Let's start at the end. The mid-credits sequence after the finale of the excellent "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" is the best thought-the-movie-was-over-but-it-isn't moment in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has spent 14 years teaching us to stick around for extras.
There's just one bonus scene, but it's crucial. Don't even think about walking out before it unspools because it puts an emotion-drenched cap on the adventure and further demonstrates that director/co-writer Ryan Coogler packed each of the 141 minutes of "Wakanda" with good stuff.
It begins with a twist on the Marvel logo that, instead of honoring the history of the MCU, pays wordless tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, star of 2018's "Black Panther." Boseman looms over "Wakanda," which is Black Panther-less for the first two hours. Wisely, Coogler doesn't try to jam someone similar into BP's slinky black PJs. Instead, he shifts the focus to the women of the fictional African superpower.
The five most-heroic characters in "Wakanda" are all Black women, beginning with ferocious, white-haired Angela Bassett as Ramonda, the queen and mother of both Boseman's T'Challa and Letitia Wright's Shuri. Ramonda is trying to keep her country together but its sought-after precious metal, vibranium, makes it vulnerable to the U.S. and a mysterious new superpower: an underwater kingdom ruled by tortured Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who's willing to destroy Wakanda to get the metal.
That sounds more complicated than it feels in "Wakanda" because Coogler, whose other films include "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed," focuses on the humanity of superhumans, even in the middle of special-effects worlds. "Wakanda" never loses sight of the grief its characters feel in the absence of T'Challa, but it makes sure we understand its bad guy, too.
Namor is a descendant of Mayans and the product of colonization; his mother mutated after catching smallpox from Spanish conquerors, giving her people the ability to live underwater. Given the actual history of Africa, that's a compelling theme because Wakanda also lives under constant threat from countries that crave its resources, both its metals and its beautiful, wise humans.
Coogler is great at orchestrating the action in "Wakanda," which feels less like one of the chaotic Marvel entries than a sleek 007 movie (the credits even adopt the James Bond wording: "Black Panther will return"). Balancing spectacle and humanity, he also reminds us of Black contributions to our culture, studding the film with sly references to Lorraine Hansberry and the Black Arts Movement. Oh, and it's funny.
Does "Wakanda" miss the magnetism of Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, whose villainous Killmonger died in "Black Panther"? Sure, but Wright is stirring as a woman struggling with her responsibilities, 2001 Macalester grad Danai Gurira is ferocious as Gen. Okoye, Lupita Nyong'o brings warmth to a sorrowful warrior who has left Wakanda and newcomers Michaela Coel ("I May Destroy You") and Dominique Thorne assure us that Wakanda has no shortage of fierce female fighters.
Although more is promised, "Wakanda Forever" feels complete, not like it depends on us having seen a bunch of other MCU titles. That's because the Wakandans are dedicated to something that speaks to the moment we're in: figuring out how to turn grief into hope.
'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever'
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for language and violence.
Where: In theaters.