Grief and loss are the beating heart of this tender and heartfelt Marvel film, mixed with standard action tropes
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Letitia Wright (Shuri), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Angela Bassett (Queen Ramonda), Tenich Huerta Mejía (Namor), Dominique Thorne (Riri Williams), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Valentina Allegra de Fontaine), Florence Kasumba (Ayo), Michaela Coel (Aneka)
There is one thing you can never imagine – and never want to – having to plan for in your franchise. The tragic loss of your lynchpin. For Black Panther that man was Chadwick Boseman, and his heart-breaking early passing hangs over the film like a shroud.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is two films in one. One is a standard Marvel adventure film, with gags, set pieces and careful groundwork laid for future entries. The other is a heartfelt eulogy, a processing of the raw shock the people making the film – and many watching it – felt at the loss of this fine actor. In universe, T’Challa (Boseman) has passed away. His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) blames herself for failing to save his life and his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has become protective and unrelenting in her judgements.
With its monopoly on vibranium, Wakanda is now the most powerful nation on Earth. Other powers want a piece of that apple – and the US are plumping the deaths of the oceans for vibranium. But their search intrudes on a secret underwater civilisation led by wing-footed, super-strength Namor (Huerta Mejía). Namor threatens to unleash destruction unless Wakanda deliver him the scientist who created the US’s vibranium detector – who turns out to be a college student genius with Tony Stark vibes, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). When Shuri refuses to hand her over, Namor states he is coming for the surface – and will destroy Wakanda, a country he cannot trust.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is bookended by two heart-breakingly genuine moments of emotion. The death of T’Challa (off screen) and his funeral – a grief stricken, beautifully filmed funeral procession – carries a great deal of genuine rawness. A final montage of shots of Boseman, presented as the memories of Shuri finally coming to terms with her brother’s death is moving. The strongest parts of the film are these human moments. Wright has been open at her shock and pain at Boseman’s death and this translates beautifully in her affecting performance.
These adjustments to the script are the strongest parts of the film. Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett provide subtle, delicate work as two people affected by grief in very different ways, but both now more reckless, protective and retributive than before. The responses, guilt and pain of several characters carry real force and leave the deepest mark on the audience. It also builds a subtle “passing the torch” narrative, as Wakanda fears they have seen the last of their “Black Panther” who protected their nation through history.
Away from this, the film settles into being a more traditional Marvel franchise extender. Rightly much time has been given to the real-life tragedy, but this means much of the remainder of the plot feels rushed. Our new antagonists are hurriedly introduced – so much so that leader Namor (well played by Tenich Huerta Mejía with a charisma that covers an under-written part) introduces his people’s entire culture in an awkward info dump an hour into the film. Not a single other character of his merman race gets so much as a name (as I can remember) let alone a personality.
Despite being a slightly silly concept of an Atlantan (but definitely not Atlantis because that’s already been claimed by another franchise) underwater city with water pressure having given its inhabitants super-human strength, it is another strong commitment to diversity. These people descend from the Mayan civilisation, meaning they share the same history of persecution by the West as the African nations Wakanda represents. It should make them natural allies, right?
Of course, it doesn’t as this is a film that pivots on the mistakes and miscalculations of political leaders and how these force them into war. The film makes its point about political rivalries early with Ramonda giving the French and US an almighty ticking off at (a surprisingly small) UN for their ruthless attempt to obtain vibranium for themselves. However, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever dodges really delving into the most interesting implications of this.
Because there is a kernel of a really interesting, challenging idea here. In many ways Wakanda behaves with exactly the same domineering arrogance as the Western powers they criticise. The Wakandans take unilateral decisions for the world because they know best, treat other nations like recalcitrant children and horde the world’s most powerful resource for themselves. They are this close to a benign, dictatorial state. But the film isn’t interested in exploring this.
Bringing Wakanda and Talokan into rivalry on the grounds of Talokan seeing them as potential oppressors – as the most powerful among the surface nations they have always feared would crush them – would have been more interesting than the confused, convoluted “with us or against us” war we end up with. But I understand that a film, which prides itself on celebrating African culture, is not going to want to be seen as undermining any of that with something sharper.
Besides, this is all a set-up for the inevitable large scale action sequences. The finest is a haunting attack on a ship, where the Talokans use their siren voices to inspire the crew of an American black ops ship to drown themselves. There’s a decent car chase, some well-choreographed fights a pitched battles that thrill. It’s also notable that the loss of Boseman has led to this franchise being dominated by women of colour, all of whom deal with the sort of dilemmas and consequences that are normally the preserve of male (and white) comic-book heroes.
But the film’s heart is in the personal moments – and more interesting when looking at Shuri’s protective affection for Dominique Thorne’s plucky (sometimes overly so) inventor. It’s also interesting that this is a film that flirts more than I was expecting with its leads choosing anger and vengeance, over forgiveness and conciliation. Shuri and Ramonda lash out, with dangerous consequences, and express minimal regret. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever deserves points for being willing to tackle the negative implications of grief.
That’s the strength of the film, just as a pain of Boseman’s death is the beating heart. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is overlong and skips more challenging ideas, but it is also shot through with genuine grief. It’s not perfect, but it’s real, well-meaning and (for all its silliness and bombast in places) has a heart firmly in the right place. When a Black Panther rises in the final act, you will feel the film has earned it.