It is a rare and devastating thing for a franchise to lose one of its central figures. A number of franchises over the past 20 years have had to weather this, with varying degrees of success. After the loss of Richard Harris, the 'Harry Potter' series quietly cast Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in his place, a choice that was simple, straightforward and elegant. On the other end of the spectrum was the debacle of how 'Star Wars' handled the sudden loss of Carrie Fisher, their baffling solution being some poorly edited old footage, lazy storytelling and unsettling CGI.
The situation faced by Marvel Studios though feels almost singular. The devastating loss of Chadwick Boseman, one of the most talented actors of his generation, was made all the more palpable as it came on the heels of his ascension as a cultural icon. His beautifully understated performance as King T'Challa in the first 'Black Panther' film (2018) meant so much to so many people, especially young people of colour not only seeing a man of colour as a superhero but as a leader. The idea of a future for this strand of the MCU without him was unthinkable, but it was vital it continue regardless, for the sake of those inspired in the first place. And so, Marvel and director Ryan Coogler have continued the saga with 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever', tasked with finding the balance of honouring Boseman's memory, continuing his legacy, and shaping a new path for the cinematic world of Wakanda going forward.
In the aftermath of the sudden passing of King T'Challa and the end of the Black Panther line after the destruction of the sacred heart-shaped herb in the first film, the highly protective African kingdom of Wakanda finds itself in a precarious position. International relations have started to splinter, with foreign powers determined to gain access to their enviable supply of vibranium. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout') refuses to hand over her kingdom's secrets, so the U.S. begin a search for other possible vibranium sites. After an underwater mining operation is attacked the Wakandans are blamed, but Queen Ramonda and her daughter Princess Shuri (Leticia Wright, 'Death on the Nile') receive a strange visitor from the oceans, Namor (Tenoch Huerta, 'Tigers Are Not Afraid') from the kingdom of Taloken. His people have also benefited from the use of vibranium, and if the "surface dwellers" find them, it will put his people in danger. He presents the Wakandans with an impossible ultimatum - join him in war against them, or his armies will go to war with Wakanda, a war that, without a Black Panther to lead them, they aren't sure they can win.
'Wakanda Forever' carries over many of the thematic concerns of the first film, in particular that of how to deal with the centuries of crimes committed against native people under colonialism, but while it doesn't really offer anything new to say in this regards, the film makes some very smart choices in how to make this film a distinct experience of its own. The strongest is that the film is squarely female-centric, with only Namor and the return of Winston Duke ('Us') as M'Baku as the major male presences in the room. It's a genuine joy to see actors of the calibre of Bassett, Wright, Lupita Nyong'o and Dana Gurira given such strong material and the space to explore it. At the heart of the film is Shuri, who through a series of devastating events has now found herself the guardian of her brother's legacy. She finds herself torn by the question of whether to favour nobility or vengeance, find peace with Namor or respond to his threats with retribution. It's a conflict she doesn't with to be a part of or feel equipped to handle. It seems obvious that she should take up the mantle of the Black Panther, but her journey of the film is that of finding within herself the strength to do so, and then come to understand the weight of what that means.
'BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER' TRAILER
Ryan Coogler understands that the quieter moments of the film, scenes of two characters engaged in debate, are the real spectacle of the Black Panther films, and this adds to the genuine sense of drama that permeates the film. The MCU has rarely allowed itself the time and energy for these kind of mature character relationships, and it's great to see that this aspect of the first film - easily its strongest - is maintained here. Coogler also has the space to bring a more idiosyncratic eye to the film, finding moments of rigour and pageantry unlike anything in the MCU so far. The film also fully unleashes the brilliance of Ruth Carter's costume design, a dazzling fantasia of colour, shape and texture. She is the real hero of this film, every costume a marvel in itself. Composer Ludwig Göransson also weaves real magic with his second 'Black Panther' score. This is an even grander affair, opening up the musical language of the film to include the South American textures of Namor and his people while maintaining the grandeur of his original score.
For the most part, the film places grief towards the front of its thematic concerns. The loss of T'Challa (and by extension, the loss of Boseman) is carefully and respectfully handled, the film understanding that it can't indulge in the interminable histrionics it favoured after the death of Iron Man. In many ways, the question of what to do with T'Challa's legacy hangs over the film, though more rigorously engaging with this question may have made the film even more emotionally satisfying. While the prologue hits you square in the heart, later moments of reflection don't seem to work quite as well. There are a lot of balls being thrown in the air with 'Wakanda Forever', and its ultimate flaw is that it never finds a way to juggle them all effectively, robbing the film of some of its power. When it needs to nail the moment, it almost always does, but this is still a Marvel film, and the inherent problems that have plagued this series from the beginning are still lurking at the edges, waiting for their time to ram into the narrative and threaten to destabilise it.
Where the first film balanced a lean story with a focus on thematic and emotional integrity, 'Wakanda Forever' throws this balance off with a bloated narrative weighed down with too many characters and too many plot lines. The introduction of Namor and the kingdom of Taloken is a real highlight of the film, a world of deep sea mysteries and ancient symbolism, but the power of that should come from the contrast between Taloken an Wakanda is lost with too much rushing around, trying to keep you abreast with every character at once. The film is nearly three hours long, and it's in these frenetic moments rather than those built on drama that you feel the length the most. Just when you're settling into one character's journey, you're yanked away and thrown into another. It doesn't help that the editing is, at times, genuinely baffling, the sudden detour into a new storytline making little sense. Some of these plot lines become a distraction from the central drive of the film, while others just seem completely unnecessary. The same can be said for the action sequences - almost none of them have any real bearing on the film and feel shoehorned in precisely where they aren't wanted. This was also a problem with the first film (and the fact that Coogler clearly is not in charge of directing the action himself), but this wasn't as jarring when the rest of the film worked so well. With 'Wakanda Forever', the disconnected look and feel of the set pieces just adds to the mess.
'Wakanda Forever' carries over many of the thematic concerns of the first film, in particular that of how to deal with the centuries of crimes committed against native people under colonialism, but while it doesn't really offer anything new to say in this regards, the film makes some very smart choices in how to make this film a distinct experience of its own. The strongest is that the film is squarely female-centric.
The film also falls prey to Marvel's whim of undercutting emotional beats with an ill-placed quip or reference. It's the sense that they're giving a wry wink to the audience, reminding you that this is all just a bit of fun, don't take it too seriously, it's not real. But that's the problem - with 'Wakanda Forever', it is real. It isn't just that the sense of loss in this fictional world is a reflection of a real-world loss, but that the thematic concerns of the shockwaves of colonialism and racially- motivated discrimination are not the stuff of comic book invention. The first 'Black Panther' understood this beautifully, and you would think that 'Wakanda Forever' would be the same, essentially creating a facsimile of the central conflict of the first film but with different players. And yet that occasional wry wink leaves a bad taste in your mouth, more unnecessary noise in a film at risk of drowning itself out with it.
The result of this, coupled with too much story not connected to theme, is that it's hard to really know what to make of the film. At times, I found 'Wakanda Forever' genuinely hard to follow, leaps from one plot line to another making me feel like I'd missed something. In truth, it's all there, everything to make a really affecting and thrilling action adventure - it's just that there's too much there, and with the film trying to give everyone their dues, it ultimately doesn't serve anyone, even to an extent the character whose absence the emotional core of the film should be built on.
I always find it tricky reviewing the Marvel films. This isn't a franchise I enjoy, but it also means a tremendous amount to so many people. The 'Black Panther' films are even trickier. As a white Australian man, I'll never be able to fully comprehend the importance of these films, what it must mean (particularly in this case) to have a film of this scale populated by such strong and powerful women of colour, where they reign as queens and generals and superheroes. And in the end, that is what is most important about the existence of 'Wakanda Forever'. For all its many flaws, this was what lingered in my mind in the hours after, how singular and important this is. These films aren't made with me in mind, and what a wondrous, magical thing that is, worthy of praise and celebration. The MCU spent its first decade mishandling gender and cultural diversity to an almost embarrassing degree. 'Wakanda Forever' is a sign that they are learning, and if this film is as successful as we expect it to be, how incredible is it that we have a major Hollywood blockbuster, headed by a POC director and headlined by a cast of incredible POC women, all the while opening the scope of the series up to Latin American actors and characters with another universe of rich characters and environments.
As a Marvel film, 'Wakanda Forever' falls into the same traps as all the others, an endless cycle for a series seemingly determined to undercut its emotional resonance and its artistry. As a eulogy for Chadwick Boseman, a man who should still be here and whose loss is almost incalculable, it handles this responsibility with care and grace. And as a landmark in the continued need for representation in major Hollywood filmmaking, it's another significant step in the right direction. In the end, even with all the mess, that's really what matters.