Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
The sudden death of Chadwick Boseman shocked the world in 2020. He kept his diagnosis a secret from all but a select few, including his bosses at Marvel. Boseman wanted to keep working until his last moment and didn’t want to engage in a drawn-out grieving process with the world. A talented actor taken far too early, Boseman’s death left his fans, friends, and family all grieving once his death came.
Boseman was a versatile actor, playing a variety of roles over his career. He first rose to major prominence as famed baseball player Jackie Robinson in the well-made biopic 42. However, Boseman’s star truly began to shine as an international superstar when he took on the role of superhero T’Challa, the Black Panther. Debuting first in Captain America: Civil War, he was then star of his own feature. 2018‘s Black Panther was a box office smash, grossing over $1.3 billion and became one of the highest-grossing films of all time. The film was a critical success and become a cultural icon, popularizing several phrases in the lexicon and receiving praise for its superheroes that Black boys and girls could look up to and aspire to be like.
After appearing in the major crossover Avengers films, Boseman looked poised to return for a Black Panther sequel and seemed likely to become a major player in the next iteration of the MCU. Obviously, that did not come to be. Losing its central player left many wondering if a Black Panther sequel could exist without Boseman, especially after Marvel revealed it would not recast the role and would allow T’Challa to pass.
Rather than run from the loss, director Ryan Coogler instead embraced the hole left by Boseman and made it a central theme of the sequel, Wakanda Forever. Indeed, much of the film’s central arc features Shuri (Letitia Wright), and to a lesser extent Ramonda (Angela Bassett), wrestling with the loss of their loved one and how to go on afterward. This pathos sinks into the roots of all of the various character’s arcs, even ones less developed.
The central thrust of the film’s plot is the kingdom of Wakanda being challenged by the suddenly-revealed underwater kingdom of Talokan (Atlantis in the comics), ruled by the mutant Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). With the revelation of the valuable metal vibranium to the world at large, all of the world’s powers want a piece. The USA plunges into the ocean’s depths for it, disturbing Namor and his people. Namor demands Wakanda stand with Talokan against the surface world, or the first vengeful wave from the ocean will crash over and drown Wakanda.
While there is CGI-laden action aplenty, Wakanda Forever is a film more about wrestling with ideas. Shuri’s inability to process her loss colors all of her actions throughout the film. Likewise, Namor deals with his own losses and grief that inform his character’s worldview. As with his handling of Killmonger in the first film, Coogler is not interested in a comic book plot where the “bad guy” must be defeated, but rather how we handle difficult moral dilemmas. Namor’s views feel justified, extreme as they are, and the excellent performance from Huerta Mejia imbues the character with empathy. His turn is beautifully understated in certain scenes, keeping him far from the tropes of cackling villains.
Coogler’s production design, score, and direction remain excellent. His eye for visuals informs the film’s beauty. Whether it’s closeup shots of character grieving or wide shots of Wakanda and ocean shores, Wakanda Forever uses beautiful images to set moods in a film whose tapestry of emotions spans quite wide. Though Talochan is explored in much less depth than Wakanda, the Meso-American flavor of the architecture, costumes, and speech adds another wonderful culture to the MCU that one hopes will be explored further in the future. The score is also a notable feature of the film, working in Afro and Meso-American parts in equal portion, with the Namor scenes colored by a striking score that manages to be unnerving all on its own.
The wide span of the film and all it tries to accomplish does leave you feeling thst the brush was a tad too broad at times. Despite the immense runtime, some parts do feel very skimmed over, and several characters don’t get much screentime. Namor is the only member of his kingdom with any real depth, as the other named ones, Namora and Attuma, are hardly characters. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) also vie for screen time and both have to be pushed out of the movie in certain portions to accommodate everyone.
Martin Freeman‘s Everett Ross gets minutes here and there, but the film eventually pushes him away from the main plot entirely for a mostly unimportant side plot involving Julia Louis Dreyfuss‘s Valenta de Fontaine, who was first introduced in earlier films and Marvel series. Newcomer Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams is introduced as a new Iron Man named Ironheart, with her own suit of armor. In fact, her scientific mind propels much of the plot, but she is underdeveloped as a character, though is given a scene here and there to tie her into the grief theme and give her at least a tiny bit of depth.
The comic-book visuals clash at times with the deeper emotions. The funeral sequence for T’Challa is a powerful scene that does feel ruined slightly when overly-futuristic CGI technology starts intruding, though thankfully the film avoids the common MCU pitfall of having a quippy line break up the emotional tension. The audience gets to feel the emotions with the characters.
Wakanda Forever is not a perfect film and does not stand with the titans of the MCU. But in a Phase 4 of the MCU that has often left fans feeling like they are in their own grieving process as film after film struggles to establish itself, Wakanda Forever is a beautiful touchstone with reassuring depths. The multitude of strong performances and the layered script deliver a film that pays tribute to Boseman and allows us to say goodbye. In this reviewers’ mind, Wakanda Forever manages to eclipse the first film due to the depth of these moments.
Also, in a first, the post-credit scene is actually deeply resonant in addition to teasing the future, and is an exemplar of this film’s best moments. Moments of plain humanity ponder the meaning people have to each other and the gaps left when we lose those we love. The film continually pays tribute to Boseman and the importance of the Black Panther in both the film universe and to the viewing audience. It is in such moments where this film grabs you, even in unexpected places like the opening and closing credits. Tears may fall down your face as Wakanda Forever ends, and it will leave you saying Love live the king, and… Wakanda forever!