Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Dominique Thorne, Michaela Coel, Martin Freeman
On 28 August 2020, the world woke to the heartbreaking news that Chadwick Boseman had passed away. He was only 43 and had been battling cancer in secret for some time. This left Marvel Studios and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler with an unthinkable dilemma: to recast, or to acknowledge the in-universe death of one of your most prominent lead characters? They went with the far the more respectful second option, and so the sequel to one of the biggest hits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had the added challenge of paying tribute to its dearly departed star in addition to telling a new and expansive story.
A year after the untimely death of her brother King T’Challa, Shuri (Letitia Wright) has thrown herself into her work to avoid confronting her grief, leaving her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to represent Wakanda on the global stage as ruler, the title of Black Panther vacant. When a new threat emerges in the shape of Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the warrior-king of the powerful aquatic nation of Talokan, Shuri must rally her allies and embrace her destiny if Wakanda and the nations beyond it stand any hope of survival.
The world has changed. The MCU may not have experienced a Coronavirus pandemic, but half of it was snapped out of existence for five years by intergalactic tyrant Thanos. Friends and loved ones were torn apart, including Ramonda who lost both her children to “The Blip” and was then reunited with them briefly after the events of Avengers: Endgame only to lose her son all over again to human mortality. In the absence of heirs to the throne, hungry eyes have been on Wakanda, and UN member states have been performing incursions for their precious vibranium metal deposits. Everything comes to a head when the previously unknown Talokanil people attack the surface world to protect their own stores of vibranium, drawing out the isolationist Wakandans to take action of their own.
Tragic circumstances have promoted Black Panther’s memorable supporting cast to main players, and everyone in the ensemble is given new depths and plenty of interesting things to do. One of the best things about the first Black Panther is how it saw T’Challa relying on a close support network of family and friends to effectively perform his role as superhero, and it is these same loved ones – Shuri, Ramonda, love of T’Challa’s life Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and loyal bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) – that are tasked here with continuing his legacy as best they can.
When it comes down to it, for all its spectacular, multi-tiered action and dazzling portrayals of hidden futurist worlds inspired by African and Mesoamerican cultures (much respect to returning production designer Hannah Beachler here), this is a film about legacy and a mother’s need to give her children a future. Namor’s origins are told through the lens of his mother’s experiences in 16th Century Mexico, and in one of the film’s standout scenes a particularly powerful, distraught Angela Bassett takes the floor in her throne room to illuminate the grief she has been through. The script from Coogler and Joe Robert Cole can at times be too tell-not-show, but in this moment Ramonda’s assembled audience need to be told in no uncertain terms.
Namor just shouldn’t work in live-action. Amazingly though, in the capable hands of a charismatic Huerta and Marvel’s digital artists (a couple of dodgy CG transition shots aside), this wing-footed merman is actually made to look pretty cool, and scary. Dubbed K’uk’ulkan by his people after the Mayan serpent deity, Namor commands a near-invulnerable army as well as the ocean itself, and thus every creature that inhabits it becomes a weapon in his hands. In a particularly striking image lifted straight from the “Avengers vs X-Men” comic storyline, Wakanda’s capital city feels the full force of Namor’s wrath, and like the best antagonists in the MCU such as Black Panther‘s Killmonger, he is both terrifying and fully understandable in his worldview. Why should the colonialist nations of the world feel they have the right to the resources of two small but advanced nations who have kept to themselves for centuries?
The film is a long one, at just over 2 hours 40 minutes it is the second-longest in the MCU after Phase 3 finale Endgame. While it could possibly do with a little tightening here and there, and less “Lord of the Rings ending syndrome” in its final few minutes, there is a sizeable ensemble of characters to serve here, not to mention having to close out Phase 4 of the MCU, set up new characters who will have large parts to play going forward (like teen genius Riri Williams/Ironheart, played by Dominque Thorne), and of course pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman – it’s difficult to see where the cuts could come.
The main problem aside from having to balance respect for an unexpectedly departed star with moving a franchise and its characters forward is that the slightly unwieldy script is very stop-start-stop-start. The world-building could always be more elegant, the story’s shift of gears less noticeable, but the character work is on point and there are plenty of individual moments in the film (from the intimate to the epic) that will stay with you.
Wakanda Forever has the unenviable task of eulogising the dearly departed and carrying a long-running franchise on the road to its future. Chadwick Boseman tragically died before his time and so this film does the rare thing of showing that superheroes might be stronger, faster and more powerful than us, but most are are not immune to illness and to grief. Ryan Coogler’s film does about as well as you might reasonably expect at balancing many disparate elements, and while this undoubtedly ended up as a very different film to the one it started as, Wakanda Forever makes a heartfelt connection and delivers memorable action in spades as well as some of the best performances in the entire MCU.
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