‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Review: MCU Moves Beyond Tokenism As Black Women Take Centerstage

Wakanda is in safe claws as the women lead from the front

Director: Ryan Coogler

 

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole (Based on Marvel Comics)

 

Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira

 

Stars: 4

 

Women take charge of a nation made weak by the untimely death of its beloved king. It is a time to cope with grief and loss, but also to rebuild and move on. The stage was already set for the rise and rise of the Wakandan women, but with the death of its star, the late Chadwick Boseman, and the decision to not recast T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the Black Panther, it becomes imperative that the women take over. They do, and HOW!

 

“Only the most broken people can be great leaders.” — Namor

 

The spotlight moves to Shuri (Letitia Wright). The 16-year-old meme-spouting tech genius of the first movie, whom the Russo brothers (directors of Avengers: Infinity War) described as “the smartest person in the Marvel universe,” transforms into a sombre grief-stricken woman who suddenly finds herself in an overwhelmingly complex situation, and eventually takes over the mantle of Black Panther to become the next King and protector of the Wakandans.

 

 

The film opens with Shuri racing against time to create a lab substitute for the Heart-Shaped Herb — the miraculous plants that are supposed to be the source of Black Panthers’ powers, all of which Killmonger burns down — in a last-ditch attempt to save her brother who is suffering from an unknown but deadly disease. (If you are confused about the timelines and wondering what happened to the brother and sister post the Thanos snap in 2018’s Infinity War, you are right. They were both lost. But were brought back in Avengers: Endgame. As per the MCU timeline, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever happens a few years after the Endgame events).

 

But Shuri isn’t fast enough. Her superpower, her technology, fails her when she needed it the most, and she is unable to save her beloved brother. T’Challa breathes his last, plonking Shuri into an abyss of grief and the nation in political turmoil. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) takes charge. While navigating her grief over the loss of her son, she also negotiates with world powers, firmly re-establishing Wakandan supremacy. But Wakanda is about to find itself an enemy far more powerful than the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.  Would Wakanda, a nation at its weakest, be able to take on the most potent enemy they have ever encountered? With the nation in dire need of a powerful protector, Shuri finishes creating the Heart-Shaped Herb in her lab and with its help becomes the next Black Panther. And in her first battle as Black Panther, she faces Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Her comrades include the warrior brigade of Dora Milaje (in Midnight Angels suits) helmed by Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa’s girlfriend and a member of the Mossad-like intelligence agency Hatut Zeraze, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and a teenage tech genius from MIT, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).

 

 

Her taking up the mantle of the Black Panther might seem like a direct impact of the death of Boseman and hence T’Challa, but it is to be noted that even in the books, Shuri becomes the Black Panther, even though for a short while. Her character was always built that way from the very beginning. It is just that the circumstances here are different.

 

She always had the ambition to become the first female Black Panther. We have even seen her challenge her brother’s claim, albeit jokingly, in the first movie. In the comic books, T’Challa vows to train his sister and hone her fighting skills to make her a better warrior while Shuri continues to protect Wakanda. Eventually, when T’Challa is incapacitated during a fight and goes into a coma, Shuri replaces him as Black Panther and takes on the Marvel supervillain Morlun when he attacks Wakanda. Even after T’Challa’s return, Shuri continues to be in the position of power and eventually finds herself pitted against the mighty Talokan king, Namor as friction between the two vibranium (the strongest metal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) superpowers, Wakanda and the underwater kingdom of Talokan, starts.

 

(L-R): Alex Livinalli as Attuma and Mabel Cadena as Namora in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

 

The movie touches the Mesoamerican backstory of Namor, the sub-mariner mutant who made his debut in 1939 and was Marvel’s very first anti-hero and one of its oldest characters, and the underwater city of Talokan, located in Yukatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico, that like Wakanda had remained hidden and isolated from the rest of the world for centuries (although in the book, the feathered serpent god Namor is the king of Atlantis, a location explored in DC’s Aquaman, rather than Talokan… Talokan takes inspiration from the Aztec culture and the legends of the ancient city of Tlālōcān). But unlike Wakandans, the blue-skinned, water-faring Talokanils never really become a force to reckon with and eventually their powers come across as gimmicks.

 

Compared to the Afro-futuristic world of Wakanda, the Latino futuristic world of Talokan falls flat due to the lack of detailing. It seems we are supposed to just blindly trust their power. We don’t see anything that can be compared to the scientific marvels that Wakanda stuns us with. The underwater setpieces are grand but fall short of being spectacular. And it didn’t help that the movie was followed by the trailer of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water — another story of the indigenous people’s fight with the colonising powers as well as a commentary on the rising imperialism in the contemporary world (It might be interesting to note that Cameron’s 1989 opus The Abyss, was also a sci-fi involving the underwater that dealt with social and political issues, much like Wakanda Forever). Although the Talokanils (especially with their talent for sonic hypnosis) look every bit as cool as their counterparts in the Cameron movie as members of the sea-faring Na’vi tribe, we don’t get any other important character apart from Namor. Namor and Tenoch Huerta as Namor are both stunning (even though I am not a fan of Namor’s short shorts and shorter feet wings). But neither Namor reaches his full potential nor does the city of Talokan reflect the glory of the most powerful vibranium-backed nation.

 

 

 

The movie is also used to introduce the character of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who first appeared on the last page of Invincible Iron Man No. 7 in 2016. The teenage supergenius who was seen in the process of creating her own high-tech suit at her MIT dorm room was incorporated into the movie’s legion of women warriors. But Riri, who will be seen in the Disney+ Ironheart series (of which Coogler is an executive producer), next year, mostly serves as a plot device in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

 

The Everett K Ross and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine aka The Contessa (played by Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) storyline adds almost nothing to the story and could have been entirely edited out. However, it might be a teaser for the 2024 Marvel movie Thunderbolts in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been announced as part of the cast.

 

 

 

The film focuses on Shuri and how she navigates the loss of her brother. Wright does a spectacular job reprising the role but it is Bassett as Queen Ramonda who truly steals the show with her graceful yet fiery performance. Huerta is the star of this show; he sparkles in every scene in his Hollywood debut. Nyong’o and Gurira get the opportunity to showcase their range and make good use of it. Trevor Noah as the voice of Shuri’s AI Griot should have his own movie. The movie, unlike any seen in the MCU, doesn’t have CGI as its backbone. Although the action set pieces are mediocre at best as per Marvel levels, the focus here is more on the melancholia which is heightened by Ludwig Goransson’s background score. It builds a strong emotional core (Queen Ramonda and Shuri discussing the complexities of grief and loss is probably one of the most poignant Marvel movie scenes ever), something the Marvel Universe has rarely seen, as it aims at creating a fitting tribute to Boseman. But in the process, the movie also loses its pace and even focus. It tries to tell too many stories and incorporates too many characters which not only dilute the emotional impact, often making them feel like tropes, but also the emotions get in the way of telling those stories properly and reducing interesting characters into plot devices.

 

Verdict:

 

Wakanda Forever shifts its spotlight to Shuri as she navigates the complex dynamics of grief and loss. This sombre and deeply personal movie is a glorious tribute to late Chadwick Boseman. It provides the team as well as the audience the much-required catharsis. But probably the loss was so personal that the makers didn’t realise when the focus of the movie, which closes the fourth phase of MCU, shifted from the story and became a vessel to carry their collective grief.

 

As a movie honouring its star, the late Chadwick Boseman, it is heartbreakingly beautiful and deserves a standing ovation. It is the most emotional MCU has ever gotten. As the first MCU movie that puts a legion of powerful black women at the forefront of all the action (while resisting the temptation to insert a ‘male savior’) it is a game-changer. It definitely has its heart in the right place, and for that, it might even deserve an Oscar nomination. It is also one of the most interesting movies of MCU’s fourth phase.

 

But at 2h 41m, the second longest MCU film, following Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not without flaws. It spreads itself too thin and there are moments it just rambles on without reaching anywhere. I wonder how it will age as a standalone movie post the emotions related to Boseman’s death ebb and the world moves on.

 

PS: DO NOT miss the mid-credit scene.

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