Marvel Cinematic Universe projects always have to contend with the sky-high expectations that come with the territory of any franchise that has dominated the pop culture landscape this thoroughly for this long. One could argue, though, that none have needed to clear a higher bar than the one set for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

It already had the unenviable task of following up one of the most critically and commercially successful MCU films to date before Chadwick Boseman, who had been playing the titular Black Panther since 2016, died in 2020 after an intensely private battle with colon cancer. “Wakanda Forever” was quickly saddled with the burden of having to at least match the quality of the only MCU movie that has been nominated for a best picture Academy Award while also grappling with such an enormous loss.

On Friday, audiences will finally get to see how director Ryan Coogler and the rest of the film’s enormous production team went about trying to thread that extremely specific needle. Though Boseman’s death casts a shadow over every frame of “Wakanda Forever,” Coogler somehow manages to make his movie feel like a monument to the late actor’s life and legacy while not sacrificing his trademark visual prowess.

The end result is an intense meditation on grief that still manages to function as a superhero epic. Its story isn’t as tightly constructed as its predecessor’s, but it’s as fun and moving as could be expected given the circumstances.

Who in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” who has stepped into the shoes of the Black Panther now that T’Challa is gone? (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Wakanda is in mourning after the death of its leader, T’Challa (Boseman). His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is in shambles while his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is left to rule her nation while also trying to prevent other countries from compromising Wakanda’s security now that its true nature is known to the rest of the world.

Shuri and Ramonda’s attempts to move on with their lives are stalled upon the arrival of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who is upset after surface-dwellers disturbed his undersea kingdom in search of the rare metal vibranium. What begins as a request for partnership slowly escalates into a feud that puts Wakanda’s mere existence in jeopardy.

This is not your typical jokey, mostly lighthearted MCU fare. “Wakanda Forever” sets a more serious tone from the jump and almost never deviates from it. There are a few moments of humor sprinkled throughout, but it’s as raw and straightforward of an MCU film as we’ve gotten so far.

That was a smart decision given the painstaking lengths the film goes to explore emotionally charged themes such as grief, loss and sovereignty. MCU films and shows have a tendency to sometimes undercut dramatic moments with bouts of levity that negate any real impact those scenes could hope to have. There’s relatively little of that in “Wakanda Forever,” and we’re all better for it.

“Black Panther” established Wakanda as an Afro-futuristic wonderland unlike anything ever depicted on screen. “Wakanda Forever” adds to its majesty by expanding its domain and imbuing it with even more meticulously crafted details. Everything from the stunningly gorgeous outfits to the always bustling streets and waterways burst with color and make Wakanda feel like a fully formed culture and nation.

The same can be said for Talokan, which is essentially Marvel’s Atlantis. Even if both Talokan and Wakanda are largely computer-generated creations, Coogler has a way of playing with light and perspective that help make even the depths of the ocean feel tangible. His keen eye combined with immaculate production and costume design force viewers to consider all that Wakanda and Talokan have in common and will do anything to protect.

In addition to being a visual feast, “Wakanda Forever” is an auditory delight. Ludwig Goransson’s score is pitch perfect, particularly the new theme song for the Dora Majie, Wakanda’s all-female military regimen led by badass warriors like Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Michaela Coel’s Aneka. Word of advice: Have a few tissues handy for when Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” drops. You’ll probably need them.

Dorothy Steel, left, as Merchant Tribe Elder, Florence Kasumba as Ayo, Angela Bassett as Ramonda and Danai Gurira as Okoye in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

With the exception of Namor and Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, “Wakanda Forever” is almost entirely led by Black women. At the center of it all is Wright, whose Shuri is still brilliant but no longer relegated to comic relief. She still can’t even bear to think about her brother long enough to let the pain set back in. Shuri goes on one heck of a journey that tests both her mental and physical limits, not to mention her ability to properly grieve T’Challa. Wright imbues her with just the right amounts of steely resolve and emotional devastation.

Bassett provides one of the MCU’s strongest supporting performances yet as Queen Ramonda. After losing her husband and son, Ramonda isn’t about to let her daughter wallow in anguish and self-pity — or, for that matter, let other countries take advantage of any perceived cracks in Wakanda’s vibranium-enforced armor. Bassett commands every scene in which she appears and towers over one so thoroughly that an Oscar nomination could reasonably be in her near future.

Admittedly, “Wakanda Forever” is probably 10 to 20 minutes too long thanks to a bloated second act. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, with its main conflict resolving itself in a somewhat anti-climactic fashion. And there will probably be a few jokes at its expense given how much Namor’s blue-skinned soldiers look like they’d be more at home in an “Avatar” sequel.

Those are minor quibbles, though, given what Coogler and company accomplished while working under tragedy-mired conditions. It may be a small step down from the first “Black Panther,” but the fact this sequel came as close as it did to hitting that high bar again while also serving as a fitting tribute to Boseman shows that Wakanda may, in fact, be forever.

Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Contact him at

Joshua Axelrod

Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Contact him at