Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Spoiler-free Review
Ryan Coogler's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) is truly a celebration of what all Marvel Studios can be. There were a lot of eyes on this film for not only living up to its predecessor, but also finding a way to create a great Black Panther film without its frontman - Chadwick Boseman. Boseman's passing left a massive hole in the hearts of fans, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. A character that just begun his development suddenly no longer had a future, and it was going to be difficult to live up to the performance Boseman put on as the titular King T'Challa. However, the combination of an intentional screenplay, powerful acting, artful cinematography, and flawless soundtrack allow Wakanda Forever to not only be a great film on its own merits, but serves as a love letter to Boseman's performance and legacy as the Black Panther.
Marvel's Phase 4 films have struggled to create meaningful and effective screenplays, however Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole managed to seamlessly integrate the sudden passing of Boseman (and the real life emotions attached to that) into the story, while naturally shifting the focus to a new main character. Every interaction between the main cast had a meaningful impact on the characterization of each other, something the MCU films have sorely lacked in recently. I was worried how much T'Challa's absence would afflict the story, (as a reminder, I never watch promotional material of films I intend to see, so I wasn't sure what the film would be about), however, I think Coogler and Cole found a fitting way allow this to still be a Black Panther film —through matching a theme across the two: what are the values that make a hero? Micheal B. Jordan's Killmonger in Black Panther (2018) showed us how a small boundary in morals can be the difference between a hero and a villain. This same concept is explored in Wakanda Forever, and it is done elegantly. The passing of the Black Panther moniker is well-handled, and appropriately developed before doing so. A film of this length, a whopping 2 hours and 41 minutes (the longest MCU film to date), usually would struggle to keep my attention. However, I think it was well paced, and most every scene was important to progress the story properly.
A combination of the performances put on by the main cast, and the talented cinematography by Autumn Durald Arkapaw, cause Wakanda Forever to be one of the more emotionally heavy films in the MCU. It does so effectively, tonally encasing the film in a coating of anguish. This is delivered well by the performances put on by Letita Wright as Princess Shuri, Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, Danai Gurira as General Okoye, and Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda. It is impossible to point to just one performance as shining above all else, because every actor came to represent. This includes Tenoch Huerta Mejía's Namor, who served as a perfect antagonist to challenge the values of the heroes in this story. It is an interesting commentary on how our personal perspective changes so much of what we consider moral or ethical. Is saving one life worth the sacrifice of many? This is a common moral quandary posed to heroes across all media, so is this an especially groundbreaking idea? No, not really. But I think this is the setting in which this storyline is most effective, especially given this movie is one that is plagued by the weight of loss in every scene.
Paired with the incredible acting, Arkapaw's cinematography highlighted important scenes in a clever way. Along with this, makeup and costume really showed up as well. There was a clear cultural inspiration throughout, and it was executed well. Not only do we get beautiful still shots of scenery, but even dialogue is interesting. In films that are so CGI and color heavy, it can sometimes be distracting to watch what is supposed to be a serious moment. However, purposeful framing and on-location filming allow for grave scenes to feel impactful rather than silly (*cough cough* Black Widow...). I wouldn't be surprised if someone is already out there trying to get screengrabs of the film to turn into digital wallpapers.
These moments are accentuated by the soundtrack. Notice how all these things are working together to build upon the strength of the others. It's hard to have such a balance between all the components of a film, but Coogler made it happen here. Ludwig Göransson's score and soundtrack for this film complements the tone well, while also maintaining the elements of what made the first Black Panther's soundtrack so iconic.
Now something that I love about the Black Panther films is the exploration of culture. Not only do we get to see some African-inspired Wakandan culture, but also some of the Mesoamerican-inspired Talokan culture. They both explore the generational trauma of colonization, and the ways that even in an ever progressing and growing future, we can look to tradition for guidance. I think this is part of a larger conversation about the effects of a fast growing society, but maybe thats just the over thinker in me. Regardless, I think it was really well handled, and I hope we see more of both in the future.
The final thing I want to discuss is the introduction of Riri Williams, the main character of the upcoming MCU project, Ironheart. Dominique Thorne as Riri does well to hold her own against the seasoned main cast, while playing a more active and integrated role in the story than other attempts in Marvel projects to do the same this year (I'm looking at you, America Chavez). For Iron Man fans like myself, it was fun to notice the Riri scenes were riddled with easter eggs that reference the late Tony Stark, for whom her moniker was named. Her presence added to the film, while not overshadowing the main cast's development, which was one of the strongest point of the movie. I am excited to see how her story evolves from here.
Every part of this movie works to strengthen the others, and I am happy to say this is the best Phase 4 film we have gotten since Shang Chi (2021). If you have some extra time this weekend, grab a show if you can —this movie is worth getting there early to get good seats.
Oh, and a pro-tip, there is only one credit scene for this one!