A lot rests on each movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has more pressure on it than most. The movie, which hit theaters on November 10, 2022, needed to move the larger story of the MCU forward, as all films do, introduce new heroes like Riri Williams, set up a major villain in Namor, bring audiences back to Wakanda, and be a worthy follow-up to Black Panther — a critically and commercially lauded film that was a breakthrough in representation and earned a Best Picture nomination. And, tragically, it needed to all of this without Chadwick Boseman, the actor behind T’Challa who died in August 2020 of colon cancer. Beyond any of the usual Marvel dot-connecting, Wakanda Forever’s biggest burden is convincingly, and respectfully letting audiences process Boseman’s death. For young viewers who loved Black Panther in 2018, this is a uniquely strange pop culture phenomenon, a moment when children are figuring out how to grieve for a superhero in real life.
So, the question families will probably have before they go see the movie, is simply: Does Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pull all that off? The good news is, the answer is yes. It’s very clear that both the characters in the film and the people playing them, as well as all the behind-the-camera talent, are mourning Black Panther. It’s an earnest, effective, and at times emotionally raw cinematic processing of a beloved figure’s death. It just happens to take place inside an overstuffed movie where the villains are blue fish-people. The grieving works. The movie? Less so.
This story contains some mild spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Wakanda Forever opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright) as she is frantically working in her laboratory. It quickly becomes apparent that T’Challa (who is never seen, avoiding the need for a body double or a dubious CGI Boseman) is sick and dying. Shuri, despite all her scientific know-how, is unable to save her brother’s life. He dies off-screen, Wakanda holds a funeral, and the action cuts to one year later.
By employing this time jump, Wakanda Forever largely eschews the traumatic, shocking aspects of death, allowing the film to focus on another, arguably more challenging aspect of loss. Some say the hardest part of the death of a loved one is not immediately after or during the funeral, but when all the well-wishers go home and you’re left alone in a world that’s going back to normal even though your loved one is no longer there. Wakanda Forever doesn’t get too deep on this front (it’s an MCU movie, not a Lars von Trier film), but it does show what a void T’Challa — and by extension, Boseman — left, and how the people who loved him are moving on.
In Shuri’s case, things aren’t going so well. “We meet her in the first film and she is that ray of sunshine. She's so clothed and protected in royalty and love,” Wright said in a press conference ahead of the film’s release. “She was the person her brother went to for his protection, his armor. And he encouraged that. Her family encouraged her to be a genius and to be faithfully and wonderfully made. So, we follow on from that. What does that look like, when your heart is broken?”
In Wakanda Forever, there are glimpses of the old Shuri, but she’s fundamentally changed. She’s withdrawn, cynical, angry — and due to what she views as her failure to save her brother’s life, feeling guilty. It’s a tough look, but an honest one. Of course, grief is hard and it’s not someone one gets over with in the span of a year. There are ups and downs and it’s okay to feel bad without giving totally into despair.
Other Marvel movies have dealt with death before. Thor grieved his father, brother, and hammer after Ragnarok, and Spider-Man: No Way Home features a pivotal moment where the Green Goblin kills Aunt May, and Peter loses faith as a result until the other two Spider-Men pick him back up. Heck, it’s a hallmark of the superhero genre as a whole. Spider-Man’s motivated by Uncle Ben, Batman by his parents, etc, etc. But what makes Wakanda Forever different is that the characters are mourning a real death that adds immense weight and power to the fictional death. The movie wants to help fans — especially young fans — process Boseman’s death through fiction. This would be a little like if Michael Keaton had died in 1992, and then in 1995, a weird version of Batman Forever acknowledged the death of Bruce Wayne and Keaton at the same time. In other words, this has never really happened before in pop culture, or in life.
Wakanda Forever shows the many different shapes that grief can take, offering different perspectives on mourning, and providing characters who can help comfort other characters (and by extension, the audience) as they heal and grow. Wakanda Forever does not make grief out to be something that’s easily overcome or something that’s insurmountable. For all its faults, Wakanda Forever does an admirable job of addressing the deaths of Boseman/T’Challa. Then it patiently, and kindly takes the next steps, both in fiction and in the real world.
The bad news is that Wakanda Forever as a movie has many faults because, again, this is a Marvel product still and there’s a lot riding on it. The loving, fairly nuanced way it deals with Boseman’s death comes in the midst of so much other MCU nonsense, and not exactly top-tier MCU nonsense, either.
If you wanted to be charitable, you could say that the various setting up of future MCU titles (like the Disney+ Ironheart series, which stars Dominique Thorne, whose Riri Williams was introduced in this movie) is reflective of the fact that the world moves on even when somebody important and beloved dies. That’s certainly true on a meta-level because they did indeed make Wakanda Forever despite Boseman’s death. That’s overly charitable, though, and while Wakanda Forever isn’t bad, the emotional moments where an audience is connecting with the loss of Boseman/T’Challa comes amidst Julia Louis-Dreyfus cameos or extended bits of geopolitics between Wakanda and a dimly lit CGI underwater city.
The failings of Wakanda Forever aren’t any more egregious than other MCU movies from this phase, which have been often seen as let-downs, to put it mildly for various reasons. Wakanda Forever feels like a Phase 4 movie, for better or worse. It’s just a Phase 4 movie with something very special and real at its core. Rather than that emotional core propping up the rest of the movie, it’s somewhat smothered and muddled.
Maybe this was how it was always going to be. Perhaps making a movie about an actual death that’s also yet another installment in a popcorn franchise was always going to feel muddled. That’s understandable, and in that case, we should take solace in the fact that Wakanda Forever understood the most important part of the assignment. Hardcore Marvel fans will get more of the same. Kids who loved Boseman’s T'Challa will be given a warm hug, and that alone is nothing short of astounding.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is playing in theaters in wide release now.
Wakanda Forever Disney+ streaming date
While Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a huge theatrical release for Disney and Marvel, it’s possible it could be streaming on Disney+ before the end of the year. Most movie studios, including Disney, have mostly adopted a 45-day-exclusivity window for theatrical releases. This is why Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness seemed to hit Disney+ so quickly. Now, it’s possible Disney won’t fast-track Wakanda Forever to streaming, but, 45 days from its release would be right after December 25, 2022.
Could Wakanda Forever become a Disney+ streaming holiday present? We’ll have to wait and see.