“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opens with a prayer. We hear it before an image appears onscreen, and recognize it’s the voice of Shuri (Letitia Wright), sister of T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther. She scrambles through her lab in search of a solution to her latest problem. As she hastily questions Griot, the Artificial Intelligence she created, we realize her mission is to save her brother’s life. Her attempt ends when their mother, Ramonda, enters the lab. “Your brother is with the ancestors,” she says with the solemn grace only Angela Bassett can bring to a line reading.
Chadwick Boseman, who played T’Challa, died in August 2020 at the age of 43. Marvel made the decision not to recast the character to the chagrin of some fans. In the first 10 minutes of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” T’Challa is given a funeral and a homegoing march through Wakanda that’s reminiscent of a New Orleans-style procession. His sleek coffin, emblazoned with his image and briefly embraced by Shuri, is lifted into the sky — a symbolic ascent into the heavens. A massive wall of Boseman’s face is shown as Oscar winner Ludwig Göransson’s score soars and its drums rumble. The familiar Marvel logo finally makes its appearance, filled with images of T’Challa as it animates across the screen.
Director Ryan Coogler’s decision to begin the sequel to his box-office smash best picture nominee this way alerts us that “Wakanda Forever” plans to mourn its fallen hero. The most melancholy movie in the Marvel franchise so far has no intention of brushing the loss aside. The viewer feels the absence not only of T’Challa but of Boseman himself, who made “Black Panther” while battling the cancer that would ultimately kill him. He kept his diagnosis private — not even Coogler knew.
Boseman was a larger-than-life actor, a man who played practically every famous Black figure one could imagine, from Jackie Robinson to Thurgood Marshall to James Brown. His role as T’Challa was inextricably tied to him; his most famous fictional character inspired many fans but especially fans of color. The screenplay by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole never mentions what T’Challa was stricken with, perhaps out of respect for his portrayer.
It’s only fitting that the memory of T’Challa haunts every frame, but “Wakanda Forever” is a film that’s trying to go about its daily business while dealing with its grief. That’s a perfectly relatable emotion, especially to anyone who has struggled to keep a daily routine while working through a period of mourning. Coogler and his returning company of actors and behind-the-camera craftspeople work overtime to achieve a balance of quiet empathy with the big thrills audiences have come to see.
When it sticks to the emotional repercussions its characters feel, “Wakanda Forever” works very well. Bassett not only gets decked out in the fierce fashions of returning costume designer (and Oscar winner) Ruth Carter, she gets regal speeches that highlight her acting prowess. Lupita Nyong’o reprises her role as Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest. Wright’s last scene is a tear-stained tribute that gently reminds the viewer that, for all its comic-book violence, over-the-top villainy, and too dark CGI, at its core this is a film about dealing with loss.
Unfortunately, when Coogler deals with the usual Marvel mayhem, “Wakanda Forever” isn’t as successful. I admire his attempt to weave a sense of grief into every character, and the film’s new villain, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of an underwater paradise, is a formidable foe. But this is a major step down from “Black Panther.” At 161 minutes, it sags a bit, and Namor’s homeland is rendered with murky CGI effects that at times make it hard to see.
Spotting familiar faces like Winston Duke’s endearing M’Baku, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Martin Freeman’s CIA agents, and a surprise cameo I wasn’t expecting, helped pass the time. A new character, an MIT student and inventor named Riri, played by Dominique Thorne, is a nice addition, and once again, Danai Gurira brings massive amounts of fighting power to her role as Dora Milaje leader, Okoye. For the locals, Boston gets a mighty fine action sequence shout-out featuring Okoye and Shuri.
But it felt like something was missing from this movie, something insurmountable. Perhaps that’s the point the filmmakers wanted to make, however clumsily. Even with distance, the hole left by a loss never fully closes. The ache remains as life goes on.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER
Directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on the character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Starring Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Dominique Thorne, Winston Duke, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. At AMC Boston Common 19, Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, Regal Fenway & RPX, and suburban theaters. 161 minutes. PG-13 (typical comic book violence, occasional mild profanity)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.