Marvel Studios has been known to take big swings at risky ideas in the past, but due to the still heart-rending passing of Chadwick Boseman, their long awaited Black Panther sequel has possibly the trickiest story to tell of all: how do you continue a superhero story when said superhero is no longer around?
It’s an unenviable task and an incredible amount of pressure to tackle for director Ryan Coogler to shoulder as the weight of legacy, expectation and sheer grief left in Boseman’s sizable wake means that tremendous care has to be taken with something that means so much to so many people.
However, choosing to tackle themes of loss head on (coincidentally a major theme of Marvel’s closing fourth phase), the movie was obviously primed to be one of the emotional movie experiences of the year – nay, the decade (if you didn’t at least choke up during the first teaser then buddy, something’s wrong.). Can Marvel pull off the impossible by making a superhero extravaganza that still acts as a tasteful farewell?
The king is dead. Felled by an undisclosed illness, T’Challa expired while sister Shuri desperately laboured to synthesize a new heart-shaped herb to heal him and a year on, Wakanda is still profoundly feeling the loss. However, with Wakanda’s protector gone and no one willing to take up the mantle of the Black Panther, Queen Ramonda rankles at the UN, calling out other countries who would try to illegally swipe their stockpiles of precious Vibranium while Shuri’s grief has turned to a smoldering rage. But soon the nation will have to deal with the water breathing race of Talocan, an aquatic people who hold Wakanda responsible for other nations tearing up the oceans in order to try and find other sources of the rare element. Led by the proud Namor, Talocan demands the head of whomever built the Vibranium locating machine in return for him not tearing Wakanda to the ground – but there’s a catch. The inventor of the machine turns out to be nineteen year old child prodigy and frustrated MIT student Riri William’s, a girl who Shuri feels an instant kinship with.
As time ticks away, Shuri attempts to smooth things out with the determined Namor, but soon actions taken by both the CIA and Wakanda force the superpowered Talocan leader to get physical with disastrous results.
With Wakanda under attack from a superior foe and its future looking as bleak and uncertain as it ever has, it seems that it’s only salvation lies with the rebellious and angry Shuri – but if she makes the wrong choice or allows herself to act without the honor that the mantle of Black Panther demands, matters will undoubtedly get worse.
As I mentioned earlier, Phase 4 has been a hot bed of grieving, pain and ultimately healing as the world continues to attempt to get a grip in the wake of the Blip with such characters as The Scarlet Witch, Thor, Bucky Barnes and Hawkeye all going through various stages of emotional trauma to emerge on the other side and those of you who feel that maybe Marvel has over compensated for that better hold on – because we’re not done yet. Immediately tackling the loss of Boseman by dropping us directly into T’Challa’s death and subsequent funeral, director/writer Ryan Coogler chooses to make his near-impossible task to wrestle (often uncomfortably) with the nature of grief and it’s long lasting effects on the loved ones left behind after a death. While Queen Ramonda and General Okoye (Angela Bassett and Danai Gurira, both excellent) continue to do their duties while the loss still ripples across their beautifully expressive faces, Letita Wright’s Shuri flounders, unable to move on as her science-skewed brain has never really allowed her to fully embrace the traditions and beliefs shared by her people. It’s all hefty, raw stuff for a superhero blockbuster, especially one released in the wake of the fourth wall shattering She-Hulk, the classic horror shenanigans and the merciless chaos of Thor: Love And Thunder, but Coogler holds his course, steadily winding his themes believable through the motives of his ensemble cast and for the most part, Wakanda Forever is a thoughtful examination of loss that still has plenty of room for explodey spectacle.
However, with the greatly expanded canvas comes a distinct feeling that the movie isn’t exactly sure who the main focus of the film should be with the ensemble cast dropping in and out of the film at will. The smart money is on him that this is about Shuri’s healing, but if that’s true, why is she laid up for around half an hour around the third act? While we’re on the subject, why does Okoye – surely BP’s prime, breakout character – also vanish from the film for a good 45 minutes and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is a no-show until the film is nearly over? The answer is that it seems that the main character of Wakanda Forever is actually Wakanda herself and the ensemble format leaves the crowd proceedings as cramped as a TV show crushed down to a third of the length. Think more the dense, slightly ungainly storytelling of Age Of Ultron rather than the nimble, narrative flow of Infinity War or the impressive juggling of Captain America: Civil War and you’re on the right track, but thankfully, the fact that the movie often groans under it’s own weight doesn’t effect the enjoyment too much – although I’d wager it doesn’t have the rewatch factor of the original.
There’s many reasons why, with the superb cast and more hugely amusing asides from Winston Duke’s fun M’Baku taking vast amounts of credit, but of all the new additions to the MCU – that include Dominique Thorne’s Starktech copying Ironheart and Michaela Coel’s willful member of the Dora Milaje – none make more of an impact than Namor himself.
One of Marvel’s oldest existing characters, the winged-footed merman fills the villain gap left by Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger nicely by having actor Tenoch Huerta being both incredibly charismatic and incredibly threatening while having a legitimate, understandable cause to stand alongside. Taking the character’s more outlandish traits (green swim trunks, spock ears, winged ankles that allow him to zip across the sky like a dervish) and fusing them with Mesoamerican culture, Namor and his people prove to be a fascinating and vital addition to the unstoppable growth of the MCU that feels far more tangible than the neon hued landscape and the percussion-obsessed octopi of Aquaman.
Perhaps not quite the emotionally raw, home run we were hoping for, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever still bravely broaches a difficult subject matter with respect and honor to give us a sprawling tale that’ll still have you chanting “Wakanda Forever” forever.