By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Ryan Coogler
- Starring Letitia Weight, Lupita Nyong’o, Tenoch Huerta, Angela Bassett
How do you follow up a cinematic milestone? The simple answer is, usually, you don’t, and leave it at that. Black Panther‘s very existence might be mostly the result a studio hoping to expand their universe with a large array of characters to maximize profit, but director Ryan Coogler and his team took the task seriously as an attempt to truly tap into a demographic that desperately needed it at the time.
Now, to complicate matters, how do you follow up a cinematic milestone – one that made over a billion dollars and became the only superhero movie in history ever nominated for Best Picture – without it’s lead star, who passed away tragically prior to production due to a private battle with illness that nobody knew? Coogler’s near impossible task, along with the fact the film was also marking the end of a contentious phase of MCU projects in the eyes of fans, might make it seem that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was a film destined to fail as Marvel’s hubris finally caught up with them.
Alas, today is not that day. Wakanda Forever is shockingly, and probably thankfully, really fucking good. So good in fact it kind of makes previous Phase 4 outings (save No Way Home and maybe Multiverse of Madness and Eternals) look downright embarrassing in comparison. The level of craft on display here is the most evident it’s been from the MCU in awhile, and it’s mostly due to Ryan Coogler’s impressive attention to detail and his impeccable sense of stage direction. The cinematography shines, the production design increasingly elaborate and impressive, the costumes stunning, and Ludwig Goransson’s score incredible – frankly, it’s a night perfect film visually, which is a far cry from some of Marvel’s woes recently in regards to visuals.
At the 161 minutes, Wakanda Forever is less of a straight Black Panther sequel (mainly due to the lack of it’s original star) and more of a massive Afrofuturist epic built on the back of a primarily female cast and the nation of Wakanda itself. This was partly done out of necessity to be fair, but this direction gives the impression that Coogler has become far more interested in Wakanda itself – it’s politics, it’s citizens, it’s place in the wider world. This becomes especially clear once Namor hits the picture, who is portrayed as sympathetically as they come for villainous figures, and Coogler reveals his real intentions – the Black Panther movies are about colonialism.
Both Wakanda and the nation of Talocan are victims of the same type of oppression, albeit at different times. Wakanda is currently going through it, a country that nobody cared about until they found valuable resources in. Talocan, on the other hand, exists as a result of said oppression, having been founded by the last living survivors of the Meso-American purge. Namor may be the antagonist in this story, but he certainly isn’t the greater evil.
And that’s not even discussing the elephant in the room here. T’Challa’s death hangs over this story like a cloud, and after a bravura opening scene that lets our characters really soak in their grief, the film has his death linger. It’s most obvious with Shuri’s arc but it’s really throughout every scene here – there is an air of sadness and poignant pain that sweeps into the film, a filmmaker and his crew attempting to process their own grief shown on film. And by the last frames of the film you really feel the loss of Boseman like everybody else, realizing just how much of a integral part of the original film he was to making it work.
Both Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett get the brunt of the grieving scenes, and both are excellent here with Bassett in particular really standing out in what might the MCU’s finest performance. But it’s actually Tenoch Huerta who ends up being the most impressive player of the film, balancing Namor’s tragedy, charisma, and genuine intimidation with ease. As for Dominique Thorn as the much discussed introduction of Riri Williams? She is very good here, and her usage invokes a clever wrap up of one of Phase 4’s overarching themes.
Which is honestly Wakanda Forever‘s big achievement. Phase 4 has been a series of ambitious, sometimes messy choices from Marvel but Ryan Coogler has found a way to thematically connect them in a way that feels smart and cohesive. And that’s a great way to describe Wakanda Forever itself – cohesive in it’s messiness. It’s an ode to an artist, a thrilling blockbuster, and one of Marvel’s best films in general. It’s something of a miracle film, which alone makes it worth the watch. Fantastic!