Blockbusters, especially those bouncing with superhuman dexterity and grace off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) production line, rarely have tangibly real emotion in abundance.
But Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, written and directed by Ryan Coogler (he co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) seems determined to prove that this is not a universal rule.
Coming in at a whopping two hours and 42 minutes, Wakanda Forever is one of the lengthier members of the sprawling MCU, and uses much of that time to drive home the point that grief and loss, and the twisting chaos that follows their arrival in someone’s life, can have a profound impact on someone’s life and on those around him.
Particularly when you are one of the elite of a rich, technologically advance African nation which stands atop the hierarchy of nations and which with every carefully calibrated action and artfully, if forcefully chosen word, proves that being a leading player on the world stage does not you to be a member of a once-great colononising superpower.
Reeling from the passing of the most recent Black Panther, King T’Challa (the much-mourned Chadwick Boseman) whose authority, compassion and leadership strength marked him as a leader among leaders, Wakanda, now under the rule of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), stands at a crossroads, assaulted verbally in the UN by Western nations such as the USA and France while also attacked by them for vibranium, a metal so rare it is only known to exist in one country on earth.
No prizes for guessing which one.
Faced with becoming a pariah because of its unwillingness to buckle to rapacious geopolitics, Wakanda, which is the alternate history epitome of what Africa might have been if the West had not looted and pillaged it over centuries, must find a way to negotiate a new place in the place, driven by calm pragmatism and an assuredness about its place in the world.
But grief and loss can play at even the strongest of hearts, and as Queen Ramonda, who can be a wise decision-maker and powerful orator – Bassett delivers magnificent base-heavy power to her utterances which are a thing of resounding intent – and her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright), who feels the passing of her brother to a soul-harrowing degree, her grief amplified when another great loss sends her over the edge into unthinking vengeance, surging with a need to “burn the world” around her.
The rawness of Wakanda Forever is what most strikes you most immediately and with significant impact.
Even in the quieter middle portion of the film which loses its way a little in tone and substance, taking its meditative willingness to let its characters breathe and feel rather than bounce around like balls in the endless reaches of the MCU battle machine, you can feel every agonised beat of Shuri’s broken heart, and the indeed the mournful soul of Wakanda itself.
With that much perception-skewering grieving in play, it’s not really the time for an enemy to rear its head, but one does anyway, with the mystically furious underwater kingdom of Talokan, all bristling power and majestic presence, its society shaped by its Mayan cultural influences and need to strike back at the colonisers who caused the people, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta) aka K’uk’ulkan, the feathered serpent god K’uk’ulkan, to flee into the ocean for refuge in the first place.
Namor is angry at the surface world which has caused so much harm to his people, and he hopes that he can persuade Wakanda to join him in an alliance against the nations that treat them as resources to be exploited rather than as peoples with whom they can interact.
Unlike Wakanda, whose presence was revealed at the end of the first Black Panther film by T’Challa himself, Talokan is an unknown entity, though with the race on to find deposits of vibranium somewhere other than Wakanda, Namor fears they will not stay in the shadows for long.
He proposes an alliance, though it is delivered with customary threat and bluster, something which does not go down well with Queen Ramonda who is none too pleased to be ordered around by anyone, not least the ruler of a once-colonised people who knows all too well, and with lingering four-and-a-half-century-old anger, what military brutalisation and the wielding of raw power can do to a society, and yet chooses to wield it anyway.
This power play, which happens diplomatically and militarily, between two once-colonised peoples – though it’s not clear is Wakanda was ever colonised, it’s clear it knows how destructive it can be – speaks to the intelligence and sophistication of the ideas behind Wakanda Forever, which while it slows down to an almost plodding degree in the middle act, a little to enamoured of weighty exposition and ruminative moments, is replete at all times with some thoughtful meditations on the nature of power and how easily the oppressed can become the oppressor.
Namor is clearly an anti-hero, though Wakanda Forever is clear to flesh him out as someone with nuance and humanity whose experience of the world has shaped into a leader who sees weakness of any kind as an opening to the enacting of terrible things against his people.
His response to everything is thus merciless reaction, and while Wakanda, enveloped in grief so raw and expansiveness it threatens to rob it of its nobility and lofty sense of moral purpose, does temporarily become enthralled to the same motivations, Wakanda Forever is wise enough to finish its lengthy narrative with the declarative certainty that allowing the afterwash of trauma and grief to chart your course, both personally and as a society, is a recipe for great harm in the short and long terms.
What sets this highly emotive film apart from many its MCU compatriots is that the emotion here feels very immediate and real.
Beginning and ending with mourning for the former Black Panther, and by extension for the beloved figure of Chadwick Boseman whose death from colon cancer in 2020 rent the MCU but also the lives of the many people Boseman worked with on Black Panther, Wakanda Forever is suffused with emotion of the rawest kind that will be sadly and intimately familiar to anyone who has ever lost anyone that meant the world to them.
You can feel the palpable sense of grinding, soul-eviscerating loss at every turn, and whatever the film’s narrative missteps, it stands as testament to what we can be achieved when character and humanity lead the way, rather than ceaseless action and battle, and how real and deeply affecting it can be.
For the greater part, Wakanda Forever is a thing of marvel and beauty – from the wondrous world-building majesty of Wakanda and Talokan to its implicit understanding of the nuance and complexity of geopolitics, especially when it is twisted by postcolonial machinations and pain, and especially to its insightful appreciation of how cataclysmic pain and loss can warp people and a society, but how, with perspective and time, which the film rewardingly gives both its characters and stories (for the most part), it can also start life anew which finds a form not of what once was but what will be, with the future shaping up unexpectedly but nicely as the film ends on an optimistic mid-credits note.