When someone passes, they leave a void in the lives of those around them. When that person is a performing artist, and they are known for a role that was deeply impactful to a huge audience, that void is magnified exponentially. That was the case when Chadwick Boseman, who played the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, passed away in 2020. He drew us into a classic character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before appearing in his own film, Black Panther, which I would argue is possibly the best film that Marvel has produced. As fans around the world reeled at the news, many of us wondered what would happen to the character, to the story arc?
The worst thing that directors can do in a circumstance in which an actor, especially an actor who has mastered such an important role, passes, is simply re-cast the role and continue the story arc as-is. With few exceptions, audiences just won’t be on board. The beauty of the art form is that the character has now come alive for us, embodied in this actor, and, Time Lords aside, new faces might be accepted, but they just don’t work in the long run.
That’s why I think that Wakanda Forever is exactly what the story needs, and what audiences need, as the MCU moves forward. This story is about the void. It’s about those left behind. It’s about a nation and a people that still need a hero, but find that hero to be suddenly taken away from them. This is a story about mourning. It is a hero story without a hero.
Accordingly, the movie begins letting the audience experience the grief of the loss, giving us a few moments…not rushed…to mourn with the rest of the characters on the screen, before being thrust into the aftermath of T’Challa’s death. The central character here is Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, and, while we’re introduced to new characters such as Namor the Sub-Mariner and Ironheart, this is very much her story. The through-line is her grief, and the nation-state conflicts and political power-struggles between Wakanda, Talokan, and the United States are really just vehicles to walk her character through the grief process. The action sequences mostly concede (final climactic battle excepted) to character development, especially the Wakandan characters that we’ve seen in previous films, which really gives the audience something to digest. It is difficult to watch a hero film without a hero, difficult to sit with that emptiness of grief, but it is the only way to give this story arc the treatment that it deserves and, given other recent catastrophic failures in this phase of the MCU, I’m both relieved and respectful that the writers did so.
This film is more, though. It deals with the natural human reactions to trauma: confronting the collision of faith and empiricism in un-answered prayers, and the desire to strike back at the world in anger. More than grief explored, Wakanda Forever is a story of faith vs. uncertainty, and, perhaps most of all, a morality tale on the dangers of seeking revenge.
It’s not that I didn’t have problems with the film. While I think that the depth of not only African but Aztec cultures are beautifully presented, the decision to make Namor and his people not be from Atlantis just didn’t work for the comics purist in me. I can see why the decision was made from a writing standpoint though, as it wouldn’t be seen as original given that DC got there first.
All in all, though, Wakanda Forever stands out for me in a Phase 4 that has been, at best, about 50% worthwhile. This was a fantastic film with which to end this phase, and, above all, it pays respect to Boseman’s legacy with the character, while building a solid foundation for where the new Black Panther will take us. I highly recommend this film.