How do a filmmaker and his crew pick up the pieces of a story shattered by the heartbreaking loss of a fallen family member, who was both a protagonist and king? That was certainly the question left several days after the death of the incredible Chadwick Boseman, who passed away from colon cancer in August 2020, shortly after writer/director Ryan Coogler had just finished the first draft of his script for the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther.
It’s almost impossible to write a review without mentioning this, because the astonishing tale of the strength and endurance from Coogler and the cast and crew to carry on with the film in the wake of Boseman’s death has deliberately made its way into Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; which, at its core, is a film that deals overtly with that loss. And as such every ounce of passion, grief, and love the Black Panther team has felt in the past few years lifts this film up to being a worthy follow up to the cultural phenomenon that was the original film.
Black Panther was the first superhero film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. And it’s not hard to understand why. It made a huge cultural statement in the industry and among an African and African American community starved for a mainstream, big budget superhero film that centered on faces that represented them. It also provided an Afro-futuristic outlook that was inspiring to everyone in the Black community. Furthermore, it separated itself from all other superhero films, because it was also a terrific and beautiful story about political accountability conflicting with tradition, and a hero defining who he was going to be among the pantheon of leadership he had to live up to.
Sadly, without Boseman, the challenge to continue that story was almost immeasurable. In the wake of his death, Coogler had to re-write the script from scratch to build up several characters to lead a film they were only ever meant to support. He also had to introduce several new characters, including a completely new area of the MCU never before seen, with only a limited amount of time to do it. And thus, the astonishing thing about Wakanda Forever was that it not only manages to do all of this, but it also does it so well. And that in and of itself speaks volumes to just how good of a storyteller Coogler really is.
I’ll summarize the plot at this point, so if you don’t want any spoilers at all, avoid this next paragraph.
The story does continue following up on the consequences of T’Challa opening up Wakanda to the rest of the world in the first film. The UN is now putting the country on trial for hiding its stores of vibranium from the other nations; all while Shuri and Ramonda are still mourning the loss of T’Challa. But now those countries are all trying to procure the element for themselves in secret, including the US, who contracted an engineer to build a machine that can find it for them. This ends up putting a target, not only on Wakanda, but also risks the exposure of the up-to-now secret underwater nation of Talocan, ruled by the hot-headed, but powerful Namor. Blaming Wakanda for T’Challa’s exposure of vibranium as the principle reason for why their nation is at risk, Namor and the Talocan nation force the Wakandans to find and bring the American engineer to them for execution at the risk of all out war. With the king and Black Panther gone, it’s now up to Shuri, Okoye, Ramonda, Nakia, and M’Baku to defend their nation, and uphold the legacy left behind by T’Challa by risking everything to do the right thing.
While that might be the basic summary of the storyline, make no mistake, this is Shuri’s movie. The movie revolves around her struggles with the grief of losing T’Challa, and finding the strength to move forward with how to carry on and grow as a leader in her own right. The film takes this powerful, but supporting character from the first film, and elevates her to a leading role. Shuri’s journey in this is difficult, and challenging. She’s angry and conflicted. She’s full of guilt and regret. She’s no longer the jovial tech genius that she was in the first film. And she retreats into science and engineering for some semblance of sanity, but is finding difficulty finding any sense of emotional comfort. She’s forced to grow up significantly in the face of all this chaos happening around her. The writing for her is complex and heavy, but beautifully written and directed by Coogler. However, because of the complexity on display here, this is not an easy role to play. So Letitia Wright had her work cut out for her, and she absolutely blows the role out of the water. The anger and frustration she feels is so palpable, but Wright never loses sight on who this character was, and the aspects of her that were informed by the previous movies. So you find her constantly blending the lighter side of Shuri with all the darkness and anguish she feels throughout this movie. Wright’s performance as Shuri, along with the beautiful journey Coogler creates for her in this film, absolutely catapult her into a status in the MCU where she earns the right to carry the franchise into the future.
The only performance that manages to surpass Wright’s is the queen herself, Angela Bassett. Many have written about how Bassett is in early contention for an Academy Award nomination, and those discussions are absolutely warranted. Bassett is positively transcendent, exhibiting the same levels of anguish and pain Wright does, but with a sense of emotional peace and spirituality in many scenes. Bassett can deliver speech after speech with such gravitas, that she makes every line and confrontation out of her mouth instantly so much more compelling. She lights up the screen with her powerful regal presence, but isn’t afraid to show a softer, more vulnerable maternal side as well. There are decisions with the character’s story in this film that I know will be controversial to say the least. But for the most part, at minimum, it may undisputedly be one of the finest acted performances ever in an MCU project to date.
The other challenge Coogler had to overcome was introducing a flurry of new characters and nations into the MCU along with the emotional story he was trying to tell; specifically Riri Williams/Ironheart, and Namor and the nation of Talocan. And it’s impressive that he’s able to do all of that without sacrificing character development. If you take Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as an example, that film completely fumbled the introduction of America Chavez by making her essentially a walking two-dimensional MacGuffin without any real character development or personality. Thank goodness Wakanda Forever avoids those pitfalls by making both Namor and Riri Williams feel like real characters that are genuinely likable. We’ll start with Riri, who provides some of the lighter and more fun moments in the film. Dominique Thorne is absolutely funny, charming, and delightful — particularly in her introductory scenes with Wright and Danai Gurira’s Okoye (who also has an outstanding arc in the movie). However, towards the end of the movie, Riri ultimately completes a very emotional arc, and ends up being a character that allows Shuri to ultimately come into her own as a mentor in the tradition of her own brother.
Now for Talocan. The story Coogler creates here as well as the gorgeous visuals that accompany the nation are so unbelievably jaw-dropping, it deserves to be singled out. In an age where we’ve seen Aquaman and Avatar: The Way of Water is just months away, Talocan is visually unique and fascinating, attributing much of its character to the terrific production design of Oscar winner Hannah Beachler. Which brings us to the amazing story crafted by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole. They adapted what could have been an easy Atlantis knock off into something culturally rooted in Latin American history. It’s so incredibly interesting and tragic to hear the story — a modern mythology almost — of how these people came to be and why they hate the surface world. It has less to do with ocean pollution than it does actual historical tragedy. And to me, a writer on a site called The Nerds of Color, to hear and see that history told in a mainstream Marvel Studios movie is bold and affecting. They also upped the visuals for these sequences to give us something a lot less cartoony and more serious than what you saw in Aquaman.
However, when you clicked on this review, odds are one of the biggest things you wanted to fast forward to was Namor. And I’m here to tell you, after a long wait to see the Sub-Mariner on screen, his imposing presence does not disappoint. Making Namor Talocan gives him a much richer backstory than just a repetition of something so basic as an Arthur Curry-esque storry (though we know Namor is one of the rare instances of Marvel beating DC to the punch in the comics). But it also provides him with a fierce motivation for wanting to protect and do right by his people no matter the cost. The new Talocan origins aside though, this is 1,000% the Namor from the comics. He’s a bold, hot-headed, ruthless leader. He’s tough, strong, and relentless.
Namor is a character that can go toe to toe with the biggest and baddest in the Marvel Universe, and just like his comic counterpart, you’ll have no problems believing that with the MCU incarnation of the character. Part of it is how he’s written, but at least 80% of the credit needs to go to the incredible performance from MCU-newcomer Tenoch Huerta. Huerta is so charismatic and menacing, but also incredibly complex and sympathetic. He’s logical, and cool, when he needs to be, but completely dominating and imposing when the situation calls for it. It also helps that he is the perfect foil to Shuri, and Huerta’s complex performance compliments Wright’s complex performance as well. It’s a star-making role for him, and I look forward to seeing him dominate the MCU hard in the coming years!
All these positives absolutely dominate the movie and help it bring Phase 4 to a close with a bang. However, given the divisive nature of fandom these days, there were several things throughout the movie that I strongly feel won’t play as well with audiences. For one, this is not a fun, breezy movie. This is a heavy war movie about grief and loss, and the movie feels that weight. So anyone expecting this to be “fun” will be disappointed. The weight is something I appreciated completely, but I find it hard for the cameo-spoiled masses who simply want to see Doctor Doom or Mephisto appear to get on-board with.
However the weight of the film also means there are some pretty noticeable pacing issues with the movie, which is the biggest issue I have with it. The movie drags fairly heavily in its second act, as the audiences are bogged down by heavy exposition regarding the origins and explanations of Talocan. Granted, none of it is boring. Everything they show us is not only compelling, but crucially important. But it could have been executed a bit faster and potentially smoother. In fact I feel almost bad criticizing this aspect of the movie, because if you were to ask me what could be cut from the film, I couldn’t find a single moment that isn’t important. So I’d rather keep the compelling important scenes with the weight and sluggishness than cut them and create a fragmented disjointed film.
You have to remember that there are so many characters in the Wakanda part of this franchise to keep up with: Shuri, Ramonda, Nakia, Okoye, M’Baku, Riri, Namor, Everett Ross. And Coogler is the type of filmmaker that’s not just going to shoe horn these characters in without at least a bit of character development. So again, I’d sacrifice runtime to ensure each one at least gets its due. And he does that well. Ross has a great subplot that ties into the greater MCU consequences that will likely lead into Phase 5. M’Baku has moments to shine as a defacto surrogate brother for Shuri. Okoye’s storyline is also terrific, giving Gurira a lot of action but also a lot of emotional stakes to play with. And Nakia’s storyline is one that is so deeply rooted in the tragedy of the film, but also may serve to impact the future state of this franchise going forward. As such, I do feel the runtime is justified by both the ambition and the attention you need to give every character to make them feel as real as Shuri and Ramonda.
On a technical level, I think the score by Ludwig Göransson is once again terrific, though a bit less memorable than the iconic pedestal he set for himself with his Oscar-winning score from the first film. However, Oscar-winner Ruth Carter absolutely outdid herself with the costumes here. Every inch of the headpieces she’s crafted for Namor and the Talocans is gorgeous, elaborate, and grand. She along with Beachler really brought to life the look and feel of this culture in such a memorable, soon-to-be iconic way. It’s truly as excellent, yet even more unique, than the work they did making Wakanda such an iconic fixture in fictional film locations. It’s really something awe-inspiring.
Thematically, Wakanda Forever ups the stakes on its predecessor by telling a rich and complex story about two civilizations that are neither right, nor wrong, yet serve as examples showcasing how the nature of grief, anger, and revenge can lead to a darker path, and yet understanding, mercy, and strength, can ultimately lead to growth and peace. Coogler along with his terrific ensemble, enable you to feel for these characters, as your hearts break with them through this emotional roller coaster of a film. The beauty of the film is that, despite the loss of Boseman, his spirit is in every inch of this movie, which is just about T’Challa as it is the rest of Wakanda. And though it’s not as fun or breezy as its predecessor, for that reason above all, Wakanda Forever stands as one of the most powerful films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the best film in Phase 4, and a fitting tribute to the legacy of Boseman. Chad would be proud.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): A
Overall Score (on a representation level): A