With an intricately crafted story steeped in grief and prevailing love, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) is inherently a love letter to those lost—a film so deeply devoted to its mission while it tenderly walks its audience through the stages of grief and chaperones Marvel fans into the next era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
There was a sort of bittersweet anticipation lingering in the air in the days leading up to the global premiere of the highly anticipated sequel to Black Panther (2018). To say fans were excited would be an understatement. The initial release of Black Panther was a big deal—the film debuted as a record-breaking, box-office powerhouse and managed to cement itself as a work of major cultural significance, especially for Black viewers. Now, after four long years and many delays, the sequel was finally here and fans were eager to see how the MCU would continue to build upon the franchise.
However, in spite of their excitement, fans were in many ways hesitant about the film’s release. Expectations were high; Black Panther had been a rousing success, and many were unsure of how the MCU aimed to improve and expand upon the franchise with the sequel. Furthermore, in the wake of the prevailing grief felt in the years since the passing of lead actor Chadwick Boseman, questions arose as fans were uncertain how the sequel could even proceed in a narratively sound way that would also pay homage to the legacy of the beloved actor.
But the movie is an ode to Boseman. Wakanda Forever is, at its core, a story of grief, resilience, and recovery. Following the sudden passing of their beloved king and protector, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the fictional Afrofuturist nation of Wakanda must mourn her loss while still grappling with the persistent consequences of T’Challa’s decision to reveal the once-hidden nation to the rest of the globe. As the Western world continues to conspire against the sovereignty of Wakanda and her resources, the nation must still stand firm despite her losses. In spite of their persisting grief (which often manifests in wildly different ways), the remaining members of the royal family, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), must now unite to face a new threat to their home: the mysterious Namor (Tenoch Huerta).
The threat of Namor, however, is primarily ideological as the film continues the Black Panther franchise’s engagement with imperialism and the unique dangers faced by non-Western nations. As countries like the U.S. continue to make headway in acquiring vibranium, they threaten the sovereignty of Wakanda, as well as the continued secrecy of Talokan, Namor’s underwater home in the Gulf of Mexico. The addition of Namor reignites the question posed in the first Black Panther: Should these nations continue to choose the “right” path of peaceful resolution or raze the powers that have historically wronged them?
While the catalyst for this conflict is not the most well-handled aspect of the film (and at times the movie veers dangerously close to unnecessarily pitting peoples of color against one another), it remains interesting to see how Wakanda Forever builds upon the ideas first posed in its predecessor. The film continues to explore how even powerful nations like Wakanda must still fight to maintain their security and peace due to the “threat” they pose to other nations. Although these narrative elements could have been more thoroughly explored, namely the imperialistic efforts of the U.S. and the role race—and not just the affected nation’s resource value—plays in condoning these threats, the film manages to tackle these issues in a very compelling way that nicely complements its overarching exploration of grief and love that takes precedence throughout the film.
The beauty of Wakanda Forever comes from the central role that grief plays within the film’s narrative. While the majority of the film takes place a year following T’Challa’s passing, it is made immediately clear how difficult an adjustment period it has been for all of the characters. For these characters, T’Challa was more than just their king and protector: He was a brother, a son, a friend and partner. The chasm left by his passing is immense. Throughout the film, their individual journeys are rooted in this weighty sense of loss, a loss similarly felt by the cast and crew following Boseman’s passing. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the journey of each of the core characters of the film reflect a different aspect of the five stages of grief. From Shuri’s anger to M’Baku’s (Winston Duke) acceptance, the film does an excellent job of walking its audience through these different stages through the perspectives of these characters.
The relationship between Shuri and M’Baku and the contrasting manifestations of their grief are especially poignant throughout the film. M’Baku is a constant pillar of reassurance and guidance along Shuri’s journey as she continues to grapple with the immense anger born from her grief. He does not invalidate her anger nor does he force his own acceptance onto her. Even as she makes the decision to directly challenge Namor, he never undermines her. Rather, M’Baku continues to act as counsel and confidant; he supports her as she progresses through her grief at her own pace. As a result, their narrative journeys feel all the more whole and personal.
Thematically, the film also feels excellently crafted. Wakanda Forever tenderly approaches grief and transitioning from loss and love while also managing to address the looming threat of imperialism faced by nations like Wakanda and Talokan. Although Wakanda Forever, like its predecessor, is far from perfect in the way it tackles its themes of race and conquest, the film, to its credit, is still able to address many of the realities of the social dynamics in our current society, especially those most faced by Black and Indigenous peoples.
The great deal of love and care that went into the production of Wakanda Forever is evident within every facet of the film. The visuals are absolutely stunning; the main locations of the film are vibrant and beautiful. The underwater nation of Talokan is breathtaking, and both Talokan and Wakanda are brimming with life. Beautifully crafted set pieces and intricate costuming help to immerse the viewer and pay homage to the various cultural inspirations of the two nations.
Through its marked efforts to tastefully implement both Mayan and African culture into its visuals, the film continues efforts to champion characters that deviate from the typical Western view of what characters within fantasy and sci-fi-based settings can and should look like. Through the changes to Namor’s comic book origins, the film had to respectfully and accurately incorporate Mayan and Indigenous Mexican cultures into several aspects of its visual presentation. These efforts were somewhat successful. The re-imagination of Namor’s costume for the film is especially noteworthy as he now embodies his Mayan roots in even the finest details of his attire—with massive, ornate jade earrings and nose plugs characteristic of Mayan elite, Namor never feels like an uninformed caricature of his cultural origins.
The film’s score is also beautifully done. Like its predecessor, the soundtrack for Wakanda Forever is incredibly captivating and thoughtfully curated. However, unlike the soundtrack for the original Black Panther, this film relies more heavily on the score as a narrative supplement, a choice that works wonders for the film. Each track is seamlessly integrated throughout the film, only helping to further enhance the audience experience and add weight to the most hard-hitting narrative motives. The immense awe and wonder Shuri feels upon her first dive into Talokan are only heightened as the serene “Con La Brisa” (by Mexican artist Foudeqush) echoed throughout the theater. The final moments of the film are also made all the more touching as Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” plays, perfectly echoing the entire thesis of the film as Shuri stares off into the sunset.
Wakanda Forever, through its sincerity, offers a unique departure from the typical MCU formula. While the film still employs odd (affectionate) humor and blockbuster action sequences fans have come to love from the MCU, these elements play a much lesser role than is typical for the universe. Still, rather than downplaying the gravity of the film’s subject matter or even making it feel out of place from the rest of the MCU, the unique tenderness of Wakanda Forever works entirely in the film’s favor and only enhances the viewer experience. With its focus on walking the audience through grief, the film acts as the perfect end for this chapter of the MCU.