Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Pays Fitting Tribute … and Moves On

Movies Reviews Marvel
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Pays Fitting Tribute … and Moves On

Though making a CGI-filled blockbuster requires the talent and resources of a medium-sized city, it’s not too reductive to say the critical and box office success of 2018’s Black Panther largely rested on three crucial ingredients: inspired casting, deft direction and vibrant design. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever boasts the same director in Ryan Coogler (and the same writing team of Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), who have again created a story whose conflicts and character arcs go deeper than the average MCU fare. Of equal importance, Wakanda Forever again features the Oscar-winning talents of Hannah Beachler (production design) and Ruth E. Carter (costume design). Wakanda remains a vividly realized Afrofuturist cityscape (even in mourning), and the MCU’s newest kingdom, Talokan, though markedly less flashy than James Wan’s Atlantis in Aquaman, feels as real and wondrous as a fictitious Aztec/Mayan underwater realm should. (Eight-year-old me misses the red and green “Atlanteans.”)

The cast is mostly the same, with Michael B. Jordan’s scene-stealing antagonist Erik Killmonger replaced by Tenoch Huerta’s similarly compelling and cleverly reimagined anti-hero Namor (who is much more integral to Marvel Comics—and likely the MCU—than Killmonger).

But how keen the loss contained in that word—“mostly.”

Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa was a magical piece of casting alchemy on par with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. The decision not to recast the role seemed both obvious and daunting for a movie that would have to be made. (No studio is going to abandon a sequel of the MCU’s third-highest grossing film.)

Coogler confronts the loss directly in Wakanda Forever in a beautiful opening tribute to both actor and character. (Is “simultaneous parasocial grieving” a thing?) T’Challa’s funeral is a reminder of just how strong the cast is overall, providing Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira some grief-themed scene-chewing of their own.

Much as with Killmonger, the introduction of Namor and his people is an engaging set piece, and once fully revealed, Huerta’s Namor exudes a nobility and menace that serves as a strong counterpoint and believable threat to a country whose technology so clearly outclasses would-be rivals.

While the film introduces and fleshes out Namor, Riri Williams/Ironheart (Dominique Thorne) and even some C-list characters like Namora and Attuma, it’s Wright’s Shuri who grounds the film’s central narrative as she wrestles with the potent mix of grief, anger and powerlessness in the face of mortality. The juxtaposition and tension between Shuri’s doubts and Namor’s (quite reasonable, really) certainty that mercy represents an existential threat to his people fuels the final act. And even if a certain type of ending is preordained—Scarlet Witch aside, superhero heel turns are easier to pull off (and reverse) in comics than on the Big Screen—the tension makes for better antagonists than yet another iteration of “Evil Rich Businessman.”

More importantly for the MCU, whereas Thor: Love and Thunder felt like a lighter, sloppier version of its predecessor, Wakanda Forever feels like a well-considered, necessary next step for a franchise rocked by loss. It’s a tad overstuffed—an entire sub-plot involving Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) feels more like Feige fiat to ensure certain characters and developments are sufficiently presaged—but that only serves as a reminder of the fine line between “laying groundwork” and overpacking.

Despite the daunting challenge faced by Coogler and his team, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever feels like the surest step taken in the MCU since Thanos was reduced to ash. It’s both an impressive achievement and a promising development, especially when considers the strong comic book connections between Namor, mutants (he is one), and a certain fantastic foursome on the MCU horizon.

Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Dominique Thorne, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
Release Date: November 11, 2022

Michael Burgin reviews movies from time to time.

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