The surprising passing of Chadwick Boseman in August 2020, due to complications related to colon cancer, sent shockwaves around the globe. The loss was deeply felt by many not simply because of his wonderful contribution to cinema, but also because very few fans knew that he had been quietly battling the disease for four years. Boseman’s death also left many questions as to how Marvel planned to continue with its follow-up to 2018 blockbuster Black Panther without its central star.
Thankfully director Ryan Coogler understands that one cannot move forward without properly grieving that which came before. With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever he provides a space for fans to collectively mourn.
Coogler’ latest film, which he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, wastes no time addressing the elephant in the room. The film opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically trying to find a way to cure her brother’s illness, which he has kept hidden. Unable to save King T’Challa, and with Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) back on the throne, Shuri and the kingdom of Wakanda must figure out how to navigate their rapidly changing world. While the people of Wakanda prepare to send T’Challa’s body to the ancestors, complete with a breathtaking tribal dance sequence that perfectly captures the delicate tightrope of solemnity and joy that Coogler’s film walks, world leaders are preparing to bounce like coyotes on wounded rabbits.
Ever since Wakanda declared that they would start sharing some of its knowledge and technology with the world, countries have been plotting how to pillage the resources for their advantage. Nations such as the United States and France are chomping at the bit to get their hands on Vibranium to strengthen their weapons. They are willing to do anything to get it.
While the Europeans flat-out attempt to steal the resource from an outreach post, American government agencies employ a one-of-a-kind Vibranium detection machine, built by brilliant college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) to see if they can locate the metal outside Wakanda’s boarders. As luck would have it, a joint C.I.A. and Navy Seals operation finds a trace of Vibranium in the Atlantic Ocean. Before they can uproot it, the ship is attacked by individuals from the sea.
As the Americans are quick to assume that Wakanda is to blame, the real culprits are the Talokanil, descendants of Mayan people who live in a Vibranium fuelled underwater paradise and are ruled by Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Known as K’uk’ulkan, or the feathered serpent, by his people due to the wings on his ankles and his ability to breathe on land and at sea, Namor is not too happy that Wakanda has notified the world of its little piece of paradise. It leads the disruption of environments and the potential discoveries of other lands like the underwater city of Talokan.
Determined to get his hand on Riri in hopes of killing the search for Vibranium once and for all Namor gives Queen Ramonda and Shuri an ultimatum: either they bring the whiz kid scientist to him or Wakanda becomes his army’s first stop in their quest to purge the world of those who take and enslave that which is not theirs.
The legacy of colonization, which offered important subtext in the original film, and the damaging ripples it still causes to this day are among several themes with which Wakanda Forever grapples. These stakes rooted in real world history are among the reasons why Coogler’s Black Panther films resonate with audiences more than many of the other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) do.
Killmonger’s plans in the original Black Panther was partly fuelled by the knowledge that Wakanda turned a blind eye to the suffering and injustice that Black people endured at the hands of white oppressors. Here we are presented with a villain in Namor, who has reached his breaking point after witnessing centuries of colonizers taking resources and killing his people. He wants nothing more than for his people to live in peace but knows that humankind’s the addiction to war and power will always be a threat.
The political conflict with the sea people of Talokan provides interesting avenues for the film to explore the cycle of violence that colonizers bring to cultures, as well as the intersections of grief and vengeance. A large of portion of Wakanda Forever is dedicated to Shuri navigating her grief and pent-up rage. Shuri represents a kingdom that is broken in more ways than one. The people of Wakanda are bound by tradition but have yet to fully come to terms with many decisions from that past that have led to this fractured state.
Coogler leaves it to the women of Wakanda, often the scene-stealers of the original film, to take the lead in stitching the kingdom’s wounds. This includes trying to reconcile mistakes made by the men before them, such as the destruction of the crops that gave the Black Panther its power. While the cast includes newcomers such as Thorne and Michaela Coel, the original cast members do the heavy lifting. Wright and Bassett, who is sensational as the conflicted queen, guide the ship through the waves of emotions like seasoned captains. Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, who return as Nakia and Okoye, respectively, also bring depth to several action set pieces.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may wade through the thick waters of emotions, but it comes with its far share of thrilling action sequences. It is an MCU film, after all. Whether using slow-motion to emphasize the impact of water bombs exploding, showing the Talokanil hanging onto whales as the head into battle, or setting up a lengthy FBI car chase to give a taste of what Riri’s can do with Tony Stark’s technology, there is plenty to enjoy here.
While there is a lot crammed into the film’s nearly three-hour running time, Wakanda Forever falls into the same potholes as other MCU films. The film occasionally stumbles when it tries to balance the central plot with its requirements to set up the story for future Marvel properties. Although one of the reveals will bring a smile to hardcore Marvel fans, the introduction into the universe feels stunted. Although one has become accustomed to Marvel throwing in mid-film commercials of sorts for future titles, the gimmick has yet to feel natural or earned.
Although the business of Marvel occasionally risks overshadowing the story, Coogler’s skilled hands remain firmly in control. Offering a much-needed collective catharsis and thrilling action, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a tribute fit for a king.