It’s hard to think of a single movie – certainly this year but possibly in modern history – that has to shoulder more weight than Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. You’re tempted to give an automatic pass to the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther out of sheer awe for what it’s trying to overcome and accomplish. A film that has to feature actors that are in mourning over the previous film’s star, the late Chadwick Boseman, as well as onscreen as the characters mourning Boseman’s T’Challa is impressive enough. Add onto that the fact that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has to live up to the reputation of Black Panther’s seminal status in Black representation and culture and a script determined to grapple with the ever-present strain of colonialism and imperialism, and it’s easy to see where some missteps will be made, especially as the production took place at the height of the pandemic. With all that in mind, though, I think Black Panther: Wakanda Forever makes precious few.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens with the death of T’Challa, something we all knew was coming even if we didn’t watch a single trailer. If you have any tears not already cried for Chadwick Boseman, you can be damn sure they’ll be spilled here. This is also where the film centres on Letitia Wright’s Shuri, and her anger and sorrow at her inability to save her brother despite her intense work and ingenuity. It’s no surprise that the film’s trailer focuses heavily on the imagery in the funeral, because it’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever at its best. The entire citizenry of Wakanda wearing white, traditional dancing expressing exaltation, sadness, and joy. It’s a beautiful visual and a moving experience that serves to send off the beloved character and actor in a way that befits both.
Shuri, the centrepiece of the film, feels appropriately different from the wisecracking genius sister of Black Panther. After experiencing serious trauma, Shuri finds herself having to choose between paths of vengeance and war, or unity and peace. This pull has a maturing effect on the character, and one of the things I like about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is that it allows Shuri to make mistakes. I think this distinguishes her from the arguably “too noble” T’Challa, who often felt too good, too godly to be as memorable as the usual flawed Marvel hero. A lot of what worked about T’Challa was because it was played with genuine love by someone as hard to resent as Boseman. Shuri, for her part, is thrust into the role of leader very quickly, and understandably takes time to adjust. That gives Wright and the film in general a lot more to work with, and really emphasizes the hard choices she has to make as she attempts the impossible task of filling the shoes of T’Challa.
Meso-American fish guy Namor (Tenoch Huerta) and the Talokan are compelling and Namor especially feels like the kind of hero and villain that Marvel does particularly well. Tenoch Huerta is one of the best things in the whole movie, and his performance as Namor is close to perfect. He’s pained and it’s so clear that the protectiveness he feels for his people and his culture is his biggest priority, to the point that he’s willing to destroy the surface world to get it. I just wish that, for a movie that spans nearly three hours, the Talokan were introduced and developed in as fulsome a way as the Wakandan nation have been. It feels like I missed a Disney+ series in which they were introduced and their physiology, culture, and motivations more clearly spelled out or at least alluded to. Like the Wakandans, the Takolan prioritize isolationism (to the point where they have little identity beyond this) and, understandably, want no interference from the surface world, which explains their absence in the Marvel Universe up until now. This, though, is kind of the problem with the post-Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame Marvel stuff and the catastrophic events of those films. Were the Talokan affected by the Snap? How did they grapple with that? Losing half of any population, much less one that was unplugged from the rest of the world, is kind of a huge deal, so it would be expected that even in these non-Avengers hero stories that that event would be addressed somehow, even with a passing line.
And so, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever takes on the difficult task of portraying a war between two minority groups looking to protect their unique culture and resources (the latter conveniently being whittled down to the ultra-rare weaponized material of vibranium). All of this, like so many of the world’s conflicts, is perpetuated by the colonialist, imperial forces of the United States and nations like France who seek to destabilize nations like Wakanda and Talokan. This is an admirable thing to tackle for a Marvel movie, for sure, even one from the Black Panther arc that has always tried to bring an anti-colonialist mindset to the forefront. Of course, because it’s a Marvel movie, this complex idea is boiled down to little more than catchphrases and quips. Danai Gurira’s Okoye calls Martin Freeman’s Ross ‘colonizer’ for laughs, but Ross’s subplot with his ex-wife, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss’s Valentina Allegra de Fontaine that explicitly sets up American and other colonial forces as the real villain here feels half-baked, at best. A scene where Valentina just out and says that the American interest is in destabilizing Wakanda lacks the gravity that such a statement warrants. It means that the film takes pains to portray the effects of colonization, but does precious little to confront the difficult truth of its cause.
No matter how many threads are picked up and dropped, you forget about all this as a viewer because of the as-always breathtaking performances by Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michaela Coel, the latter of whom is given way too little to do, but owns every moment she’s onscreen. I appreciate that this is a film that centres powerful women above all, especially as it deals so heavily with the unique way in which women experience mourning. We see Shuri, Ramonda, and Nakoi experiencing grief and mourning in disparate but equally-valid ways, through revenge, diplomacy, and healing, eventually leading Shuri down the path of needing all three. Bassett’s Ramonda and Nyong’o’s Nakoi both feel evolved as characters after the loss of T’Challa, having to take on portions of his leadership and strength and settling more than naturally into those roles. As a eulogy for Boseman and for T’Challa and a showcase for a powerhouse group of actors I think it works beautifully, even when Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is less successful as an action movie or as a reaction to colonialist narratives.
Visually, the massive Marvel budget is on full display here, and Coogler’s tight direction is up to the task of rendering this story and the cultures of Wakanda and the Talokan, though I have to say that the latter felt a little muted by the unfortunate circumstance where my screening was preceded by trailers for upcoming Disney fish movies The Little Mermaid and Avatar: The Way of Water. Especially compared to the stunning visuals in Avatar, Namor and his gang don’t feel quite as unique after you’ve seen Ariel and the Na’avi floating through what seems to be the same aquatic environments. Maybe there’s a crossover event in our future in which Ariel and Namor help to protect the Na’avi’s magical tree. Even the Wakandan weapons, armour, and landscape don’t hit quite the same as they did in the original Black Panther, but that might be because you can only see those Afrofuturist vibes for the first time, once. T’Challa’s funeral and a fairly simple last scene in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are the film at it’s strongest, and it’s no coincidence that the plaintive, meditative tone of both feels right for a movie largely about mourning.
Ultimately, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a more than worthy follow-up to Black Panther, produced under the most difficult possible conditions after the death of its main star, Chadwick Boseman, and under the persistent cloud of the pandemic. There’s more than enough here to eulogize the past, acknowledge a new reality, and drive the characters and the arc into the future, while retaining the spirit and promise that the 2018 film provided. Like many, I’m burnt from the constant barrage of Marvel properties, a juggernaut (so to speak) whose influence now permeates every level of our culture. I understand the well-earned skepticism towards Disney’s motivations here and with their stories in general, but with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I am pleased to see and to say that there’s still potential to use that crushing might to tell important stories and to feature actors, performances, and even cultures onscreen. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever might make its mistakes in service of these goals, but as with Shuri, as an audience I think it’s important for us to let Coogler and company make them.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently in theatres.