How can a franchise move forward after an "unimaginable loss"?
Director Ryan Coogler was faced with that question when crafting Marvel's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which hits theaters this weekend more than two years after the original film's star, Chadwick Boseman, died from colon cancer in August 2020 at the age of 43. But is it really possible to make a successful Black Panther sequel without the franchise's main star — or main character?
According to critics, the answer is yes, as Wakanda Forever has been described in early reviews as an emotional, satisfying follow-up that pays tribute to Boseman and his legacy (even if an overstuffed plot keeps it from soaring to its predecessor's heights). Here's what the writers are saying:
Chadwick Boseman forever
A sequel to Black Panther was already in the works when Boseman died in 2020 after a battle with cancer that no one at Marvel was reportedly aware he was fighting. In the wake of his death, the sequel film's script was drastically rewritten, and Marvel made the decision to not recast Boseman's character, the titular Black Panther. Instead, Wakanda Forever opens with a sequence depicting the off-screen death of T'Challa (Black Panther) due to an unidentified illness, and his ensuing funeral. We see his coffin being lifted into the sky before cutting to a montage of Boseman that RoberEbert.com's Robert Daniels describes as "earnest" and "emotional." With a start like that, it's no wonder Variety claims "there wasn't a dry eye in the theater during the film's 160-minute runtime." Bleeding Cool's Kaitlyn Booth agreed: "This is a movie looking to do an Up, which is 'make you cry before the title credits.'"
Much of Wakanda Forever deals with T'Challa's loved ones, including his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), as they cope with the tragedy — a tragedy the actors were coping with too. Boseman's family was consulted during the filmmaking process, and the resulting movie does a "delicate" job of "acknowledging its hero's death while keeping the Black Panther flame — not to mention its multibillion-dollar revenue stream — alive," Bloomberg's Ella Ceron writes.
There was some resistance to the idea of not recasting T'Challa, with certain fans arguing the character was too meaningful to too many people that he shouldn't live on through a new actor. But for most critics, the decision to directly reflect on Boseman's passing and the legacy of his time as Black Panther worked quite well: A "vein of exquisite sorrow … ripples through" the "epic" and "thrilling" sequel, The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney raves, and the "triumphant" and "moving" film serves as a "mournful farewell to an actual hero," The Verge's Charles Pulliam-Moore says.
Others, however, said Boseman's absence is felt to a degree that is detrimental to Wakanda Forever. "With no Chadwick Boseman, it's missing a measure of magic," Time's Stephanie Zacharek says, "a sad reality that's no one's fault." But that's not to say the rest of the cast doesn't deliver: As Shuri, Wright is "excellent in a performance strong enough to earn her an ongoing place in the Marvel pantheon," IndieWire's David Ehrlich says. And the stand-out may be Bassett as Queen Ramonda; she delivers such a humdinger of a performance as a mother who has lost everything that it wouldn't be surprising to see her snag an Oscar nomination for it. "They fill the void, all right," Variety's Owen Gleiberman says of the cast.
Under the sea
Not all of Wakanda Forever is about T'Challa's death, though. After T'Challa revealed Wakanda to the United Nations in the first film, countries around the world — the United States included — are now on the hunt for the ore Vibranium, and it turns out Wakanda isn't the only source of this precious metal. But the search for Vibranium under the sea enrages Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the king of an underwater civilization called Talokan (changed from Atlantis in the comics), which puts him in conflict with Wakanda.
Just like Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger was arguably the highlight of Black Panther, critics heaped praise on Namor, who is similarly presented as a sympathetic antagonist fighting against colonialism. "Huerta gives one of the most impressive, star-making performances in MCU history, instantly elevating himself to a top-tier baddie," io9's Germain Lussier says. Get ready for a wave of "Namor was right!"
Coogler also captures some stunning and technically complicated underwater visuals as he takes the audience into Talocan, and Deadline's Pete Hammond praises the "rip-roaring" action throughout (though if Avatar: The Way of Water has anything to say about it, this won't be the year's best movie featuring the ocean and blue people).
The next generation
Another newcomer to the Marvel universe in Wakanda Forever is Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a.k.a. Ironheart, who is set up as a sort of young Tony Stark. She is an inventor who comes onto Wakanda's radar after she builds an advanced machine that can detect Vibranium — not to mention a very Iron Man-esque suit — and she's paired with Shuri as Namor seeks to hunt her down. Thorne, who's set to lead the Disney+ show Ironheart next, clearly has a bright future in the MCU, and the studio's casting is once again on point: "I frankly can't wait to see more of her," Mashable's Kristy Puchko says.
But if Wakanda Forever isn't on the level of the original, some critics felt that's because it's a bit overstuffed and occasionally burdened with having to set the stage for Marvel's upcoming movies and shows, including with the introduction of Ironheart. "Some portions feel more worried about setting up Phase Five of the MCU than telling a singular story," ScreenCrush's Matt Singer says, adding that the film struggles to service "too many characters," while Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson notes some viewers may "miss the tight focus" of the original.
All in all, though, critics widely agreed Wakanda Forever effectively balances various tones and plot lines, delivering a thoughtful meditation on grief that still functions as a thrilling popcorn movie. It's worth noting Boseman's death wasn't even the only way Wakanda Forever's production was troubled, as filming also had to be halted at one point after Letitia Wright, who faced backlash for spreading an anti-vaccine video in 2020, was injured.
But leave it to Ryan Coogler to take the tricky and tragic hands he was dealt and somehow deliver one of the strongest films of Marvel's Phase Four anyway.