Movie review: ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ pays tribute to T’Challa while forging its own path

“Your brother is with the ancestors,” says Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright), her voice slow and thick with grief, in the opening minutes of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

There was no other way this movie could start: Chadwick Boseman, heart and soul of the 2018 megahit “Black Panther,” tragically died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 43, and Coogler and his team needed to not only mourn the loss of a colleague and friend, but to completely reshape a franchise. Instead of being its center, Boseman’s T’Challa is a spirit that lovingly haunts the film; his presence is constant, sometimes literally in softly glowing film clips from the original, sometimes figuratively, in the sadness visibly carried by the characters left behind.

It’s part of the great strength of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” that it doesn’t shy away from that sadness; this is, after all, a superhero movie, and Coogler might have been forgiven for wanting to quickly cut to the chase, so to speak. Instead, the film takes time to show us a mother’s hand slowly stroking a coffin; to demonstrate that sometimes, even long after a loss, it’s hard to move on. There’s a lovely, quiet scene between Ramonda and Shuri, after the film has jumped forward to a year after T’Challa’s death, in which mother and daughter talk about how they cope, or don’t. “I found your brother in the breeze,” Ramonda says, describing how she finds comfort in feeling T’Challa’s guiding hand on her shoulder. That’s not him, Shuri says flatly; this young woman of science is still struggling to understand death’s finality.

But obviously “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” can’t simply be a soulful meditation on loss — there are stunts to be done! — and a new plot soon takes shape. Wakanda, now seen to the world as being without its protector, is targeted by mercenaries seeking its stores of vibranium, and a new adversary emerges from the sea: Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), king of the undersea nation Talokan. (Winston Duke’s wry M’Baku, who doesn’t seem to be in this film quite enough, disparagingly refers to Namor as “this fish-man.”) And a new ally arrives, as well: Riri (Dominique Thorne), a 19-year-old American MIT student who just happens to be a tech genius. This gives Shuri, the youngest character of the previous film, some room to grow up — and gives us the fun of seeing Wakanda through the dazzled eyes of a sardonic teen.

You watch superhero movies for the action scenes, and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” offers some epic ones: a late-night sequence in the middle of the ocean, where Talokans (singing like alluring mermaids) swarm a ship like an army of ants; a mad chase through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Riri in the air in a flying suit, Shuri on a motorcycle and Dora Milaje warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) in a sports car; some beautifully realized underwater sequences in the film’s second half. And the performances are uniformly strong and sometimes splendid, particularly Lupita Nyong’o as soulful spy Nakia, and the great Bassett, who becomes the film’s tower of strength, and whose silent, loving gazes at Shuri tell an entire story in a glance. (Where “Black Panther” was at its heart about a father and son, “Wakanda Forever” is the tale of a mother and daughter.)

There’s so much that “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” does right that it’s frustrating to blame it for the one flaw it can’t help. But you watch it wondering about the movie that never got made, the story that never got finished, the life cut short too soon. Maybe, in a few years, this franchise can make a truly fresh start; this movie efficiently and skillfully lays the groundwork for that. It takes time, as wise Wakandans remind us, to move on.


3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, action and some language)

Running time: 2:41

How to watch: In theaters now