Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Danai Gurira, Dominique Thorne, Martin Freeman, Michaela Coel
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) has a lot of responsibility on its shoulders: close out Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; deal sensitively with the death of star Chadwick Boseman; and offer a satisfying follow-up to its predecessor, one of Marvel’s most critically and commercially successful movies and a cultural phenomenon. So does director Ryan Coogler deliver?
I’ll answer it out of the bat: in parts, magnificently. In others, perhaps less so. But this is a whole lot of movie, clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, and so there was always the chance things could get a little unwieldy. First things first, and perhaps most importantly — it deals with Chadwick Boseman’s legacy elegantly. It is immediately addressed in the film’s opening minutes and a gorgeously shot, celebratory funeral procession rightly honors the incredible legacy and contribution he made in bringing the character of T’Challa to the big screen.
T’Challa’s death sends ripples through the rest of the film, and the significance of the loss is reflected in the performances of the rest of the cast. Sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is in denial, both about her response to her brother’s loss and her own sense of responsibility, for always being one of the smartest people in the room but unable to point that skill in the direction of saving his life. It’s a performance layered with anger and frustration, and one tricky to center a film around but appropriate when dealing with grief.
She is surrounded by a bevy of strong turns from Danai Gurira’s dry, dedicated General Okoye, to Lupita N’yongo’s empathetic Nakia, and Winston Duke’s fan-favorite heavyweight M’Baku. There’s also Martin Freeman returning as Agent Everett K. Ross, who brings a levity (along with another recognizable face, who will go unmentioned) that sometimes feels at odds with the rest of the film’s more overtly somber tone.
All of these are outshone by undoubtedly the movie’s standout performance, Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda. She brings such a measured, powerful sense of pain, acceptance, and wisdom that it elevates the entire film; if Chadwick was the heart of the first film, Ramonda is the broken heart of this follow-up. There’s been some Oscars buzz around her being a potential submission and I can understand why, if anyone, she would be the pick. It’s a big performance that stands out among the fight sequences and fantastical vistas.
Speaking of which, fights require an adversary. Marvel doesn’t have a storied history of standout villains for their characters to face, but Killmonger in the last film (Michael B. Jordan) was definitely one of them. Wakanda Forever adds Tenoch Huerta’s Namor to that list.
Leader of an underwater people determined to protect themselves against a greedy, agitated surface world, his and their first appearance might be the standout of the film. He is at once both charming, and terrifying, a fresh new superpower long dormant on the bottom of the sea but ready to defend his home with tooth and claw.
Drenched in moonlight, eerie voices ring out and lure the guards of a mining platform to their deaths, hurling themselves into the water as if enchanted by the sirens of legend. But instead of mythical sea mavens, they are armored, Mesoamerican-inspired warriors, blue-skinned and fearsome in battle as they leap from the backs of Orcas and turn sea spray into battle mist.
The fights themselves are largely stunning to look at, with these mysterious fighters given the reverence and ferocity they deserve while sacrificing none of the ‘wow’ factors of seeing the likes of the Dora Milaje leap into combat themselves. And of course, there’s the question of the new Black Panther: it’s one the movie takes it’s time to answer, and reminded me of how The Dark Knight Rises similarly benched it’s titular hero for much of the runtime while the audience earns the reappearance.
Occasionally, it does suffer from an over-abundance of unconvincing CG, or backdrops that stand out against the otherwise stunning production design. But these are balanced with some delicious visuals and evocative introductions, particularly for the new ocean-dwelling adversaries.
As with the first, the costuming, concept, and execution of the world of Wakanda are highly accomplished, and the same extends to the world of Namor’s Talokan — when it can be seen in the murky underwater photography. What should be a glorious tour of the underwater realm is quite difficult to make out, with much of the landscape lost to the deep black of the seafloor. It’s an understandable choice, especially with the way Namor quite literally shines a light for his people, but the presentation is more squint-inducing than awe-inspiring.
There’s an argument that could be made for losing some of the runtime — even for Marvel, this feels like a long one — and potentially some of that is down to the introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). Appearing as Ironheart here before her own dedicated Disney+ show to follow, she brings charisma and moxie to the role but feels like an addition, rather than a necessity, in a film that already has so much going on.
So, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever brings a fittingly somber (for the most part) end to Phase Four of the MCU, celebrating one of the franchise’s most iconic characters and moving the fanbase and world forward. Juggling so much, inevitably some elements suffer — but Ryan Coogler achieves a remarkable amount and hits the right spots, particularly where it counts. And if that doesn’t entice you, then the prospect of Angela Bassett facing off against a winged leader from the ocean deep absolutely should.