The Marvel Cinematic Universe experienced more than a typical reset after the conclusion of the Infinity Saga which made up the first three phases of films, ending with Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). Navigating a shifting schedule due to COVID-19 meant that the film slate and television programs that were meant to make significant moves to set up what’s next got shuffled, but then something worse happened: actor Chadwick Boseman passed away on August 20th, 2020, from an undisclosed bout with cancer. Setting aside the devastating personal loss to his family and his friends, this meant that co-writer/director Ryan Coogler, who had designed the entirety of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the second solo-outing for Boseman’s Wakandan leader and protector T’Challa, around the charismatic actor, had to scrap what he had. Suddenly there were arguments brewing over whether it was more important for the cast, crew, and Boseman’s immediate family to honor the actor and his contribution or to recast the role of the most significant Black character thus far introduced in the MCU (something of which there is minor precedent). What audiences receive with Wakanda Forever is herculean, succeeding in quelling all voices, telling a tale that serves as an emotional and personal arc for the Wakandans, and setting the stage for an incursion of devastating proportions.
It’s been one year since the death of T’Challa from an unknown illness and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) leads the people of Wakanda, continuing T’Challa’s programs that share the country’s collective knowledge with the world. While she leads, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) stays in her lab, working with a team to anticipate problems and devise solutions. Both excellently serve Wakanda, their respective methods keeping sacred what is theirs while negotiating the treacherous path before them as a no-longer hidden country. What neither remaining member of the royal family can foresee, however, is trouble from a previously unknown kingdom deep in the Atlantic Ocean, the kingdom of Talokan and its tenacious leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía).
As we’re 30 films deep in the MCU with Wakanda Forever, audiences should be well-versed in how a film is going to go. There will be an initial premise established, a protagonist introduced, conflict, and then resolution where things appear to be back to the status quo (more or less). Yes, Forever does invoke the very same CG-heavy throwdown finale that’s become the modus operandi of the MCU, but that doesn’t mean that everything leading up to it or that comes after doesn’t carry weight. Put another way, the whole of Forever is heavy, for better or worse. It must address T’Challa in some way since the last time audiences saw him in this universe was at Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) funeral alive and well, it must provide time on-screen for the characters to process it, it must introduce a protagonist, and all of the stakes. You can sense the momentum of the film slow down whenever it seeks to address the loss of T’Challa, often infusing Forever with a sense that it’s actually a character-driven drama versus the typical MCU flick. Considering how frequently all the films tend to race toward fighting, that Forever dares to takes its time, to drill into the characters more, feels like something audience’s haven’t been given since Shang-Chi (2021). If the film were to be this and solely this, an exploration of grief, loss, and generational trauma through a comic book vehicle represented by Namor (a name which translates to “the child without love”) and, specifically, Shuri, there would be something truly extraordinary about the whole affair. But, as it has to feed the machine, the good character bits of Forever get interrupted by fisticuffs. There’s in-narrative logic for each physical exchange, so they don’t come across as unnecessary to the film as a whole, but they also don’t feel as though they’re on the same scale as the previous film. There’s a specific sequence lacking the intensity of the Busan chase and the final confrontations are less extraordinary than the Wakandan-versus-Wakandan battle. The stakes couldn’t be higher, yet one never *feels* them in the way they did before. Perhaps it’s the frequent slowdowns, perhaps it’s just that Wright, for all her efforts, doesn’t possess the same gravitas as Boseman, or perhaps it’s just that the film attempts to please too many perspectives at once that the whole bends under the weight.
Where the film is at its strongest is with Mejía’s Namor. There’s a through line to his character that not only aligns with Wakanda pre-end of Black Panther, but is built on a foundation of subjugation that Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) experienced. Namor is not Killmonger, interested only in using violence to proactively exert moral corrections to the world. Namor seeks only to protect his kingdom through whatever means he feels are justified. The script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther) presents the people of Talokan as equally skilled, as technologically advanced, and as honorable as the Wakandans. According to a recent interview with Coogler, the original script for Forever was completed at the time of Boseman’s death with Namor being the protagonist, the approach and character arc of T’Challa being vastly different (obviously) from the final film. Of all the scenes in the film, the ones featuring Namor feel the strongest, likely because they are (largely) untouched. Frankly, I haven’t been this fascinated or interested in a villain since Killmonger. Loki’s awesome and complex, sure, but he’s largely driven by an inferiority complex. Killmonger is someone who lived as an outcast of two worlds, accepted by neither, and is willing to take it to the mat for his beliefs. In this regard, the characterization of Namor bares many similarities, the difference being that reasons requiring otherwise, Namor and the Talokan were happy being left alone. Much like other sequels where the choices of the past come to fruition in the future, Forever contends not just with the choices that set the Talokan on their path, but the fallout from T’Challa’s choices, those of a man of honor who is no longer able to address the responsibilities he’s set forth.
Namor and Mejía’s performance aren’t the only things to boast. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s work in Forever ups the game from Black Panther, possibly putting another Academy Award on her shelf. It’s not just the funeral garb or the expected afrofuturistic dress of Wakanda, the people of Talokan is so distinct and intricate that Carter could teach a class on each item and the story it conveys about the culture. One costume that I’ll have to wait until the home release review to explore plainly is striking due to what it evokes through the detail work, a conflict of spirit and consciousness that carries forward themes from Black Panther. Helping the beauty of her work is cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw (Loki; Teen Spirit), who manages to make the other-worldly aspects of the aquatic Talokan as regal, future-forward, and joyously full of life as Wakanda. When on land, there’s a clarity of image that feels less part of the MCU machine and something far more toned down, natural, and grounded. One of the big things missing from the MCU is the sense that it’s all happening in a real place since so much CG is used to produce the comic book fantasy of these adventures. That Arkapaw manages to capture realism at all is a marvel, but to do it in a film rife with computer-generated worlds, it feels like a daring shift for the MCU machine.
Again, this review won’t get into spoilers except to say the following: your favorite colonizer returns (Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross), Okoye (Danai Gurira) is given a rich and complex arc, Jabari leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) is a breath of fresh air each time he’s on-screen, the inclusion of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) gets super-close to the ineffectual arc that befell America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in Doctor Strange 2 (2022), Queen Ramonda is a fantastic character showcase for Angela Bassett, and there’s only one cut scene and it’s not at the end of the credits.
There’s absolutely no way that Wakanda Forever is going to please everyone. No matter the decision Coogler made, that the cast supported, the film was going to require something extraordinary to nail the ending. Even for all the things that didn’t work for me on an initial viewing, Coogler sticks the landing beautifully. Without the requirement to address T’Challa’s absence, Wakanda Forever is a film that presents dangerous stakes with far-reaching implications and never loses its heart in the process of giving audience the spectacle it pays to see. Wakanda is not the only thing forever changed by the loss of T’Challa and where the story goes from here may be like nothing we’ve seen so far.
In theaters November 11th, 2022.
For more information, head to Marvel’s official Black Panther: Wakanda Forever website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.