Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Review

To live in the shadow of Chadwick Boseman is no easy task. The actor left us very young, a devastating loss that many are still struggling to come to grips with, and his legacy is now one that wounded the hearts of filmgoers the world over. It’s no secret that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is probably THE pivotal film in the MCU, one that reminded studio execs that yes…people want to see someone like them onscreen, but the cultural impact was cemented with the loss of its star. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was already in pre-production when Boseman passed, forcing Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole to go back to the drawing board and recreate the film’s narrative from the ground up.

What they’ve brought to the table is messy, desperate, sad, synergized, and probably the best film the cinematic universe has produced in Phase Four. Backs against the wall and Disney demanding they use the film as a backdoor pilot for an Ironheart Disney+ series, the two managed to pull off a gripping and meaningful narrative against all odds.

It helps the film has José Tenoch Huerta Mejía serving as its villain, Namor. The Mexican actor has delivered excellent performances in films like Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid and last year’s The Forever Purge (his role isn’t huge but my god he’s bugnuts in that), but now he’s given a platform to take a strong supporting role and really show off what he can do. Coogler’s villains are showing a trend as he walks us through various stages of systemic oppression in different cultures around the world, this time moving from Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordon) desire for equality and power through violence to Namor’s rage against the Spanish Catholics that devastated his Mayan homeland. While most of the MCU is content to exist as action figures bouncing off of one another (I enjoy it, but that’s what it is), the Black Panther films are a direct commentary on colonialism and the seeds of violent oppression sewn generations ago that are still factoring into our world today. It’s interesting that Coogler chooses to give these struggles to Namor and Killmonger, forcing us to confront the pitfalls of rage and hatred as they reverse.

It’s just a shame that the main thing he’s chosen to keep from Namor’s comic book character are the winged feet.

Namor’s rage is only a third of the film, with another large chunk being dedicated to T’Challa’s family attempting to come to grips with his passing. The film opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright ironically trying to utilize medical science to fight disease) desperately trying to recreate the “heart-shaped herb” that allowed T’Challa and Killmonger to achieve their strength and power as Black Panthers. T’Challa is upstairs dying, and when Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) comes downstairs to tell her it’s over we move into one of the more quietly tender sequences I’ve seen in a blockbuster. Boseman’s passing had to be acknowledged, and while this shouldn’t be the only role he’s remembered for it was one that touched the lives of millions and is treated as such. We are all invited to his funeral and Coogler holds nothing back (and neither does costume designer Ruth E. Carter) as we join his film family to say goodbye. These are the moments the film feels strongest, pieces of something more dramatic and interesting than any of the action sequences could ever stand up to, and it allows all of these wonderful women to own the screen. Bassett and Wright are joined by Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira in their grief, mixing real world emotion with performance to create something beautiful. Much as I take issue with some of Wright’s public statements I have to admit she’s wonderful here. Shuri has gone from a snarky character, full of confidence and ego, to one whose failure is now the defining trait in her life. T’Challa’s death shook her, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever mostly serves as a journey through her grieving process.

Then there’s the corporate synergy of it all. No Marvel film can just be its own thing anymore, and in that spirit much of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever needlessly spends almost a third of its runtime serving as a backdoor pilot for the upcoming Ironheart series. Dominique Thorne is perfectly charming in the role, an MIT student that proposed a Vibranium detecting machine which the CIA quietly put into use without her knowledge, but everything she does feels like it could be replaced with “insert scientist here” and the film could feel more focused and contemplative in the grief it so desperately needs to portray. This is a world devastated by the loss of its greatest hero, a kind and upstanding man that was on a very moving journey with his people, and it feels jarring to move from Wright and Nyong’o grieving to this misplaced but admittedly charming upstart that just wants to finish her Iron Man cosplay.

That said this is also a film that features an orca whale using its tail to fling a Talokan soldier out of the water as a form of attack and it’s awesome, so take from that what you will.

I could wax poetic about the performance of Winston Duke as M’Baku, about Ludwig Göransson’s score (which is more jarring and diverse this time around, much to my delight), or about about how absolutely stunnning Hannah Beachler’s production design is, but the real heart of Marvel’s latest is a collective funeral procession. There’s not one moment of screentime, one image, or one emotional beat that isn’t living in the shadow of this loss. It’s a beautiful tribute, despite some of its messier aspects and the whole winged feet thing, and I think it’ll serve as a cathartic release for some who are still feeling this loss.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently playing in theatres.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s