The passing of Chadwick Boseman was a seismic moment for the entertainment landscape. A few years after he became an icon for his portrayal of King T’Challa, the actor passed away from cancer. Once considered the next great leading man in Hollywood, the loss felt incalculable. For director Ryan Coogler, their friendship and activism went far beyond the world of the MCU. Yet they had signed on to return for a Black Panther sequel. Without his muse, Coogler went to work restructuring and rethinking the anticipated sequel. The resulting Black Panther: Wakanda Forever delivers an emotional vulnerability unseen by the MCU.
***If you want zero plot aspects to be revealed, please skip the next paragraph. All elements in the paragraph occur within the first twenty minutes of the film and have been featured in trailers.***
After the death of King T’Challa, Shuri (Letitia Wright) struggles to find peace and buries herself in her lab work. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) rules Wakanda on the world stage, pushing back on imperialist nations that believe they can take advantage of T’Challa’s absence. Not long after, a centuries-old mutant named Namor (Tenoch Huerta) arrives with harrowing news. Not only is America looking for Vibranium, but they’ve found it at the bottom of the ocean. While his people intervened, they needed buy-in from Wakanda. He then delivers an ultimatum: find Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) and return her to Talokan (the city ruled by Namor).
First and foremost, Coogler pours his heart into every sequence of the film. This is not just a swansong for Boseman but a celebration of life in all its forms. For every moment of tragedy, Coogler presents us with a moment of love. It’s a wonder how Coogler can continue to make hundred-million-dollar films that feel impeccably personal. Coogler’s relationships with his parents have inspired his films, but his anger and grief at losing Boseman are palpable. Dealing with this grief can destroy a man. Coogler lets every character release their anguish at the right moment. After all, it is nearly impossible to get over those we lose. Instead, we learn to live with a person’s memory attached to us. Coogler crafts a visual sendoff to his friend and hero but makes the stakes so personal that it is nearly impossible to leave unaffected.
Coogler’s ability to bring the harrowing events of history into the story of Namor once again shows his deft touch. Coogler often finds tiny threads within his characters and builds their ideology from these moments. With the anti-hero Namor, Coogler crafts one of the most understandable backstories and motivations for his actions. In many ways, it sings a parallel story to Killmongerer (Michael B. Jordan from Black Panther) but finds his nuance in the leader’s approach. This allows Huerta to emerge as a genuine threat. Not only does Coogler use the actor’s size to his advantage, but he displays a deft approach in terms of charisma and dialogue. It would be fair to say that Coogler has two of the most ideologically reasonable villains in the MCU to date.
While Black Panther: Wakanda Forever never hurts for political commentary, Coogler makes the character relationships blossom in their shared grief. As a result, Wright and Basset carry most of this burden and get the best moments of the film. Bassett, in particular, seems poised to earn accolades for her nuanced and influential role. She dominates the screen at every juncture, both as a leader and a woman scarred by loss. Wright matches the raw emotion in spurts, letting it flow through her and escape in sharp bursts. While Wright had been a comedic foil in previous appearances, she gets to show her dramatic chops. It’s easily career-best work for the actress and bodes well for her future.
Again, Coogler works with his team to bring the enchanting world of Wakanda to life. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter deserves every accolade under the sun. She steps her game up from even the first film traversing cultures and eras with her colorful compositions. If you want to see storytelling through costumes, there’s no one better in the business. The makeup team, led by Joel Harlow, also shines. They get more opportunities to incorporate centuries-old designs and techniques into the world. Additionally, they must match the changing skin tones of characters, an underrated aspect of this work. The sound effects are some of the best in the MCU, and Ludwig Göransson returns with another stellar score. In fact, it might be better than his Oscar-winning work from Black Panther.
However, there are still issues. Perhaps the most glaring are the visual effects, which struggle to keep us engaged in the world. There are genuine moments when they craft gorgeous visuals, but they also feel subpar. At the same time, the increase in special effects battles puts the editing team in a difficult position. Unfortunately, the change in cinematographer to Autumn Durald Arkapaw does little to help. Arkapaw certainly frames up some stunners throughout the film, but the visual effects scenes clash with the cinematography, leaving many sequences darker than one would expect.
In a sequence towards the end of the film, we cut between a CG-heavy battle and a more-personal sparring match. To make matters worse, the sequences are shot in different aspect ratios. The consistent changes do not help the story and instead create distractions. This might be the film’s weakest element because the interpersonal moments of storytelling are beautifully constructed and executed. When practical effects are employed, the film looks gorgeous, but an overabundance of CG still harms Marvel today.
Finally, some elements of the film are simply here for the future of the MCU. One would have hoped that Marvel would be wise enough to remove these aspects from the film, but instead, they add bloat to the runtime. If there was ever a time to cut these aspects, this was the moment. Besides, there was still plenty of world-building that will affect the cinematic universe. Instead, these shoe-horned aspects stick out like a sore thumb, undermining Coogler’s story. The fact that he can integrate these moments into the film as seamlessly as he does is nothing short of a miracle.
Audiences are sure to be excited to return to the world of Wakanda. After all, the first film left plenty of exciting ideas for Coogler to explore, regardless of Boseman’s passing. Yet Coogler’s intimate portrait of a family and a people in grief will undeniably pull at your heartstrings. Coogler once again proves himself one of the most sentimental and brilliant directors alive, and one cannot underrate how integral his brilliance is to this film.
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