Recently, the MCU expanded to reach it’s 30th film–Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Though this is the second Black Panther movie in the MCU, a lot has happened in the MCU since the character’s first feature-film starring role back in 2018–both fictionally and in real life. The lead character died for five years of fictional time (along with the half of the rest of the MCU), and then returned to life in time to help defeat the big bad of the day, Thanos. But then, tragically, starring actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer at the young age of 43, something which took almost everyone outside of the man’s inner circle by surprise.
In response to this, Marvel and Ryan Coogler opted to continue with the Black Panther sequel without recasting the role of King T’Challa or relying on recent CGI technology to re-create the actor’s presence in the film. The result is a movie which deals head on with the emotions related to grief and death, and explores the impact of what it means to have lost a beloved brother, son and king. It’s in this emotional space that the film is the most successful, and we really get a story that is quite unique amongst all the others that the MCU has brought to the big screen, and that is genuinely worth telling.
Wakanda Forever begins with T’Challa’s death, or more accurately, with his sister Shuri racing against all odds to find a way to save him. Specifically, she is trying to re-create the heart-shaped herb which is the source of Black Panther’s powers, presumably because that would give him the strength to defeat the unnamed incurable disease which is killing him. Of course she is too late, leading to a period of mourning for the royal family and for the nation.
The movie jumps forward a year and gets into a story about how the whole world is going crazy to get ahold of Wakanda’s vibranium. This leads the United States to discover another potential source, which forces a confrontation with the underwater kingdom of
Atlantis…er, that is Talokan, led by Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who is a powerful mutant with incredible strength and the ability to fly thanks to the wings that stick out of his ankles (totally serious here). This leads to a race between the Wakandans and the Talokans to find the one human scientist who knows how to build a vibranium-detecting machine, who turns out to be a graduate student named Riri Williams who is into building Iron Man-style armored suits.
Ultimately, Wakanda and Talokan have a couple of fights and Shuri’s mother Queen Ramonda is killed. This leads Shuri to finish recreating the heart-shaped herb, which allows her to become the new Black Panther. Initially, she is driven by vengeance, but ultimately forsakes this and chooses to build a bridge with Namor that strikes a peace (albeit, a fragile one) and keeps the existence of Talokan a secret from the world at large.
When you describe it all like that, the movie sounds kind of silly, and indeed it is, but for the most part the silliness is kept at bay thanks to earnestness with which is delves into the characters and their world. T’Challa’s off-screen death is by far the most impacting one that we’ve ever had in the MCU, thanks to its real-world analog. Through Shuri (T’Challa’s sister), Nakia (his lover) and Ramonda (his mother) we explore many aspects of grief, and the movie gains a rich emotional texture which complements the lavish Afrofuturistic design. The movie’s primary conflicts are of the heightened melodrama that is common to comic book stories, but this is also balanced by genuine dramatic interplay between the main characters. There are legitimate moments of suspense and the movie’s special effects and action sequences are, basically, really fun to watch.
There are also some strong performances on display. Letitia Wright takes the lead as Shuri, and she is solid in a very weighty role. I really enjoyed Lupita N’yongo as Nakia and Danai Gurira as the warrior general Okoye. Dominique Thorne plays Riri Williams (a future MCU star, as she is the comic book character Iron Heart–basically a young female Iron Man) and is fine in the part, as is Tenoch Huerta Mejia as Namor. But the performer who just acquitted herself as one of the MCU’s strongest actors is Angela Bassett as the Queen.
She has some sequences of mesmerizing power and presence, the likes of which are pretty rare in films like this.
With all this to praise about the movie, it’s pretty disappointing then that so much of the experience is let down by some really poor choices in both the design and the execution of the whole thing. Most ridiculous is the way that the Talokans are so obsessed with capturing or killing Riri Williams. It’s all supposedly so they can stop her from re-building a vibranium-detecting machine, as if the US government deployed into deep water the one she built before without fully taking it apart and figuring out how it works. It’s may be a nit-picky flaw, but it’s a huge one, given that about an hour of the movie is built on this motivation. One can only excuse it by assuming that the Talokans are completely ignorant of anything about how the surface world works.
The Wakandan military strategy during the climax of the movie is pretty embarrassing as well–they all gather on one giant boat and use it to attack the people who are insanely super-powered in the water. They have a gun that disables them, but only one, and they don’t bring any support craft or, I don’t know, extra airplanes to help them maneuver quickly. The whole climactic battle makes it looks like the Wakandan military is reduced to about twenty people fighting on the top of the boat, so the eventual Talokan surrender seems nonsensical.
It doesn’t help anything that the third-act revealed suits of armor for Riri Williams, as well as Okoye and one of her colleagues, are bizarrely colorful and cartoonishly shaped, like they were rejected designs from Big Hero Six. The idea that the relatively inexperienced Riri Williams could go toe-to-toe with the Talokans while she was under the water beggars belief. And why in the world would Namor wait to recharge himself in the water until after he had spent all his energy fighting Shuri–he had landed on a beach a stone’s throw from the water, and there were ample opportunities to power-up again before he went back into the fight. It makes all the drama at the end of whether Shuri can defeat him before he reaches the sea just look silly.
Nontheless, even with all this working against the movie, I still enjoyed the way it made me feel as I watched it–transported in both my imagination and emotions. It is much more compelling viewing than Black Panther (a movie which I feel was mediocre and wildly overrated). I’d say the only MCU Phase 4 project I definitely liked more was Spider-Man: No Way Home, but that’s only because of the thrill of seeing all the old faces together again (that movie’s story had even bigger and more obvious problems).