“In my culture, death is not the end,” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) tells Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) after his father is killed in Captain America: Civil War (2016). “It’s more of a stepping off point. You reach out with both hands and Bast and Sekhmet, they lead you into a green veld where you can run forever.” Thirty Marvel Cinematic Universe movies later, the gravity of that moment still stands out in a universe designed for weightlessness, in which death has come to signal the frivolousness of a plot twist rather than a finality of a conclusion. (Loki’s died four times now, in case you were keeping score.)
Most post-Endgame (2019) installments have been “about trauma” to varying degrees of glib and genuine — grieving isn’t a linear process, even as the very structure of a franchise necessitates that it flatten out into one. Rarely, however, has the emotion ever felt as inextricable from how it’s put into words as it is in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. When a “one year later” title card appears partway through the film, following the death of its titular hero, it does so not with the furious urgency of the Marvel juggernaut speedrunning its way to the next setpiece but with the irony of a cruel joke. For people stuck in their grief, what a travesty it is to watch the world move on.
Boseman’s tragic passing frames Wakanda Forever as a tribute to the past that also draws on it in touching, if sometimes tedious ways. Like its predecessor, it throbs with the acute ache of what it means to fail the people around us, the stain of guilt that only seeps in deeper once they’re gone. T’Chaka’s (John Kani) abandonment of N’Jadaka (Michael B Jordan) in the first film, Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) inability to save her brother here — the spectre of loss haunts the edges of this franchise and director Ryan Coogler stays with the darkness long enough to render it almost overwhelming. The film begins and ends with tears that span the full experience of processing grief. The inflection of two words, “welcome home”, said with lightness and glee in the first film, delivered with the staid tones of an in-flight announcement in the second, speak to the state of a nation stricken by death. Loss is accorded the significance it deserves, a sentiment even its antihero Namor (Tenoch Huerta) shares. “Bury your dead,” he tells his enemies. “Mourn your losses.” Through his kingdom of Talokan, the end of one life is recontexualised as the beginning of another, both metaphorically and literally. For all the time it spends on the surface world, the franchise’s oceanic undertow of grief has never been stronger.
It’s in trying to move forward, however, that the film displays less grace. Huerta is all piercing gazes and assured menace — Coogler shoots the underwater attack sequences with an awareness of just how frightening the undiscovered vastness of the ocean is — but even the layers of his performance can’t conceal how alike his character is to previous Black Panther bad-guy Killmonger. His motivations retread old ideas, and even those as complex as enslavement, colonisation and mass death as the cost of unfettered living can’t help but feel familiar. The MCU’s history is full of reasonable men turned radicals when the script calls for a villain and Namor’s abrupt heel turn doesn’t quite manage to land on its feet.
Neither does the new Black Panther. The passing of the mantle was an inevitability but the eventual choice is a disappointment in a film rife with better-etched characters. It takes Wakanda’s new protector a film’s worth of going through the motions to arrive at the same maturity her predecessor did at the end of Civil War. (Even the line of dialogue that reflects their changed mindset is the same, a throwback made gutting only by Boseman’s absence rather than his successor’s performance.)
The film’s shift away from a single titular character gives the ensemble more room to breathe, to grieve in silence, to snatch moments of joy where they find it. One of its most thrilling moments stems from the combined strength of Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri and Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a far more skilful deployment of women power than that Endgame teamup scene, but eventually, the film buckles under franchise constraints. Michaela Coel is underutilised as Dora Milaje member Aneka, her promise that the movie will explore the idea of a “forbidden relationship” within the military unit unfulfilled by the end. And Wakanda Forever also succumbs to predictable third-act MCU messiness. There are creative choices in the climactic battle that cut deeper and bruise harder than any the franchise has made in the recent past but the film stops just short of taking the biggest, boldest swing it could have. Even so, a world dealing with death has never looked this alive onscreen as it does in Coogler’s hands. Talokan and Wakanda are vividly realised locations, free of the plastic CGI sheen that has come to define franchise worldbuilding.
Despite much of the film being water-based, some of its most striking imagery and ideas arrive through fire. Several characters speak of a desire to watch the world burn and at its most thoughtful, Wakanda Forever considers rage as a blazing fire that burns even the person holding the match. When the person closest to you dies, so does the version of you that only they knew, the film points out. What comes next — avenging the dead? Or living the kind of life they would have wanted for you? Wakanda Forever doesn’t have all the answers, but few MCU films have more thoughtfully, or more honestly pushed themselves to reckon with how hard it can be to confront these questions.