'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever': An Emotional Sequel and a Beautiful Tribute to Chadwick Boseman
After the absolute phenomenon of 2018's Black Panther, a sequel to it was inevitable. However, after the untimely death of its star, Chadwick Boseman, the initial ideas for a follow-up were changed. On top of this, COVID-19 and some on-set difficulties relating to actress Letitia Wright made the production of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever a challenging one. Due to all of this, many fans were left wondering just how a sequel would play out, as there were a lot of questions and mystique surrounding the film. As someone who liked the first Black Panther movie quite a bit, I was excited to see this one, but I was also a bit nervous due to the ever-growing fatigue I'm having towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Thankfully, Wakanda Forever emerges as one of the better things to come out this most recent crop of MCU media, as it retains a lot of the excitement and energy of the first film, while also paying tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman quite beautifully.
In the film's cold open, we find out that King T'Challa has succumbed to an unspecified illness. His death sends shockwaves through the nation of Wakanda, leaving its people to figure out where they go from here. Amidst all this, Wakanda is dealing with major world powers who are trying to obtain their vibranium. The quest for this inadvertently awakens a group of superhumans that can breathe underwater, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) who delivers a harsh ultimatum to Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) that could have dangerous consequences for Wakanda.
One of the things that exhausts me in regards to the MCU is how most of its entries rely heavily on other films and TV shows within it. I realize that this is literally the whole point of the MCU, but the fact of the matter is that Wakanda Forever is the 30th film within it, and the constant setting up and continuing of various plot lines, characters, and other details can get a bit annoying after a while. So imagine my surprise when I see that Wakanda Forever has a more self-contained feel to it. Make no mistake, there is a bit of connective tissue to other Marvel properties, but it feels so minimal compared to some of their other recent output. This is the first MCU film I've seen in a while that didn't feel like it was overly promoting the next movie in the franchise or wanting you to sign up for Disney+ to watch the TV show that builds off a post-credits scene. The film is more concerned with the future of the characters in the film rather than the future of the franchise, which is strangely refreshing to see. In a way, it reflects the uncertainty of where the MCU is heading from this point on, but this was likely unintentional. Regardless, the film is at its best when it focuses on the larger issues that Wakanda is facing, as well as the challenges that Shuri and Ramonda face throughout the film.
However, this still is a MCU film, and Marvel is going to Marvel, so this does have a little bit of a set-up to their upcoming series Ironheart. There are only a few moments that feel like it is promoting this, but they aren't too obvious. Truth be told, I didn't realize that the series was connected to Wakanda Forever until after I watched the movie. Knowing what I know now, these moments still don't feel too egregious, and at least make sense in the context of the film. What did bother me are the scenes with Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I like both of these actors, but the scenes involving them seem so unnecessary to the overarching plotlines of the film, and they could have easily been cut. The film just comes to a screeching halt in this moments and add so little to it as a whole.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the film is a bit too long. Clocking in at 161 minutes, the film doesn't fully justify its runtime, and feels stretched out. It could have cut a good 20 minutes from it and it would have been so much better, but alas, here we are. I'm all for movies being as long as they need to be in order to tell the story they're wanting to tell, but personally, I don't think this film needed to be nearly as long as it did. It just leads to a lot of moments where it feels deflated, and had my interest waning during them. At the very least, it starts off very strong and it does get its momentum back by the film's final act before ending on a powerful note (especially with its mid-credit scene).
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler deserves a lot of credit, as he is able to break through the samey-ness of most MCU films to deliver its most emotionally resonant effort to date. A lot of this comes from how it honors Chadwick Boseman, and how it depicts grief and mourning through the characters of Shuri and Ramonda. It might not be anything new, or too deep, but it is still touching, and has some truth to it. Coogler is great at getting to the humanity of the stories he tells, which yields some fascinating results in both Black Panther movies. He brings a sense of nuance and insight that allows the films to stand out a little from your standard superhero fare. Of course, with it being a Marvel movie, he is limited in just how much of his style and voice he can put into the film, but he is able to come through more than I was expecting him to in Wakanda Forever. It may be yet another MCU movie in part, but it also allows him to paint a portrait of grief and tread some territory that is not often explored in the franchise.
This carries over to the performances, namely those of Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett. Bassett is one of our greatest living actors, and brings some much needed gravitas to this film. The film gives her a bit more to work with in terms of Queen Ramonda's grief and dealings with trying to protect Wakanda. She has a handful of killer scenes in this film, with an early scene where she addresses the United Nations and a scene where she talks to Shuri about mourning among some of her highlights here. As for Wright, she was one of the breakout stars of the first Black Panther film and she is given the opportunity to take on a larger role within Wakanda Forever, and by extension, the MCU as a whole. She handles this quite well, and delivers what may be her best work yet. It is a much different version of the character compared to the first movie, but Wright acts it quite well. The way she plays Shuri's emotional arc is rather touching, and is among one of the better MCU performances I've seen in recent memory.
I also have to shout out Danai Gurira, who is excellent once again as Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's all-female special forces. Much like Wright, Gurira was a breakout star from the first film, and has proven herself to be able to play tough characters like Okoye or Michonne on The Walking Dead extremely well. This film gives her a little more to work with, and she has one scene in particular between her and Angela Bassett where she is simply incredible. I was also highly impressed by Tenoch Huerta Mejía's performance as the film's villain, Namor. Much like Killmonger from the first film, Namor is a more complex villain that one could argue is not completely in the wrong. Huerta may not be too commanding in the role, but he gives it a certain amount of juice that works quite well for the film as a whole.
One of the issues I have with the first film is that the visual effects are a bit lacking in certain moments. Unfortunately, this trend seems to continue here. Some moments are so obviously green screened, and some of the CGI is rough to say the least. Some of the camera work isn't half bad at least, but the only shots that genuinely look good are those that where clearly done on location (what a concept!). The film also sees the return of production designer Hannah Beachler, costume designer Ruth Carter, and composer Ludwig Göransson, all of whom who won Oscars for their work on the first Black Panther movie. All three of them once again do a spectacular job here, and play a big part in bringing the world of Wakanda to life once again.
While I still prefer the original film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is still a decent sequel, and one of the better films of this most recent phase of the MCU. It beautifully pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman, while also laying the groundwork for where future Black Panther movies may go. It is one of the more emotionally charged MCU outings, and the film handles this exceptionally well, largely thanks to Ryan Coogler's direction. There's something so special about this film, and even though it gets held back by some of its flaws, it's still quite touching, and has plenty of excitement throughout it. I still have a bit of skepticism towards future MCU projects, but this gives me a bit of hope, and is easily one of the more heartfelt films in the franchise.