Wakanda’s communal grief in the wake of King T’Challa’s unexpected passing feels raw and expectedly personal. However, director Ryan Coogler wisely doesn’t put the focus on a Wakanda left weakened by the end of the Black Panther. Instead, the Wakanda superpower proves itself to still be powerful while its people live without T’Challa. This keeps the focus on Wakanda’s loss to a personal level without being relegated to being a vessel for plot. The overall effect is a touching tribute to Chadwick Boseman’s legacy in the MCU and a thrilling entry in the franchise.
Letitia Wright’s performance as Princess Shuri stands out for being deeply rooted in the character’s grief and regret for not being able to save her brother. The guilt associated with losing T’Challa causes her to question the Wakandan ancestors and fills her with anger. When war comes to Wakanda, her arc expands and leaves her with vital choices concerning her future. Wright is able to channel the guilt her character feels into a layered performance that gives a lot of dimension to her arc and the overall story of Wakanda in a post-T’Challa world.
The plot itself does feel a bit rushed in some areas. There is a mostly superfluous subplot involving Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross that grinds the film to a halt at several points. His interactions with the US government (namely his cohorts in the CIA) feel so disconnected from the rest of the movie that it almost feels as though Marvel needed to fulfill a contractual obligation for Freeman and another recurring MCU player. When compared against the emotion of the superpowers in conflict plot between Wakanda and villain Namor’s underwater kingdom of Talokan (changed from Atlantis in the comics), the Everett Ross plot line feels painfully like Marvel Studios attempting to remind audiences that this movie is part of a shared universe. It’s ill-fitting and has minimal, if any, narrative payoff.
Similarly, Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams is a solid addition to the MCU roster, but her storyline feels half-baked and derivative of other subplots even in the MCU’s current phase. It’s clear Marvel Studios is stacking the MCU with young characters in an effort to possibly lay the groundwork for more standalone franchises, Disney+ series, and/or team-up projects. The issue is repetition. Here we once again have a young and powerful new character who finds herself at risk of death in a conflict between two powerful beings. It’s the same basic plot skeleton used in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and that came out only a few short months ago. It comes across as embarrassingly straightforward and calls Marvel Studios’ originality into question. Which, in turn, sows a bit of doubt in the MCU’s ability to utilize its newest Avengers in unique ways in Phases 5, 6, and beyond.
One area in which Wakanda Forever doesn’t falter its storytelling, however, is in the film’s antagonist, Namor. The film follows up Black Panther’s phenomenal villain with an underwater superpower who has a grudge against the surface world. The impetus of his conflict with Wakanda lies in the US government’s efforts to mine vibranium in the ocean. He sees the incursion as a threat to his world and hangs the blame on Wakanda for going public as a world superpower.
As he did with Black Panther‘s Killmonger, Ryan Coogler has (along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole) crafted an antagonist whose story has complexity and nuance. The film goes the extra length to show us what Namor is fighting for and why he holds the beliefs that motivate him to take up arms against Wakanda. In the MCU, and the greater comic book movie realm, the commitment to character building in Coogler’s Marvel outings feels unique and fresh.
Likewise, the action sequences in Wakanda Forever improve on the first Black Panther‘s relatively spotty third act visual effects. However, more important than sheer aesthetic is the way Namor’s abilities are depicted. The king of an underwater superpower who takes flight with rapidly flapping fins adorned to his ankles should be fodder for parody and the source of ridicule from anti comic book movie curmudgeons on social media. But Huerta’s commitment to Namor’s viciousness coupled with the stunt and visual effects work used to represent the strength and agility of the character go a long way toward making him a highly formidable villain for Wakanda.
When it is not held back by a disconnected subplot and an unimaginative character introduction, Wakanda Forever flourishes as an expansive entry in the Black Panther mythos. Above all, however, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a respectful and loving tribute to Chadwick Boseman’s legacy not only as King T’Challa, but to the actor himself as well.
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