Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Dania Gurira, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Alex Livinalli, Mabel Cadena, Michael B. Jordan
Runtime: 161 minutes
Light spoilers follow:
One of, if not the core theme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4, has been grief. One can argue it’s a core theme of the superhero genre, of course, given how, as She-Hulk humorously noted in her television series, so many superheroes are adult orphans. But many of Marvel’s recent projects focus on the loss of loved ones and the different reactions people have to those losses, as more than simply motivational incidents in origin stories. These explorations of grief have varied in quality from excellent (WandaVision, Spider-Man: No Way Home) to worse-than-lackluster (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) but overall it is a strong, ambitious through line for the wide assortment of films and series. This makes Black Panther: Wakanda Forever a fitting last installment in the phase, for sad reasons, as it’s the one dealing with a real-life tragedy. The sequel to the groundbreaking 2018 film had to not only progress its story but deal with the death of its beloved leading actor, Chadwick Boseman, who played the titular superhero, also known as King T’Challa of the futuristic nation of Wakanda. Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler and his cast and crew managed to rally in the face of their loss, turning the film into a loving tribute to the memory of their beloved colleague and his iconic character, while also delivering a moving meditation on wider ideas about loss and vengeance and one of the best films of 2022.
Rather than recast the character or try to feature Boseman through old footage and visual effects as other blockbusters have done with late stars, Wakanda Forever makes the bolder and ultimately more respectful choice to kill off the T’Challa character immediately, with an unnamed illness substituting for Boseman’s real-life fight with colon cancer. After a visually striking Wakandan funeral, the film jumps forward in time by a year. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has resumed her role as queen and combats aggressive moves by western nations seeking to obtain vibranium, the superpowered extraterrestrial metal responsible for Wakanda’s wealth and advanced technology, which have included attempted robberies of Wakandan outreach centers. When a CIA team searching for vibranium in the ocean is massacred Wakanda is blamed, before being confronted by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the superhuman leader of the underwater kingdom of Talokan, which is also powered by vibranium. Ramonda, T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and his other loved ones must confront their lingering grief while protecting their home from the threat of war on multiple fronts.
The returning cast members all achieved relatively similar levels of popularity from Black Panther so without Boseman Coogler could have shifted to an ensemble focus but instead, the new film moves Shuri into lead character status. The scientifically gifted princess is hit the hardest by her brother’s death. Other characters like Ramonda and T’Challa’s girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) are plenty devastated, of course, but they found healthy ways to mourn during the time jump. Shuri is rejecting the spiritual beliefs and healing practices of her people and burying herself in her work, which includes obsessive efforts to fortify the safety of Wakanda and her loved ones. She’s holding in a tremendous amount of anger, telling her mother that she sometimes feels as if she could burn the rest of the world. The conflict with Namor forces her to confront these feelings more directly. Her arc is not a traditional hero’s journey, instead using superhero tropes to provide a powerful depiction of the dangers of hatred and revenge and the difficulty of moving on. Wright was a comic highlight of the first film and she still skillfully delivers some strong comedic beats but also shows a much greater range and is up to the task of conveying the character’s extreme emotions.
But while they are slightly better off emotionally than their princess the supporting characters are still put through the ringer, with the other actors also turning in excellent performances, and Angela Bassett’s is particularly rousing. Ramonda’s personal struggles complicate her efforts to shepherd Wakanda through difficult times and Bassett is regal and striking to watch throughout, especially in scenes where the queen’s emotions finally explode out with ferocious force. She is more than worthy of the various awards and nominations her work in the film has received. After the queen and Shuri, Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of the royal guards dubbed the Dora Milaje, is the best utilized out of the returning characters from the first film. Gurira, as always, delivers some unique and hilarious reactions in the comedic beats but also powerfully conveys a growing sense of desperation as the general is faced with her most physically and emotionally taxing challenge yet. Nakia and Winston Duke’s M’Baku don’t have roles as large as the ones they did in the first film but are reliably enjoyable, with Duke getting to add more compassion to his character’s amusing bravado after one of the film’s tragic turns. Martin Freeman, who plays CIA agent and Wakandan ally Everett K. Ross, on the other hand, benefits from a more nuanced role than last time, which allows him to more clearly define who his character is and what his morals are. Dominique Thorne is also an enjoyable addition as Riri Williams, a brilliant engineering student who winds up in the middle of the Wakanda/Talokan conflict and is destined to become the superhero Ironheart. The character is a good audience surrogate and Thorne delivers some great lines, although the upcoming Ironheart spin-off for Disney Plus will quickly need to flesh Riri out a lot more.
The film is elevated greatly by the presence of Namor, who is a fascinating antagonist, one of the MCU’s best ever. The amphibious warrior is one of the oldest and most important characters in Marvel comics and the filmmakers clearly worked carefully to ensure that the screen version was suitably enthralling and nuanced. Reworking Talokan from simply Marvel’s version of Atlantis to something more culturally specific was a stroke of genius that creates many interesting parallels between Namor and his Wakandan opponents. Just as Wakanda’s history diverged from that of other African nations when vibranium kept it from being forced into the slave trade, Talokan’s creation was a response to the violent colonization of the Mayans and Namor’s sole goal is to ensure his people are never conquered again. The production and costume designers do great work weaving historical details into the props, costumes, and overall design of Talokan and the result is a fantasy world almost as tangible and enticing as Wakanda itself. Huerta Mejía benefits from the balanced writing but also does a lot to elevate the character himself. He is physically imposing, with posture and movement choices accentuating both the character’s superpowers and royal authority. He is also immensely charismatic, which is crucial in getting the audience to accept the reasonable parts of his perspective but there is an undercurrent of barely contained rage throughout that at times builds to spectacular releases. Along with Wright and Bassett’s his acting is the most crucial in making the film work and he is more than up to the task. It’s no wonder Marvel fans are salivating for more of the character.
Wakanda Forever isn’t the absolute masterpiece that its predecessor was. There are a few technical hiccups here and there, though they are relatively minor, and some of the returning characters and themes aren’t explored as thoroughly as they could be. But the film is also a unique, and beautiful creation of its own. And it succeeds with flying colors at its most important task, which, of course, is honoring Boseman.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a striking blockbuster art film that develops one of Marvel's best mythologies while processing powerful emotions of grief and paying spectacular tribute to Chadwick Boseman.