It’s no one’s fault that the sequel to the wildly-successful Black Panther was burdened with the near-impossible task of replacing its star. It’s not as if the duo of Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler — who also directed Black Panther and its sequel — was simply tasked with having to rewrite a side character or retcon a casting a la the transition from Terrance Howard to Don Cheadle from Iron Man to Iron Man 2, the two had to recover from losing Chadwick Boseman, one of the world’s finest actors and the face that could have helped the MCU weather the storm that has been Phase Four.
But outside of the touching tribute, Wakanda Forever is still the best of Phase Four by a country mile. Even as someone who enjoys Thor: Love and Thunder, Wakanda Forever feels like a movie (something that can’t be said of many MCU films). It’s got its MCU-isms, certainly, but attempts at choreographing and capturing thrilling action sequences, a chill-inducing score and great performances from returning and new actors alike make Wakanda Forever the standout of the last slate of films. It’s far from perfect and doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better and more touching film in all of the MCU.
“T’Challa” is dead, but he is not gone,” says Ramonda (Angela Bassett), mother of T’Challa and Queen of Wakanda (and the inherent leader of her nation), to her daughter, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Wakanda Forever takes the bull by the horns and addresses the unfortunate elephant in the room that T’Challa (Boseman), is no longer with us. The film begins with shakycam footage as we follow Shuri frantically working in her lab to try and create an artificial herb that can heal her brother who has fallen ill. We know the end result, unfortunately, and the film begins with a beautiful funeral for T’Challa and Boseman alike.
We resume one year later, Wakanda and its Queen are being questioned under a spotlight after talks of vibranium arise. Just prior, we had witnessed high-level U.S. government workers investigating a signal of vibranium on earth somewhere (one of them played by Lake Bell whom I interviewed this summer and is a lovely interview) in the Atlantic Ocean. They were attacked by Tlālōcān warriors who are led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Oh, and they’re all after some young genius by the name of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) because it’s the MCU and you can’t forget about the need to set up other characters!
Even for an MCU cynic, there are plenty of highs in Wakanda Forever. Off-camera controversies aside, Wright is electric to watch in her latest outing as Shuri. Like a quarterback being thrown into a game abruptly, being given an uber-enhanced role was certainly a make-or-break situation for Wright. Fortunately, she passes with flying colors. It’s no secret that Wright is talented — look no further than The Silent Twins — but how do you balance her transition from side character, Tony Stark-lite into the new face of a franchise? Wright just has so much charisma that is allowed to be put on display far more than any of her previous outings as Shuri. It’s not that her character is drastically altered or performed in an entirely new way; it just appears that this type of leading actor was sitting right there all of this time.
Also receiving an enhanced role is Okoye (Danai Gurira). For what feels like the first time, Okoye is given a full arc. After insisting on a certain princess joining her on a mission and then that mission not going as planned, she has to face the consequences of her actions. That’s fascinating and something that the MCU rarely bothers to do outside of some off-the-cuff references to previous events or retconning them into a villain’s motives. Okoye also has a rivalry with one of the Tlālōcān warriors akin to that of Thorin and Azog, the head orc, in The Hobbit films.
Bassett has also been getting a lot of chatter for her performance in Wakanda Forever, and while I think she’s good in the film, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. I’ve heard everything from her being dubbed the “standout” of the film to her deserving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win. Offhand, Carrey Mulligan and/or Frankie Corio are far more deserving of that award. And I guarantee there are others that would be just as deserving if I bothered to pull up a list of 2022’s films. As it stands, I think we, as an audience, need to differentiate a great performance from a really good performance. Bassett is great, no argument there, but just because someone raises their voice in an MCU movie does not mean they deserve an Oscar for crying out loud.
And the biggest reason for that is that Bassett isn’t even the main standout in the film; that title would go to Thorne as Riri. To be frank, the first scene with Riri — which includes the MCU’s first reference to Venmo to my recollection — gave me trepidation. She’s confronted in her MIT dorm room — which is far more spacious than it has any right to be — by Shuri and Okoye. To no fault of her own, Thorne delivers uninspiring dialogue such as the routine that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker just did in Civil War, the “I’d love to join you but I have homework” line right after being asked to follow Shuri and Okoye back to Wakanda. Aside from that, however, Thorne is just as charismatic as Wright and has great comedic timing (just wait for her “Can I have some of that?” line if you don’t believe me). Wright brings a unique flare and energy to the MCU and this was a good introduction to her character even if it comes at the expense of the film she’s in.
That’s because Wakanda Forever has to juggle so many elements. Not only are you handling the passing of the Black Panther mantle, but you have to set up Riri for her own solo ventures when her series comes out. I love Wright’s performance and wouldn’t wish for a version of this film without her, but her character has very little use once she’s in Wakanda. Sure, they give her a suit and whatnot, but she feels like a footnote by that point until the very end of the film.
Speaking of footnotes, Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are back in their MCU roles! The CIA and their role in all of this have some implications for the big picture of the film, but the Americans are sidelined for so long that Everett K. Ross (Freeman) is arrested at one point and I completely forgot about that plot point when it was brought back up later. Louis-Dreyfus must have signed her life away for whatever blank check Disney is writing her because she keeps popping up in MCU projects — random highlight in her hair and all — while being one of the dullest side characters of all time. Why hire a comedic actress to be so bland?
Behind the camera, Coogler takes a massive step forward with Wakanda Forever. It sounds condescending, but it’s ironic that both of his Black Panther films feel like movies for the most part (I’d argue even more so in Wakanda Forever). First, the film is well-written aside from Riri’s first scene. Enlisting Autumn Durald Arkapaw as the film’s cinematographer is also a major reason why Wakanda Forever blows its predecessor out of the water from a visual perspective. The long take in the garage is fantastic and unique in the world of filmmaking in the MCU, and the shakycam technique found in certain scenes helps keep the viewer on their toes. Plus, the world of Tlālōcān is some of the MCU’s very best visuals. Filled with whales and dark caves in the deep ocean, it’s hard not to get lost in the world and wish for even more time there. Additionally, Chris Denison served as the stunt coordinator on the film. The fight on the bridge features some great, intense moments that felt like an ode to the old Bruce Lee films. The ruggedness of the camerawork only enhanced that.
The only time the cinematography becomes an issue is in the third-act showdown between Namor and Shuri. It’s nearly impossible to ignore the fact that Wakanda Forever was “shot for IMAX” — the graphic before the screening plastered the phrase everywhere — but the actual showdown between Namor and Shuri transitions to a more traditional widescreen except it appears that it was shot with 4K lenses.
Maybe this was in response to the complaints of Black Panther’s third-act fight between T’Challa and Killmonger looking straight out of a Playstation 2 video game and easily being one of the MCU’s worse offenders when it comes to horrid CGI blobfests in the third act, maybe it was some other reason unbeknownst to idiots like myself. Either way, it felt like Coogler was on a mission to prove all of the critics wrong and go out of his way to make his third-act fight feel as real as possible this time around. The end result is a heavily-edited fight that, while choreographed well, falls flat. No major CGI blobs to interfere this time around. Instead, the attempt at being uber-realistic makes the fight feel like a really good cutscene from a Playstation 5 game (Hey, that’s an improvement over Playstation 2 graphics!). To be fair, it’s done no favors by the constant cuts back to the Dora Milaje and their oceanic fight, but it’s just a bit of an eyesore. At least we now know that there is such a thing as too realistic.
A friend of mine who’s a well-known critic was called out in his Twitter replies — the place known for honest and rational feedback — for saying that Wakanda Forever features “Marvel nonsense.” I can’t speak for him, but I don’t think that he meant that as much of a slight as people read it as. Even as I’ve noted, Wakanda Forever has its fair share of MCU-isms like the dialogue in Riri’s first scene. It can’t even get past the MCU’s tendency of 50-50 booking — if you’re not a pro wrestling fan, I recommend looking up the phrase — with its act-closing fights. Namor also suffers from MCU-isms and is by far one of the most impotent villains the MCU has seen.
The blame shouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of Huerta, who gives his best swing at adding some humanity to the character. It’s just unfortunate that the MCU’s favorite trope of a “misunderstood villain who’s redeemed by the end” continues here. Having a villain concede and change their ways is fine on its own. However, using that same character arc is bound to grow tiresome. I don’t care enough to look it up but has any Phase Four villain remained a villain?
Boseman was a candle whose light burned out long before his legend ever will, but how did the franchise that was centered around his character T’Challa answer the call? They told a story about hope. And for all of the criticisms that I may have with the film itself, the delicate handling of this subject should be praised. For as much of a soulless machine Disney can be — just look at how the news of an Indiana Jones series being in the works while Harrison Ford is still kicking — they deserve credit for the restraint shown when temptations to use the multiverse as an excuse to bring back old friends are right there. If “the fourth” James Dean movie can be made decades after his passing, who’s to say Disney wouldn’t digitally revive Boseman? They don’t, and that’s the best part of Wakanda Forever. Who would’ve thought that in a self-indulged slew of films called Phase Four we would get a deeply moving film that doesn’t rely on dopamine highs in the form of cameos to make an entertaining film?
Wakanda Forever is a fine addition to the MCU that is an emotional ride if nothing else. It’s still hampered by the tropes the MCU cannot escape (or simply refuses to), but makes up for it with the performances, visuals and writing. Does it deserve a Best Picture nod like its predecessor? No. Will it be nominated? Probably. The issue is that its predecessor, despite lackluster visuals in the third act, is far more original in its story and has an argument for meriting such prestige. Marvel and their incessant need for validation from the Academy will likely allow Wakanda Forever to stumble onto ballots, but why not let a good film just be a good film? Wakanda Forever is the best of the MCU’s Phase Four, but that’s like saying Let It Be is the best Beatles album of 1970. In layman’s terms, that’s not a high bar to clear.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters on November 11.