King T’Challa is dead, but the Kingdom of Wakanda must live on. After the tragic, untimely death of franchise star Chadwick Boseman, so too must the Marvel machine, with the Black Panther series continuing without its charismatic lead. Ryan Coogler returns to direct sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but the big question is who could possibly fill the gap left by Boseman?
It’s a production that seemed doomed from the start, one that arguably should not exist at all and indeed clouds have hung over a production plagued by reports of serious troubles. And yet in the finished product, returning director Coogler has defied the odds to marshal something that satisfies the demands of the Marvel production line, expands on the original’s themes of colonialism, and is sensitive tribute to his friend.
A prologue immediately deals with what we all know is coming: King T’Challa (Boseman) is gravely ill with an off-screen illness while his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) fights in vain to save him in her lab. Tying the deaths of actors to their onscreen counterparts is always difficult, and potentially runs the risk of tastelessness, yet the dramatic irony in knowing the outcome before Shuri only complicates and deepens the emotion. For a series built on snark and undercut emotional beats, T’Challa’s offscreen death is truly, appropriately moving.
The hole that T’Challa’s death leaves refigures the conventional hero-centred narrative to an ensemble piece, rounded out by Shuri, her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), leader of the fearsome Dora Milaje warriors Okoye (Danai Gurira), lieutenant Ayo (Florence Kasumba), newcomer Aneka (Michaela Coel – always a delight to see), Lord of the Jabari tribe, M’Baku (walking charisma machine Winston Duke) and later, MIT student Riri (Dominique Thorne). Notably, the majority of the outstanding cast are women of colour: no need for the empty #girlboss posturing of Avengers: Endgame here.
As with much of this phase of the MCU, the cinematography – here helmed by Autumn Durald Arkapaw – is a significant improvement on the washed-out greyness of yore. There is still a dark muddiness to a lot of scenes, though, particularly the film’s numerous underwater sequences. Handheld close-ups draw out the frantic and fraught emotions as T’Challa family fractures in his absence but this refreshing subjectivity is shattered by the unengaging action that comes along every forty minutes or so to puncture the human drama, leaving an aftertaste made all the more bitter in the knowledge that the shonky CGI are the result of overworked special effects teams exploited by Disney bosses making last-minute creative decisions with little care of the labour that must be undertaken in their wake.
Still, there’s nothing like the ridiculous rubbery train underground fight of the first film, and generally speaking the action feels somewhat more emotionally grounded this time, while the climactic fight pushes our heroes to the brink of darkness. The new big bad is no slouch, either. King of the underwater nation of Talokan, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is in possession of Earth’s only reserve of Vibranium outside of Wakanda, and thus a target of other nations jealous of the power that the rare element could unlock. Like Kilmonger before him, Namor comes from a legacy of colonialism. His human ancestors driven into the sea by Spanish conquistadors, he swore off the surface but hopes to make an alliance with Wakanda and dominate the world. Though there is nothing of the singular rage that Michael B. Jordan brought to his role, Namor is a complex and compelling character, set against a globalised system all too eager to colonise and dominate.
As just another entry in the MCU, Wakanda Forever is a very solid film. Entertaining and intelligent, it builds on the themes of its predecessor. Yet, navigating more than defying the Marvel machine, Coogler’s sequel becomes more than the sum of its parts. And so Wakanda Forever’s most important legacy is as a fine and fitting tribute to its erstwhile hero.