This was never going to be easy. Ryan Coogler and the entire Black Panther cast and crew were delivered the toughest loss. As all of us know Black Panther, the MCU and the entire world lost a hero. The late and perfect Chadwick Boseman was a true definition of the word. A silent man who stood up for everyone. Boseman who brought T’Challa and the Black Panther mantle to life was sadly taken away from us in the summer of 2020. After privately fighting colon cancer Boseman’s death shook the world. Very few of us knew (practically nobody), and the man who brought so much joy to this world and especially young Black children left a giant throne empty. Unfortunately his passing brought on the unintended notion of what to do next for the Black Panther franchise. While many didn’t even get the opportunity to fully mourn, the sequel to one of the biggest blockbusters of all time had to start thinking of what would come next. Scripts were re-written and its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to be re-evaluated. Do you recast the role? And how do you honor a hero while still trying to not seem unethical by moving forward. So yea a near impossible task. Well over two years later and BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER has arrived but more importantly true mourning can begin. WAKANDA FOREVER is a tricky film. To just be blunt it’s far from a great one but it does honor a king one way or another. It is a complicated (well complex for the MCU) look at grief, vengeance and if moving forward is even possible. It is also one of the more cathartic film experiences for both the filmmakers and audiences. Boseman may have been laid to rest in private, but T’Challa and the Black Panther’s funeral is for us all. Amongst all the heavy emotions, Coogler and Kevin Feige have their eyes set to the future. This might not have worked out in favor of a film that should focus on the now, but it’s a reminder of how even the most pivotal moments in this universe are dictated by those at large. Not necessarily what you want to hear when mourning your loved ones but Coogler finds ways to keep it intimate.
Here is a film of unfortunates. For starters as heavily mentioned before, the death of Boseman has to (unfortunately) be the inception of this film. Many were wondering how they would handle a real life passing of its titular character, and WAKANDA FOREVER wastes no time in keeping us guessing. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is busy trying to recreate a synthetic flower to save her brother T’Challa from an illness while her mother and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) begs her to be by her brothers side before passing. It’s an incredibly heavy moment that clearly reflects real life that you practically feel speechless and unable to move. It’s a mixture of “I can’t believe they are doing this” and “what other choice did they have.” It is here and the following beautiful funeral scene that Coogler truly sets up a powerful film. Gone is any fanfare of the MCU or obnoxious world building (he’s saves that for later unfortunately). For now the film focuses on the process of grief as Ramonda is still pleading for Shuri to bury her brother properly which includes the ceremonial burning of their funeral attire. Shuri a side character in the first film buried in her science work is thrust into the spotlight but still wants to live in her lab. She could have done more she believes and it’s easier for her to ignore the traditions of Wakanda and continue to experiment. Unfortunately for her the rest of the world (specifically America) doesn’t see Wakanda as a nation in mourning. Since T’Challa revealed the location and resources of his nation in the first film many countries have felt that Wakanda should open their doors and Vibranium to the world. Ramonda sees them as deadly opportunists. Basset a veteran and legend herself gives the film its heaviest performance as both a remarkable leader but also and most importantly a mother who has lost nearly everything. It’s a performance that would normally come with tons of yelling and big moments but with Bassett it’s less intrusive and more graceful, elegant and devastating. In a time where comic book movies barely see awards recognition (their own fault) here is a performance that deserves every bit of accolades. Wakanda isn’t the only place in trouble however. Deep within the ocean scientists and government officials are still desperate for any bit of vibranium they can find. This leads to the disturbance of the leader of an underground civilization and to come unrest. Enter Namor (Tenoch Huerta) the leader of the Talokan people who live deep under the sea. Namor decked in wonderful Mayan-esque jewelry, and rocking shirtless abs all put together by wings attacked to his ankles, Namor makes his presence known from the first moment. A moment that also includes an offer and slight warning to Ramonda and Shuri. He is aware that there is an American scientist who has discovered vibranium and is the reason so many have dug deep into his land searching for it. His offer, bring the scientist to him or be seen as a threat. This leads Shuri and Dora Milaje leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) to MIT to find said student. Look if all of this seems all too plot heavy well it’s because it is. After all don’t forget this is still somehow a film about grief.
One of the films biggest downfalls that even though it’s a beautiful tribute it still feels the need to bog itself down in unnecessary MCU world building. This is at its worse in Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who is integral to the plot and yet feels shoved in as merely an advertisement for her soon to be released Disney+ show. Thorne is far from a bad actress but her origin is forced into the plot so quickly that you barely have time to register the fact that she’s a die hard Iron Man fan and that she herself deals with her own trauma. Instead she’s there to be just a McGuffin serving the films other heavy theme of nations fighting against one another when they need to turn to a common enemy. On a personal note as an Indigenous man from Mesoamerica I have been waiting for what feels like forever to finally see myself in a major blockbuster. If nothing else Coogler has given something extraordinary to many Latin people with Namor and the entire Talokan nation. As the film shifts gears and we enter into this world we are reminded at how Coogler has never given these films a true villain. Instead he opens up dialogue that must be had. Talokan is a beautiful society and from the moment we see it it’s impossible not to be entranced with all its beauty. Coogler and legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter do a tremendous job at decorating every performer in proper and nearly accurate garment. A fake society representing real customs. Hard to pull off but they succeed. Even more so as we learn about Talokan and the history of Namor and his mother (beautifully portrayed by Guatemalan actress Maria Mercedes Conroy) we see the film diving into its second major theme of how cultural society’s (mainly people of color) are pinned against one another and have all suffered at the hands of white imperialism and colonizers. Now before you roll your eyes (although you shouldn’t) this is still a film run by the almighty Mouse and whose main focuses is Disney+ subscribers so unfortunately the film never goes for the gusto. Coogler who hardly held back with Killmonger and his take on the different Black experience in the world seems to be more reigned in and the film greatly suffers because of it. Namor is forced to deliver Thanos like lines of wanting to take over the world and stopping at nothing. Sure the film sets it up to have his remarks be blinded by vengeance but this is coming from a director who made us almost agree with a merciless killer and instead this time around almost babies the audience and yes plays it safe for a very white audience who is still the major consumer for these films. Having Talokan and Wakanda fight is not the problem, but never establishing the notion that there are greater (whiter) and more evil hands at play can only come off as irresponsible. All this and we haven’t even gotten to the all too sidelined characters from the first film who barely leave a mark this time around. Again it’s a big film with even bigger ideas that don’t deliver enough.
The film with its 2 hours and forty minute run time may only be a threat to those with weak bladders but it soon finds itself victim of a standard three act story where the third act is your typical marvel mess. Sure the emotional connections tie back in but it’s also greatly rushed and rely on the performance of Wright who just doesn’t have it in her. It’s no fault of the film but when your heaviest moments rely on the remembrance of what is missing from the film it leaves you with a strange feeling. In the end WAKANDA FOREVER will be looked at in two ways. As a cultural moment (a time for mourning) and begrudgingly its place in the MCU. For this critic I’m tired of talking about it but it still has to be said, the MCU is misguided and WAKANDA FOREVER still suffers from that same idea, it’s intentions are more than in the right place though which isn’t something one can say about the others films and shows in this franchise. As stated from the beginning it was always an impossible task. The goal is to still look ahead so there could be bigger and more concise things in the future. But for now WAKANDA FOREVER will be a moment for everyone. A time to go through our own process of grief. What we do next isn’t important even if those in charge can’t seem to stop looking too far ahead
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER IS IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE