‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ is a movie about loss and grieving. The loss of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa feels, in the movie’s reality, like the loss of a certain sense of nobility and grace that lit up this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wakanda is grieving. This movie is grieving and it is ambitious in how it takes all that grief and turns it into this epic movie about moving forward from loss, a movie about leaders and rulers of superpowered nations during this dark and turbulent era of human civilization.
Make no mistake, ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ still continues its dialogue about imperialism and the threat of colonialism but this time pushes it forward about discussing the concept of retaliation.
Running at 161 minutes, almost three hours long, the film’s first two hours is an exploration of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda at a state of loss. T’Challa has passed and his mother Queen Ramonda (played with such a commanding presence by Angela Basset) has reclaimed the throne in the absence of a ruler. His sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) is dealing with her grief by turning towards her technology. As Queen, Ramonda must push back against other countries, who want access to Vibranium, the precious resource that has made Wakanda into the advanced nation that it is in that world. Shuri, on the other hand, must rationalize how all her intelligence and affinity to science were not able to save her brother’s life.
In the middle of all of this, the search for Vibranium outside of Wakanda goes into full swing and what it uncovers is another nation altogether with access to the precious mineral, one that is just beneath the surface and equal to (or maybe even more powerful) than Wakanda in strength. This is the nation of Talocan, under the rule of Namor (played with great duality by Tenoch Huerta) and he has kept his underwater nation secret for hundreds of years and this sudden global interest in Vibranium has forced Namor’s hand.
In 161 minutes, the film must deal with the state of Wakanda without a Black Panther and the pressure from other nations to gain access to Vibranium, but it also introduces us to the enigmatic Namor and the nation of Talocan and how they deal with Wakanda, the only country that shares their fears and anxieties. The film also has to introduce a new character, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a brilliant young scientist who is a parallel to Shuri’s story in every way, and Shuri’s own way of reconciling her loss.
What unfolds is an epic-scale story about rulers and superpowered nations and how the choices of one person can lead to the ruin of so many. As seen in the trailer, the film leads up to a battle (let me say this: it’s not just a battle, it’s a war) that shapes and molds the return of a new Black Panther and what it means to protect a powerful nation.
Pervading through every scene is a commentary on imperialist states like America and France, bringing to mind their imperialist history and the pressure that they (and other world leaders) are pressing on Ramonda, Wakanda, and inadvertently Talocan, the dialogue regarding colonialism returns. What are other nations to do in the face of such pressure?
This is not just a superhero movie. Just like the previous film before this sequel, this is an image of fighting back against colonial power (it’s no accident that Talocan, which was called Atlantis in the comics, was inspired and based on Meso-American culture; they speak the Mayan language and interpolate Meso-American design and culture) and it is also a character study. Shuri, Ramonda, M’Baku (Winston Duke, who does an amazing job of adding more layers into his character), Okoye (Danai Gurira, who is given enough screen time and narrative elements to add new dimensions to Okoye), and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, whose presence adds a profound depth to the story) all must deal with their grief and use the superhero narrative as a means to channel that anger somewhere.
It’s when the film reverts back to its comic book genre that it slows down and unravels. There is a mighty battle scene at the end that feels like it is a necessary item on a checklist for MCU movies that can undermine the heaviness of the themes of the film. It would have worked better had the film been PG-13 (or even R-13) so that the violence can be justified by how much stronger it could amplify the geopolitical ramifications of these two nations coming to war.
This is a dark film with dark themes and it could have really dug itself into that mold more (and there would have been an appropriate space for it) if it didn’t have to be so family-friendly.
Its ties to the MCU is what holds back Ryan Coogler’s vision and ambition of channeling the loss of such a figure like the fictional T’Challa (or the real-life Chadwick Boseman) into a commentary about how dark and greedy this world has become and how one moves forward from it.
Nevertheless, as MCU films go, ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ is another testimony that superhero films can, every now and then, feel important and relevant. It is proof that you can step out of the formula and still deliver something that is mainstream and enjoyable.