By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
Marvel Studios’ Phase 4 comes to a close with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in theaters this Friday. The post Avengers: Endgame era began with WandaVision in January 2021, with highly anticipated titles like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness following in the months since. Phase 4 has been a different landscape for MCU films, something that is highlighted in Wakanda Forever perhaps more than ever.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever follows the African nation of Wakanda as they look to retain their strength in the wake of the sudden passing of King T’Challa, played by the late Chadwick Boseman. Western nations are looking to pounce on the leadership change as they seek Wakanda’s vibranium supply now that Angela Bassett’s Ramonda has taken the thrown. The Western world’s pursuit of vibranium alerts the presence of an underwater society, ran by the all-powerful Namor (played by Tenoch Huerta), where the precious resource is also found. This puts Namor and the people of his kingdom Talokan on a colission course with Ramoda and the rest of Wakanda.
2018’s Black Panther was a universal hit that, not only broke numerous box office records, but transcended the superhero genre in its critical reception, awards season nominations, and poignant social commentary. Inevitably, this success put any follow-up in a difficult situation from the get-go. How do you follow Black Panther, a movie that holds such importance for so many people? And, given the unfortunate passing of Chadwick Boseman, how do you gracefully pay tribute to the fallen star in a sequel that was originally designed to feature him in the lead role? Ryan Coogler, Kevin Feige, and company had a gargantuan task in tackling Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the results are decidedly mixed.
Wakanda Forever can be commended for not hiding from Boseman’s loss, instead powerfully embracing themes of mourning and passing throughout its lengthy 161 minute runtime. The opening moments of the film, brilliantly brought to life by a scene captured in one take with seamless camera movement, highlights the anxiety, panic, and chaos felt when experiencing the loss of a loved one. T’Challa’s funeral is beautifully portrayed, and it’s difficult to not get wrapped up in the emotion of the loss of the character and the actor that so wonderfully played him. Director Ryan Coogler intelligently uses silence in several of the film’s key moments to convey the pain associated with loss. Whereas other directors have approached similar situations with lengthy monologues and dramatic music, Coogler often opts to have the audience sit in silence, which makes the viewer quietly contemplate some of the film’s powerful themes. While the film’s approach to loss is powerful and emotionally resonant, Boseman’s presence is most truly felt in the final moments. Wakanda Forever manages to honor Boseman, while while also telling its own story that continues the journey of Wakanda and its heroes introduced in the 2018 film. It’s a difficult and unenviable task. Too far in one direction and this sequel could have been seen as a film that moves on too quickly from Chadwick Boseman’s passing, almost disrespectfully so, and too far the other way could have meant lingering on previous events without giving sufficient progression for the story. The script gets this balance just right, and it’s something Coogler and his team clearly worked hard on to achieve.
Wakanda Forever largely centers around characters introduced in the first film, but it excels with one of its new characters as Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta (Narcos: Mexico), is easily the standout of Wakanda Forever. Huerta brings a refreshing performance to the film, adding humanity to a character who does some evil deeds and serves as the film’s main villain. This nuance is a breath of fresh air for the MCU, one that Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger also brought in the first Black Panther, and Namor is certainly one of the better villains of the franchise, especially in recent years. The narrative more broadly also excels when focusing on Namor, and the strongest aspects of the writing all come with Huerta’s character. Also commendable is the world-building related to Namor, his people, and the civilization of Talokan. The introductory scene of characters from this world feels like it is straight out of a horror film, while select flashbacks add a unique depth to Namor and his people.
The sequel also serves as a backdoor pilot for the upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart. Dominique Thorne plays Riri Williams, a genius university student who becomes the focus of the film’s plot. Thorne is given much more to do in the film’s first half than the second, but nonetheless is great as the character. Not much of her backstory is disclosed, although seeds are planted to inevitably explore in her own MCU series debuting next year.
Unfortunately, other aspects of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever don’t hit the heights of its predecessor. The absence of Boseman’s T’Challa leaves a mammoth void in regards to the film’s central character. In particular, the film struggles to pin down a lead character until its final act, spending the majority of the runtime cycling characters in and out of the narrative. While much of the first act is largely dominated by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Gurira’s Okoye take centerstage as the main plot kicks into gear. Gurira, however, is suddenly and unusually sidelined in the movie as Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia comes out of nowhere to play an unexpectedly substantial role in the film. Meanwhile, Winston Duke’s M’Baku is sidelined and largely serves as comedic relief. Although Duke does deliver some of the film’s best one-liners, it’s a shame he wasn’t given more to do in this outing. If there is a main character, it is certainly Letitia Wright’s Shuri, at least for the film’s final act. Unfortunately, Shuri fails to live up to the role, falling flat as a character at many times. Her arc is convoluted, with the final act adding a revenge element which proves to be the only redeeming aspect of Shuri’s development. And, unlike the powerhouse performances of Bassett, Gurira, and Huerta, Wright struggles. Admittedly, it is also difficult to look past some of the actress’ controversial viewpoints disseminated over the last several years.
The length of Wakanda Forever also becomes an issue, particularly later on. Two CGI-heavy final battles make the final act feel somewhat repetitive and dull. More broadly, the script is filled with so many elements, from introducing a new Black Panther to bringing in Namor and Ironheart, that it struggles to maintain focus throughout. This is perhaps best exemplified by a promising plotline involving Namor and Ironheart being sidelined (or, rather, changed altogether) midway through the film. One of the most interesting and divergent aspects of the more recent MCU titles is how isolated they are, often not setting up the next story. Wakanda Forever is isolated still, but does carry the responsibility of introducing huge characters like Namor and setting up the Ironheart series on Disney+.
It must be said that Wakanda Forever nicely follow up the first outing in that this is Marvel at its deepest and most real and relevant. Just as the 2018 film focused heavily on world perceptions of Africa and the tragedies brought on by slavery and colonization, Wakanda Forever highlights the implications of the Western world’s overreach into the lives of indigenous cultures. The social commentary does not go unnoticed as Coogler proves himself capable once again in grounding a big budget superhero venture films with themes of social and political relevance.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever falls short of its iconic predecessor, despite beautifully honoring Chadwick Boseman and introducing another compelling villain in Namor. The film’s struggles with a weak central hero are offset by powerhouse performances from Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, and Tenoch Huerta and plenty of poignant social commentary.