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Wakanda Forever: Long Live the Panther

And ever and ever.

When Black Panther came out in 2018, it was as much of a cultural event as it was a film. It was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film featuring a black lead actor, it made over a billion dollars worldwide, and it ended up becoming the first superhero film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. So far, it’s also the only Marvel film to have won any Academy Awards at all. And then, before production could begin on the sequel, lead actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer. To say that the pressure to deliver a film worthy of its predecessor was intense is a massive understatement. But Wakanda Forever, despite a few hiccups, is a worthy sequel to a film of such power and importance.

The film begins with King T’Challa having died suddenly from a mysterious illness, leaving Wakanda without its protector, the Black Panther. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) works tirelessly to keep the kingdom together while defending it from countries seeking to exploit its weakness for Wakandan vibranium. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) refuses to process her grief, diving into tech projects to distract herself. Soon, Wakanda finds itself at odds with Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of the undersea realm of Talokan who threatens to go to war with Wakanda if they don’t help him protect his people from the outside world. He also demands they turn over Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a young, super-genius inventor who’s projects have been used by other nations to breach Talokan’s borders in search of sources of vibranium.

The tone and tenor of the film is apparent immediately after the cold open prologue. The Marvel logo unfolds and moves as usual, but all the images inside of it are of Chadwick Boseman, and the whole thing happens in complete silence. This goes right into an extended sequence of the funeral procession for T’Challa and further explorations of how his loss has affected his family and the kingdom of Wakanda. It’s heavy, it’s beautiful, and it was absolutely necessary. While the entire film is about how T’Challa’s death has fundamentally changed Wakanda and its people, it’s also a tribute to the actor who played him and forever changed the MCU and superhero films in general.

We don’t have to wait long to get our first action sequence, however, and it’s a good one. As mercenaries descend upon a Wakandan outpost, the Dora Milaje appear from the shadows to strike back with grace, power, and absolute ferocity. This cuts back to Queen Ramonda exhibiting the exact same qualities as she dresses down the United Nations assembly over the incident. Wakanda may not have the Black Panther, but they are more than ready and willing to defend itself at any cost.

Nobody expects the Dora Milaje.

The action in Wakanda Forever, while perfectly choreographed and executed, is not the point, however. This is a film about grief and emotional trauma wearing the costume of a superhero blockbuster. While pieces might be moved in the over-arching MCU metaplot, the true journey here is one of the heart. It’s about how we move on from grief and how it can consume you if you don’t. And this comes from both sides. We find out that Namor’s history is steeped in personal tragedy and loss as well and about how that pain shapes him and consequently his people.

Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler has said in interviews that this film was always going to be about loss. The original draft of the script that was written while Boseman was still alive would have seen T’Challa mourning the five years of time he lost when he was snapped away during The Blip. Coogler isn’t just making another superhero film here; this is also an examination of one of the most difficult things for the human mind and heart to comprehend. While the MCU has dealt with grief in the past — specifically in the brilliant chaos magic of WandaVision — this is a much more direct, raw, and vulnerable exploration here.

It’s this focus on tragedy that helps Coogler direct fantastic performances from his players. Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright are both given a huge spotlight, and neither one of them disappoints. Wright’s Shuri has the bigger journey of the two, with Shuri rejecting the spirituality that gives Ramonda comfort and actively avoiding her grief as it slowly turns toxic and vengeful inside of her. Bassett herself is absolutely hypnotic as Ramonda, adopting a more stoic demeanor than Shuri. Even while she claims she has moved on from her son’s death, Bassett’s sharp and fierce performance here lets us know that she’s also hiding her pain behind her duties.

The true revelation of Wakanda Forever, though, is Tenoch Huerta’s performance as Namor. The first Black Panther featured one of the MCU’s most human and relatable antagonists in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, and once again we have a complicated and complex antihero here. Namor’s motivations for his actions are sympathetic even when he engages in brutality; he wants nothing more than the keep Talokan safe, and he and Ramonda are far more alike than either wish to admit. It’s Huerta’s warm, multi-layered performance as Namor that elevates him far beyond a mere antagonist. Namor has a fire raging within him, but that fire is controlled by a kind of intimidating, tactical rationality. Even in combat, he tends toward measured, precise movements and strikes.

You will believe a mutant can fly.

Truth be told, there isn’t a bad performance in the entire film. Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams (known in the comics as Ironheart) is a delightful addition to the MCU. Williams’ performance is natural and charismatic, and she works well with Wright’s Shuri. Both are preternaturally intelligent and inventive, with Riri’s more grounded approach contrasting with Shuri’s relatively more sheltered air. Danai Gurira’s Okoye also gets much more to do here, and Gurira herself is phenomenal in charting the character’s journey. Likewise, Winston Duke’s M’Baku returns as a combination of strength and humor that makes the character instantly endearing.

The film itself is intensely beautiful and immersive. Whether on Wankandan soil or in Talokan’s depths, the set design is superb. It’s all amplified by Ludwig Göransson’s masterful score, a mix of orchestral and tribal folk elements perfectly suited for the film. Göransson won both an Oscar and a Grammy for his score to the previous film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he cleans up on this one, too. The music and visuals combine in mesmerizing ways, especially during the first appearance of the Talokanian forces. As they approach their target, they sing as a choir in a literal siren song that encourages their enemies to quietly leap to their deaths into the sea. It’s a specific level of subversive psychological distress that we haven’t really seen in the MCU before, all handled with a terrifying level of expertise both in-universe and out.

Not all is great in Wakanda, however. Too much screen time is taken up by minor MCU characters in a side plot that, while featuring very welcome performances, distracts from the main conflict and threatens to kill Coogler’s dedicated pacing. There are also a few moments that throw the film slightly off-balance, the most notable being the introduction of a minor character in the first act who’s framed as if we’re supposed to know who they are even though they’ve never appeared in the MCU prior (and after this might never appear again). It left me unable to appreciate the scene in question fully because I kept wracking my brain to figure where the character had been seen before.

The Queen does not approve.

The final third-act conflict also feels a bit rushed and even just a little anti-climactic. The film is 161 minutes, making it the second-longest MCU film after Avengers: Endgame, and it feels like it’s too short. On the one hand, that’s a testament to Coogler’s skill as filmmaker, but on the other, it ends up feeling like chunks were cut out of the third act at the last minute. Trust me, I could have spent much more time with these characters and not had an issue with the film’s length.

Much like the first Black Panther, Wakanda Forever is not just a superhero film. While elements of the MCU formula are there, they are clearly not the highlight of the film. The true conflicts here are all internal, portrayed by a universally talented cast who feel like they’re mourning both Chadwick Boseman and King T’Challa at the same time. This might be close to reaching peak potential of the MCU itself, a fantastic mix of drama, action, humor, and strength that’s far more focused on the humanity of its characters than the position of the MCU timeline.

FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+

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