Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There’s no way to overstate the impact of Marvel’s Black Panther (2018). Ryan Coogler’s iconic film was simultaneously a milestone for representation, a near flawlessly constructed blockbuster, a compellingly relevant drama, and a significant level up for the oversaturated superhero genre. Black Panther was not only a hit with the Marvel die-hard fans, but was beloved by general audiences and critics alike. The acclaim and box office success resulted in seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (making it the first comic book film to be so honoured). Sadly, whenever a film receives this level of praise, some viewers insist it must be ‘overrated’. Not that this ever diminishes the actual quality of the film, but for some odd reason, being universally beloved causes arguments among fans. As to be expected, the discourse surrounding the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), is likely to be no less complicated.
Set roughly 6 years after the events of the first film, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has passed away from a terminal illness, plunging his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the Wakandan nation as a whole into a state of mourning. Their grief is very quickly exploited by external government powers, as various nations believe the death of the Black Panther has left Wakanda vulnerable. Their natural resource Vibranium is still giving them significant technological and military superiority, and the world’s various superpowers have their eye on acquiring it. While Queen Ramonda repeatedly assures the UN of Wakanda’s willingness to defend their assets, this cold war threatens to turn hot once a new, powerful, underwater nation called Talokan, ruled by King Namor (Tenoch Huerta), makes itself known to Wakanda. Namor plans to preemptively strike at world powers, and politically strong-arm Wakanda into forming an alliance.
It’s no secret that Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing greatly impacted the story development of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In its original form, the film likely would’ve followed a similar path to the original, focusing on the development of T’Challa’s political, social and moral beliefs. Instead of recasting T’Challa, Director Ryan Coogler decided to reshape the script into an ensemble piece, shifting genres from a ‘hero’s journey’, superhero tale, to a geopolitical, science-fiction war film. Amazingly, the main story naturally fits inside those parameters, resulting in a complex web of political moralising you rarely see in traditional drama films. From fleshing out the fascinating history and culture of Talokan, to developing our heroes’ arcs in introspective and subversive ways, Coogler has once again created something unique and special. Obviously, it would’ve been ideal to have Boseman still be a central figure (and his passing remains heartbreaking), but the fact that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have managed to pull off this dramatic lift is a terrific achievement.
The reason this works as well as it does is because T’Challa (and Boseman’s) essence is baked into the film’s narrative and themes. One might think that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a Boseman shaped hole at its heart, but there is none, due to his presence still being so deeply felt. A direct comparison would be The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which partly fails for never addressing the existence of Heath Ledger’s Joker whenever the previous film’s events are discussed. Where The Dark Knight Rises feels hollow, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a beating heart. In an odd way, designing the film’s major arcs and story points around T’Challa’s loss helps the political machinations feel compelling. It’s as if the film is telling us the world can so easily fall into chaos without the guidance of honourable leaders. The fact that the thematic points are as strong as they are definitely aids in smoothing over some inconsistencies in the plot.
Questions will no doubt be raised as to whether or not the emotional weight of the film is coasting on the pre-existing emotional state of the viewer. However, every filmmaker bases narrative themes on what they assume the audience to be feeling. In the case of using a tragedy to fuel that emotion, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever isn’t exploitative, as the plot itself addresses feelings of grief so powerfully that it manages to create story threads completely disconnected from Boseman or T’Challa. Besides, if Furious 7 (2015) was allowed to add an emotional tribute to its late star without narrative context, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is to be praised for its genuine and truthful approach.
As far as the rest of the plot elements, Coogler has packed the film to the absolute gills with characters and story threads. As is the case with every Marvel sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is tasked with laying the groundwork for future projects. Unlike Iron Man 2 (2010) or Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Coogler has been given some freedom to integrate these mandated elements in a manner which doesn’t completely harm the structure of the film. Sure, the viewers know which characters, moments and story threads are building to future stories (and it is distracting at times), but within the film’s own context they just feel like parts of the Black Panther series alone. Unlike other recent Marvel projects, the only film you need to see to understand what’s happening here is its predecessor, and any hanging threads could feel like they will be picked up in an eventual third film. So while it’s impossible for Marvel films to remain 100 percent focused these days, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever makes the multiple elements feel relatively at home.
On a technical level, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever might just be the most elevated film Marvel has ever produced. The cinematography, direction, music, production design, costuming and performances are of the highest calibre. With that in mind, it’s clear that Marvel are trying to remain in the Oscar conversation, thus allowing Coogler to deviate from the studio’s house style. This extends to the film’s pacing, as the story spends long stretches developing ideas, characters and general feelings before any action beats kick in. With many of these elements being built around themes of culture, spirit, technology and politics, the film is more intent on making the viewer get swept up in its atmosphere, as opposed to being swept up in the fights. On the other hand, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a film that may bore those looking for fun, exciting and cheerful moments. The original Black Panther was able to deliver both thought-provoking ideas as well as genuine entertainment, which is still an overall better result than what’s done here.
What’s most impressive about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is that it could’ve easily been a complete mess, yet it manages to fulfil its ambitions in an inspiring fashion. It eulogises Chadwick Boseman without becoming a funeral piece, and it makes you believe in heroes without trivialising the ones we’ve lost. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the equal of the original film, and it’s hard to see the universal success being replicated here. Regardless, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is still triumphant blockbuster filmmaking.
Best way to watch it: At a late screening. You don’t want to be seated near any kids, who will be restless and annoying.