I’m extremely thankful I got to attend a screening of Wakanda Forever earlier this week because there’s a good chance if I hadn’t, I might not have been able to see it at all. Across Los Angeles, for at least the last week, theaters have been booked for the opening night and weekend of the Black Panther sequel, and for good reason: Wakanda Forever is the most highly anticipated Marvel project of the year, and one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, period. Its premiere also comes just two years after the late, titular Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, died from colon cancer in 2020.
Wakanda Forever is both an homage to Boseman’s legacy and an answer to the question of what would come next for Wakanda after Boseman’s death. The movie doesn’t shy from off-screen realities—it opens with Shuri (Laetitia Wright), King T’Challa’s (Boseman) little sister and a Tony Stark-like science genius, desperately trying to save her brother’s life, only to come up short in the final seconds. The whole kingdom grieves in an equal-parts visually beautiful and utterly heartbreaking funeral. And, even as Shuri and her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett,) continue to grapple with the loss of T’Challa, life goes on—in the form of a sudden and colossal threat to Wakanda, unsurprisingly spawned from the U.S. military’s meddling. Classic!
Between women-centric battle scenes featuring Wakanda’s legendary warriors, the Dora Milaje, hauling French colonizer ass, and viscerally stunning glimpses of the underwater world of Talokan that’ll remind you that 80 percent of our oceans remain unexplored, Wakanda Forever delivers on all the action and CGI wonders that people turn to Marvel for. But its primary strength is its emotional complexity as the real world continues to mourn a legend like Boseman, his silent suffering, and the untimely loss of another Black icon.
In Black Panther, T’Challa made the decision to finally open Wakanda to the world in order to help displaced or impoverished Black communities, instead of hiding and protecting its people and massive supply of vibranium, the (fictional) most powerful metal found in nature. As a consequence, in Wakanda Forever, the U.S. and other western countries now know about said massive supply of vibranium, which Ramonda—understandably!—refuses to give up. In search of the metal elsewhere, the U.S. military accidentally discovers Talokan, inhabited by the descendants of Mayan peoples who fled colonizers to live underwater hundreds of years ago. Talokan’s presence remains a secret from the rest of the world, mostly because Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), their king-god, and their warriors kill anyone who uncovers them. Fearing for the safety of his kingdom, Namor wants to strike an alliance with Wakanda—but Shuri and Ramonda, disapproving of Namor’s violent tactics, refuse, and a war ensues between Talokan and Wakanda, exposing just how sorely Wakanda needs a new Black Panther.
Shuri and Ramonda grieve the loss of T’Challa in starkly different ways, as Shuri initially relies on repression and avoidance, and Ramonda embraces her grief to heal. Theirs is emblematic of the almost innate complexity of mother-daughter relationships, characterized by simultaneous unconditional love and bitter difference. Shuri doesn’t want to mourn, or hold herself back and take the safer route; she wants to fight. Her resistance to her mother only ends with Ramonda’s death, as she finally learns to swallow her anger and truly grieve. Further, despite initially rejecting the idea of continuing the tradition of the Black Panther, Shuri ultimately assumes the mantle herself to avenge her mother. In keeping with the rest of the movie, it’s both heartbreaking and beautiful to watch.
On top of Shuri ultimately becoming the next Black Panther, there’s another tradition Wakanda Forever builds upon from its predecessor: another extremely hot, extremely correct villain, demonized for his hard-line approach to dealing with colonizers. In his negotiations with Shuri and Ramonda, Namor, whose family was displaced and nearly killed by European colonizers in the 1500s, points out that the U.S. and other colonizing superpowers wouldn’t hesitate to wipe Wakanda off a map if they get access to vibranium. Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the mouthy new CIA director, Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, spends most of the movie plotting against Wakanda.
Namor is right—an alliance between Talokan and Wakanda against their western oppressors could save them both. But because Marvel has a long history of demonizing “villains” with ostensibly radical politics, like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther, or the Flag Smashers in Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Namor necessarily has to become dangerous and start inexplicably killing Wakandans. And that’s what he does!
Despite the predictability of Namor’s arc, Wakanda Forever delivers us a new Black Panther, a new world, and a new direction for the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, there was plenty of off-screen drama along the way, ranging from reported issues with Wright’s opposition to vaccines to controversy about not recasting T’Challa—but nonetheless, the final product is a triumphant excavation of loss, healing, and stepping into your own power.