Phase 4 of the MCU has felt like somewhat of an experimental period for the company, but it’s a phase that seems to lack purpose and any sense of direction going forward. Sadly, the death of Chadwick Boseman – who was to continue playing the role of King T’Challa AKA Black Panther – was something no one was quite expecting. This clearly put Kevin Feige (Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer) and returning director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed) in particular, in a state of panic. Not only would they have to do rewrites and recasts, but also how they will choose to address the tragedy of one of MCU’s key players moving forward.
The death of T’Challa is handled rather swiftly but respectably in its opening sequence. It’s a deeply sad and sombre start to a sequel that has been long anticipated, but one that is important and honours the life of Chadwick’s Panther as opposed to exploiting it. The theme of loss and tragedy rings through Wakanda Forever’s script with severe significance. With Shuri (Letitia Wright) struggling to come to terms with the loss of her brother, and the void left of a fallen king, she looks to take over the vacated Black Panther mantle when a new threat announces itself to the Wakandans.
With a huge power shift going on within the MCU, it seems no character has bigger boots to fill than Shuri. Or perhaps more importantly the actress portraying her, Letitia Wright. Shuri has been one of the more important side characters in the MCU, and her arc – even before the release of Wakanda Forever – had hinted towards her having a bigger role to play in the future. But being the next Black Panther so prematurely forces Letitia to level up and take on the impossible task of carrying the Black Panther character. Fortunately, she does so with earnestness and elegance. Even though the weight of Boseman’s shadow is forever present in this sequel, this ultimately feels like the safest and best move with the character as we look to the future of the MCU.
With the exit of Killmonger (played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan) in the critically praised Black Panther (2018), a new villain was to be introduced. Fan favourite Namor (played here by Tenoch Huerta) – a half-human hybrid who controls the underwater settlement, Talokan – becomes the perfect fit. Much like Wakanda, the nation of Talokan wishes to remain in the shadows, as it too possesses the powerful material of vibranium. Initially their ideologies align with both Shuri and Namor sharing the sentiments of defending their nations at all costs, but Namor’s more aggressive approach to the mainland’s sparks a war between the two dangerous territories.
One thing that Coogler seems to handle really well is his villains. Outside of those who have had time to develop over multiple entries within the MCU, Coogler has given us two of the most impactful villains so far. Both Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger and Tenoch Huerta’s Namor are the perfect adversaries for their respective Black Panther’s. Whilst Michael B. Jordan brought anger and grit, Tenoch is more patient and sympathetic.
I’d love to say that Phase 4 has finally produced something that is as inventive and charismatic as those that got us to this stage, but sadly not everything sticks. Whilst it acts as a tremendous tribute to Chadwick whenever that is the focus, it seems to forget it has to continue with proceedings. This phase has been muddled and disorganised and sadly, despite a sweet mid-credit sequence, Wakanda Forever doesn’t give any indication as to what’s coming next.
The acting certainly doesn’t disappoint. Letitia is more impactful, and she demonstrates that she has the tools to keep the character afloat, but the lack of centralising her performance seems poorly mismanaged. When the movie flips between its many characters, this is where Chadwick’s charming and centrally driven presence is most devastatingly missed.
Other returning characters include Winston Duke as M’Baku, Danai Gurira as Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia. All of which have a more important role to play as comes with the increase in runtime. None use their time quite as profoundly as Angela Bassett though. Returning as Queen Ramonda, mother to T’Challa and Shuri, any scene that demands an emotionally charged response is dished up by Bassett. 2018’s Black Panther was critically praised to the point it received award nominations for its efforts, but if Wakanda Forever should deserve any, it should be Bassetts who sees gold for her support.
Perhaps one of the biggest let downs is Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross. His inclusion in the movie seems more of an afterthought and serves of little purpose to the actual story. His interactions with a certain character I won’t disclose for spoiler purposes, is his only reason for showing up at all, and as is the theme with this phase, doesn’t hint to anything drastic or different.
For the fact that this movie even exists to begin with, and the overarching message that fully wants you to embrace the loss that these characters have endured, I wanted to give it more. But I can’t. If you look beyond the heaviness but beautifully handled subject matter, this just feels all too similar. The visual effects (whilst looking better) still appear murky and rushed and the runtime seems a little too ambitious.
If anything, Wakanda Forever is the beating heart of Phase 4. It may not do much to set up the future of the MCU, but as a serviceable tribute, it does exactly what you would have wanted and expected.