainable in its current form.
Coogler deserves much credit for Wakanda Forever’s success in the worst circumstances, but he isn’t alone. The cast gives everything they have to the film, with uniformly profound results. Letitia Wright steps into the lead role Boseman once occupied, and she handles the daunting responsibility beautifully. Shuri’s repression, hesitance, and vengeance radiate off her in heartbreaking, unsettling ways. Angela Bassett is a force of nature when she isn’t trying. Here, every remarkable skill of hers is on display. She shakes your core with her razor-sharp, absorbing presence. She is extraordinary throughout, but two specific scenes are the best performed in the MCU’s history, worthy of awards consideration. Danai Gurira, Lupita N’yongo, and Winston Duke all turn in excellent, moving work. Amidst the new players, Dominique Thorne is a charming delight as Riri Williams, the future Ironheart, while Tenoch Huerta Mejía cuts an intimidating but graceful and charismatic figure as Namor.
Grief changed Wakanda Forever. In most estimations, it shouldn’t work. The loss of T’Challa, of Chadwick Boseman, should be too much for one film to bear. And yet, Wakanda Forever forged ahead by accepting grief and dictating what the inevitable change would look like. The film bears scars from its thematic conflict, ambitious scale, and MCU demands, but it wears them proudly. You cannot help but empathize with the cast and crew’s sacrifices, and feel gratitude that they delivered something startlingly meaningful. The film at the absolute least confirms that Coogler is the MCU’s greatest asset.
But more than that, Wakanda Forever is a powerful reminder that whatever changes grief might evoke, the path forward is worth taking, no matter what greets you at the end.