After King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) passes away from an unknown illness, his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) must take up the defence of Wakanda, as nations around the world begin to make incursions with the goal of securing vibranium deposits. Meanwhile, the underwater nation of Talokan is targeted for its vibranium deposits, and its leader Kukulkan / Namor (Tenoch Huerta) arises from the deep to make his presence known...
There's no denying that 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' is more made up of the absence of Chadwick Boseman than anything else. The opening scene sees Letitia Wright's scientist extraordinaire bravely racing to find a cure for the unnamed illness that plagues her brother before the inevitable strikes. You can see the panic in her eyes, the frantic guesswork, before Angela Bassett's character arrives in stoic fashion and announces his passing. The logos roll in silence, and a traditional African funeral takes place where the Black Panther is laid to rest. He's on a mural during the funeral, he's talked about in almost every scene, and his absence looms over each decision the Wakandan characters make to protect their country from interlopers.
Nobody expected a sequel to 'Black Panther' when Chadwick Boseman passed, yet the task before director Ryan Coogler, co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and the rest of the cast is to make it without him. Ultimately, 'Wakanda Forever' has to mourn his loss, on screen for all to see, and then come up with a way to continue the character in some shape or form. It's a tough ask, and 'Wakanda Forever' doesn't always get it right.
Indeed, the biggest problem with 'Wakanda Forever' is that it's trying to do too much and not all of it necessarily needs doing. For example, introducing Namor the Sub-Mariner - a character with a rich history in the comics - as the antagonist, yet consistently hobbling him with poor writing in the same way that Michael B. Jordan's character, Killmonger, was and filling the same role with the well-earned but misguided anger. Letitia Wright, very much a supporting role in the first movie who continued on that path in the likes of 'Avengers: Endgame', is forced into the middle of the story. Mercifully, she's given cover with the help of Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong'o returning as Okoye and Nakia respectively. Angela Bassett takes up the prestige left by Boseman as Ramonda, lending the emotional weight and substance where it's needed.
All of the performances are deeply committed, and newcomer (to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, anyway) Tenoch Huerta dazzles as Namor. Much like Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, you connect with his motivations easily, but again, there's that sense of the film walking up to the line but never passing it. Angela Bassett has all of the best scenes in the movie, and she is both fiery with rage and leaden with sorrow in equal measure. Danai Gurira equally has the same vibrance, yet Letitia Wright never quite hits the mark as well as others.
At 161 minutes, 'Wakanda Forever' spends its considerable runtime trying to layer up the story with meaningful moments, to allow grief be processed on screen, and to give appropriate weight to the character's passing. It also tries to shove in some anticolonialist tracts, never-before-seen places and characters, more CGI, setting up a replacement for Black Panther, and tee up the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For a movie that's already working uphill, flinging all that on top isn't going to make the task of putting on a crowd-pleasing blockbuster any easier. It's not like 'Creed', or even 'Fruitvale Station', where it's taking that on willingly and with it as a central aspect. That's the problem with 'Wakanda Forever' - it's burdened with this, and not nearly as free-flowing or as slick as its original. Yes, it's trying to process loss and grief, but is a Marvel blockbuster really going to be able to grapple with it effectively? Whether it is or not is debatable, but the fact is that it is forced to try.