Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away in 2020, but his presence looms large over Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which opens and closes with emotional tributes to both his character T’Challa and the actor himself.
Real-life parallels run throughout this sprawling and ambitious sequel, and like the first film, it stands out above the usual Marvel fare (and particularly mid-range 2022 offerings such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder) thanks to the weight it places on its subject matter.
Like Eternals before it, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever represents a sprawling, ambitious break from Marvel Cinematic Universe formula: gone is the titular superhero and in his place a complex web of characters of different motivations and backgrounds.
And while Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was conceived long before the current war in Europe, it explicitly seems to invite comparison. This is an often-fascinating film that pits two warring factions against each other, and asks the audience not to root for either, but instead for them to come to a peaceful resolution.
One of those factions is Wakanda, now led by Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, who shines in her limited screen time), who has taken the reins from her recently-deceased son T’Challa. At the start of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ramonda appears before a UN security council to condemn attempts to obtain the nation’s precious resource vibranium, which can be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.
On the other side of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the hitherto unseen underwater kingdom of Talokan and its Prince Namor, enthusiastically played by Tenoch Huerta. Descendents of Aztecs who saw mankind wipe out their civilization, the Talokans now see man’s pursuit of vibranium as a threat to the world that must be stopped at all costs.
While Wakanda and Talokan have similar goals, their methods couldn’t be more diverse. Namor insists on killing the American scientist who has invented a machine to detect underwater vibranium, while T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, who becomes Wakanda Forever’s de facto protagonist) and Wakandan general Okoye (Danai Gurira)
That scientist represents Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s weakest element. MIT student Dominique Thorne (Riri Williams) is a teenage Tony Stark-level genius without any of the nuance or complexity that make the other characters in this film so interesting. The climax of the film wants to turn her into the next Iron Man, but her appearance here is largely perfunctory.
As Wakanda and Talokan head towards war, CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her former husband and Wakanda-friendly agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, and T’challa’s wife Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who has emigrated to Haiti since the events of the first film, largely look on.
At a running time of more than 2.5 hours, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever represents one of the MCU’s longest films; it’s also light on the comic book action that dominates most of these movies. But like Eternals before it, this is a serious-minded departure for the MCU, and after 15 years of familiar fare it’s a welcome addition.
While digital effects here are far more accomplished than the first film, climactic action scenes that employ a fully-animated Black Panther distract from the serious nature of the scenes that surround them. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s original score expands on his Wakandan vibes from the first film and represents some of the best music in a Marvel film yet.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may not be a runaway success like the first film, and its ties to the Marvel universe are also thin (no characters from other MCU turn up for cameo appearances). But for fans that have invested in these characters and the world they inhabit, it’s a more-than-worthy successor to the earlier movie that pays fitting tribute to its protagonist and the actor who played him.