Wakanda Forever! This is cry we’ve been making ever since Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther hit in February of 2018, smashing box office records and changing the cultural zeitgeist. This is a worthy sequel, even if it doesn’t fully live up to the first film (what movie could?!?) Dedicated to “Our Friend Chadwick Boseman,” the film deals with his loss and absence by literally becoming about his loss and absence. Can we go on? How do we find the strength? How do we deal with the legacy and expectations? And how do we step out of that very large shadow that he cast to make our own way– to continue the legacy in a way that honors him and honors what he fought for?
Perhaps the smartest thing this Black Panther movie does is make it not about being the Black Panther. With no heart-shaped herb, Wakanda has lost its protector. So each person closest to T’Challa has to find their own way. So this is Queen Ramonda’s story. This is Shuri’s story. This is Okoye’s story. This is Nakia’s story. This is M’Baku’s story. It is a true ensemble effort — despite trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to unify around Shuri’s journey.
The first major problem with this approach is exactly that. It’s trying to push Shuri’s story. No slight to Letitia Wright, but given the talent of the rest of the cast, it is hard for her to shine the brightest. Given Boseman’s absence, it is really unfair to ask her to have that same sort of unifying presence. Luckily, the film takes that theme and runs with it. Misgivings about Letitia Wright’s ability to anchor a blockbuster? Meet the theme of misgivings about Shuri’s ability to lead her nation in T’Challa’s absence. Smart move. And while Wright may be the least compelling in the major cast, the performances by others shine even brighter.
Angela Bassett, for example, is the best. Nominate her for an Oscar for this role. I’m totally serious. She is absolutely amazing. The nuance and depth she brings to this role is formidable and probably the best acting we’ve seen by any person in the history of the MCU. She is a sovereign trying desperately to hold her country together, to hold her family together, while she deals with the depths of grief of losing another loved one. She is pitch perfect, and she delivers another stunning performance, reminding another of her children, “Show them who you are.”
Playing off of her in one pivotal scene is Danai Guirra, who gives a career best performance as Okoye. She goes on a journey in this movie, and her performance is amazing. In a particularly meaningful and emotionally fraught scene between Okoye and Queen Ramonda, the way Guirra and Bassett play off each other is a master class of the acting craft.
Equally as strong is Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia. She has some of the most pivotal and emotional scenes in the film. No spoilers, but she is holding on to some secrets with her grief. A scene where she describes why she couldn’t come to T’Challa’s funeral is so heartbreaking. And it illuminates one of the main themes of the film of how we each process grief and tragedy differently.
Not to be outdone is her Us costar Winston Duke, who provides a lot of the jokes needed to cut through the sadness, but also adds some wisdom to the film’s dialogue. Who would have predicted that a character as problematic in origin and story (and nickname) in the comics as M’Baku would become so pivotal?
The best thing about this film is that each of these characters grows and has their own individual arc and resolution to it, all of which play to the film’s larger themes. The downside is that this causes the film to be a bit overstuffed as it is really trying to tell 8 different stories at once. Wait, 8, you say? But you only mentioned 5. And who are the others?
Well, Riri Williams, for one. She is everything we could have hoped for, and also gets to play the sort of macguffin of the movie in the same way America Chavez got to in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. We also get returning champ CIA Agent Everett Ross, once again played affably by the charming Martin Freeman. And oh boy, does he have some backstory that leads to an extended guest appearance by an increasingly important MCU character.
Oh, and speaking of unexpected cameos… don’t let anybody spoil this for you. And don’t spoil it for anyone else. You’ll know what I mean when it happens. And it’s the best scene of the entire movie.
And then we finally have Black Panther: Wakanda Forever‘s villain. Ok, so he’s not actually a villain. Antagonist? Anti-hero? None of those labels really seem to fit the first appearance of Namor in the MCU. He is absolutely something else, and Tenoch Huerta is a gift.
The original Black Panther‘s villain — Eric Killmonger — was so epic he’s hard to top. This movie doesn’t try to. It instead presents someone who in another film would be considered the hero. Like Killmonger, he has a moral justification and a point. But unlike Killmonger, Namor is not unnecessarily brutal nor particularly angry. He is simply a mirror image of the Black Panthers of the past.
Remember the poster? Let’s look at it again. This image — Wakanda and its warriors mirrored underwater — is the best encapsulation of the spirit of this movie.
And while he does rain down vengeance on a 16th century conquistador plantation that had brutally enslaved his kinsmen, he is completely justified in these actions and merely doing what must be done to protect his people– not unlike how Dora Millaje in an opening scene take down soldiers who would try to steal vibranium.
In this version, director Ryan Coogler smartly changed Namor’s city from Atlantis to Talokan. Instead of a Greco-Roman design associated with the myth of the lost city as written about in Plato and Herodotus, instead the city is based on Mayan and other Meso-American Indigenous cities that existed prior to the arrival of conquistadors. It is beautiful and it is brilliant. If Wakanda is Afro-futurism– a “what-if” of if Europe hadn’t pillaged Africa’s culture and resources through colonization– then Talokan is the same sort of Indigenous Meso-American culture… but under the sea! Somebody get James Cameron on the phone and tell him he and Avatar 2 are officially on notice.
So if Namor and Talokan aren’t the villains, who are? The colonizers. The people and countries who want vibranium for themselves. Wakanda and Talokan find themselves fighting merely about how far they should go to protect their secrets from the outsiders. And one of the only shames of this film is in a movie where the villains are the white people, we see two beautiful civilizations — one African, one Meso-American — pitted against each other. Yikes.
Despite that, Tenoch Huerta is amazing in this film. He is charming, but can also be harsh and strident. We’re going to want more Namor in future MCU films, and this potentially sets up for that. He also name-checks a few ideas and concepts that will certainly be a giant tease for a lot of Marvel fans.
So doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is. And despite its 2 hour 40 minute runtime, it actually feels shorter. But it’s still a lot. It’s overstuffed, to be sure, like one of those giant burritos that only exist to see if you can eat it on a dare. But what it’s stuffed with is pretty tasty.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will be a lasting, fitting tribute to Chadwick Boseman. There were moments in our screening where everything went silent. Moments of reverence like this are usually reserved for church or other spiritual practices. Instead, we get the now-familiar page-flip Marvel graphic exclusively of clips of Boseman as T’Challa. And there are moments in this film that will make you cry. And while it may not fly to the heights of its previous installment, it sits head and shoulders above every other film in the MCU’s Phase 4.
**** 4 stars out of 5