As far as the MCU goes, Wakanda Forever takes one of the biggest risks, if not the biggest risk of all of the movies in the franchise. Instead of recasting the part of T’Challa, it directly acknowledges Chadwick Boseman’s death and its effect on his family. This decision gives the movie a somber tone at times, as we watch T’Challa’s burial and the country mourns his loss. This turn of events naturally sets up Shuri (Letitia Wright), his sister, as the heir apparent. The movie tracks her journey from a scientist who is very comfortable in a lab, to that of the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda. Initially, Shuri isn’t interested in stepping into her brother’s shoes, and her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is more than capable of handling the political side of things. That is, until the Talokanil show up.
The Talokanil are an ancient race of people who live underwater. (They are known as Atlantians in the comics.) Their secret existence is being threatened by people looking for Vibranium at the bottom of the ocean. (They are not happy with Wakanda for revealing themselves.) Led by Namor, their protector, the Talokan first take out an exploratory operation in their neck of the ocean, then set their sights on killing the young girl who invented the machine that can detect Vibranium under water. Shuri and Okoye try to take Riri to Wakanda for protection, but are intercepted by Namor and his blue skinned warriors. While being held captive in the underwater city of Talokan, Namor tells Shuri that he will stop at nothing to protect his people’s secret, including killing Riri and attacking Wakanda. When Nakia rescues Shuri and Riri, this sets the Talokans and Wakanda on a collision course.
Wakanda Forever is an amalgamation of several stories, some more compelling than others. The grief expressed by the actors over the loss of Boseman was palpable, and the movie does an excellent job of bookending the action with reflections on his death. Unfortunately, the plot the movie decides to run with, having two races with much in common become enemies, felt contrived, an arbitrary way to produce a big battle in the end. Why the two peoples wouldn’t choose to collaborate and take on the “friendly” nations seeking Vibranium at all costs is beyond me. Fortunately, the movie is filled with moving performances by returning cast members, who were as much fun to watch as they were in the first movie. The newcomers make a solid impression as well, particularly Tenoch Huerta as Namor and Michaela Coel as Aneka. Dominique Thorne’s Riri is a blast, and her young personality serves as a fun counterpoint to the more formal Wakandans. The movie is well crafted, featuring what probably is the best costumes, sets and special effects of any MCU movie. I enjoyed Wakanda Forever for everything but its plot. Mildly Recommended.
At the outset, Shuri (Letitia Wright) desperately tries to save T’Challa, her brother, from illness. She is upset at her brother for not telling her about it until it was too late, a reference to how almost nobody knew about Chadwick Boseman’s fight with colon cancer until after he died. Shuri has been trying to reconstruct the heart-shaped herb that turned her brother into the Black Panther, but with little success. Unfortunately, T’Challa dies before Shuri can save him, and the shock and dismay she feels echoes how we all felt when we first learned of Boseman’s death.
Shuri and her mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) proceed to bury their fallen king and celebrate his life in ceremonies that are equally beautiful and touching. The outside world, however, doesn’t see Wakanda’s collective grief as a suitable reason to pause their quest for Vibranium. A special ops team raids what looks like a Wakandian mining operation, only to be caught by Okoye (Danai Gurira), Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Dora Milaje. Later, at a meeting that looks very similar to a UN special council meeting, Ramonda directly confronts the “friendly” nations who express concern with Wakanda being the only nation with access to Vibranium. She has the special ops team led into the room and threatens to expose the origin of each one of them unless the other nations back off.
Just because the other nations can’t steal Vibranium from Wakanda doesn’t discourage them from looking for it elsewhere. The CIA has access to a machine that can identify it at the bottom of the ocean. (I guess that’s the last place you look when all other options come up empty?) While the operation is underway, all of the personnel involved are killed by strange beings with blue skin who emerge from the sea. Our favorite colonizer Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) believes the line being fed by the agency that Wakanda was behind the hit, but Shuri convinces him otherwise. Ross gives Shuri the name of the scientist who created the machine, and its nineteen year-old college student Riri (Dominique Thorne). (The MCU is overflowing with teenage geniuses.) Shuri knows that whomever took out the operation will come for Riri next, so she and Okoye go to retrieve her and take her to Wakanda for protection. Unfortunately, they are met by the same group of blue underwater people who took out the seabed exploratory operation before. Okoye fights valiantly, but she is not able to prevent the blue people from taking Riri and Shuri hostage.
The blue people in question are the Talokanil, descendants from Mexico who fled the mainland over a thousand years ago to avoid smallpox and enslavement by Spaniards. They created a potion from Vibranium that changed their lungs so that they could breathe underwater, and have lived there ever since. The potion also created their protector, Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Unlike the rest of his people, he ingested the potion while he was in utero, making him a mutant. The transformation gave him pointed ears, winged feet and an incredibly long life. He has spent his life protecting his people, and will stop at nothing to keep their existence a secret. This includes killing Riri, which horrifies Shuri. (For such a sensible-sounding guy, the solution to all of his problems is to kill people, which is harsh to say the least.) Furthermore, Namor threatens Shuri with war if she or Wakanda stand in his way.
Ramonda meets with T’Challa’s wife Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) in Haiti and begs her to return Shuri to Wakanda. Nakia finds her, but mortally wounds a Talokanil during the escape. This enrages Namor, who attacks Wakanda. The Talokanil are able to control the flow of water and overpower the Wakandan defenses. Riri nearly drowns, but is saved by Ramonda, who dies. Filled with rage over the loss of her brother and now her mother, Shuri uses her brother’s DNA and the fibers from a bracelet Namor gave her to reconstruct the heart-shaped herb. Shuri takes it and gains the super strength of the Black Panther. Her spirit guide is…Killmonger! (I didn’t see that coming.) Shuri convinces M’Baku (Winston Duke) to attack the Talokanil for revenge.
In the ensuing battle, Shuri is able to seriously wound Namor, but the Talokanil quickly overpower M’Baku’s fighters and the Dora Milaje. With revenge in reach, Shuri sees a vision of Ramonda, who tells her that Wakandans are not about revenge. Shuri and Namor agree to a truce and an end to hostilities for the time being. In the end, Shuri grieves for her mother and brother. Nakia surprises her by introducing Shuri to T’Challa’s son.
There were many aspects of this movie that I really liked. The performances–from both the returning cast and the newcomers, were good-to-great. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss continues to be a big, unnecessary distraction in the MCU, but she has maybe five minutes of screen time here and disappears before her character can make any lasting damage. The costumes and the production design are just as impressive as Black Panther. The special effects were noticeably improved from the first movie, where the CGI at times looked cheap and unconvincing. Given the monster success of the first movie, Marvel spared no expense in making the special effects in Wakanda look as good as they could possibly be. The biggest issue I had with Wakanda was its plot.
This isn’t the same problem I had with Black Widow, where the plot was ruined by the revelation that all of the bad actors (save one) were under “mind control”. Nor is it similar to Thor: Love and Thunder, where an interesting plot was sabotaged by overall crassness. The problem I had with Wakanda is that the central conflict in this story makes no sense. The first act establishes that there has been an ongoing confrontation between Wakanda and other civilized nations over its sovereignty and its precious natural resource: Vibranium. Instead of taking this conflict to its natural evolution, the plot completely abandons it for another confrontation between Wakanda and Talokan that is so completely unnecessary that it came off as arbitrary.
I had no problem with the movie introducing Namor and his people. Most marvel movies, even the ones I really like, never let a character simply talk or just be. The sequence where Namor tells Shuri who he is, where he’s from and why he’s doing what he’s doing went on for at least twenty minutes. It was a long expository detour, but I appreciated being able to listen to an interesting character talk for once without chaos raining down from all sides. Huerta is a good actor, and I’m not going to quibble when a movie gives a good actor the space (and time) to act. What I didn’t like is how the movie pushes Namor and Shuri into a conflict that could easily have been avoided.
While I understood why Namor was intent on protecting his people from the surface world, I did not understand why he was so comfortable with killing an innocent person to do so. His rationale behind his actions is so incredibly simple-minded that even Shuri says that he is being ridiculous. Which he is, for the sake of the plot. For reasons unknown, the filmmakers decided that a story about international intrigue and espionage was not enough to build a movie around, and instead throw the two secretive nations into conflict with each other. This belies reason because the two nations have so much in common, it makes no sense for them to be antagonist towards each other at all. They both hate the colonizers, so teaming up just makes logical sense. The movie tries to justify this outcome by making Namor an absolutist, but all his single-mindedness does is put him and his people into direct conflict with the only other country above water who would be completely sympathetic to his cause.
Like the characters in many other idiot plot movies, Namor and Shuri act stupidly to bring about a final confrontation between the two nations. First, Namor and his people attack Wakanda, which leads to the death of Queen Ramonda. Next, Shuri decides that revenge is the best option to settle her anger, and leads her people into a battle that they very nearly lose. If it weren’t for Queen Ramonda appearing to Shuri from beyond the grave to remind Shuri that Wakandans are peaceful, Namor and Wakanda’s warriors would all be dead. Shuri would have gotten her revenge, but at great cost. Before signing on board, M’Baku appears to want to talk Shuri out of her plan, but holds back. I have no idea why he chose that one moment to not be outspoken other than if he managed to get her to listen to reason, the movie wouldn’t have had a big finale.
There was no reason for Wakanda to go this route at all. Even if one of the primary objectives of the movie was to introduce Namor and Talokan, it could have done so by making them collaborators instead of antagonists. Having those two nations work together would have been an interesting way to go. Instead, we have a completely unnecessary battle where many people die, only to arrive at the obvious outcome of a truce.
The realization that nearly all of the action in the movie is due to an idiot plot contrivance frustrates me to no end. The fact that the movie works at all is a testament to the craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera. The movie is entertaining in spite of what it’s actually about, which, to be fair, is a critique you can lob at most superhero movies. The difference with Wakanda is that I expected the actual story to be about something more substantial that what is there, especially since it bookends the story with heartfelt acknowledgements of Boseman’s death. The first movie wasn’t perfect, but it grounded itself in serious topics that this movie barely considers before it forces two countries to ignore their real enemies and fight each other instead.
I realize that superhero movies aren’t built to withstand even a modest level of logical scrutiny. Unfortunately, this is also true of Wakanda. The notion that only Riri would be able to protect the design of the machine she created by burning sketches was pretty funny. She’s being funded by the CIA. Her drawings were hanging in plain view in her father’s garage. Wouldn’t take much for an agent to saunter in and snap a few photos. Even still, this is 2022. Is it even possible to design any piece of functional equipment and not use a computer? (Credit goes to my wife for pointing this out.) I’m still trying to understand how Shuri is able to synthesize a biologic and use a 3D printer to print it out. Or that Namor can fly incredibly fast and change direction on a dime with ankle wings the size of dove’s wings. Or that the Talokan’s are able to manufacture things like weapons under water. Of course, this way lies madness, but I can’t resist pointing these things out because accepting the goofy nature of superhero movies is part of the fun.
As I mentioned above, Wakanda has many elements that I really enjoyed. I’ll begin by calling out the performances, only because I must start somewhere. All of the returning members of the cast were equally excellent, led by Angela Bassett’s force-of-nature turn as Queen Ramonda. She is so good here, I was angered by how the plot turned her character into a catalyst for Shuri to claim the mantle of protector. Did she really need to die to get Shuri to commit to the cause? Regardless, Bassett’s soulful intensity really anchors the movie’s first half, and she is sorely missed after her death.
Letitia Wright’s performance as Shuri was amazing. While her acting in the first movie and Avengers: Infinity War was good, she wasn’t asked to do anything at the level she’s asked to do in this movie. In Wakanda, Shuri is much more than droll quips. Wright brings an incredible emotional rawness to her performance that makes her transition from tentative lab scientist to revenge seeking superhero believable. Taking over the lead in the movie after Boseman’s death must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do. That Wright pulls it off so well is a testament to her commitment to the project and her own acting skills.
The returning supporting cast also delivers many memorable performances, including Danai Gurira as Okoye and Winston Duke’s M’Baku. The time Coogler spent in the first movie making these characters multidimensional pays off tremendously here, with each of them getting the spotlight to showcase different aspects of their personality. Marvel likes their superheroes to have a mixture of humor and gravitas, but it feels so more natural coming from Gurira and Duke. When Okoye or M’Baku are funny, it feels so natural.
Things are a bit different for Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia. As the wife of the fallen king, she has a much smaller role in the action that I remembered her having in the first movie. Even still, she’s a beautiful and sensitive presence here, and delivers the film’s final grace note in the credit cookie when she introduces T’Challa’s son. Marvel needs more triumphant moments like these.
The newcomers to the story also leave quite an impression. Dominique Thorne’s Riri brings youthful American energy to the proceedings. Michaela Coel’s Aneka is such a striking figure, she commands your attention like Grace Jones in her heyday. She compliments Gurira’s Okoye so well, it’s no wonder the two end up together at the end. I liked the strength, confidence and intelligence Tenoch Huerta brings to Namor, and I wished the movie had made different choices about how he acted upon his motivations. That the movie decided to turn him into a one-note bad guy feels like an incredible missed opportunity.
On the negative side is Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’s Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. I like JLD as an actor, but she comes off as entirely superfluous here, just as she was in Captain America and the Winter Soldier. I think the problem is the incongruity with having such a renowned actor play what is essentially a throwaway character. I don’t begrudge her for collecting a paycheck for doing nothing, but the part could be played by anyone else and would have the same impact. Also, I like Martin Freeman, but Everett Ross does just as little as Valentina does in this movie and easily could have been left out.
Just like the first movie, Ryan Coogler infuses Wakanda with a vibe that is so different from any other Marvel movie. He gives the characters time to breathe and simply be. There’s an overall inquisitiveness about who these people are, and less about what they do, that is refreshing. Characters are allowed to have conversations that feel more personal and less about moving the plot forward. Rest assured, there’s still a lot of action and special effects in this movie, but it never overwhelms things until the last act. Maybe, someday, Marvel will let Coogler make a movie where the final act won’t come down to two superheroes fighting while their respective followers stage an all-out brawl. (That was my major complaint with Black Panther, by the way.)
Visually, Wakanda is one of the best-looking Marvel movies ever made. There’s a brightness and a clarity to the sets and the special effects that I rarely see in a Marvel movie. Whatever corners were cut on the first movie were reimbursed twice fold here. I liked the movie’s many little touches, like the huge DNA strand in Shuri’s lab where each of the little globe changes color according to how the formula is panning out. And how the Talokan’s surface masks are filled with running water. The movie takes a big risk by making the underwater scenes dark and murky, but I thought it worked well. Honestly, if they had taken the same approach as Aquaman, everyone would be criticizing Wakanda for being a ripoff.
As with the first movie, the costumes and production design in Wakanda are extraordinary. Both Black Panther movies look so unlike any other Marvel movie, they are a feast for the eyes. While the quality of the movies that make up Phase Four of the MCU is all over the map, I can see how Marvel is experimenting with different visual stylings with each new offering. I don’t think any of the rest are as resoundingly successful as this movie, but the effort is there.