Review: BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER, A Celebration of Legacies Real and Imaginary
The tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, a generational talent hitting just the prime of what should have been a decades-long, award-filled acting career, in the summer of 2020 came as a devastating blow to many, especially during a year filled with so much loss and grief due to the then ongoing global pandemic.
In a far too short, brilliant career, Boseman specialized in multi-layered depictions of mythic or near-mythic Americans, from Jackie Robinson (42), the first Black man to play in the major leaguers, to James Brown (Get On Up), the funk pioneer and singer-performer, to Thurgood Marshall (Marshall), the ground-breaking NAACP attorney and future Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Each major role demanded a different skill set, some more physical than others, but the vast majority of audiences became familiar with Boseman’s mix of depth, range, and cool through his role as the fictional king of Wakanda, T’Challa, the title character in Ryan Coogler’s (Creed, Fruitvale Station) 2018 adaptation of Black Panther, the Marvel Comics character co-created by Stan Lee and Jack "King" Kirby in 1966. Collaborating with Coogler, Boseman ensured that T’Challa wasn’t another costumed superhero defined by his powers and punching abilities. His journey, from the self-questioning, dutiful son and premature heir to the throne of an ultra-advanced, super-secretive African kingdom, to a self-confident, assured monarch dedicated to the betterment of not just his own people, but the greater world at large, resonated far and wide.
Losing Boseman also meant abandoning whatever story (or stories) lay ahead for T’Challa and Wakanda, but thankfully, recasting the role with another actor was never a viable option for Coogler, his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, or the Powers-That-Be at Marvel Studios (Kevin Feige). Removing that option meant placing T’Challa’s in-universe loss front-and-center, a difficult, if almost impossible task, especially given the need to treat both Boseman and T’Challa respectfully, without slipping into exploitation, commercial or otherwise.
In that regard, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever succeeds magnificently, acknowledging Boseman’s passing in the opening credits before segueing into a scene involving T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), as she tries to recreate the life-giving, heart-shaped herb that gave T’Challa and his predecessors their powers.
Shuri’s inevitable failure leads to a film-long journey for Shuri through the various stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), a recognizable interior arc matched, at least in part, by the crises faced by Wakanda and Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T’Challa and Shuri’s mother and the reigning monarch: Self-described Western democracies eager to obtain Wakanda’s chief resource, vibranium, and any corresponding future tech, and the discovery of a new, heretofore unknown underwater civilization, Talocan, led by the centuries-old Namor (Tenoch Huerta).
In the comics, Namor preceded his DC counterpart, Aquaman, by two years (1939). In the real and reel worlds, though, Aquaman arrived on multiplex screens first four years ago, compelling Coogler, Feige, and their collaborators to rejigger Namor’s origin story to distinguish it from DC's popular take. The MCU's Namor is still a super-powerful mutant with pointy, Spock-like ears and winged feet, but he’s no longer the ruler of Atlantis. Instead, he rules the aforementioned Talocan, an underwater Meso-American civilization formed as a result of an encounter with a not-unfamiliar purple flower or herb, just as Spanish colonizers invaded the Mexican peninsula and South America.
With the potential discovery of Talocan by resource-hungry surface dwellers, Namor literally emerges from the sea, eager to form an alliance with Wakanda. Echoing T’Challa’s antagonist, Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), in the previous film, Namor wants to initiate a potentially devastating blow against the surface world, initiating a war he believes a Talocan-Wakanda alliance can and will win.
Ramonda thinks otherwise, recognizing the human toll that would follow any kind of international conflict. Their vastly different world-views inevitably lead to a series of not unexpected misconceptions, errors in judgment, and miscalculations that sets Talocan and Wakanda on a violent collision course.
That collision course, in turn, gives Coogler and his collaborators ample story room to stage several large-scale set pieces, mostly on land, but often in or around water, each one even more inventive or imaginative than the last, all while Shuri evolves from the brilliant scientist who prefers the company of other tech nerds or her AI to the leader Wakanda desperately needs in a time of conflict. Even as he delivers the obligatory spectacle, Coogler interweaves both storylines, the macro and the micro, deftly, giving each one room to develop organically.
Even then, Coogler doesn’t shortchange the other Wakandan characters audiences met and loved four years ago, including Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-women army dedicated to protecting Wakanda, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the onetime Wakandan spy now in self-exile (Haiti), and M’Baku (Winston Duke), the colorfully irreverent leader of the mountain tribe, the Jabari. Even Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA field agent and “colonizer,” has a role to play in the sequel's unfolding events.
With so many significant characters, however, each one requiring screen time to pursue their own interrelated paths, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever runs a fairly hefty two hours and 41 minutes (including credits). Some longueurs certainly result here and there, especially during a slightly over-extended denouement, but by the time the mid-credits scene arrives and departs, audiences have been given the rarest of experiences in the MCU, a fully self-contained narrative, made all the emotionally resonant because it avoids the kind of fan service, random cameos, and set-up for the next film in the series or the MCU at large.
It’s also a fitting send-off for a character — and the singular performer who played him — that often feels like a minor miracle. Maybe because it is.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens Friday, November 11, only in movie theaters, via Marvel/Disney.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
- Ryan Coogler
- Ryan Coogler
- Joe Robert Cole
- Tenoch Huerta
- Angela Bassett
- Danai Gurira