Welcome, World Travelers: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Goes Strong
by James Coulter
Black Panther may not have been the first black-led superhero movie, but it was certainly the first to make a significant cultural impact in mainstream cinema. With its afro-futuristic setting, pan-African cultural influences, hip-hop-inspired soundtrack,and a relevant socio-political message, the 2018 film not only offered a filmgoing experience culturally unique from other modern superhero movies, but it also allowed black filmgoers, especially young black children, an opportunity to see themselves feel seen and represented within the biggest major film franchise—and making it all possible was the impeccable performance of its lead actor, Chadwick Boseman.
Sadly, only two years after his film’s theatrical release, Boseman passed away after a years-long fight with cancer. With a sequel already planned, fans wondered what actor would replace him in his iconic role—and when it was announced his character would not be recast, they worried how the film could carry on without him. After all, a Black Panther film without Black Panther is like a Superman movie without Superman or a Batman movie without Batman. It’s inconceivable! Can it be done? Could it be done? And would it be done well?
With the much-anticipated sequel, Wakanda Forever, finally in theaters, the question remains: can a Black Panther movie succeed without Black Panther? Can this movie surpass the original, and can it properly honor the legacy of Chadwick Boseman? Can Wakanda Forever make the Black Pantherfranchise live on forever, or is it fated to sinker deeper than the city of Talokan?
In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, one year has passed since the untimely death of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the bearer of the mantle of Black Panther. Without their ruler and protector, the Kingdom of Wakanda is left vulnerable to outside forces seeking to steal its most precious resource, Vibranium. Many other countries have seized this opportunity to either rob the rare metal from Wakanda or to track it down from other places around the world.
This worldwide hunt for Vibranium catches the attention of underwater-dwelling sea creatures called submariners and their hidden ancient civilization, Talokan. Their leader, Namor, fearing this search will inevitably lead to their city’s discovery and exploitation, decides to declare war on the outside world. He approaches Wakanda with an ultimatum: either join them or fight them. Will Wakanda join the war, or will they be caught in the crossfire?
Fittingly enough, this installment of the Black Panther franchise utilizes the untimely absence of its main character and starring actor as its thematic focus. Ryan Coogler and his team knew no actor could properly replace Chadwick Boseman, so they decided to make a movie without him and make his absence its core thematic element.
Wakanda Forever heavily focuses on the characters reacting to the death of T’Challa (and, in turn, his actor). Princess Shuri and the other Wakandan nobles remain divided and undecided over how to move their kingdom forward without his leadership, most of the main characters deal with the grief over mourning his death, while the rest of the world exploits his absence as an opportunity to strike Wakanda when it is at its weakest. What results is a move that both mourns the loss of T’Challa/Boseman and celebrates his legacy.
In place of T’Challa, the movie focuses on Princess Shuri as its main character. Not only does she struggle with her grief over the passing of her brother, but also the guilt she feels at not being able to save him, despite coming close to devising a cure for his terminal ailment. Through the film, she learns to come to terms with her emotions and not give in to despair or vengeance—which she comes close to due to other circumstances.
The other characters like Okoye and M’Baku have their moments as well, but their performances are otherwise overshadowed and underplayed by the rivalry between Shuri and the film’s antagonist, Namor. The most notable example is Commander Ross, who I’m thoroughly convinced only appears in this movie because he appeared in the original movie. Even Riri Williams (Ironheart), despite this movie being her MCU debut, seems severely underplayed in a not-to-dissimilar fashion as America Chavez in Multiverse of Madness.
By far, the movie’s biggest draw is its world-building. True to its name, Wakanda Forever further fleshes out the fictional civilization of Wakanda and leans in heavily to its African cultural influences. Black Panther, as well as other movies like Shang-Chi, succeed in diversifying the world of the otherwise American/Eurocentric MCU, providing greater representation and incorporating other cultures and ethnicities into this melting pot of a franchise, thus providing an overall richer cultural experience.
This is especially true with the new underwater civilization of Talokan. Underwater cities have been depicted in cinema before, but Talokan, which is heavily influenced by Mesoamerican culture, offers a truly unique and refreshing take on the trope. Even Namor is faithfully translated into his new culture and origin while maintaining his original character design, including his green shorts, pointed ears, and winged feet.
Unfortunately, the movie’s biggest drawback is the pacing, which is dragged out by its exceedingly long runtime. This movie is nearly three hours long, and in many scenes, it certainly feels like it. I love Marvel movies, but I remember when most of them were less than two hours long, and having to watch more than two hours felt tedious and tiring. It makes watching these movies feel less like an experience and more like a chore to get through.
Overall, this movie manages to shine, even in the absence of its shining star, and its themes and worldbuilding more than do it justice. But, like most other Marvel movies these days, the film is set back by its pacing and run time. (Hey, Marvel, why not release a movie less than two hours long?) Either way, this film manages to do justice to Boseman’s legacy. Wakanda forever!