Interestingly and somewhat paradoxically, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is both a contemplative film about dealing with grief while also a widescreen action epic. This isn’t the first time that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has delved into grief as the show Wandavision was a meditation upon grief with sitcom TV tropes. Wakanda Forever is dealing with grief in a war movie format. It bookends this Fourth Phase of the MCU thematically about grief, which is relevant since half the universe got dusted. Missing Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa was always going to be challenging so Wakanda Forever makes the loss of T’Challa a central theme. Besides all the heavy stuff about grief, there’s extremely cool moments that delivers spectacle and emotional drama.
King T’Challa has passed on and left behind is his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). The technologically advanced nation of Wakanda is under threat as the outside world wishes to possess the valuable material vibranium. When a ship of special ops is attacked by the sea dwelling society led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), he arrives at Wakanda and says he needs the Queen and Princess to find a scientist who has made a vibranium detector. The scientist is a teenage prodigy, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who also builds her own Iron Man suits. When Shuri and Riri are captured by Namor, a confrontation between Namor’s people and the kingdom of Wakanda seems inevitable. Now Shuri must find a way to bring back the mantle of Black Panther and save her people.
The movie is sprawling with lots of new and returning characters. Danai Gurira as Okoye the leader of the Wakandan warriors, the Dora Milaje, has an interesting development when Okoye is dismissed by the Queen. Being the leader of the Dora Milaje has defined her life and Gurira is great at showing the grief she must deal with. Ramonda tells the UN that they are still strong without the Black Panther and Bassett has lots of big emotional moments, especially when she fires Okoye saying bluntly her entire family is gone. The film opens with Shuri desperately trying to cure a disease that is killing her brother, and she is so wrapped up in trying to save him she heartbreakingly misses his final moments. That grief weighs upon her and Wright is good at conveying Shuri’s simmering rage that threatens to dangerously boil over.
Mejía as Namor is an unstoppable enemy that the Wakandans are shockingly unable to match. He makes for a dynamic villain because the entire vibe of Wakanda has been that they’re so powerful they can overcome any obstacle. When M’Baku (Winston Duke) sees Namor invading his city, he’s excited that he’s face to face with “the Fish man!” and thinks he has a worthy opponent but Namor immediately smacks him down. Namor’s undersea society is sitting on a deposit of vibranium, something which the Wakandans didn’t know existed outside of their own country. Namor’s backstory also plays into the theme of grief and tragedy. When he relates his history to Shuri, she can see that he has gone through as much hardship as she has. While sometimes charismatic and seemingly reasonable he can turn on a dime and be very vindictive and deadly. His actions that kick off the third act are genuinely shocking, and he even gets an evil monologue justifying what he has done.
Duke provides well needed comedic moments as M’Baku but also an emotional bit when the perpetually surly M’Baku actually opens up to help Shuri. Another character that offsets the heavy tone is Thorne as Riri, an Iron Man suit building science prodigy. Her enthusiasm when she uses her own power suit is awesome. There’s a moment when she flies high into the sky which recalls Iron Man’s first test flight in the first MCU film. Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, who was a big part of the first movie, is basically missing for the first half of Wakanda Forever, but the reason she has left makes sense. She has a soulfulness and when there’s a reveal what she has been up to this whole time, it is emotionally stirring. Make sure to stick around during the mid-credits scene which is incredibly important for the movie’s pay off.
The movie takes its time in between action scenes but when they happen, they are worth the wait. The first time Namor’s people attack the humans it is incredibly freaky with the sea dwellers singing a song that causes people to leap into the water. When Namor takes out a helicopter trying to escape, it is chilling. Later when Shuri, Okoye and Riri outrun the authorities there’s a nifty car chase along with Iron Man suit action and things get crunchy when Namor’s people show up. The power they display is daunting, especially in the chaotic sequence when they attack Wakanda. The finale has the Wakandans vs. Namor’s people that has an epic war movie feel and there is an emotional and brutal fight between Namor and Black Panther that works wonderfully.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever provides emotional depth, cathartic release from loss, and big bits of action. It feels intimate emotionally on a large canvas of spectacle. Loss and tragedy may linger but the Black Panther is forever.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Dominique Thorne, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Angela Bassett