When Chadwick Boseman passed away in the middle of a tumultuous 2020, a shitty year got even worse. He was a brilliant and incandescent screen presence, capable of the gravitas needed to portray some of the 20th century’s biggest icons – Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown – and his commitment to character sustained his forays into the realm of pure narrative fantasy. Nowhere was this on better display than in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, which even its detractors have to admit was a genuine cultural event for many around the world. Though the confirmation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (and Disney’s) dominance on the multiplex would come a year later with the victory lap otherwise known as Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther may have been its high-water mark. It got Kevin Feige the Best Picture nomination he craved, elevated a relatively obscure comic book character to the ranks of Superman and Spider-Man in the consciousness, and offered an intoxicating afrofuturistic vision of the continent untouched by imperialism and exploitation. It was, perhaps, the last Marvel film with sufficient intentional seriousness that also managed to be fun. Of course, the world demanded more, and Disney obliged them. But reality then crept into the carefully curated world of the MCU, and the project was thrown into genuine disarray without the presence of its brightest star.
There’s an old TV tropes page, given the title “Reed Richards Is Useless” some digital eons ago, that describes a paradoxical condition of comic book fiction: if a character is possessed with limitless intelligence, to the point that they can transcend reality itself through technology or augment themselves to become immensely powerful beings, they’re oftentimes prevented from more mundane but equally as horrible problems within the world around. Providing food to the hungry, helping to end energy crises and prevent global warming, or discovering cures for deadly diseases – all of these take a backseat to exploration or beating up superpowered threats from another galaxy when they show up next to the ISS. There are plenty of reasons for this, all of which are designed to protect the idea of the superhero from the implications of his very existence and to maintain the suspension of disbelief. If the recognizable problems within, say, the Marvel Universe, find themselves mitigated by Tony Stark or whomever, the reader will cease to find themselves and their neighbors in the text, which is a problem often endemic to superhero fiction, given those characters’ presence in a reality that’s similar to ours but just oh-so-slightly different, not to mention how it would rob the MCU of many of its little quips and pop culture references. There have been, of course, plenty of fantastic comics written exploring this trend, but they’re often given definitive endings (provided DC Comics doesn’t keep your masterwork in circulation for 40 years until they can have your blue-cocked and hung protagonist face off against Superman). Changes to the status quo are, of course, temporary — even Bucky could not stay dead, after all — and the mean will be regressed towards at some point.
But the real world that helped to birth these literally two-dimensional characters cannot be retconned with the stroke of a pen, as much as we might want it to be. As such, this loss, as well, was particularly handicapping for Disney. Their go-to strategy in times of discomfort, be it contractual or otherwise, is simply to recast the role in question. This has been the modus operandi since Terrence Howard’s absence was dealt with a flip quip by Don Cheadle when he showed up as Howard’s character in Iron Man 2. It continues to this day: William Hurt’s death will not derail Thunderbolts path to the screen; it will simply add a few zeros to the money originally reserved for him in order to get Harrison Ford to sign on as his replacement. It was, of course, in terrible taste to ask these questions in the immediate aftermath of Boseman’s passing, but once it became clear that the company would not stop production of a sequel even without their leading man, a compromise between ethics and capital was forged. T’Challa would not be recast, and he would be narratively laid to rest within MCU as well. This is a horrible hand of cards to be dealt for any filmmaker, and the closest comparison one can make to a passing of this magnitude is an ill-fitting one. Chris Nolan, who was so affected by the passing of Heath Ledger that one can make a compelling argument that most of his post-Batman filmography is him processing this loss through art, simply chose not to mention The Joker at all in The Dark Knight Rises. His work was done, and there was no use in bringing it up again, given that preserving Ledger’s performance, unadulterated, in The Dark Knight was, in a way, the most fitting tribute a filmmaker could make for a beloved collaborator – preserved in amber as an eternal tribute to his talents.
There’s also the fact that Nolan didn’t have to deal with the idea of a “shared universe,” given that it was still in its infancy when Rises started production, as well as the demands of a competing storyteller with more power than he had. But what links something like The Dark Knight Rises and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a kind of anhedonia – which is, not to be patronizing, the loss of pleasure one suffers from depression, where once fun activities lose their luster – that carries throughout the film, unacknowledged in the former, in keeping with Nolan’s stiff-upper-lip, and indulged in the latter. I do not think it is an insult to suggest that Wakanda Forever is not the film that anyone involved in its production wished they were making, and on some level, with all of the constraints unfairly imposed upon it by circumstance and its presence within something like the MCU, it is probably the best movie one could make. Nor do I mean to damn it with faint praise given that statement: This was an impossible task given to a capable and talented filmmaker, and it is genuinely unfair to compare it to its predecessor. But is a hard thing to feel the deep pain radiating off of the screen during every second of the 160-minute runtime and still find yourself wowed by the destructive prowess of a green-trunks clad merman with winged feet.
See, in one way, the MCU got lucky in that there is a precedent for an already-present character to take over the mantle of the Black Panther in T’Challa’s absence, and that there was a suitably gravitas-filled conflict that the nation of Wakanda could be plunged into to dramatically up the stakes: Their war with the Atlanteans, who are here recast as the “Talokan,” a group of indigenous Mesoamericans who were endowed with the ability to breathe underwater by their god and fled to the sea in order to escape the arrival of colonialism (and all of those microbes and other devastations it brought with it) to their continent. The latter element is fully-fleshed out and is frankly pretty impressively rendered, and it feels like what we might have seen in a world where Boseman were still atop its cast list. The Talokan are perhaps the best-designed creatures in a Marvel film in years and years, and their civilization makes for a compelling counterpart to Wakanda in both style – they’re each visions of paradise and possibility meant to stand in direct contrast with the miseries present with our own history, with the sea people quite literally taking their name from the Aztec afterlife that one goes to when they drown – and in thematics. Both had the same precious and untapped resource in their Vibranium stores, but Wakanda sealed itself off from the world before anyone could ever get to it, while Talokan’s very existence is defined by clear cruelty that its people witnessed and remember. And, as such, they’re led by very different people, with Wakanda picking up from where T’Challa left off and integrating itself into the international community, and Talokan’s ruler, Namor (Tenoch Huerta, who comes closest to equaling the raw charisma of the first film’s leads in his quiet ferocity), the aforementioned mutant-with-winged feet, instead wishes to drown everyone on land, except for the Wakandans, if they choose to ally with him.
See, the world’s governments want that precious metal, and in the process, they’ve appropriated technology that a genius college student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) made in her dorm at MIT. They’re coming dangerously close to unveiling Takolan to the world, and Namor wants to prevent this from happening at all costs. So, they decide to try and take the girl hostage. Princess Shuri (Letita Wright), still struggling with the death of her brother and her own lack of faith in any idea of an afterlife, is sent by her mother (Angela Bassett) to prevent The Scientist (as Riri is often referred to for some reason) from being kidnapped. But after a car chase through the streets of Cambridge in which Riri takes to the skies in her own version of an Iron Man suit, both her and Shuri are taken to the depths. It’s here that Huerta puts on the full-court press of his charm, and there’s an interesting element of romanticism that feels entwined with the style and tone of its predecessor. Coogler is clearly trying to have fun with his aquatic setting, even going so far to do a lengthy echo of The Abyss at one point, but the Marvel he is working with now is not the one he worked within 2018. Much like every other film in Phase Four, aspects of Wakanda Forever have “COVID PRODUCTION” scrawled across them in all-caps, and it has a detrimental effect on the film’s style. The vibrancy of Wakanda as a setting is reduced, though perhaps not to the same extent as the depopulated New York of Spider-Man: No Way Home was, but enough that one can feel the tangible differences between the sequels. The color palette is also much darker, thanks to the changes in setting (it is, understandably, hard to light for a fictionalized version of the Marianas Trench), and the film’s length nearly causes it to buckle.
What results is an undoubtedly muted and depressing film, with almost all of the issues that plagued the production manifesting themselves on screen and having a deleterious impact. And, sadly, there’s no real way to fill the void left not only by Boseman but by the absence of performers like Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whittaker, and Coogler’s longtime collaborator Michael B. Jordan. What’s left over is Wright, whose emotional journey in the film is hampered by the fact that what her character goes through is ill-served by her talents and how she is written. Shuri was fun and occasionally badass, a jovial counterpart to the more-serious T’Challa, and the imposition of gravitas upon her is more than the character can handle. Her journey feels incomplete, and not in the way that serialization usually handicaps the growth of its protagonists: Her grief has fully immobilized her. Winston Duke is still around and having a good time, but he’s absent for most of the film until our big third-act battle, and whatever light Thorne or Danai Gurira try to bring to the proceedings is quickly snuffed out by malaise. And whenever Marvel tries to do shared universe bullshit, the film begins to stray outright into bad taste – a cameo in the middle of the film does nothing for it, whereas at least sometimes you’re able to convince yourself that you’re not watching a teaser for another film – though apparently, at some point, cooler heads prevailed at least when it came to the matter of post-credits sequences.
The way the last few minutes of the film unroll, it’s pretty clear that there were, at one point, the normal assortment of them, covering the few loose ends left over, teasing things to come, doing the kind of Pavlovian training that Marvel puts on when they want you to see how long a human bladder can really last under pressure. This is a result of the aforementioned compromise between capital and ethics. There’s no way this film gets made without those three scenes, and the actual ending of Wakanda Forever is allowed to be the final thing you witness before the lights come up. Without dipping into full spoiler territory, there is only one and it comes mid-credits, and offers a quiet scene between a few characters on a real set in a real place. Coogler’s handheld camerawork in that scene is heavily reminiscent of his work on Creed, and there’s a moment when it seems that the bullshit finally breaks and these people – both the on-screen characters and the real-world production surrounding them – seem like they can finally begin to mourn. A character references a “private funeral” they held for the king, free of royal obligation and pomp and circumstance, and that’s what this scene feels like: a comparatively graceful way of mourning and paying enduring tribute to someone beloved to many but even more so by those who knew and worked with him. One wonders what Wakanda Forever might have looked like if that scene’s pathos was present in all of the film, but because this is Marvel – the fun-filled and heavily-manicured cinematic fantasy of our age being forced to deal with hard things they are in no way equipped for – it is buried in the credits.