Film Review: Wakanda Forever tackles grief in a stunning tribute
Warning: Spoilers ahead
Four years after the first Black Panther, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever released in theatres on Nov 10.
Though it’s the seventh movie in Marvel Studios’ Phase Four, it feels markedly different than its predecessors.
Most notably is its shift in tone, which in large part is due to Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman dying from colon cancer while director Ryan Coogler was working on the script for the sequel.
His passing haunts Wakanda Forever, with his character T’Challa dying from a ‘mysterious disease’ offscreen at the beginning of the movie and the nation mourning his loss.
The movie is centred around and driven by grief. In T’Challa’s absence a gorgeous story is woven around the remaining royal family, consisting of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) who now have to rule the kingdom he left behind.
While Shuri was played for laughs in the first movie, here her pain in this movie is magnified. Comedy is sparse in Wakanda Forever, with the film focusing on its new protagonist’s inner turmoil as she battles grief, rage that T’Challa was taken from her and guilt since, despite her technological prowess, she couldn’t find a way to save him.
Wright delivers all these emotions in spades, and melds the images of a mourning sister, princess being forced to mature and headstrong genius seamlessly.
Angela Bassett delivers a stunning performance as well, with her role as Wakanda’s newly-appointed ruler being put front and centre. Having to run a nation and defend it from continual attack would seem insurmountable during a time of mourning, yet Bassett’s portrayal of Ramonda shows her walking that tightrope with poise while still finding time to console her grieving daughter.
The movie makes clear that Shuri is very different kind of protector than T’Challa. Where he was a traditionalist, she believes that many of Wakanda’s traditions are outdated. It’s a bitter struggle to watch, as not only does she have to protect the nation while fighting her own battles, she also has to do it under the weight of his mantle.
The threat posed to Wakanda comes in the form of Namor (played by Tenoch Huerta), king of the underwater city Talokan. Talokan is notably the only other place on Earth to have vibranium, so when the US military begins drilling for it, Namor comes after Wakanda for revealing its existence in Black Panther.
It’s revealed that Namor is the last member of an Indigenous tribe that saw the colonisation of Mexico in the 1500s, and he’s driven by the need to protect his people from a fate he’s already seen once.
In this way he’s comparable to other morally grey villains like Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Karli Morgenthau or even the previous Black Panther’s Killmonger, in that while undoubtedly a villain in this story, he could easily be a hero in another.
Namor is a stunning foil to Shuri, because while she scrambles to find her convictions, he is overly committed to his beliefs. While she seeks the counsel of everyone around her, he’s portrayed as the sole decision maker of Talokan. They’re rulers of similarly powerful nations, and yet their approaches to the impending threat of colonisation are vastly different.
In fact, the movie makes it a point to call Shuri a child, especially during her struggles to figure out how to rule Wakanda. Namor, on the other hand, is centuries old, painting a fairly unsubtle metaphor because he’s also the most resolute in his convictions.
Shuri may be immature and spontaneous, but Namor is hardheaded and seemingly incapable of change; and Wakanda Forever makes it clear which it thinks is more dangerous.
Their opposition is made even more compelling through their anguish, which clouds both their judgement and makes them act far more similarly than Shuri would like to believe.
In this way the movie pays homage once again to the first Black Panther, where Killmonger’s actions were similarly harsh but driven by unbearable loss. Huerta plays Namor magnificently, with the character’s physicality being that of a demigod but his motivations being utterly human.
As the film comes to a head, the pacing begins to stutter almost intentionally. As the audience grapples with the opposing moralities of Shuri and Namor once all the pieces are laid out, the narrative descends into similarly conflicting storytelling. It may feel choppy, but it also feels like a reflection of the characters and their inner turmoil.
I won’t reveal much more than that since it would edge too far into spoiler territory, but I will say this: The ever-present theme of grief is played to be sharp, cutting and deeply haunting with every blow in the final battle, and is a fantastic portrayal of how succumbing to your anguish will only make you suffer more.
As for its art direction, Wakanda Forever maintains the same traditional African visuals and music from the first movie while introducing more modern styles to represent its new main character. The shift in musical and art direction further cements the film’s secondary theme: the rivalry between tradition and technology, and how they don’t have to be at odds.
The last thing I’ll mention is that “Wakanda Forever”, which was the previous film’s call to arms and the title of this movie, is exclaimed multiple times throughout this film’s runtime. Its inclusion is curious, as it appears even when it feels out of place. However the longer I thought about it, the more poignant it felt.
The film is a beautifully woven tribute – balancing an homage to the original Black Panther with the next generation’s struggle with his legacy.
“Wakanda Forever” isn’t used just as a catchphrase in this movie. Fans worldwide mourned Chadwick Boseman’s passing, much like the fictional Wakandans mourned their king’s.
In that way, “Wakanda Forever” is used as a comfort. It’s a reassurance that his legacy will live on past him or his movies; it’s a promise that even in fictional or real dark times, there is hope.