That Black Panther: Wakanda Forever works completely defies logic. The film juggles so many storylines, so many characters, and so many emotions, when you’re watching it, you half expect it to fall apart. Which, frankly, most of the audience would probably be okay with. It’s not every day a major Hollywood blockbuster comes to life without the titular star of the previous film, especially when that star has tragically passed away.
But co-writer and director Ryan Coogler leans into the passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman to perform a minor miracle. He’s crafted a complex film that pulls off the impossible task of paying tribute to its star while also being a challenging, rousing, exciting adventure. It’s seemingly too much for any one movie to handle, but Wakanda Forever does it. Which is why a few speedbumps along the way get forgotten and forgiven.
From literally the very first second of the film, Coogler begins his balancing act. Over black, before the audience has even stopped discussing the trailers that just played, the film dives right in with the passing of King T’Challa (Boseman), a.k.a. the Black Panther. The scene almost smacks you in the face. Its timing aids it in straddling the line between reality in the movie theater and fiction on screen, engaging us on multiple planes. We’re immediately forced to think about Boseman’s actual passing while the characters (and, on another level, the actors playing them) deal with T’Challa’s passing. It’s a powerful, vulnerable start to the film and it sets a very delicate tone. Wakanda Forever is going to make you feel and consider things you aren’t expecting, and frankly might even be uncomfortable with.
Most of that is baked into the central relationship between Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright). As T’Challa’s two closest family members, their grief is the most pressing and raw. Plus, each grieves in a unique way, letting Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole explore loss in its many multitudes. Ramonda finds solace in faith. Shuri chooses to make it more visceral. And Bassett and Wright are more than up to the challenge—each delivers an intense, layered performance, forcing them to tap into many deep, sometimes unpleasant, emotions. The characters may not agree on how to deal with T’Challa’s death but they’re a family united in pain, and that union keeps the movie together and driving forward.
The forward momentum also comes from Wakanda Forever leaning on its predecessor. At the end of the first Black Panther, Wakanda revealed itself to be a world superpower. Now, we begin to see that play out: other countries are angry and jealous of Wakanda’s strength, wealth, and Vibranium. So, despite the fact T’Challa is dead, the country is put in a very unfavorable position on the world stage. When an act of violent terrorism is committed as it relates to Vibranium, of course, the world is going to blame Wakanda. But Wakanda didn’t do it, and that’s when the main drive of the film kicks in.
That terrorist act was performed by a group of people named the Talokan. The Talokan have been around for centuries, but live and breathe an isolated existence underwater. So, like Wakanda, they’ve been hidden from the world and are fiercely protective of that secrecy. Also like Wakanda, they thrive due to the use of Vibranuim. Their leader’s name is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), an ancient, God-like being who warns the Wakandans about his people’s power, and so Shuri and General Okoye (Danai Gurira) head to America to find a person caught up in the middle of it all. It’s a young M.I.T. student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who like Shuri is a technological super genius. Thorne’s wide-eyed performance adds a much-needed dose of levity to the otherwise mostly serious proceedings, as well as an accessible entry point to all the upcoming discoveries. She’s awesome.
One of those aforementioned speedbumps in Wakanda Forever though is that, as you can tell, there’s a lot of setup. And, as Coogler begins to put all these pieces on the board, the first half of the movie can get a little drawn out. That’s in large part because the story has to constantly veer away from the crucial emotional struggles of Ramonda and Shuri. Anytime Wakanda Forever isn’t dealing with those two, it’s a slightly lesser film. Big action set pieces set up the narrative, but lack that connection. Even an important, maybe too elaborate, flashback explaining Namor’s origin—which is crucial to that character’s arc— feels somehow tangential without the heart of Ramonda or Shuri at the center. In those moments you can feel that this movie is going to be very long (which it is, at over two hours and 40 minutes). But somehow, you are never bored by these scenes. Each is entertaining in its own way and, once you have all the backstory in place, it ends up being quite rewarding.
Less important than the mother and daughter, but still absolutely crucial, are the supporting characters, each of whom has very a distinct, relatable arc to consider and be woven into the fabric of the film. Okoye is forced to deal with choices from her past and accept the consequences. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who was T’Challa’s love, left Wakanda and feels guilt along with grief. Riri has been ripped from her home, M’Baku (Winston Duke) struggles with his newfound place in Wakandan politics, and more.
Then there’s Namor. He’s the biggest, most important character outside of Ramonda and Shuri, and as the film’s antagonist, provides a fascinating opposing viewpoint to everything the Wakandans are dealing with. That includes T’Challa’s death, their place in the world, and a deep love of your home. In that part, newcomer Huerta gives one of the most impressive, star-making performances in MCU history, instantly elevating himself to a top-tier baddie along the likes of Thanos, Loki, and Killmonger. Everyone in Wakanda Forever is excellent, but Huetra stands above (which is fitting, since he can fly).
Coogler also makes the brilliant choice that, even though you’re watching a movie called “Black Panther,” the Black Panther is less a character and more a symbol. After T’Challa dies, so too does this ancient mantle, and the question of its necessity is a throughline of the film, becoming almost the personification of the different mental states of Ramonda and Shuri. One believes in tradition as a mode of comfort, the other buries herself in distractions to mask the grief. And as each struggles with how, or if, to bring the Panther back, the movie rewardingly dives deep into the psyche of each character, especially Shuri. Shuri’s youth and inexperience with death put her in a very vulnerable place—one that Namor textually, and Coogler metatextually, are happy to try and exploit.
Without an official Black Panther protecting Wakanda, all the other characters are forced to step up, grow, and accept new responsibilities, which ends up showcasing even more ways people can deal with loss. These are just more examples of the many, many ideas Black Panther: Wakanda Forever forces its audience to consider, marking it as a movie with real emotional impact.
Another of those speedbumps, though, ends up being when a new Black Panther does rise. What one might expect to be a goosebump-inducing, unforgettable moment, doesn’t land as such. That could be, in part, because the film has done a fairly good job of arguing against the mantle itself, which is kind of a bummer for such a big moment. Nevertheless, it happens, and the final act becomes an exercise in satisfaction, as action set pieces on a scale as epic as Marvel has ever done pay off character arcs that were seeded way back at the beginning of the film. One showdown in particular, between the Black Panther and Namor, is edited with unique, heartbreaking brilliance. It all leads to a mid-credits scene that’s as crucial to the cohesion of the film as that powerful opening and will leave your jaw on the floor.
When Black Panther Wakanda Forever is about the journeys of Ramonda and Shuri, it’s spectacular. The characters are so well-realized and express such humanity over the loss of a character we all love so much, all we want to do is watch them. As a bonus, many of those scenes force them to interact with their Wakandan counterparts we also adore from the first film, and the movie is better off for it. And while there are lulls when it gets away from Ramonda’s pain or Shuri’s rage, and you may find yourself detaching slightly, much of those scenes are occupied by an almost as interesting Namor and his jaw-dropping underground world. So it all works.
As the credits roll on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a few things sink in. You’ve just watched a great setup for the future of the MCU. You’ve just watched a film that expertly pays off all of its dangling character and plot threads. And, most of all, you’ve watched a film that’s beautifully overwhelming on almost every level. You might not think it’s going to get there in the middle, but by the end, the film kind of feels like you’ve fully celebrated and appreciated life itself. Life is never perfect, but there’s beauty in its complexity, and so too can be said for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
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