Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: after going 2-for-2 on his first feature films Fruitvale Station and Creed, director Ryan Coogler raised the bar in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Black Panther, and in turn gave Chadwick Boseman a long-overdue boost into super-stardom after years of his own fine works such as 42 and the still-underrated Persons Unknown. His death was among the many, many, many reasons we will never forgive the year 2020 for its endless curses.
Though we were blessed with chances to celebrate his life and talent posthumously in Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the grand surprisie of an alt-timeline Panther reprise in What If…? season one, the MCU proper never got a chance to say goodbye, to give King T’Challa of Wakanda the big sendoff he would’ve deserved if only Boseman could’ve had a couple more years to perform the honors. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole return for that very purpose — and so, so much more — with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Coogler has little choice but to welcome us back to Wakanda by breaking our hearts all over again. Within minutes T’Challa dies offscreen due to “undisclosed illness” (space cancer? attack by a plague-powered villain? COVID Omega?) and a world mourns. Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) must keep everything running while presiding over a nation-sized royal funeral that makes Queen Elizabeth II’s days-long commemoration look an Appalachian junior-high awards day. It’s a rarest of rarities in a superhero universe: a tribute to a fallen hero who, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, cannot be brought back from the dead by even the stupidest, greediest writer or editor. Our world doesn’t have the luxury of salvation via wish-fulfillment crossovers or all-powerful marketing departments with the unlimited power of fast-buck resurrection. (Woe betide anyone who might’ve suggested recasting the part. I bet Terrence Howard was available. But no. Just NO.) Wakanda must therefore reckon with ripples from our real world.
At Ramonda’s side, super-scientist daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) grieves her fallen brother, laments how her genius research and cutting-edge resources failed to save him, and rages against the seeming silence from the vaunted Panther Gods in response to her fervent prayers. That feeling of divine cruelty shatters her faith and isolates her from everyone else. Perhaps a new Black Panther might bring healing and lead one and all into a new era, but we’re bitterly reminded a certain idiot named Killmonger had all traces of the sacred Panther-power herb destroyed. Remember his culpability in T’Challa’s death next time you see an internet rando prancing around with “KILLMONGER WAS RIGHT” in their profile.
Before our tears have dried (they won’t stay dry for long anyway), a one-year time jump finds Our Heroes adjusted as well as could be expected, moments before a new source of international intrigue offers a welcome distraction. In a world where everyone craves a share of Wakanda’s unique vibranium super-metal deposits by any means necessary, a new vein of it is discovered thousands of miles away on the ocean floor. That’s good news for the Americans who barge in and quickly assert drilling rights, up until that dark moment they realize they’re not alone, someone else was there first, and casualties ensue. They’ve waded into the top-secret land of Talokan, which is literally a rebranded Atlantis. Marvel has had their own Atlantis for decades, but DC Comics got there first in print and in theaters four years ago, so Marvel renamed theirs after the Aztec legend of Tlālōcān. Marvel’s VFX artists also strain to differentiate their underwater fantasy world from the realm of Avatar, newly fresh in everyone’s minds after seeing the upcoming sequel’s trailer play in front of this very movie. James Cameron’s overdue revival looks beautiful in fake-IMAX 3-D, and Talokan can’t help being shamed by that juggernaut of an opening act. Bless their hearts, they do try to do their own thing.
In addition to its visuals, Talokan’s backstory is likewise revised. The MCU version is a mere handful of centuries old, created by a confluence of unique super-fungus deposits and Man’s Inhumanity to Man. (This is arguably better than past comics origins which alternately involved aliens and/or the Eternals, who’ve now been locked in a broom closet with the Inhumans.) Their entire population descended from Central American slaves who escaped, became water-breathers, and established their own undersea kingdom. Their long-lived leader since Day One is Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta (The Forever Purge, Narcos: Mexico) as a righteously aggrieved defender of his citizens, as a shrewd planner who dreams of world domination as a form of vengeance, as a topless hunky Casanova, and as a big hotheaded jerk. All of these modes are in keeping with the Sub-Mariner’s 80 years of comics history, in which he’s vacillated between heroism and villainy depending on his writers’ whims. As in the comics, he rises above his compatriots as a mutant (which he admits by name! keeping our hope for the X-Men alive!) with winged ankles that let him fly, super-strength on par with the Thing’s, and pointed ears that used to be an Atlantean trait but aren’t shared onscreen by the Talokani (Talokanii? Talokanians? Talons?). With that trait subtracted from their genes, his Spock ears add to his “othering” for no real reason beyond “that’s the way we’ve always drawn Namor”.
Usually whenever he’s in a conquering phase and seething with anti-human snobbery, it’s been over environmental concerns. (“Surface-dwellers constantly threaten the oceans where we live! They must all PERISH!” And so on, in his recurring role as a 1960s herald of today’s climate change debates.) Here, he doesn’t bother with that pretense as the CIA-led invaders disturb the oceanic peace with their hi-tech vibranium drill. Coogler and Cole could’ve set up the drill as a danger to Talokan citizens and/or aquatic life, for value-added messaging; instead they simplify matters to a turf war. Outsiders are meddling in Namor’s domain and have renewed his thirst for bloody reparations. It’s him versus the world in the mighty Marvel manner, except this time he brings merely one vast army and a few excellently trained whales. (Coogler and company miss an awesome opportunity by not also bringing in his pet Giganto — an amphibious, four-limbed sperm whale possibly created by the Deviants, who are also locked in the broom closet with the Eternals and Iron Fist.)
Namor aims his wrath at two primary targets. First on his Most Wanted list: the inventor of that annoying vibranium drill. Though the C.I.A. calls proprietary dibs on it, it’s an outsourced design by a 19-year-old M.I.T. prodigy named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, who was one of two Dominiques in Judas and the Black Messiah). Once Our Heroes are aware of her involvement and Namor’s plan, Shuri teams up with Dora Milaje chief Okoye (Danai Gurira) and journeys to Cambridge to reach this rising STEM superstar first. Another round of big-city action scenes ensue — a car chase, a melee with the Talokaners (Talokanites? Talokos?), and a bit of neo-Iron Man aerial shoot-’em-up in anticipation of Williams’ planned Disney+ Ironheart series. Not that I’m complaining about any of this — Thorne is a strong, frequently funny addition to the ranks that adds more pushback against the mostly upper-class MCU-at-large, and all the action is on point.
Beyond Williams, Namor’s also decided it’s time to declare war on that darn surface world and proud Wakanda should be first to fall. Not only does he consider them his biggest surface-world threat among all the countries ever (he may not be wrong), but he’s also pettily upset after Ramonda rejects his initial overtures to team up against the rest of the world. Two tiny countries with mighty armies and vibranium stashes versus everyone else is an awesome mental image for him, but she informs him this is not the Wakandan way. On the contrary, their way is to stand above the fray as Western leaders look up and shout “Can we has vibranium?” and she looks down and bellows, “No.” Namor’s ineptitude with creating and sustaining superhero team-ups is also established canon, as we’ve seen from the dozens of times he tried working with Doctor Doom, only for every tale to end acrimoniously because no room in the world is big enough to contain both their egos at the same time.
Considering how many years in advance the MCU tapestry is planned and its long strands are first woven into the loom, it’s hard to tell how many of these plot movements were already in Wakanda Forever‘s DNA before Boseman’s passing. Nevertheless, the loss informs every conflict and every performance. Bassett in particular is the most ferocious of all as the elder thrust into the interim-commander role in the absence of that son/leader who should’ve enjoyed a long reign, more than able to stand her ground and shatter mountains with a defiant vehemence honed through decades of practice. Bassett is the anchor that we and Wakanda need throughout this tribulation as Coogler and company steer the Panther series into a future without the Panther.
The final showdown is glorious to experience in 3-D and splits our attentions between two battlegrounds — a massive Wakandan carrier ship and a hand-to-hand duel between Namor and the all-new, all-different Panther, whose identity I’m supposed to pretend is a spoiler even though they’ll surely be named in headlines within twelve hours after I click the “Publish” button on this.
Meanwhile, the core of this film from beginning to end is Letitia Wright, pushed to do far, far more heavy lifting that wasn’t asked of her in the first one or in her Avengers bit parts. Like Ramonda, Shuri couldn’t know there’d soon be a large void for her to fill. As part of a family coping with unimaginable loss, her science-vs.-faith inner struggle is an all-too-real response in times of hardest grief, one rarely explored in genre films, albeit with the scales tilted in this case. We’ve seen the royal Wakandan afterlife before, even if Shuri hasn’t, which makes her rebellion all the more painful to Ramonda and to us. Wright gets candid and raw with all that, proves she can stand outside of both Boseman’s and Bassett’s tall shadows, and demonstrates why Marvel, Coogler, et al. held on to Wright so tightly despite the widely reported COVID-era filming controversies. Not unlike that never-ending battle, Shuri’s emotional beats ultimately lead to moments in which she has to decide between justice and vengeance, between grudges and forgiveness, between litigating the past and moving forward.
(That ending is likeliest to cause arguments as viewers exit the theater. Admittedly the philosophical exercise would feel more fun to explore if it felt more like an artistic choice for ambiguity and less like a compulsory move because “that’s the way we’ve always written Namor”.)
Wakanda Forever runs well over 2½ hours, yet mostly doesn’t feel like it. Mostly. There’s a lull during the second hour when the Talokan infodump and Namor’s spotlight feel a bit draggy. Another prominent subplot — involving the return of Martin Freeman’s government agent Everett Ross and the insertion of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as U.S. covert-ops figurehead Valentina de Fontaine (last seen in the scene after the Black Widow end credits) — facilitates exactly one (1) plot need that could’ve been written around in seconds and is superfluous to the film at hand. Otherwise, we pretty much want everything that’s packed in here. This sequel is more self-contained than other MCU products, chiefly because there really is an audience for the Black Panther series by itself without all the baggage. It’s not quite a self-contained work, but other than a few obligatory canon references (to the Blip, the Hulk, Tony Stark, de Fontaine’s intrusion), if you’ve seen the first one, it had everything you need to know.
Everyone involved brought their A game. We’re treated to dynamic action sequences that outshine their in-universe colleagues and most non-MCU wannabe blockbusters trying to compete on that same field. The wobbly visuals that hampered the first BP’s underground-railroad fight are no longer an issue — from my amateur vantage, the artists this time seem to have been granted all the money and time they needed. The trendsetting costumes and fashions make me ashamed of every clothing article I’ve ever owned. Ludwig Göransson’s ever-adaptive score leaps nimbly from African rhythms to dance-floor vibes to old-fashioned hero symphonies and back again. You get the impression no one wanted to let Boseman down, least of all the Marvel empire itself. That’s how much flex T’Challa earned.
Unlike virtually every other film I’ve seen in theaters this year, I had the pleasure of seeing Wakanda Forever in a totally packed house. (The screening before us had been so packed, and trashed the place so disgustingly, that we weren’t allowed inside till ten minutes before showtime, because that’s how long cleanup took.) The crowd was extremely responsive to the proceedings, applauding in multiple moments — at the end per tradition, at the new Panther’s grand entrance, and even at the very special Marvel logo after the prologue. Tears flowed at numerous points, and laughter erupted as well. At a scene where one character remarks on another’s appearance and “that ash on your face”, our crowd LOST IT. If and when corporate malfeasance kills Twitter dead, at showings like this is where you’ll find Black Twitter hanging out instead.
It sucks that we even had to hold big-screen funeral services for the rightly esteemed Mr. Boseman, but all involved made Wakanda Forever a rousing, inspiring success in his name.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Returning players include Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s old flame Nakia, who’s still sharp at spying and combat when asked to be; Winston Duke as nonchalant rival/ally/comic relief M’Baku; Florence Kasumba (last seen in Falcon and the Winter Soldier) as Ayo, a top Dora Milaje soldier often overshadowed by Okoye but earning far more runtime here; The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah as Shuri’s A.I. sidekick Griot (with way more lines than ever before); one surprise guest from the first film whose cameo was a huge shock to that engaged audience, myself included; and the entire council of Wakandan elders, who include Isaach de Bankolé from Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog and Night on Earth.
Joining the winning side is Michaela Coel (a survivor of two Black Mirror episodes) as new Dora Milaje recruit Aneka. C.I.A. operatives in Namor’s path include Lake Bell (Into the Spider-Verse, What If…?) and Robert John Burke (Robocop 3, Person of Interest). Richard Schiff (The West Wing, The Lost World) has one scene as the U.S. Secretary of State, the highest-ranking U.S. government official we’ve seen in any recent MCU films. (Someday I’d love to know who took the Oval Office next after William Sadler’s President Ellis.) Anderson Cooper appears in two scenes as himself on TV toting a few pounds of exposition.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely (like, two whole minutes into the credits, you impatient lot) and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship…]
…while M’Baku takes the opportunity to challenge any and all comers for Wakanda’s throne (I don’t get a vote here, but why not him?), Shuri doffs her costume and travels incognito to Haiti for a visit with Nakia at her home of the past six years. Those who’ve done the math while watching realize this is where she landed after T’Challa’s first death in Infinity War. Shuri has arrived to finish what Ramonda had encouraged her to do earlier: complete the robe-burning ritual that concludes every family funeral. Why she didn’t just do that at home isn’t explained.
Nakia in turn has a surprise for her that explains what she’s been doing besides teaching Haitian schoolkids…as she introduces her son, who’s kinda big for a 5- or 6-year-old. His name is Toussaint as far as the other kids are concerned, but his real name is T’Challa, son of King T’Challa.
It’s yet another loving tribute to Boseman and his legacy, but it also portends the possibility that perhaps, should the MCU continue into future decades without rebooting, it stands to reason li’l T could grow to adulthood, one day assume the hero mantle, and then Marvel could boast they once again have a Black Panther named T’Challa. This might seem a cuter prognostication if I weren’t still annoyed by that time Smallville prematurely inserted Jimmy Olsen into Superman canon years ahead of schedule, killed him off and then explained away the discrepancy by revealing he wasn’t the Jimmy Olsen, but rather a Jimmy Olsen who just so happened to be an older relative with the same name as the actual future Superman’s Pal. I’d rather not see a day when Panther movies have anything in common with Smallville.
There’s no scene after the end credits per se, simply a closing message predictable yet loud ‘n’ proud: “BLACK PANTHER WILL RETURN.”