There are few films that arrive with the weight of expectation on them as Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Since the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, whose take on King T’Challa achieved iconic status in the MCU in just four film appearances, many were questioning how director and co-writer Ryan Coogler would be able to balance the competing demands of an MCU action film that needs to deliver crowd-pleasing action with the film also needing to meet its increased emotional stakes and provide a healing experience befitting of the passing of Boseman.
Having thrown out his first script for the film, Coogler tackles these herculean challenges head-on, beginning with the sudden death of King T’Challa, and the impact that this has on the family, and nation, he leaves behind.
This cathartic framing powers stellar performances from the cast who have been understandably afforded significantly more screen time in this film. Angela Bassett shines as the strong, but reluctant Queen Ramona, who is put in the untenable position of trying to lead her nation while supporting her grieving daughter, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), who has been left in an almost catatonic state of grief by her brothers passing. Their scenes together, as a mother and daughter in mourning, stand out in particular, forming some of the film’s best scenes, while Wright’s lead performance serves as the entire film’s emotional anchor.
In a film that wisely weighted emotion over action, its wider supporting cast more than met the moment. With so much story to tell, it’s inevitable that some characters will get the short end of the stick, but that said, there were plenty of highlights. Danai Gurira and Michaela Coel as Wakandan warriors Okoye and Aneka were fierce presences, while Winston Duke’s M’Baku delivered some of the film’s best laughs while still maintaining his formidable presence.
In terms of the newcomers, Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams, showed why Marvel has put their faith in her to headline her own series, Ironheart, arriving on Disney+ next year, while Tenoch Huerta’s turn as the much-anticipated Namor, whose commanding presence provides the film intensity and a final showdown that is as thrilling as anything the MCU has ever delivered. As with Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger in the previous film, Coogler uses the character to introduce themes of colonisation, oppression, and vengeance, making us sympathise with his viewpoint, even if the extremist way he makes that argument is innately questionable.
The best MCU films are anchored in emotion and heart rather than quippy one-liners, and Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s script is able to do this not only through the way that the characters attempt to deal with the passing of T’Challa, but also by using Shuri and Namor as foils to offer a compelling look at the ways in which grief can morph into something awful and self-destructive if left unresolved.
With T’Challa’s (and Boseman’s) at its crux, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is an altogether darker, somber, and more complicated film than its predecessor, but in my opinion, that’s what helped to elevate it from other entries in Marvel’s Phase Four, delivering a film that sits alongside Spider-Man: No Way Home, as the studio’s best since Avengers: Endgame.
Image: Walt Disney Pictures