“Wakanda Forever” stands tall and upholds the Black Panther title with pride despite the series of non-stop disasters that hampered its initial production. The first of these misfortunes happened in the tumultuous year of 2020, as Chadwick Boseman, who played King T’Challa and Black Panther, unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer. Shortly afterwards, Daniel Kaluuya, who previously played W’Kabi, was reported to not be in the sequel due to scheduling conflicts.
In addition to the loss of two notable talents, several actors and members of the crew tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, including Lupita Nyong’o, who would be reprising her role as Nakia. Production was affected, and Nyong’o’s role in the movie shrunk significantly but still remained essential. In addition, Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, was hospitalized in Boston due to injuries sustained during production. These injuries were described as minor, and though they didn’t significantly delay the film schedule, they no doubt proved a strain and tested the adaptation skills of director Ryan Coogler.
Along with these behind-the-scenes difficulties, there was also the added pressure from fans and the family of Boseman, mostly his brother, on replacing the Black Panther. Who would take on the role? The writers of this new film, Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, who had previously worked together in the first movie, decided a few months after Boseman’s passing to not replace him by recasting or using CGI (computer-generated imagery). Instead, they chose to honor his legacy, and this is shown masterfully in the film. It is unclear just how much of the film’s original structure was altered from the initial production stages and what stayed the same. But the almost three-hour film that takes its place as the second longest Marvel movie proficiently rose above all these added pressures and expertly claimed its position beside and arguably above the original.
Starting on a fairly solemn note, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” effectively builds and solidifies several concepts that begin as separate entities and unite satisfactorily. One of the reasons the first movie was so successful was its capability to intertwine an entertaining comic superhero conflict with the empowerment of a historically oppressed group. The second movie continues in its footsteps by introducing a Native American (mostly Aztec and Incan) underwater nation, Talokan, similar to Wakanda for its hidden technological advancements, powerful capabilities, and involvement with Vibranium. The film gives off subtle notes of restitution regarding Native Americans’ tortured past of enslavement and mass demise due to the rapid spread of foreign diseases brought on by European settlers. They are now, even if only in a fictional universe, given prestige and respect, especially considering their status as the most powerful nation in the world (debatably tied with Wakanda). Essentially, the script flipped the historical narrative. The movie also criticizes the nonfictional political world that prefers competitive wealth and nuclear power to cooperative peace, which could lead to the improvement of the overall system of living. Wakanda and Talokan represent what is possible in a simple, selfless world where technological advancements actually help their local communities and societies.
With a noticeable loss of male roles, like that of T’Challa and W’Kabi, the theme of male empowerment is replaced with the rise of strengthened feminine roles such as those of the queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Riri Williams (a new character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe played by Dominique Thorne), and, most prominently, Shuri. This concept is interwoven with the obvious theme of nationalism, amplified from the first movie by the introduction of Talokan and the emphasis on American pride in CIA agents. Simultaneously, this film also touches on loss and its effects, acutely feigning reality with the personalized process of grief each character experiences. “Wakanda Forever” blows away all hints of fear that it would simply be a sob piece desperately trying to glue together the broken pieces shattered by Boseman’s departure. It instead uses this loss as a gateway to many in-depth conversations surrounding grief. Shuri’s intention to not be compared to her brother is realized and it becomes clear that she inhabits her own identity. A relationship we had not seen before between queen Ramonda and her daughter comes sharply into focus, and we see much more depth in Shuri’s character as she struggles with resisting her original instincts of revenge and placing Wakanda’s values over her own wellbeing. Her diplomatic abilities are introduced as well as she steps into the role of ruler.
Even as it becomes clear as the movie goes on that Shuri will become the next Black Panther, it doesn’t detract from T’Challa’s previous contributions; in fact, we actively notice that this isn’t forced but given as a gift to help Shuri reconcile with her overwhelming anger and pain. This complex web is so pleasantly achieved that when we sit and listen to Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” as the credits roll, we realize that in the short time we spent sitting in the movie theater, we, too, have gone through all the stages of grief alongside Shuri. We gape at the black screen in awe of this brilliant film’s wonderful execution.