By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features Critic
Death is no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of the MCU’s most popular heroes have sacrificed themselves on-screen over the years for the greater good, but the shocking, real-life death of Chadwick Boseman in 2020 left the MCU with the near-impossible task of how to deal with the unexpected loss of its beloved King T’Challa.
While “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” continues to move the MCU forward with the introduction of new characters (including Tenoch Huerta Mejía as the mutant “feathered serpent God,” Namor, and Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart) and surprising revelations that won’t be spoiled here, the film is ultimately a profound and touching tribute to the MCU’s real-life superhero: a man who secretly battled colon cancer while entertaining the masses as Black Panther. Tears will be shed — lots of them — from both the movie’s cast and its audience, as fans and characters grieve the loss of King T’Challa together.
Just minutes into an advance press screening for the 2-hour-and-41-minute film (which flies by), viewers stopped briefly from wiping away their tears to break into applause. Once again, no spoilers will be given away here, as the beautiful and tasteful tribute Marvel pays to Boseman at the beginning of the film is best experienced without any sort of expectations. Marvel actually bookends “Wakanda Forever” with emotional tributes to Boseman while the movie’s story (once again written by “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) tackles the Wakandans’ pain over losing their noble leader from an undisclosed illness — a fitting albeit heart-wrenching detail versus having him die in battle. One year after King T’Challa’s death, the broken country finds themselves having to come together to protect their vibranium from falling into the wrong hands and save a brilliant young scientist (Riri) from a strong new foe (Namor).
While there’s no doubt the grief audiences see from the actors on-screen is real, that doesn’t take away from their powerful performances — especially Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mom, Queen Ramonda, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister, Princess Shuri. Wright, in particular, gives an Oscar-worthy performance that may seem a bit Wanda Maximoff-like at times, but is nonetheless just as heartbreaking and relatable to watch. Winston Duke’s M’Baku brings some much-needed comic relief to certain scenes while not taking away from the film’s emotional impact, and there’s a terrific scene involving Wright and another one of “Black Panther’s” beloved stars that we won’t spoil here that’s sure to put a smile on viewers’ faces, even if the scene itself is far from happy.
Although director/co-writer Coogler crafts a brilliant follow-up to 2018’s “Black Panther,” “Wakanda Forever” isn’t without its faults. In particular, the final battle sequence ends a bit too easily and abruptly, especially given the film’s lengthy run time. Nevertheless, the movie is almost as close to perfection as it could get under unfortunate circumstances and that rare film these days that should be experienced on the big screen. In fact, if you have a chance to see it in IMAX, it’s well worth the extra money, as each scene is beautifully shot.
Even without the added weight of Boseman’s untimely death, expectations were high for “Black Panther’s” sequel, and “Wakanda Forever” doesn’t disappoint. It’s a film fit for a king whose presence is constantly felt throughout the movie, even if Boseman himself wasn’t physically on set. Like its predecessor, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” showcases the MCU at its best and leaves viewers excited to see where each character goes next.