What is arguably one of the most, if not the most, anticipated films of the year, and for some time, came out in theaters this past weekend, and I have some complicated thoughts. Now, to begin, Wakanda Forever is unquestionably a great film, the best comic book movie of the year (yeah, even better than Batman), and manages to give an honest and moving exploration of grief (understandably so), but I am unsure if the film’s overall narrative was served outside of said exploration of grief for the main cast, and this film, unlike the first Black Panther movie, did seem like it was invested in setting up future projects through its story choices. More thoughts to follow, and SPOILERS obviously.
Let’s start with what didn’t quite work for me which really was just certain narrative choices. Now, we will never know what the original plan was for the sequel since the entire movie production took a massive turn after the tragic and untimely death of Chadwick Boseman. However, I don’t think the main themes and story would have been that different from what we got in Wakanda Forever just the execution would have been more logical with a different primary protagonist/avatar in Boseman’s T’Challa.
Black Panther ends with T’Challa at the United Nations council revealing the truth about Wakanda and promising to use its resources and technology for the good of the world. Wakanda Forever begins with an attack by mercenaries (either French or hired by France) on a Wakandan outpost and another UN council meeting with Wakanda telling the various ambassadors of the nations present that Wakanda will continue to protect itself and its stores of Vibranium. The reason given by Queen Ramonda (the reigning monarch of the nation after her son’s passing from an unnamed sickness) is that the nations of the world cannot be trusted with Vibranium. None of this is wrong, as the events of both films demonstrate, but it is also not new information. So, it brings into question what the point of the first film’s end was and, really, how much Wakanda actually did to uphold their promises.
From what see in the film, and in the other shows and films, the nation of Wakanda has not really been much of a diplomatic player in the world stage. We do not really see any evidence that the country has actually helped anyone outside its borders or interests. There is not Wakandan technology or advisors or any sign that they have attempted to aid. On top of which, they are adamant against giving Vibranium to any other nation. They do not allow it to be sold, traded, or even studied by outsiders within its border. For all intent and purposes, Wakanda basically told the world that they have, in abundance, a resource that has innumerable possibilities for medicine, transport, infrastructure, etc. and then told those same nations that they can never have it nor even study it under controlled conditions. What exactly was the expected outcome? Again, I get that it is furthering the themes of colonialism and exploitation, but it goes from being a secret of Wakanda to an outright taunt and hubris. It is one thing to hide Vibranium for the good of Wakanda, but it is an entirely different thing to tell the world of it, still keep it away by all means, and expect no repercussions of any kind.
While this is partially used to justify Namor’s reactions and relations to Wakanda and its monarchy, the main purpose of the American government/CIA subplot is obviously to set up future film/show stories and plot points that will mostly likely come up in Ironheart, Secret Wars, etc. It is also why the film feels like without a legitimate villain or antagonist as the actual villain (Western colonialism) is not really present and does not do much in the film at all. Ultimately, outside of the exploration of grief and the backstory and introduction of Namor and his people, the story is a bit muddled and mostly used to set up for future projects.
Well, now that what didn’t work for me has been discussed, let’s move on to the many things the film did well, starting with the introduction of Namor and Talokan. Villains have always been a mixed bag for comic book films, but the Black Panther series, and phase 4 of the MCU, has not had that issue, and Namor continues that trend. He is a huge departure from the comic book origins and is far better for it. Unlike the mythological Atlantis, the underwater civilization of Talokan is based on the Mayan/Mesoamerican empire before the full push of Spanish colonialism. It shares some similarities with Wakanda, specifically the influence of Vibranium, that Namor mentions and uses as support for his plans throughout the film. Through conversations between Namor and Shuri and a few flashbacks we see the birth, formation, and rise of the underwater society and the unique powers and physiology of the Talokanans. Like Wakanda, Talokan has its own infrastructure, technology, history, and superpowered protector. However, because of its origins and that of their king/protector, there is not the internal division and strife found within the various tribes of Wakanda. Instead, all follow the leadership of Namor and appear to be descendants of a single people and ideology. This is helpful in making Talokan a far more formidable fighting force than Wakanda which they prove repeatedly throughout the film. In fact, the final victory of Wakanda was more because it had to win, and even with its victory, Namor and Talokan still got exactly what they wanted while significantly weakening Wakanda’s numbers and military potential against the rest of the world.
The Mayan/Mesoamerican origins for Namor also added dimension and empathy and a more unique stoicism and reason for his hatred of the surface world that the comic book version lacked. He still maintains his arrogance and charm and power, but it is now tempered with historical perspective and sympathy for his past and what he has lost and now protects. With these tweaks to Namor, we understand why he gives the ultimatums he does and why he chooses to attack Wakanda when he does. Honestly, even his one truly bad act is justified as Queen Ramonda betrayed the rules of diplomacy and struck first under false pretenses against the people and kingdom of Talokan. While his actions caused the death of the queen, he was explicit in who his target was, and it was Queen Ramonda’s own personal choices, fueled by her ongoing grief and worry over her family, that led to her untimely death.
Was it wrong? Maybe…probably. Was it fully justified as a response to Wakanda’s actions? Absolutely. The complicated nature of the conflict between Talokan and Wakanda where there really is no villain and in which both kingdoms have justifiable reasons for their choices adds to the depth and complexity of the film’s story. One that I hope will be explored further as both kingdoms, and their inhabitants, undoubtedly have larger roles to play in the future of the MCU.
Beyond Namor and Talokan, the rest of the film focuses on grief and trauma and our responses to said grief and trauma. The returning cast are all dealing with the real world events of Boseman’s passing and seemingly working through their grief and emotions on screen. Not surprisingly so since Ryan Coogler has spoken in various interviews on the filming and writing process for the sequel and how it was an emotional experience for himself and the returning cast. Even with having to deal with this major shift and all the fallout, every returning actor does an incredible job of channeling their emotions into their craft and character, none more so than Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright. The entire emotional core and arc of the film rest heavily on both Bassett’s and Wright’s shoulders. Both deliver powerhouse performances that make the audience feel every instance of their loss.
Truly Angela Bassett is putting on a masterclass performance. We see and feel and understand the immense grief Queen Ramonda is experiencing and how that grief influences her decisions and actions. Allowing any outsider is a threat that Wakanda cannot have after the passing of T’Challa. Shuri, though an astute mind and warrior in her own right, cannot be allowed to travel freely without protection. And will the queen risk war to save her last surviving child? Without hesitation. She has, in her own words, already giving up everything for Wakanda and the world. What is left to surrender to protect her daughter. While no one can touch Bassett’s performance, Wright is not far behind. She rose to the challenge of unexpectedly taking on the lead role and being the audience’s avatar navigating this new land and story like Boseman before her. As well, before she was the comedic relief and woman in the chair for the Black Panther, here she is carrying the emotions and empathy of the story alongside Bassett honoring the passing of their friend while continuing on the legacy of the character and story he began. Whatever minor issues I may have with the story and plot, I can give nothing but praise to the cast for their performances amid very unfortunate circumstances on a personal and global level.
Wakanda Forever is a complex film that I know will bring about discourse and conversation with both great and terrible takes and perspectives. However, it will still be considered one of the best comic book and Marvel films of the year and probably rank pretty high in most lists. It will inevitably also be extremely financially successful and launch quite a few careers into the bigger leagues (looking at you Tenoch and Mabel). In short, it will be a massive success on many levels and cement both Boseman’s and Coogler’s legacies for what they managed to accomplish with just a few short years and projects.