Many times on this blog, I’ve grappled with the question of why any critic would bother reviewing a critic-proof movie. Everyone had already long since made up their minds about whether they were going to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and no review was ever going to dissuade anyone from their established course. Hell, it feels like the whole damn MCU has gotten too big for mere analysis to impact.
But in another way, I suppose writing a review is an act of acknowledgment. Something as huge as a billion-dollar blockbuster, with such a massive cultural impact, should be chronicled and observed. Moreover, it bears remembering that the simple act of seeing a movie through to completion is a miracle, most especially when the act involves navigating so many unions, investors, executives, and other cooks in the kitchen.
And then we’ve got this fucking movie.
Bad enough that the franchise star unexpectedly died in the middle of pre-production and everyone on the cast and crew was deep in grief for the loss of their beloved colleague. Bad enough that Letitia Wright — playing Shuri, widely perceived as the franchise’s backup star — turned toxic with highly controversial stances on vaccinations and trans acceptance. Bad enough that the entire production had to be overhauled after said toxic actor sustained injuries on set. Bad enough that COVID-19 was a factor from start to finish. All of that on top of the usual demands for servicing the greater needs of the MCU on top of the typical needs of this particular franchise, which is really saying a lot, considering that the nation of Wakanda might just constitute the widest and deepest setting of any individual franchise in the entire MCU!
And yet, people loved Black Panther. They really freaking loved Black Panther. The nation of Wakanda captured and enthralled the public imagination in a way that hasn’t been seen since Pandora. The exact same reasons why everyone passionately mourned the loss of Chadwick Boseman (Rest In Power) were the exact same reasons why it brought in mountains of money and kept the sequel on track even as so many other problems would have derailed literally any other production. Hell, COVID alone was enough to slow down most other films — and even cripple some studios! — more than it slowed down Wakanda Forever.
Anyway, it should come as no surprise that T’Challa is laid low by an unspecified illness and unexpectedly dies offscreen in the opening minutes. In the immediate aftermath, Wakanda withdraws itself further into isolation and the other nations of the world become more desperate to obtain their vibranium. Unfortunately for them, Wakanda remains unassailable even without a Black Panther. Thus the wealthy nations of the world have to look elsewhere to see if there might be vibranium deposits anywhere else on the planet.
Naturally, the first place to look is at the bottom of the ocean. Big mistake.
To explain this, we have to go back a few centuries, all the way back to Central America during the time of the Inquisition. To make a long story as short and spoiler-free as I can, a bunch of Mayan refugees found a way to turn themselves into merpeople and set up their own city of Talocan at the bottom of the sea. Directly atop what could be the only vibranium deposit outside of Wakanda.
To recap, Wakanda — another civilization that’s kept itself hidden for thousands of years — showed the world the power of vibranium, kicking off a search for more that led humanity right to Talocan. I might add that Talocan is directly descended from people who’ve experienced the evils of colonization firsthand. Thus the king of Talocan (Namor himself, finally making his long-awaited debut in a cinematic medium, played by Tenoch Huerta) decides that the best defense for his people is a good offense, so he’s going to make a pre-emptive strike and declare open war against all of humanity while he still has the element of surprise.
Inevitably, Namor’s bold strategy of unprovoked violence only makes him more enemies and kicks off chaos on a global scale. What might be even worse, Talocan’s pattern of violently and stealthily shutting down foreign efforts to procure vibranium gets blamed on the Wakandans, so now greedy and paranoid politicians are justifying a possible invasion of Wakanda for shit that Wakanda can’t prove they didn’t do. Potentially worst of all, Wakanda is facing something they’ve never had to reckon with in their entire history: An enemy that can match them in numbers and in vibranium tech, that can survive in underwater environments fatal to any human, capable of supernatural strength and endurance without the technology Wakandans depend on.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you might be wondering where the grand introduction of Riri “Ironheart” Williams (Dominique Thorne) fits into all this. The short answer is that she’s a MacGuffin. Riri is a technological prodigy who somehow invented a machine to detect vibranium deposits. Understandably, just as soon as the machine’s existence becomes common knowledge, pretty much everyone in the whole damn world wants her for their own purposes.
But of course a key part of what made the first Black Panther such a success was in how the personal drama of the royal family affected all of Wakanda and the world as a whole. In this case, the cast and crew were smart enough to lean into their grief for Boseman and make this a movie about a family still deeply in grief for their fallen son. Even better, we’ve got an antagonist who’s personally suffered terrible loss directly at the hands of colonizers.
The upshot is that Shuri and Namor spend the whole movie taking their grief out on each other, directly resulting in thousands of casualties among their people and war on a massive scale. This leads to the question of how long the two of them can allow their people to suffer for the sake of their own personal grudges.
I might add that the original Namor was a product of Atlantis — though Namor predates Aquaman by a good two years, comparisons between the two were unavoidable. Updating Namor to be the product of a real-life colonizing atrocity was a brilliant move, superbly played by Huerta, and it plays beautifully into the hot-headed misanthropy iconic to the original character.
(Side note: For those who aren’t in the know, Namor the Sub-Mariner has been in the Marvel canon since goddamn 1939, back when Stan Lee was still in high school. Namor predates Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, freaking EVERYONE. He was arguably the most important character in Marvel history to never get a live-action portrayal and it’s a huge fucking deal that he’s getting one now.)
It’s a fascinating conflict, and a frankly inspired direction for a sequel that no longer has its marquee star. Especially since it’s a great use of the deep-seated sadness that the actors can channel into their own performances. But in practice, this means a movie that’s bloated to hell and back.
It already would be more than enough for a sequel to open up the nation and culture of Wakanda beyond what we saw in the first movie. But on top of that, we have to establish and explore a whole ‘nother civilization at least as huge and intricate, in addition to giving Namor his due, on top of defining the mechanics of a people that aren’t even completely human anymore!
Another prominent case in point is Everett Ross, played by a returning Martin Freeman. While Freeman does admittedly provide an important role in serving as our inside man regarding what the USA is thinking and doing about Wakanda’s recent activity, he nonetheless takes up way too much screentime. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s given a whole useless storyline to develop Valentina de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), who’s still nothing more than an enigmatic setup that won’t be paid off until sometime in Phase Five.
Then there’s Riri Williams and all the backstory she gets. The big problem here is that Dominique Thorne was clearly and overtly cast to headline her own TV show, and she’s getting introduced as a tertiary support character with so little agency in the plot that she could easily have been replaced with a flash drive. Thorne is clearly trying her best to make an impact, but she keeps getting crowded out and the script is giving her little to work with.
With all of that said, the filmmakers seem to be keenly aware that they’ve bitten off more than they could possibly hope to manage. From start to finish, there’s a clear obsessive effort to try and tie EVERYTHING extraneous back to SOMETHING relevant. Shuri’s tour through Talocan yields an indispensable plot device. Riri Williams is a crucial bargaining chip, at least until Namor decides he’s hunting after bigger game. Ross provides valuable information while also applying pressure on the Wakandan royal family to make a decision about how to handle all of this publicly. In one way or another, pretty much everything is made to explicitly tie back to the question of what our main characters will do.
That doesn’t stop the storylines from spiraling out of control, but I nonetheless appreciate all the effort that went into this impossible task.
The other big drawback is that unfortunately, Ryan Coogler still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of directing action scenes in this genre. The choreography is there and the ideas are great, but the camerawork and editing simply aren’t where they need to be. The fight scenes don’t really flow because so many shots were too quick and/or too tight.
Oh, and then there’s the mid-credits stinger. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, it was obviously tacked-on in response to Boseman’s passing, but whatever. Let’s roll with it and see what happens.
With all of that said, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever successfully took all these unavoidable problems, volatile demands, and mandatory ingredients of wildly differing size and scope, and put them all together into an end product that doesn’t suck. That in itself is a fucking miracle. By zeroing in on themes of grief, guilt, regret, vengeance, legacy, and so on, the filmmakers were able to keep everything glued together while providing poignant themes with compelling stakes. It certainly helps that we’ve got a highly motivated cast and crew, the returning cast continues to do wonders with characters who’ve already become so iconic, and every frame is drenched with passion.
It’s overstuffed, there are plenty of weak spots, and many of its wild experiments don’t pan out, but it’s a fun and intelligent movie on the whole. All of which makes it an emblematic capstone for Phase Four.