Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Distributed by: Disney

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

“Black Panther” is one of the crowning jewels of the MCU, at least culturally—my own opinion is somewhat less glowing—and the unexpected passing of Chadwick Boseman in 2020 hit like a hammer blow. King T’Challa was not only poised to be Wakanda’s greatest ruler, he was set to become the next great cultural icon; his loss threw the future of both Wakanda and the MCU into disarray. How do you grapple with a loss like that? How do you move forward?

For director Ryan Coogler, the best way out was through. There would be no recasting (for better and for worse): the character of T’Challa, so tied as he was to Boseman, would no longer be in the MCU. While this may have been the most respectful thing to do, and no doubt the best way for Coogler, co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and the rest of the cast—none of whom knew about Boseman’s cancer diagnosis—to process a loss that blindsided them just as much as it did the rest of us, both Boseman and T’Challa’s loss are felt so keenly throughout the movie that you can’t help but wonder if, in fact, they should have opted to recast. Instead, the film chooses to focus on the grief caused by Boseman’s passing, and this leaves it in a slightly awkward place—it attempts to balance a dramatic emotional throughline with superhero spectacle, and the result is great moments of catharsis that often get lost in the explosion-filled weeds, and Coogler, for all that he tries, can’t quite balance things.

To his credit, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” attempts to be the most thematically gutsy MCU move to date; it never tries to skim over T’Challa’s death—which occurs within the first five minutes of the movie—and instead faces that head-on in a touching tribute to Boseman. In the power vacuum that has emerged, other nations, including France and the United States, have begun to test Wakanda’s power in the hopes of finding some vibranium for themselves, yet they meet resistance from not only Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, proving age is but a number) but from a race of aquatic people whose skin turns blue when out of the water, an unfortunate reminder of how much stronger the visual effects for “Avatar: The Way of Water” are than they ever have been for Marvel.

These blue people, we come to learn, are from the underwater kingdom of Talokan, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), and their ability to survive under the sea came from a vibranium-infused herb in the Yucatán. Namor, whose people (he and the Talokanil people speak Yucatec Maya) were infected and enslaved by Spanish conquistadors, finds similarities between Talokan and Wakanda: both are led by an enhanced leader (Talkoan has Namor and his, ahem, mutations, and Wakanda has the Black Panther) and both have thrived because of vibranium, but T’Challa ended the first “Black Panther” movie by revealing Wakanda’s riches to the world, where Namor has held the technology of Talokan close to his chest. But there is a crucial difference—Wakanda was never colonized, but Namor saw firsthand the devastation of the conquistadors, and Talokan and Wakanda’s diplomatic relations hinge on that difference. Namor, like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger before him, is one of the more compelling antagonists the MCU has to offer, and Huerta is more than capable of rising to the task; in fact, I dare say that a Namor movie would have been more compelling than this one, because in the hole left behind by Boseman, “Wakanda Forever” finds itself without a strong lead. Much of the dramatic heft has gone to Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sister; though the emotional heart of the movie belongs to Queen Ramonda, it is Shuri who goes through the biggest arc.

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Unfortunately, Wright is no Boseman. This isn’t to say she’s bad—in fact, I would venture to say she is pretty good—but rather to point out that it’s unfair to place her in this position and try and make her fill such big shoes when stronger actors like Bassett, Huerta, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Winston Duke as M’Baku, and Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, are all sharing the screen with her. Wright does as best she can, but she lacks the gravitas necessary to become a lead on par with her predecessor.

In the first “Black Panther,” Shuri was a fun supporting character: a tech whiz kid who likes to make fun of her big brother, but not a whole lot more than that. T’Challa was the one with depth, and Boseman brought a grace and specificity to the character that Wright cannot match with Shuri, due in large part to the script. The setup of Shuri as a supporting character in “Black Panther” means that her sudden thrust into the spotlight thrusts her hollow parts into sharp relief;  she claims to want to watch the world burn in recompense for her brother’s death, and yet her actions never indicate that until the last act of the movie, and the statement feels at odds with what little we have seen before. Ramonda has dealt with T’Challa’s absence with less anger and more sorrow, but Shuri fights it; these different approaches to grief have the potential to be searing, but we only start to believe in Shuri’s anger when it’s too late.

Had the script supported its ideas on grief better, then maybe Wright could have risen to the task, but “Wakanda Forever” cannot, by nature of being in the MCU, focus only on its core themes and characters. There has to be setup, and setup there is: each time the movie focuses on RiRi Williams (Dominique Thorne), Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), or Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who cements her status as the new Nick Fury with this latest appearance), you can hear Kevin Feige shouting, “It’s all connected!” in your ear if you listen hard enough.

Thorne, who will appear later in the Disney+ series “Ironheart,” is a delight, but RiRi’s inclusion does nothing other than get people to point and exclaim, “Ironheart!” She could have been set up as an American foil to Shuri, like Killmonger was to T’Challa, but ultimately proves to be of little import; similarly, while I immensely enjoy Martin Freeman showing up in these movies as the clueless white man, he shares most of his scenes with Louis-Dreyfus, whose only purpose is to remind audiences that “Thunderbolts” is starting production soon. While in earlier phases all this seed planting was novel, by now we get it. We know that there is more down the line. We all saw the announcements. Surely there is a better way to integrate some of these characters into the narrative, because as it stands, they often stick out like a sore thumb. (Not to mention the willingness to use RiRi as a child—well, 19-year-old—soldier in a foreign nation, but after “Thor: Love and Thunder,” I should have expected that.)

It’s a shame, because there are beautiful moments throughout “Wakanda Forever” (and even more beautiful costumes, courtesy of Ruth Carter) when the Marvel machine steps back and lets Coogler focus on what grief and anger to everyone, monarch or not, and he wrings some stellar performances from Huerta and Bassett in particular (though my personal favorite will forever remain M’Baku). I can only dream of a world where he was allowed to keep things a bit more personal.

If I could use one phrase to describe Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would be “wasted potential.” Films like “Eternals,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” were full of thorny moral dilemmas and scenarios that should have, ostensibly, driven our characters to new and exciting places, yet they all fell short of their promise in their laborious efforts to get through their plotlines and establish the next Great Big Thing. Though Coogler and company were dealt a very raw hand, at the end of the day, “Wakanda Forever” is no different, even if its ambitions are grander. 

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” Trailer

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