Let’s face it, despite some moments here and there, on the whole, Phase 4 has been a rough time for the MCU. After completing their Infinity Saga which felt far more delicately crafted, Phase 4 has often felt bloated, off-rhythm, and aimless. There’s no grand vision. And, to be honest, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever doesn’t leave one with the sense that we’ve completed the first arc of three in The Multiverse Saga, but as the MCU’s 30th, it certainly feels like the one that leaves the most positive perception.
After the sudden death of Chadwick Boseman, the potential for a sequel to Black Panther, one of the MCU’s most successful films and one of their most beloved heroes, felt uncertain. Then, Marvel announced that the character of T’Challa would not be recast and instead someone new would be picking up the mantle in future films. So, by the time I was sitting down for my screening of Wakanda Forever, I had to wonder, would director Ryan Coogler be able to not only capture lightning in a bottle again but create a film that honored not only Boseman’s legacy but paved a new way for the new Panther?
The answer is yes, but with some caveats. It’s hard to compare Wakanda Forever with its predecessor. The two films are very different stories. Black Panther was about Wakanda finally coming into the light, introducing an audience to the beautiful kingdom and the people who shaped it. While Wakanda Forever is so heavily tied into mourning and how a nation grieves after losing its leader suddenly. Yes, T’Chaka’s death had a massive impact on T’Challa’s life, but it’s clear in the performance of characters like Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Ramonda (Angela Bassett) that this isn’t just about the death of a fictional character. The funeral scenes feel that much more painful when you are mourning with the characters as a member of the audience.
Coogler very deftly navigates the topic of T’Challa’s death. It never feels cheapened when used as a part of the plot of the story. The main figurehead who leads us in our grief is Shuri, who is completely lost without her brother and opens the film desperate to save him. Throughout the film, we follow Shuri as she has to balance trying to heal from her grief a year later and protect her country against countries that now see Wakanda as weak without the Black Panther to protect them.
While Black Panther never really touched heavily on the malice of colonization, Wakanda Forever leans in. Countries like the United States and France are sending mercenaries after Wakandan labs to steal their vibranium, while the reveal of Talokan, the underwater world ruled over by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), reveals the lasting effects of colonialism through the eyes of Namor and the Spanish invasion of Central America. While Namor is certainly no hero in the movie, he does embody many of the traits that made Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) so easy to empathize with.
Huerta plays Namor as a fervent and violent protector of his people, willing to go through any means necessary to protect them, even if it means murder, even if it means bloodshed. But whereas Killmonger and T’Challa’s ties run deep, Namor and Shuri don’t have as deep of a bond which means sometimes their relationship lacks the nuance or impact it might have if we were given some more time between the two characters.
Beyond Shuri and Namor, the supporting cast is a mixed bag. Dominique Thorne stands out in the bunch as Riri Williams. It wasn’t clear to me how Riri was going to be introduced to the story and Wakanda Forever does have a somewhat unrealistic way of introducing her, but she is an instant delight. It’s almost a shame that we don’t get more scenes of Riri and Shuri simply nerding out together, both characters who feel practically effervescent when they’re in a room together.
But beyond Thorne, it doesn’t feel like many of the Wakandans or any of the Talokanians are thoroughly developed. Queen Ramonda has her beats, as does Okoye (Danai Gurira) but the newly introduced Aneka (Michaela Coel) falls rather flat when compared to the other Wakandans, which is a shame because of how strong of a performer Coel is. On the Talokan side, we never really learn anything about Namora (Mabel Cadena) or Attuma (Alex Livinalli). This could change as we get more information about these characters, but as a first introduction, they aren’t really fully formed. Even familiar Wakandans like Ayo (Florence Kasumba) or M’Baku (Winston Duke) feel like maybe they had larger roles but ultimately have unfinished arcs.
What is fully fleshed out is the emotion that Wakanda Forever evokes. Whatever quibbles I may have about the side characters, Coogler and Joe Robert Cole‘s script delivers an impactful story, one that highlights the women of Wakanda in a way the former film did not. Supporting the princess and the queen is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who is a joy to watch on screen, balancing her current regular life with a brief foray into the return of spying. While she is the person who inspired T’Challa (along with Killmonger) to bring Wakanda to the world stage, she’s also a character that we don’t get to see enough of. Hopefully after Wakanda Forever, given the ending, we will be seeing more of her in the future.
Visually, the film feels familiar to Black Panther, although the exploration of Talokan may give DC’s Atlantis a run for its money. What the hidden underwater kingdom lacks is some proper lighting to show off its gleaming kingdom. There are no weird hair CGI shots, but the underwater city is rather dimly lit. The Talokanians also have a hand symbol much like the Wakandans’ Wakanda Forever cross of the arms, but it pales in comparison to the impact and emotional weight of Wakanda Forever.
But having to do so much in 161 minutes (yes, this movie is nearly three hours long) certainly feels like an impossible feat. And there are many points when Wakanda Forever could have faltered and tripped along the way. But, while it’s not perfect, it’s poignant in a way that MCU projects haven’t felt in a long time. While Black Panther was a celebration of Black culture, Wakanda Forever touches on the very personal grief that every person can suffer through. It’s more than just about Wakandan pride, though that is certainly still there, it feels deeply personal. Despite its expansive runtime, the movie never feels like it drags because it gives our characters room to breathe and heal.
Ultimately, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a glimmer of hope after a rocky and tumultuous Phase 4. After multiple movies that, while entertaining, ultimately felt aimless and grasping, Wakanda Forever is cohesive and emotionally impacting regaining some of the MCU luster. How the universe continues after this though, is still up in the air.