Director/Story – Ryan Coogler, Screenplay – Joe Robert Cole & Ryan Coogler, Producers – Kevin Feige & Nate Moore, Photography – Autumn Durald Arkapaw, Music – Ludwig Goranson, Visual Effects Supervisor – Geoffrey Baumann, Visual Effects/Animation – Barnstorm VFX, Cinesite Montreal (Supervisor – Jennifer Meire, Animation Supervisor – Jason Edwardh), Digital Domain (Supervisor – Hanzhi Tang), Industrial Light & Magic (Supervisor – Craig Hammack & David Seager, Animation Supervisor – Mathew Cowie), Rise Visual Effects Studios (Supervisor – Sebastian Lauer) & Weta FX Ltd (Supervisor – R. Christopher White), Visual Effects – Base FX (Supervisor – Xu Li), Cinesite London (Supervisor – Ben White), Distillery VFX, Luma (Supervisor – Andrew Zink), Mammal Studios (Supervisor – Gregory D. Liegy), Perception, Scanline VFX (Supervisor – Justin Mitchell), SSVFX (Supervisor – Ed Bruce), Storm Studios (Supervisor – Espen Nordahl) & Territory Studio, Special Effects Supervisor – Dan Sudick, Production Design – Hannah Beachler. Production Company – Marvel Studios.
Letitia Wright (Princess Shuri), Angela Bassett (Queen Ramonda), Tenoch Huerta Mejia (Prince Namor), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Dominique Thorne (Riri Williams), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Martin Freeman (Everett Ross), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Valentina Allegra de Fontaine), Florence Kasumba (Ayo), Michaela Coel (Aneka), Alex Livinalli (Attuma), Mabel Cadena (Namora), Richard Schiff (US Secretary of State), Trevor Noah (Voice of Griot), Lake Bell (Dr Graham), Maria Mercedes Coroy (Namor’s Mother), Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger)
Wakanda’s King T’Challa dies. After a period of mourning, his mother Ramonda assumes the throne. At the same time, the US government begins a sea drilling project seeking to find a non-Wakandan source of vibranium, only for the rig to be attacked by people that emerge from underwater. Ramonda is startled by the appearance of the half-human, half-amphibian Namor, ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan, who has managed to get in past the Wakandan forcefield. He proposes an alliance to prevent surface powers from obtaining the vibranium but Ramonda rejects him. They realise that the US is using a device that can trace vibranium that has been built by MIT student Riri Williams. In going to Boston to rescue her, both Shuri and Riri are snatched and taken down to Talokan. This brings Wakanda and Talokan to the brink of war.
Black Panther (2018) proved quite a sensation among the spate of Marvel Comics adaptations. It was the No 1 top-grossing film of the year and was even nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. I thought it was an okay Marvel film but felt I was not part of the bandwagon celebrating it. In actuality, the film’s success felt like it was less due to Marvel and more one of timing – it came out a year after Get Out (2017) and rode a huge social wave that sought a redress racial inequalities in the US as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. In other words, the importance of Black Panther was less to do with how it fares as a Comic Book Adaptation where Black Panther is an average but hardly top-tier hero – he has a cool combat suit and that is about it – than the racial and identity politics that people have read into the film.
This is no more evident than when it comes to the sequel. Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer in 2020. Normally in Hollywood, this would mean recasting the role (like the way the Iron Man films replaced Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle in the role of James Rhodes between the first and second films without anybody blinking, or the switch between Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo as the MCU’s Incredible Hulk). The option is the one that the Addams Family films took, which was to retire the series following Raul Julia’s death rather than recast the role. Contrarily, Ryan Coogler has sought to build the whole of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever around Chadwick Boseman’s death. It seems an odd way to make a Superhero Film – one where the actual superhero whose name is in the title is not present for the entire film. Imagine for example conducting an Iron Man 4 following Tony Stark’s death in Avengers: Endgame (2019) in which there is no Iron Man and the film is centred around who inherits the Stark empire.
Thus we have a show about Black Panther where the actual role of Black Panther is retired in the opening scenes (although is brought back out of mothballs right near the end). The story far less interestingly becomes about who becomes the new ruler of Wakanda. First we get Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother stepping into the role, before being killed off. Bassett was nominated for an Academy Award for the part. I thought she was okay and projects a haughty regality in the role. On the other hand, when you contrast this to Bassett’s far more impressive work playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993) and other real-life based roles in Malcolm X (1992) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002), even some of her other genre work like the standout performances she gave in Strange Days (1995) and American Horror Story (2011- ), it seems an odd choice of role to nominate her for. You feel that there are better performances she could have been chosen for.
There’s a similar feeling when Letitia Wright steps into the role of Wakanda’s ruler after Angela Bassett is killed off (and later into the Black Panther costume). This does have some comic-book precedent as Shuri did become Wakanda’s ruler due to T’Challa’s absences (but not death). On the other hand, Wright is a skinny beanpole figure and a more passive personality who lacks the presence to inhabit the role. Ryan Coogler says they conceived her as a Q figure and the result is akin to imagining Ben Whishaw’s Q from the Daniel Craig Bond films suddenly stepping into a role that is a combination of the King of England and a superhero. Certainly, Shuri’s character gets a good workout in the script but Wright just fails to fill the presence. Wakanda Forever is very much a Girl Power film and you couldn’t help but think there are other actresses present in the show – Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira – that would have better filled the part.
The main nemesis the film introduces is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Namor first appeared in a promotional giveaway from Marvel in 1939 and then gained his own comic-book in 1941 where he quickly joined the Allied war effort. Namor appeared only a few months earlier than DC’s Aquaman. Both characters have an almost identical background as being a half-human, half-Merperson and the ruler of Atlantis. Unlike Aquaman, Namor is a much more ambiguous character and has switched back and forth between being a villain and a hero, where he has variously joined The Avengers and The Defenders, although has also allied with other super-villains. Namor had appeared in various of the Marvel animated tv series but this is the first live-action version we have had. Apparently the reason that we hadn’t had a Namor film amid the massive explosion of Marvel superheroes on screen since the mid-2000s is because the copyright to the character is owned by Universal and the MCU didn’t feel obliged to make a film when somebody else holds the rights.
The introduction of Namor brings some much-needed vitality to the plot. It takes the film away from the far less interesting internal politics of Wakanda and gives them an equally matched nemesis. The main problem with the introduction of Namor is that DC had just introduced Aquaman in Justice League (2017) and given him a successful solo film with Aquaman (2018), which has a sequel waiting in the wings as Wakanda Forever is released. Namor’s backstory as a king of Atlantis has been rewritten (possibly to make the character less like Aquaman) and a newly invented kingdom of Talokan created, along with a background among the Mayan people.
Tenoch Huerta Mejia is okay in the role but the part is vastly overshadowed by Jason Momoa who incarnated Aquaman with majestic charisma and a set of cojones that made Momoa into a sex symbol. In contrast, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, like Letitia Wright, is a quiet presence and never animates the film with anything that approaches Jason Momoa’s charisma. Not to mention that Namor is much more of a morally ambiguous character than Aquaman ever was. (The other issue I have with the film is that between the Wakandans speaking with accents and Tenoch Huerta Mejia’s natural accent, you are often straining trying to decipher the dialogue).
To its favour, Wakanda Forever works okay once it introduces Namor and the undersea kingdom. Ryan Coogler does fairly well with most of the action sequences – the exception being a car chase in the streets of Boston that keeps getting distracted by flip dialogue. However, the Talokan invasion of Wakanda and the climactic scenes with combat in and around a vast Wakandan war ship is all exciting stuff.
On the other hand, I feel that I have reached an ennui with the MCU. Ever since Avengers: Endgame, the MCU seems to have been in meh-ville. Black Widow (2021), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), Eternals (2021), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) have all been terminally mediocre, although I did like Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) more than most people were prepared to give it. Equally, I just don’t have enough time in my day to sit and watch eight different Marvel tv series to keep current with what is going on. It may simply be that we have reached peak MCU and that what we now have is something that is clinging to its once former glory trying to leverage what is left into something significant.