In his four appearances throughout the MCU, Black Panther/T’Challa has become a staple of the franchise, largely due to Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His home nation Wakanda served as a refuge for the Avengers, with its army holding its own against Thanos in the epic fallout from Avengers: Endgame. His stand-alone film spoke to a previously untapped audience, instantly showing the world that a blockbuster film starring largely a cast of colour is a force to be reckoned with. To think that another Black Panther film without Boseman could even attempt to reach the same heights is crazy, but it looks like director Ryan Coogler and team have achieved the impossible.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a story of grief in times of war. Following the sudden passing of T’Challa, taking heavily from Boseman’s sudden death in real life, the film focuses on T’Challa’s closest allies and family holding a nation together as new enemies oppose it. As such, by the very nature of the subject matter, Wakanda Forever is one of the MCU’s most serious tales, but not one without moments of levity where needed. Similar to the first film, the sequel has an even stronger focus on the geopolitical conflict with the introduction of the wholly new, secret underwater nation of Talokan, and its ruler Namor.
Note: Certain sections of this review contain a ‘Second viewing note’, as it sounds, and are comments on things that I noticed with more care in my second screening, being in a more immersive 3D IMAX.
After a powerful opening leading into a funeral, Wakanda Forever gives every member of the cast time to mourn the passing of the former Black Panther. Given that we’ve seen this cast work so well together before, the reaction is natural. At the end of the first film, T’Challa promised the world that Wakanda will share its knowledge and resources to improve lives everywhere, but with his passing comes new tensions from every nation in the world. Wakanda’s natural resource, Vibranium, is sought by all, with secret operations worldwide trying to get their hands on the metal. Of course, Vibranium isn’t only found in Wakanda, with ample deposits across the oceans lying dormant. This attracts the attention of Talokan, which now has the excuse to wage war on the surface world for their transgressions.
While the film is very much about a war between two secret nations, at the heart of it is the difference in ideologies between Shuri and Namor. While her previous appearances painted her as “simply” a smart sidekick, Wakanda Forever dives deep into exploring Shuri’s worldview. Mad at the world for taking away her brother and dismayed at her country’s seemingly archaic traditions, Shuri is driven to improve and build upon her technology to keep protecting Wakanda. Namor, on the other hand, is more appreciative of the old ways, so much so that waging war on the entire planet seems like a natural step forward if it means protecting the sanctity of his kingdom. Letitia Wright and Tenoch Huerta play to their strengths where expected, but with enough vulnerability to keep the audience engaged in their non-violent arguments. While Huerta is undoubtedly the standout element of the film, Wright’s big step up into a leading woman is a spectacle to behold. No longer just a side character, Shuri becomes a force to be reckoned with in her own right, instantly differentiating herself from both T’Challa, T’Chaka, and Killmonger.
Tenoch Huerta’s Namor is badass. A very stubborn badass and kind of a jerk, which is keeping in line with the comics! He’s easily one of the MCU’s best antagonists, and similar to Killmonger has a point of view that’s more understandable than most moustache-twirling villains in the MCU. Is he an anti-hero? Well, not yet. But do I see him aiding the new Avengers when the Kang Dynasty comes knocking? Sure, I think he’ll do that, so long as it’s a strategic alliance for the wellbeing of Talokan residents. He’s also officially one of the MCU’s first mutants! While at this point, it hardly makes much difference to point out how mutants are different from regular enhanced humans, it’s nice to see the universe slowly starting to build toward X-Men with him and Ms Marvel. Namor’s abilities include the usual super strength and agility, but the little wings on his ankles make his power set distinct. Whether under the water or in the air, Namor is a formidable foe for anyone to challenge and certainly makes for some great spectacle on the big screen once he unleashes his fury on Wakanda.
While the war between Wakanda and Talokan is fun to watch, I wish we saw more of these kingdoms from ground level. Even after two stand-alone movies, I still don’t know how Wakanda functions as a society for the common man. We see a few shots of different locales in both kingdoms, but that’s about it. What’s the economy of these kingdoms like? What about the legal system? It’s these questions that fascinate me more so than watching commanding generals on either side prepping their armies for the umpteenth war. It’s not as big a deal, but it would help to know the citizens of Wakanda and Talokan more before watching their armies go to war with each other. With a run time of 2 hours and 40 minutes, there are plenty of scenes that could be swapped to show this instead, but the film, if only sometimes, repeats talking points about grief and loss that do drag it down quite a bit.
Second viewing note: While my minor complaints about not seeing enough of both nations still stand, I did appreciate the hauntingly beautiful introduction to the capital city of Talokan in the second round. Paired perfectly with Con La Brisa, the sequence is among Marvel’s most breathtaking.
On the topic of things that didn’t work for me: derivative characters. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is a lost treasure for the MCU, and it’s no wonder that without him or Captain America, the universe has lost a bit of soul. So, what’s the genius idea at play here to replicate some of that nostalgia? I know: give everyone Iron Man armour. Wow! Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams makes her debut in Wakanda Forever who, for all intents and purposes, is an amalgamation of Peter Parker and Tony Stark. There’s not much here to distinguish herself from either of those characters beyond being of different ethnicity. Still, I guess character work doesn’t matter as long as fans see another Iron Man armour flying around shooting lasers, just like the good old days. Her entire existence, at least in this film, reminds me that it is, after all, a studio film where the need for generating revenue through spinoffs is more important. See you next year with Ironheart, streaming exclusively on Disney Plus! Wait, why does have an Iron Man armour? Did she know Tony Stark? What’s her relationship to Stark Industries? Uh oh, we don’t know. Guess I’ll have to tune into her show to find out what that’s all about! Oh, and that’s not all, as there are more Iron Man suits flying around covered in Vibranium for your viewing pleasure. It’s kind of like getting a new Thor with Mjolnir, even though it has nothing to do with the character that had a unique thing going for them.
Second viewing note: Yeah, not much changed in my feelings towards Riri Williams this time, but I noticed a spark in Thorne’s performance that gives me hope for her spinoff series. With some strong background character work, Riri could easily be a leading face of the MCU, as long as she isn’t derivative of other characters before her.
All of this makes it sound like I hated this movie, or at least was disgusted by these elements when, in fact, the truth is I quite liked the film. But liking a movie doesn’t mean it gets a get-out-of-cinematic-jail-free-card from its narrative problems. I wish the film weren’t as sloppy as it is in these areas because I want to get invested in these characters. But that’s hard to do when certain decisions keep reminding me that I’m watching a studio film that’s more interested in spinoffs and IP and farming nostalgia over telling a story that matters more thoughtfully.
On the bright side, seeing returning characters like Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, Winston Duke’s M’Baku, and Danai Gurira’s Okoye brought a big smile to my face. Okoye and Ramonda get a much meatier role this time, and the tensions between them make for some great entertainment. People will rightfully be cheering for Bassett’s powerful portrayal here, but I think Gurira deserves special praise. We learn more about Okoye not through exposition but through her actions. Having failed to protect King T’Challa, the burden of responsibility to keep princess Shuri safe is heavy, and how Okoye navigates through its trials and tribulations is a delight to watch. I wish M’Baku had a bigger role, but what he’s given here is enough as far as the story is concerned.
Everett Ross, Wakanda’s favourite colonizer, has a smaller but important role here, as he’s seemingly the only one outside Wakanda who sympathizes with the grieving nation. It’s a shame, though, that his entire sub-plot adds virtually very less to the actual story, existing as a tease for Marvel’s next projects (hello Thunderbolts). Slight spoiler: Watching his back and forth with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Contessa Valentina is cool and all, but it doesn’t add anything to the film besides bringing up a couple of interesting questions, nothing that couldn’t be achieved with fewer scenes.
One of the complaints of the previous Black Panther movie was its lacklustre visuals, especially in the finale. Thankfully, Wakanda Forever excels in that department…for the most part. Since Marvel is now doing multiple projects in any given year, it’s clear as crystal to me that expecting the same level of polish is stupid, which it is. The big action sequences look good, but it’s the smaller moments where VFX-heavy shots falter. It suffers from what I call the “blank frame syndrome” when you see a group of characters standing in front of an obvious green screen with the background somewhat hastily rotoscoped in. Coupled with the generally shallow depth of field in the shot composition, many moments in the film reminded me that yes, this is a movie. Beyond those, though, the film generally looks better than the last one! Autumn Durald Arkapaw returns behind the camera, fresh off her work with Marvel in Loki, crafting beautiful images that don’t need to rely on CGI. If only I could actually see what was going on in the underwater and night-time scenes, this might’ve joined the upper ranks of Marvel’s cinematography.
Second viewing note: On my IMAX rewatch, the colours and brightness popped out more, helping the visibility considerably more in the scenes I mentioned above. I still wish those night-time and underwater shots had more vibrancy, but it works as setting up Talokan to be the visual opposite of Wakanda.
The film’s closing moments will stay with me as some of the best in Marvel history, thanks largely in part due to the unison of the camera work, lighting, and of course, Ludwig Göransson’s beautiful, sad but uplifting score.
Of course, like most Marvel movies, some surprises are bound to move the MCU forward. Overall, though, the film is much more focused on telling its own story while giving tribute to the late Boseman, which is done with grace and care.
Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is out now in cinemas.