In August 2020, the shocking news of Chadwick Boseman’s death surfaced online. After time to properly mourn, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige revealed the people behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies would not recast the role of T’Challa. However, a Black Panther sequel would still proceed with Ryan Coogler once again in the director’s chair.
The first Black Panther film was a trailblazing success for Marvel Studios back in 2018, grossing over $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office and becoming the first comic book movie to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. The film was truly a cultural phenomenon and among the elite few to elevate the superhero genre, partly due to its groundbreaking representation.
A sequel to Black Panther was inevitable, but with the tragic loss of Boseman, it took on a new shape never-before-seen in an overcrowded genre that has dominated the box office for nearly a decade now. Like the first film, Wakanda Forever delivers something unique due to unforeseen real life circumstances, and the end result is both powerful and touching.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, with T’Challa’s death becoming permanent due to Boseman’s real-life passing and the story now following the world of Wakanda dealing with that grief. While the film is an ensemble, it ultimately rests on the shoulders of Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda.
When it comes to performances, everyone here is at the top of their game, and you can’t help but think that’s because of how intertwined the film is with real life. With Wright and Bassett serving as focal points, the two are the strongest of the bunch, with incredibly personal moments that are some of the most heartfelt we’ve ever seen in the MCU. Shuri’s larger role in the film, in particular, also works for those who might have reservations.
Every notable character from the first film gets their chance to shine and is given more to do in the wake of Boseman’s absence. Wakanda Forever also introduces Tenoch Huerta as the long-dormant Marvel character Namor. Traditionally, Namor the Submariner is illustrated with a Vulcan appearance and as the king of Marvel’s Atlantis.
Coogler and Marvel Studios put a twist on the mutant with Huerta in the role, making him the ruler of Talokan, a location born from Aztec mythology. The change is a necessary one, since DC actually beat Marvel Studios to the punch for once with Aquaman, but also because it delivers more Mexican representation that has been lacking in the MCU so far. Like the first Black Panther and Shang-Chi films, Marvel gives audiences something that feels authentic to the culture, which is always refreshing to see in a blockbuster superhero film.
While Talocan might not reach the same fantastical heights as Wakanda or Ta-Lo, one major standout in the film is the terrifying and inventive introduction of its people, making them a clear threat to the Wakandans right from the start. As far as Namor’s motivation to go to war with Wakanda, it’s a bit too simple and not as layered as Killmonger’s strong point of view in the first film. Still, Huerta has a strong presence as Namor in every scene he’s in, despite looking ridiculous at times in the comic-accurate green spandex. Since the MCU has nailed down their villains in recent phases, Namor doesn’t belong with the likes of Killmonger or Thanos, but he’s nowhere near the bottom of the list either.
The film also manages to bring in another character who will be a major player in the MCU’s future, and that person is none other than Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams. The people behind the Marvel movies do what they do best by introducing another likable and relatable hero to its sprawling universe. Thorne’s performance is also up there with Wright and Bassett’s, and her inclusion in the narrative intertwines nicely. One minor complaint is how Williams is written at times, which is a bit reminiscent of what we got with Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War. Despite the similarity to the other young hero, I’m all in on seeing her story continue in Ironheart next year.
A common criticism of Marvel Studios films is how they can sometimes feel manufactured. Some filmmakers have managed to ooze their style into the product, as seen by James Gunn, Taika Waititi, Sam Raimi, and Ryan Coogler. On the film side, it seems Marvel Studios has embraced the vision of some filmmakers more openly in Phase Four than in the past, and that continues to be evident with Coogler’s direction in Wakanda Forever.
What set the first Black Panther film apart from other MCU entries was its cultural and personal touch. Given Coogler’s body of work and background, you could feel his fingerprints all over the film, and Wakanda Forever is no different. You can feel Coogler’s grief reflected in the art, and making this film must’ve felt therapeutic. In the end, it’s a beautiful experience that is not often seen in commercial art, and Coogler deserves all the credit for it.
Marvel films are usually quite the spectacle, despite some faulty CGI at times, something that is no different for Wakanda Forever. However, Coogler takes his blockbuster filmmaker abilities to the next level with the action here. Some truly fun action sequences give the film a nice contrast to the somber tone throughout. With Wakanda Forever now under his belt, it’s clear Coogler is a master filmmaker and one of the best of his generation. Coogler’s MCU films feel different from the rest, and one of the few that feel like there are actually stakes as well in a franchise built on comic book tropes.
Wakanda Forever has a lot to say and clocks in at 2 hours and 41 minutes, making it one of the longest MCU entries, and there are certain times when you can feel the runtime. The film brings in two major characters, Riri Williams and Namor, and those storylines are to the film’s benefit, allowing the new additions to breathe. But there is another involving Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross and a familiar MCU character that could have been left on the cutting room floor at times in favor of a leaner version.
Like with most of Phase Four, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever isn’t the traditional fare audiences have grown accustomed to in the MCU. In fact, there’s never been a comic book movie like it, with the star of a franchise passing on and a sequel dealing with that tragedy in its narrative. There are times when you can’t help but think of how Boseman’s T’Challa would’ve factored into this story and how much better the film would’ve been with him in it, but that’s not valid criticism in this case. Wakanda Forever joins Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang-Chi as major highlights of Marvel’s latest phase as it comes to an end. With such a tall order Coogler had to overcome with a Black Panther follow-up, he delivers in a big way and creates a deeply moving MCU installment about the human condition. The circumstance of Boseman’s death is undoubtedly unfortunate, but this is a prime example of turning a difficult situation into something beautiful.