In February 2018, the first Black Panther film debuted. Since then, both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the one that the majority of us non-superheroes are forced to live in have changed considerably. Black Panther‘s release was unlike anything else. The effects were cosmic, both short-term and long-term. The fact that the movie was released in the dystopian years of the Trump administration, when Black existence felt more vulnerable than normal and the need for Black superheroes was more essential than ever, gave its message a unique punch. It was a success on all three fronts: commercially, critically, and culturally.
The death of Chadwick Boseman in 2020, whose performance as King T’Challa seemed to herald the birth of a franchise-defining new star, was undoubtedly the most heartbreaking and significant shift. Even before that, the Marvel/Disney business strategy was transitioning into a post-“Avengers” era as the well-known heroes were scattered over a variety of platforms and tales, occasionally joined by alternate versions of themselves. Naturally, back here in the real world. King T’Challa was a modern hero for an avant-garde, unsettling era. Chadwick Boseman, who was used to playing characters with a lot of personality, joined an all-star cast that featured Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan to provide a performance that was poised and charismatic. Black Panther has teeth and was astute enough to avoid the convenient trap of representation in a field that is severely lacking in color and significance. The film—which is a testament to its creators, director Ryan Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole—was about more than the miracle of being noticed; it was an indication of real advancement. When it spoke to us, we responded. Complex, lush, and free new Black futures were emerging.
These visions of the cinematic future could not account for Boseman’s death from colon cancer in 2020. Franchises are based on star power, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is haunted by Boseman’s absence, wrapped in the kind of melancholy that is impossible to ignore. Boseman was one of Marvel’s brightest and most promising actors. It’s uncommon for MCU movies to portray the turmoil of sorrow with such unwavering emphasis (WandaVision came close in its unconventional depiction of spousal heartache and its psychological aftershocks). The positioning is odd, but successful. While Wakanda Forever hasn’t entirely redefined the superhero movie, it comes close. Coogler has given his follow-up a new vocabulary, speaking from both a place of sorrow and accomplishment. Wakanda, a hypothetical African nation, already faces a difficult political situation. The tale in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is infused with tragic notes of family loss and public sorrow thanks to filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who also incorporates his own pain and that of the audience. A sense of the chaos that accompanies a charismatic, unifying leader is also there.
Now that the king is dead, Wakanda is once more in the spotlight. Following the death of her son, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has ascended to the throne and has worked hard to keep the African country’s status as a sovereign entity. Wakanda is the only known country to possess vibranium, a mysterious ore used to make cutting-edge technology and weapons, and it is unwilling to share its resources with allies (in one early scene, French soldiers attempt to steal some and quickly get reprimanded by undercover Dora Milaje agents). Coogler and Cole are eager to introduce the story in this way because they believe that greed has been the cause of numerous conflicts throughout history. Wakanda is able to compete with the United States and France because of Ramonda’s regal diplomatic abilities and the martial ability of the Jabari, commanded by M’Baku (Winston Duke), and the Dora Milaje, led by the powerful Okoye (Danai Gurira). The only other vibranium supply on the globe, controlled by the long-isolated underwater nation of Talokan, is where the real danger lies. The people of Talokan block the US government’s attempt to track down vibranium in the Atlantic Ocean.
Their wounded commander Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) is adamant about keeping Talokan’s existence a secret. Due to the wings on his ankles, he can fly and has mutant characteristics that include increased strength and aquatic regeneration. He rules his country with a thorough but firm hand. (In the comics, Namor is from Atlantis and is referred to as the Sub-Mariner.) His oceanic utopia is in danger of being revealed by the mining operation, so he comes up with a scheme to stop it: assassinate the brilliant scientist who created the vibranium-tracking device (Riri Williams, who introduces Ironheart to the MCU) and side with Wakanda against the surface world. Wakanda, however, declines. The two countries are now facing an almost definite conflict. This storyline explanation may seem excessive, but Wakanda Forever, like many Marvel films, features an elaborate, character-heavy plot. While Okoye has a sidekick in the form of Aneka, Shuri has one in the form of Riri (Michaela Coel). Everett Ross, a C.I.A. agent who sympathizes with Wakanda, is back and spends some time arguing with his supervisor, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is also his ex-wife. There are fistfights, car chases, battles in the water and the air, high-tech suits, and ear-shattering explosions because this is, above all, an action movie with a major emphasis on spectacular effects.
It turns out that the war isn’t exactly as compelling as the guiding ideals that led to it, similar to the US government’s insatiable thirst for international sway. Nor is the overwhelming hatred Shuri (Letitia Wright) experiences as a result of losing her brother, which motivates her in a very real way. Nor is Namor’s villainy, if it can even be called that, which is anchored in a more fundamental, human place.
Namor is defined by paradox and his anger isn’t entirely unfounded. It all depends on how well his backstory is supported. He is an ancestor of a Meso-American tribe that was forced to seek refuge under water in the 16th century after fleeing slavery. He comes from a group of people who developed the ability to endure in the face of terrible odds. His morals are significant, even if his actions are hostile.
These are all characteristics of Coogler’s storytelling style. He adopts the same diasporic fusion that made the first Black Panther a remarkable achievement (production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter both returned for the sequel). This time, we are introduced to Namor’s watery paradise outside of Wakanda’s verdant fields and bustling markets. Beachler and Carter created a visual elixir based on Mayan mythology, with remarkable Indigenous features woven throughout the attire, speech, and architecture. However, one of the film’s biggest flaws is that we don’t spend more time wandering about the underwater city and learning about its inhabitants and their culture.
I’ve heard that trauma freezes at its height. It calls for us to slow down and consider everything that has transpired in its fullness and agony. Ramonda and Shuri make an effort to cope with unfathomable pain and remember their losses. The problem is that the narrative logic of superhero movies necessitates a certain momentum. They must proceed forward. They move quickly from one scene to the next, flickering like a comic book, pane by pane. Grief asks us to do the opposite. It asks us to pause and move more slowly. Where Wakanda Forever falters the most is in this: It struggles to decide exactly what it should feel or where it wants to land in terms of feeling. But perhaps that makes it a more accurate film, a more sincere one. It’s less organized. It’s unsightly, but because of that, it’s more exposed.
Grief serves as Wakanda Forever‘s core theme, making it different from other Marvel films. It’s also the component of the film that I find least satisfactory. And yet, it can’t be ignored. It is the ache that seems like it will never go away and the cloud that appears and cannot be avoided. It must be encircled. You must confront it squarely. You must make it the story in some way.
And what it looks like—what it so brilliantly manifests as in a film like Wakanda Forever—is exactly what it has always looked like: strong, compassionate Black women—mothers, sisters, and friends—using the sadness they have been burdened with rather than allowing it to use them. A truth of Black life that persists despite all Afrofuturist utopias is that not even our superheroes can outwit death.
And, what happens if they don’t prove unstoppable? The survivors manage to fight and recover. It’s a well-known tale that is regrettably all too true. You’ve undoubtedly heard about it before. Its significance never wanes.