When I found out that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was two hours and forty one goddamn minutes long, the middling excitement I had for the film dropped to almost nothing. Blame general exhaustion, the realization that my free time has dwindled to near non-existence, the crushing onset of middle age, or just the fact that Phase IV of the MCU has been largely forgettable — no matter how you slice it, that amount of time is a HUGE ask from the studio that’s consuming most of the market and doing so with event cinema that’s really only an event insofar as breakfast is an event.
But alas, the barbed hook of the MCU is still firmly embedded in my cheek, and until I can cut the line and swim away from the ocean of content in which Fearless Leader Kevin Feige has drenched the world, I’m doomed to keep coming back. I made myself a promise before taking in the final entry in Phase IV: If Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is anything less than very good, I’m finally going to jump ship. Going forward I will catch these movies casually and at my own pace, if at all.
To quote another franchise flick (which has aged much better than its reputation would have you believe):
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Yep, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is very good.
It’s the best entry in Phase IV and one of the better entries in the MCU at large. It has its problems, the least of which is the tragic absence of the talented man upon which the BP leg of the MCU was supposed to ride, but for the most part it works, and quite well. The action is exciting, the characters grand, the performances exceptional, and the gigantic runtime is mostly unfelt. There’s an energy here that doesn’t have the “side quest” feel that the last few entries couldn’t seem to shake, but it does not feel bogged down by the larger conmections to the MCU either. In comic book terms, it’s a colorful trade paperback with a zippy plot, a solid villain, and a complete arc for the bulk of its characters. And if we are to think of it in terms of the larger MCU narrative, it‘s a strong setup for things to come.
The film starts by getting the biggest elephant in the room out of the way. The great Chadwick Boseman is no longer with us, and since it was decided not to recast T’Challa, the first order of business is to respectfully and canonically remove him from the story. Deep down I wanted them to just claim that he was tired from doing Endgame and taking a well-deserved nap, but the filmmakers who know better than I ever will decided to have him pass away from an unspecified illness. His sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is frantically doing science in an effort to save his life (see: glowy balls and zippy zaps) to no avail. Her brother — the King and the legendary Black Panther — is unable to hold on. Next comes a gorgeous and quite moving funeral sequence, and now we’re off to the races.
The script, by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler, who returned to direct, smartly ties the loss of T’Challa into the story without making it the focal point. As with anything in Wakanda, legacy is as important as family, and in a film so strongly built on character, working a culturally felt loss (which was just as felt here in the real world) into the story works wonders. At the same time, this is a superhero action film, and cannot be imbued with aggressive melancholy.
It’s pointless to get into the plot, and I’m pretty much barred from doing so, so here’s the most basic rundown: as it turns out, Wakanda is not the sole source of vibranium in the world, and when the guardians of the other source make themselves known to our heroes, it upsets the already turbulent relationship that the titular, formerly isolationist country has with the powers that be (there’s a great criticism of America’s expressly war-forward ways amidst all of this that is quote scathing). Wakanda, now under the fair but stern rule of Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and reeling from the recent loss of their legendary King, cannot yet abide change or negotiation. Nor are they ready to deal with a potential ally/enemy in Namor (Tenoch Huerta) the leader of an underwater race with similar concerns.
Fights, zaps, flying ships, Martin Freeman — you know the deal.
At nearly three hours, Wakanda Forever has every reason to feel long in the tooth and overstuffed, but due do a fast-paced, remarkably efficient script, it moves along smoothly and keeps things compelling throughout. A few shaggy ends here and there are smoothed over by truly excellent performances across the board. Bassett, unsurprisingly threatens to steal every scene she’s in (she’s buff as hell too!), but not without a fight from her supporting cast. Namor almost doesn’t need his somewhat clunky mid-movie origin story, given how much of it is conveyed via Huerta’s expressive face and charismatic speaking voice. Wright, tasked with carrying this leg of the franchise henceforth rises to the challenge of elevating a spunky side character to center stage. If Shuri’s intellect is supposed to match Tony Stark’s, I buy it and then some. And when it comes time to lead the fight, she’s as believable and exciting as anyone in the MCU roster.
Perhaps the best performance in the film goes to Danai Gurira, whose General Okoye is given more to do than in the previous film (in which she was also a highlight). Okoye is an inveterate badass, capable of taking down anyone with her spear and her attitude. She’s cool as a cucumber, yet fiery hot with noble passion, as devoted to Wakanda as anyone else times a hundred. But there’s even more to her this time around. The script offers her an opportunity to face strong adversity both from an outward threat and an inwardly held sensitivity that we never got to see in the past. There are a lot of great character moments throughout the film, but Okoye’s will stick with me the most.
Visually, Wakanda Forever is mostly quite strong, as is to be expected with a talent like Coogler behind the camera. There are a few moments of gunky imagery, mostly in wide establishing shots that have tons of detail while simultaneously feeling like nothing at all. But when it comes to action sequences and character-centric scenes, it’s the best looking MCU film in quite some time. This is helped by incredible production design from Hannah Beachler and Jason T. Clark, and notably strong editing by Kelley Dixon, Jennifer Lame, and Michael P. Shawver. The score, too, is worth nothing. Ludwig Göransson mixes analog instrumentation s with digital flourishes to create a soundscape that ranges from amelodic mood pieces to percussive rockers to digital surrealism. A handful of fantastic needle drops round it out nicely.
In a vacuum, Wakanda Forever is a solid superhero actioner with plenty of heart. As a part of a larger universe it is head and shoulders above many of its peers. As a farewell to a friend fallen too soon, it’s a classy appropriate send-off. It goes to show that even the most well-oiled, if decreasingly impressive machine can pump out something exceptional if the right talent is turning the crank. Since any problems within the film are very much of the “MCU garden variety” type, it’s clear that the talent has ensured that these unavoidable issues were at least reduced to a minimum and overshadowed by craft, care, and passion.
RIP Chadwick Boseman. Gone too soon, but never forgotten.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman
Rated PG-13, 161 minutes