THE Marvel juggernaut just keeps rolling on, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever being the 30th entry in the comic book giant’s cinematic universe.
It’s a number that seemed unfathomable back in 2008 when Iron Man burst onto the silver screen and caused a seismic shift in the landscape of the film industry, creating a franchise that rakes in cash like it’s going out of fashion.
Despite Marvel showing no signs of slowing down, there is a palpable sense of audience fatigue with superhero films and their television accompaniments, particularly as Phase Four draws to a close having largely failed to inspire after the epic record-smashing Avengers: Endgame tied up the first era of movies in a neat bow.
This writer arrived at the cinema with a sense of trepidation, having long since felt ‘Marvel’d out’ with the oversaturation of these movies and their rigid formula. However, thanks to a genuinely emotional undercurrent and stronger acting with less reliance on cheap jokes, this sequel soars higher than its most recent predecessors.
The death of King T’Challa – a plot point delicately and tactfully dealt with after the tragic passing of actor Chadwick Boseman – weighs heavy on Wakanda Forever, with the fictional nation struggling to replace both their monarch and their champion. Wakanda Forever is an effective, emotional farewell to T’Challa – a meditation on forging one’s own future out of a painful past – and does so while introducing an entirely new nation and paving the way for a new wave of Marvel stories.
The film wastes no time addressing Boseman’s passing, with a chaotic and tense opening scene leaving Shuri (Letitia Wright) feeling responsible for her brother’s death. The funeral procession that follows speaks to the incredibly fine line Wakanda Forever has to walk: even in their mourning, there’s joyous dancing and celebration of what T’Challa brought to the nation, but Shuri’s solemnity as she moves through holding T’Challa’s Panther helmet is a strong reminder of the conflicting emotions she and the movie at large have to balance.
Wright has mostly been used as comic relief up to this point, and Shuri’s character arc necessitates refocusing that energy into how she processes her pain. Everyone in Shuri’s life is urging her to let T’Challa go, and her tendency to lash out in those cases goes a long way towards creating the film’s dramatic tension. It’s a sharp about-face, but Wright’s emotional availability and intensity carry Shuri through that fraught grieving process.
Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, acting as steward until a new ruler can be crowned, brings commanding power and gravitas to proceedings and is arguably the movie’s star turn.
The same can’t be said of the villain, with aquatic mutant Namor being largely underwhelming. Much of our understanding of him and his people’s grievances come from narration during a rushed flashback, and some important details during that scene feel brushed over. The fact only two of his companions from an entire underwater society are named does not help sell sympathy either.
Of course, an opposing force of a nation of undersea warriors provides Wakanda Forever ample opportunity for maritime mayhem, and gives the MCU a new palette for action. The digital effects, often hit-or-miss in these movies, are particularly strong and the fight choreography is as sharp and innovative as ever, something you have to give Marvel Studios their due for.
Ultimately, Wakanda Forever had to be a sequel to a cultural phenomenon, a tease of upcoming MCU adventures, and of course, a loving farewell. There are stretches where the struggle to balance those mandates scatters the focus of the story, but nuanced and emotional performances from the returning cast keep it grounded when it counts.