Director Ryan Coogler had a thin line to walk for his sequel to Black Panther.
Following up 2018’s mega-hit that was unlike any Marvel superhero we’d seen before, reaching out to audiences and cultures that previously felt underserved by blockbuster entertainment, would have been difficult enough. Coogler had an opportunity to direct a sequel to 2015’s Creed, but passed on it to jump into the Marvel sandbox and bring comic books’ first Black superhero to the big screen.
Topping himself and continuing the story of Wakanda’s King T’Challa was going to be much more difficult — logistically and emotionally — after the death of star Chadwick Boseman two years ago. How could Marvel and Coogler, along with the amazing cast and crew that brought the fictional African nation to vivid life, keep the story going without the Black Panther himself?
Out of respect to Boseman, Marvel decided that T’Challa wouldn’t be recast. That was probably the correct decision, especially so soon after the actor’s death. Asking fans — and those who worked with Boseman — to accept a new face in the role would have been difficult. (Though during the past two years, sentiment — online, anyway — has turned toward recasting and advancing a character that was so iconic, so important to audiences.)
So Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole (who collaborated on the first film’s screenplay) embraced the real world’s intrusion on Marvel mythology and acknowledged Boseman’s death in the story by giving T’Challa much the same traffic fate. As a result, Wakanda Forever serves as a tribute to the actor, allowing fans and colleagues to mourn and perhaps find closure with the loss.
Boseman’s death is handled wonderfully by the story, with the love and care promised by the film’s first trailer. Viewers get an opportunity to say goodbye to the actor, and the T’Challa character, and recognizes what he established. The mourning of death and celebration of life provides another display of the world created for Wakanda with vivid color and ceremony. Other superhero movies, nor most blockbuster spectacles, do not look like this.
T’Challa’s death serves as a throughline to the entire story, with family and friends coping with continuing his legacy while trying to move forward. Shuri (Letitia Wright) feels guilty for not curing her brother’s illness and saving his life. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, in a fantastic performance) is trying to fill the leadership void left by her son’s death (and her husband before him) for her people.
Picking up where Black Panther ended, we soon learn that Wakanda hasn’t followed through on T’Challa’s promise to share its resources and technology with the rest of the world. With the nation’s king now gone, other global superpowers are worried about where Wakanda’s allegiances lie and where all of its Vibranium could end up.
Furthermore, Wakanda itself is still dealing with the repercussions of Erik Killmonger briefly taking the throne from T’Challa and actions during his reign that make it difficult for the nation to heal. Killmonger left more of a footprint than anyone might have expected.
Related: ‘Black Panther is like no other Marvel film, reaching a higher bar as a result [The Comeback]
Wakanda Forever also continues a larger story by introducing new characters, notably the warrior king of the hidden deep-sea kingdom Talokan. Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) sees an opportunity to partner with Wakanda against a world seeking to plunder his resources. And unlike T’Challa, he’s much more aggressive and lethal about defending his nation.
The story draws many similarities between Namor and T’Challa, which once would have fed criticism that too many of Marvel’s villains are mirror images of its heroes. But Namor saw the worst of humanity from a very young age, which developed a distrust that fuels his every decision. That puts him at odds with Wakanda (especially Ramonda and Shuri), who seek a more peaceful alliance with other nations.
Some longtime comic book fans have voiced displeasure over the interpretation of Namor, with influence from Mayan culture rather than the more fantastical Marvel Comics origins of Atlantis. But this makes him a more mysterious, compelling character. Mejía makes Namor a sympathetic, yet fearsome adversary with much to protect. And he just looks cool with signature comic book elements like his pointed ears and winged ankles combined with Mayan-based adornments.
Coogler and Marvel have done such great work in world-building with these films. (Costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler also deserve so much credit.) Creating a new culture opens up so many story possibilities that are hopefully explored in future movies. Namor is one of Marvel Comics’ oldest characters with ties to the Fantastic Four and the larger superhero universe. He’s been long overdue for the big screen and making him the antagonist here is an excellent introduction.
Related: Chadwick Boseman made a major cultural impact in far too short a time [The Comeback]
Being part of Marvel’s large cinematic universe means that some story elements have to set up future movies and TV shows, which is a bit unfortunate because Black Panther’s world stands on its own so well. But Wakanda Forever isn’t hijacked by those obligations as films like Iron Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were.
Would the movie have been fine without introducing young genius Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a teenager who builds her own Iron Man suit and will soon be featured in Disney+’s Ironheart series? Probably, but she’s a viable part of the narrative and it’s believable that fellow young genius Shuri would want to mentor her. Bringing back CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and using him as an on-ramp to incorporate another previously introduced MCU character into the narrative is much more clunky. Ross is the link between Wakanda and the United States, but he could’ve been utilized more smoothly.
Above all, Wakanda Forever doesn’t let the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe take over its story because already-established characters are so familiar and beloved. Fans have gotten to know and grown to love Shuri, M’Baku (Winston Duke), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) through the first Black Panther film, as well as their involvement in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Wakanda and the Dora Milage warrior guards were also a crucial part of Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
We care about these characters and we’re emotionally invested when something meaningful is taken away from them or new rivals seek to do them harm. The story benefits greatly from that previous work, in addition to laying the foundation for more to come. Whether Coogler tells those stories or not, we’ll hopefully see more from Wakanda and the legacy of the Black Panther, along with Namor and Talokan.
Perhaps most importantly, Wakanda Forever allows the Black Panther mythology to move forward. The story rightly celebrates Chadwick Boseman’s legacy and grieves his loss. But this world was defined by so much more — especially characters who turned out to be more interesting and much richer than T’Challa. Where this goes next as the MCU grows is such an exciting prospect, which is exactly what this franchise needed.