Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Review: Ryan Coogler's Somber Marvel Blockbuster Is A Remarkable Work

[I]t’s a challenging and powerful cinematic expression of mourning that is utterly beautiful in its design.

Tenoch Huerta as Namor in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
(Image: © Marvel Studios)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not the film that it was intended to be when development first began on the sequel back in in 2018. Sure, writer/director Ryan Coogler knew that he wanted to introduce Namor The Submariner as the titular hero’s foil in the story he was crafting, but said hero was supposed to be Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa – the newly crowned King of Wakanda in the midst of his rule following the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Sadly, the tragic death of Boseman in 2020 meant this vision couldn’t be realized, and Coogler was put in what could have been viewed as an impossible position: not only needing to re-envision what the movie would be, but work with the immense pressure to honor the memory of the beloved star. That’s not a fair situation for anyone to be thrust into, especially when emotions are still raw after a terrible loss – but that just speaks the phenomenal talent and passion of everyone involved to make the film what it is.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not your typical Marvel blockbuster, featuring an appropriate somber atmosphere and politics-driven plotting – which isn’t to say it’s humorless. It has its fun, but mostly it’s a challenging and powerful cinematic expression of mourning that is utterly beautiful in its design and features an ensemble cast that brilliantly steps up as a collective.

After shattering opening sequences that see Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) desperately trying to save T’Challa’s life and the nation of Wakanda holding a funeral for their king, the film jumps ahead one year as Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) navigates the tricky politics that have arisen from her country being unveiled to the world. Trust still hasn’t been earned by foreign nations to share in Wakanda’s private stockpile of Vibranium, leaving Ramonda to make the decision to keep the precious metal at arm’s length. Instead of making the effort to be better international partners, the United States starts looking for it elsewhere.

Thanks to the invention of a device that can locate Vibranium, this U.S.-led mission is actually successful. A deposit is discovered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and a drilling team is sent down to mine it… but this decision quickly leads to horror. Blue-skinned humanoids emerge from the water and kill everybody involved with the operation, and with nobody left alive to say what happened, fingers are pointed at the Wakandans.

Shortly thereafter, Ramonda and Shuri learn the truth. They are approached by King Namor (Tenoch Huerta) and told about Talocan, a Vibranium-rich nation that has secretly and peacefully existed for centuries beneath the ocean. Fearing his world’s exposure, Namor offers a threat to the Wakandan royals, demanding that they kidnap and kill the American scientist who created the Vibranium detector – a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) – or risk being destroyed by Talocan’s immense and unstoppable army.

Ryan Coogler crafts a heartbreaking and complex story to tell in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The plotting in the first Black Panther is as remarkable as anything we’ve seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger raising complex questions about Wakanda’s place on the global stage given the inequalities faced by Black people around the world – and it’s the sequel’s ability to reach that high bar with its own story that makes it tremendously satisfying. Between its ensemble of protagonists, the complicated tone, and the introduction of a whole new fantastical domain, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever juggles a great number of things in its nearly three-hour runtime, but it doesn’t drop a single ball.

As a goodbye to Chadwick Boseman and T’Challa, it’s a special achievement. The movie makes the smart decision not to turn the Black Panther’s death into a plot line about succession or political destabilization, which easily could have felt exploitative. Instead, the hard emotions from the loss are primarily expressed through the arcs of the principal characters, and the individual journeys are extraordinary – with Queen Ramonda desperate to protect what remains of her family; Shuri looking to define her identity after being unable to save her brother; Okoye (Danai Gurira) trying to reaffirm her role as the protector of the royal family; and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) distancing herself from Wakanda after the death of the man she loves. Every choice feels organic, and is all the more affecting because of it.

All of those character threads mesh brilliantly with the introduction of Namor and the world of Talocan – which is an amazing narrative thread that once again allows Ryan Coogler to express fascinating commentary about the horrors of colonization and ask big, philosophical questions. Like Killmonger, Namor is an antagonist who expresses violent inclinations (specifically his desire to see Riri Williams abducted and assassinated), but he also possesses a rational and understandable perspective that is informed by personal trauma. This is a blockbuster with a budget probably in the $200 million range that engages with the ethics and morality of pre-emptive strikes – attacking your enemy before they have the opportunity to attack you – and it succeeds at being as meditative and thought-provoking as it is thrilling.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever inspires phenomenal work from the entire cast.

Just as the moment inspires Ryan Coogler to do some of his best work, the ensemble cast in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever does a spectacular job further pulling us into this world and making every powerful emotion palpable. It’s actually difficult to identify any “main” protagonist in the film both because the arcs of Shuri, Ramonda, Okoye and Nakia are all so individually impressive and the respective actors have such phenomenal screen presence. Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o all have their own moments that put you in the back of your seat in expressive awe – though Bassett and Gurira both deserve special recognition for their work together in a high-tension confrontation in the Wakandan throne room that takes up special residence in one’s mind when reflecting on the movie (I won’t say more due to spoilers, but you’ll know it as you watch it).

And then there’s Tenoch Huerta. This is the actor’s first blockbuster role, he’s playing a beloved Marvel hero/antihero who has never been depicted before on-screen, and it’s a movie that has incalculable hype – and yet the pressure of all that seems to have the same effect that deep-sea pressure has on Namor: none. The character has a fascinating way of vacillating between being charming and threatening, and either way Huerta ensures that you can’t keep your eyes off of him. Furthermore, not every star can pull off zooming around a screen with Hermes-esque winged feet, but the newcomer pulls it off with badass grace.

Both Wakanda and Talocan are stunning cinematic visions brought to life by incredible filmmakers.

Not to be satisfied with just being thematically rich, telling a compelling story, and showcasing some of the most impassioned performances of year, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also just so happens to be breathtaking in its beauty. The previous chapter in this series rightfully won Oscars for costume design, production design, and the original score, and that success evidently only drove Ruth E. Carter, Hannah Beachler, and Ludwig Göransson to respectively raise their personal bars for the sequel.

It’s a spellbinding return to Wakanda, which again comes across as utterly vibrant and real, but the introduction of Talocan additionally challenges your body’s preconceived limitations when it comes to widening your eyes as you try and take it all in. The movie does make it a challenge to grasp the full scale of its settings, and there is a remaining desire to see even more of Wakanda than the film ultimately provides, but the sights and sounds are nonetheless unique, special, and magnificent.

Given circumstances behind the scenes, it would have been understandable if Black Panther: Wakanda Forever couldn’t quite live up to the magic of its game-changing predecessor, but instead it is its equal. It’s poignant, captivating, and awesome, and a special achievement by every measure.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.