‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Review
by Erik Amaya
Closing out Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a lot of ground to cover — and that’s before its solemn duty to serve as a public morning for the series’ late star, Chadwick Boseman. Helpfully, the film does not attempt to delay the grief or the sense of tragedy surrounding the actor’s death in August of 2020. While other versions of this story might use his absence in a different way and delay confronting the real world circumstances of the character’s disappearance until the last possible moment, here, it’s minute one.
And that’s a good thing as Wakanda Forever is as much about the future as it is an elegy for a fallen king. Set primarily one year after his passing (which puts the film somewhere in 2024 or 2025 of the MCU’s timeline), it sees Shuri (Letita Wright) evading her grief even as world governments set their sights on Wakanda and its cache of vibranium. Indeed, the period of mourning is further shattered when the quest for vibranium forces Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of an undersea kingdom called Talocan, to the surface. He issues an ultimatum to Shuri and Ruling Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) that is at once unreasonable and, in its way, inspiring to Shuri. It thus leads to an adventure tale with far reaching implications for the MCU and a mediation on grief.
The latter is the more successful element with Wright, Bassett and other returning Black Panther actors like Lupita Nyong’o (who plays Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), and Winston Duke (M’Baku) all displaying different levels and aspects of their shared loss. Indeed, performances are strong across the board with Bassett unleashing a fury that can be uncomfortable and raw, but 100% right. See also the serenity Nyong’o’s Nakia maintains for much of the film and the more lighthearted moments Gurira brings to the adventure when Okoye and Shuri leave Wakanda on mission. Wright also gives a remarkable performance. Like Shuri, she’s thrust into a limelight she didn’t necessarily want, but takes to the lead position well. And via her work as Shuri, some of the most heartbreaking moments of loss are dramatized and explored.
But intertwined within that is a look to the future via Talocan — the MCU’s Atlantis — and Namor himself. Revealed to be the leader of a civilization born from the pain of Spanish colonization, his arguments are … well, they’re as valid as Erik Killmonger‘s (Michael B. Jordan) in the first Black Panther. As many have noted, it is clear writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole wanted to continue exploring the wounds still felt from European colonialism half a millennium later. But where Wakanda is a welcome and wonderful vision of an African nation without the pain of being colonized, Talocan is forever caught in a whirlpool of grief brought on by the illness and malevolence of Spanish conquest even as its Aztec-inspired iconography celebrates a Mesoamerican culture that was never truly broken. For those with Mesoamerican blood, the depiction of Talocan and the performance of Huerta cannot help but resonate.
At the same time, though, Namor may not catch on with audiences in the same way Killmonger did in 2018. He never says anything as utterly tragic as the “bury me in the ocean” speech and, because he clearly has a role to play in future MCU phases, his story does not exactly conclude. Also, thanks to the Sub-Mariner’s tendency to straddle the line between antagonist and anti-hero in the comics, Namor is himself a little muddled in terms of characterization and story. That said, the way you react to him may depend on how closely you feel for his grief and situation. This reviewer, for example, feels it, but can also see how it may not strike as strong a chord for some.
Similarly, the introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) calls to the MCU’s future, but becomes more ill-fitting as the movie unfolds. Thorne is a pleasure to watch and the moments in which her character bonds with Shuri are some of the film’s best, but there is an unavoidable feeling that she’s been shoehorned into the film — and that’s considering Coogler is also an executive producer on her Disney+ series, Ironheart. See also the scenes with Martin Freeman‘s CIA Agent Everett K. Ross; he’s fun in those moments, but they comprise a story thread one could easily cut from the film’s two hour and forty-one minute runtime.
Nevertheless, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the strongest Marvel film release of 2022. It’s about more than its Marvel trappings or being a stepping stone to the next story. Sure, it’s still those things — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but the rumination on grief makes it a more solid and engaging film. It will also, likely, generate tears among its audience, who will feel that grief personally, whether they mourn Boseman, T’Challa, or someone closer to home.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now in theaters.