Director: Ryan Coogler Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 161 min. MPAA: PG-13

After the unfortunate death of Chadwick Boseman, making a Black Panther sequel presents a towering challenge. What do you do with the Afrofuturism superhero T’Challa now that the actor is gone? Do you recast or do you have a new character take on the mantle? Do you write the character out or acknowledge his death? The short answer is that Coogler not only finds a way to move on from Boseman while still making him a crucial part of this sci-fi/fantasy epic.

Wakanda Forever does not shy away from what happened with Boseman. The film opens with his death that is reflecting how the actor died of colon cancer and the grief that befell those who knew him. Within the narrative, T’Challa is given a funeral and the Black Panther mantle is essentially left vacant. Recovering from his death and taking on duties of leading the kingdom of Wakanda is Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). She continues her royal duties by assuming the job of international representative while T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) remains the culture’s lead engineer.

I like how Wakanda’s nature becomes far more defensive in the wake of the Black Panther’s death one year later. Untrusting of the world, Ramonda seems proven right in keeping her culture at a distance from nations seeking to steal their advanced Vibranium technology. What she doesn’t count on is a competing nation of similar power and loss, willing to take on the entire world.

That world is the underwater realm of Talokan, ruled over by the winged warrior Namor (Tenoch Huerta). At first glance, Talokan and Wakanda seem to be similar cultures. They shield their world from outsiders, utilize Vibranium, and come from backgrounds of colonization they aim to tackle. Of course, a key difference revealed in their opening scenes is that Wakanda won’t kill their invaders while Talokan will viciously slaughter any surface people poking their noses in the watery depths.

Tensions arise when the prodigy scientist Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) becomes unwittingly thrown into an international incident when her tech is stolen and abused by the CIA. The American teenager becomes a target for her expertise which could bring about the end of both Wakanda and Talokan. Per the cultural perceptions, Wakanda wants to talk with her while Talokan would prefer she never talk again. It doesn’t take too long for a full-on war of sci-fi tribes to be on, complete with naval campaigns and high-speed chases.

Wakanda Forever sprawls out with so many characters and conflicting views on leadership and politics that it can be easy to become lost in its spy-thriller leanings. While it was easy to get back into the swing of things with the stern dry humor of the War Dog Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the eccentrically brash warrior M’Baku (Winston Duke), it doesn’t feel like there’s much time to be reacquainted with the distancing Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) or the CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Ross, in particular, is used so sparingly that it feels like footage from another Marvel movie accidentally got spliced into this picture. I would’ve preferred much more time with Riri considering how she struggles to gain screentime in a film that cuts up her role to the point that the film inexplicably reminds you “Oh, yeah, Riri is also Ironheart, the spiritual continuance of Iron Man.”

Where the film succeeds best is in its heartfelt messages of moving on from tragedy. In some ways, the film follows the familiar motions of the first film, finding Shuri placed in a similar series of events as T’Challa. Thankfully, there’s an interesting twist to how Shuri must rise up as more than just the next Wakandan to throw on the iconic panther outfit. I really loved how the film presents a rocky internal conflict for Shuri to grapple with, where grief and revenge are two things she needs to learn to grapple with. She gets to learn these lessons the hard way by watching the horrors of rash decisions and how they ultimately lead to more chaos and death rather than prevent it.

Namor becomes an infinitely more intriguing character from this angle. While he does wish to see the world burn for humanity’s misdeeds, his messy lineage and sour outlook on the world become more than understandable. His concerns are much grander than that of Killmonger but not completely entrenched that he’s not open to diplomacy. For a character who could easily look silly for having wings on his feet, he’s easily one of the best villains of Marvel’s Phase IV with heavy concerns on his mind. Even better, the ultimate resolution of the picture is not so simple as killing off Namor to keep his warring nation at bay.

Wakanda Forever is a surprisingly heartfelt Black Panther sequel that serves well as both a tribute to Boseman and a strong continuance of the lore. For a film that ultimately feels as though it’s obliged to have an action-packed finale slathered in CGI, it ends on a meaningful note of coming to terms with the passage of time and having a wee bit of hope for the future. This all leads to one of the most important mid-credit Easter eggs that is not about who will be the next villain or what movie Black Panther will show up in next. It’s a final scene of closure and comfort, making this film feel more like its own strong story of warring kingdoms and not just a bridge picture until the next Avengers event.

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