The death of Chadwick Boseman hit a lot of people really hard, myself included. He was an amazing actor, by all accounts a wonderful human being, and the way he suffered in silence through the cancer that took his life showed the fortitude of the very superhero that made him most famous. After the first Black Panther film became a somehow unexpected success, topping the box office for weeks and earning three Oscars, a sequel was quickly green-lit, but in the wake of Boseman’s loss, it was unclear how to proceed. Kevin Feige himself said that it would be far too soon and inappropriate to recast the role. At the same time, he felt no qualms about continuing on with another movie, using Boseman’s image in all the marketing materials. Clearly his conscience could only go so far when the guarantee of hundreds of millions in profit were staring him in the face.
So going in to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, there was a legitimate concern about what would win out, human decency or franchise greed. Given the – at best – mixed bag that was Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would its finale look to the MCU’s better angels, or become another avaricious suck fest made even worse by the exploitation of the dearly departed?
I’m happy to say that this movie found the proper balance and turned out to be a fantastic product. There are some flaws and cliché moments certainly, and I’ll address them in a moment. But where it really counts – character development, story, and as a tasteful tribute to Boseman – it definitely stuck the landing.
The film opens with the last moments of T’Challa’s life, with the king of Wakanda off screen dying of some unnamed nebulous illness while his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) works in her lab trying to synthesize the heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther his power, the supply of which was destroyed during Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) brief reign in the last movie. Obviously, her attempts are unsuccessful, and T’Challa is gone. While I’m not entirely certain this scene was needed, as the audience knows about Boseman’s death and honestly didn’t require another reminder, there is still value in including it as an invitation for collective mourning, especially when it’s accompanied by an opening Marvel logo montage consisting entirely of images of Boseman in the title role (similar to Stan Lee’s tribute at the beginning of Captain Marvel, arguably the best part of the entire movie), followed by a solemn yet dazzling celebration of life for his funeral, showcasing the vibrant world-building of Wakanda as well as the next level of Ruth E. Carter’s amazing costume designs.
The last movie ended with T’Challa announcing that Wakanda was going to join the rest of the world and share its technological knowledge, taking Killmonger’s salient points to heart about using what they have to help the downtrodden. It was a nice, hopeful note to end on last time out, but this film picks up by acknowledging the other side of that altruistic equation, the opportunism of global powers. Assuming the throne, T’Challa and Shuri’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is beyond cautious about protecting Wakanda’s sovereignty as well as its precious vibranium from countries who would see the absence of the Black Panther as a window to strike and assert their authority, particularly the U.S. She knows that as far as we’ve come as a species, there are still superpowers (many of them former colonizers) who feel threatened by the mere idea of an African nation getting a seat at the big table, and in truly badass fashion, she’s willing to bring the full force of Wakanda to bear if her land is targeted.
Meanwhile, American mercenaries are proving Ramonda’s point exactly, having developed a machine to detect vibranium, and using it to locate a vein at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. A covert mission to confirm the source is met with the unexpected resistance of the deep sea dwelling people of Talokan, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). As their land also contains fragments of the original vibranium meteor, their society is powered by the element just like Wakanda, and the open season search for it forces him to violently defend his people. He initially seeks an alliance with Wakanda to wage war on “the surface world” and assert their superiority, but Ramonda refuses, particularly when Namor demands that they help him capture and kill the “scientist” who created the machine that found the vibranium in the first place.
Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) head to Boston to protect this person, learning from Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) that it’s actually a genius MIT student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). Predicting their motivations, Namor has his generals tail the princess, abducting her and Riri before they can escape. Namor shows Shuri life in his country, and again proposes that they work together, but Shuri is not willing to sacrifice Riri’s innocent life as part of the bargain. However, in Shuri’s absence, Ramonda has sought out T’Challa’s former love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) in Haiti, tasking her with rescuing her daughter. When the operation goes slightly awry, the stage is set for war between the two nations, with Namor ready to lay waste to all of Wakanda before taking on the rest of the world powers that might threaten his people.
Now, there are some elements here that don’t entirely work. First and foremost, it’s to the film’s credit that it continues the trend from the last movie, using only the most tenuous of links to the rest of the MCU, but what we do get is still kind of cheesy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns as Valentina, which feels like another jab at the audience to watch the Disney+ shows or be left out of the fun, but she did make a brief appearance in the blasphemous credits scene of Black Widow, so it’s at least recognizable to people like me who think the Marvel CINEMATIC Universe should be confined to CINEMA. But even then, she’s a bad character and she’s only in the film for five minutes to be annoying, so why waste the time? Similarly, while it’s cool as hell that Riri can build just about anything, did she have to have an Iron Man suit? Really? Why can’t she just build her own awesome shit without shoehorning in a reference? And while he was also in the last movie, Trevor Noah as Griot will never be anything other than a Wakandan J.A.R.V.I.S. to me, and it feels especially derivative this time around in part because Riri has said Iron Man suit.
When it comes to the visuals, there are a couple of steps forward, but a few major steps back. While Namor’s character design is really well done (Mesoamerican warrior with winged ankles and pointed ears), the rest of the Talokan people fall way short. The blue skin paired with the subpar water filtering just make them look like rejected Na’vi designs. Also, with a much bigger budget, the film leans far more heavily on CGI effects than the last one did, but in the end they’re just as cartoonish and unconvincing, only now there are so many of them that it necessitates a bunch of poorly-lit dark scenes to obfuscate. Last time out we were laughing at the absurd armored rhinos. They’d be a godsend by comparison.
But like I said, where it really matters, this movie knocks it right out of the park. For one thing, Ryan Coogler puts a particular emphasis on character development, evolving each of the major players from their last appearance. Shuri, coping with the grief and guilt of not being able to save her brother, becomes more mature and less impulsive, thinking of consequences and playing out scenarios before deciding on her course of action most of the time, even though she’s still imperfect and is temporarily consumed by revenge. Ramonda has been put into an impossible position of having to rule her entire country after devastating loss, meaning she has to learn how to cope as well as make pragmatic decisions that affect all of her citizens, a very challenging balance to maintain. Even M’Baku (Winston Duke), the hot-headed, sarcastic challenger to T’Challa’s authority (and primary source of comic relief) has learned to moderate and take on a more diplomatic role. He’s even warmed to Shuri – who he once openly mocked – becoming something of an adoptive big brother while still respecting her independence and expertise. And not for nothing, he does all of this while still being far and away the funniest character in the movie.
Even Namor kind of falls into this group, as he’s something of a thematic continuation of Killmonger. In the previous film, Eric Stevens quickly became one of the best baddies – if not THE best – in all of the MCU because he had a layered character. He was a ruthless murderer, but there was method behind the madness. He wanted revenge against a society that essentially cast him out through no fault of his own and killed his father for the crime of trying to share their technology with suffering people, especially Africans, all over the world. Killmonger, raised in a crucible of violence and death, sought power the only way he knew how to get it, and planned on using it for the betterment of others, even if it meant a lot of collateral damage along the way. He wanted to reclaim an identity and a birthright that was stolen from him before he even knew what it meant.
The same is true for Namor here, to a certain extent. He’s not a mindless killing machine, but a tactical warrior who accepts the human cost for what he feels must be done. He is a determined protector of his people and his country’s resources. He would lay down his own life for them, and is on the front lines to lead them into battle. He has lived experience about the evil that men can do, and yet is still willing to listen and consider other opinions and interpretations before choosing his path. Hell, the fact that there’s no physical equal to him in the entire movie means that the climactic battle by definition can’t be the tired “same vs. same” fight we’ve had in so many of these movies to date. But most importantly, he has no true malicious motive. Yes, he feels that Riri should die for creating a machine that leads surface dwellers to his borders, but he has no murderous intent to her specifically, only what he believes she represents. He’s an antagonist much more than he is a villain, which is a level of nuance rarely seen in the MCU. Like Killmonger before him, you don’t have to condone his actions to understand, qualify, and even sympathize with his motivations.
This translates into Coogler’s other superlative, the story structure. There are formulaic elements, particularly the midway battle that ends the second act, but more often than not, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole eschew the more trite moments in favor of something more thoughtful. Most of the twists and turns of the story are character-motivated rather than an excuse to jump to the next action set piece. Namor’s devotion to his people means that defeating him can’t be as simple as “kill the bad guy,” because there is an entire civilization that sees him as a hero and a god, and the script recognizes the consequences of such a hasty move. The entire overarching theme of the film is finding a way to move forward rather than keeping yourself stuck in the past. Shuri more than anyone has to learn this lesson, and it manifests itself in multiple ways, ranging from the silly to the heartwarming to the triumphant.
And yes, the various tributes to both T’Challa as a character and Boseman as an actor are reserved and genuine. The film doesn’t rely on your affections for them to succeed, but acknowledges that healing is a process rather than a singular action, and it’s willing to meet the audience halfway and share that pain with them. If you’re still not over it, you can take these moments in, because as I mentioned when I reviewed the first movie, this sector of the franchise understands the importance of growing up with the audience. And once you’re ready to truly just have fun again, there are plenty of jokes, cool stunts (the standard MCU editing is still there, but it’s less offensive than normal), and a soundtrack that absolutely slaps, and that’s before we get to Rihanna’s heavily-publicized track over the credits, and even that one’s pretty good.
I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the MCU over the past couple of years, and on the whole, Phase Four has been an abject failure. The last few movies have made more of a case to kill the franchise than anything else. This coda could have been the final nail in the coffin had it done anything to dishonor Chadwick Boseman’s memory in the interest of a cash grab. Thankfully, not only did Ryan Coogler make sure that didn’t happen, but he found a way to advance the surviving characters, add new dimensions to this world, and show us all that life goes on. Yes, there are some technical issues that leave a lot to be desired, and you can feel Kevin Feige’s corporate fingers getting too deep into the soup at times, but in all the areas where this film needed to get it right, it most assuredly did. In that way, it echoes the predecessor that we now look at with a degree of sorrow, creating a sense of hope for what might come next, which is the best I’ve been able to say about the MCU in a while.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How hard did Boseman’s death hit you? Who do you think you’d see if you went to the ancestral realm? Let me know!