The Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 4 has lacked, compared to the previous ones, the universe building up momentum in terms of storytelling and connections which led to the Infinity saga. Some of the best moments of Phase 4 have been featured in the shows rather than in the movies, from WandaVision to Loki and Ms.Marvel, or the little horror jewel and tribute to classic US horror movies of the ’40s that is Werewolf by Night (Michael Giacchino, 2022), starring Gael Garcia Bernal. A notable exception is Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021), a movie which followed the approach to diversity and inclusion, first cemented by Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018).
For these reasons and many others, Black Panther Wakanda Forever was perfect as the final instalment of Phase 4, and a movie that generated even higher expectations than its 2018 predecessor, the first superhero movie with a central Black cast to be nominated for several Academy Awards and a cultural global powerhouse unprecedented for Black representation on the silver screen.
The challenge for the cast, which returns to the sequel in its majority (one of the few exceptions includes Daniel Kaluuya) and for its director Ryan Coogler was arduous, especially given the terrible loss that was the untimely death of incredible Chadwick Boseman. While Marvel would not have been the first studio to pass on a new mantle when an actor dies (Harrison Ford will replace the late William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross in the upcoming Captain America: New World Order), Boseman was just too central, and frankly irreplaceable. M’ Baku (played by Winston Duke, who has an expanded and more layered role in this sequel) says “The Black Panther lives”, and, make no mistakes, while Boseman is gone, his presence can be felt from the first to the last minute of this sequel echoing his famous line in Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo, 2016): “In my culture, Death is not the end”.
Grief opens the movie, with the funeral of King T’ Challa. In fact, grief is one of the film’s central pillars: characters learn how to face it, how to cope with it, and how to accept it and finally how to move on. The Wakandans grief will have to make space for vigilance, as the viewer is soon introduced to how countries in the Global North would effectively try to deal with a non-aligned superpower in the Global South, following a playbook of colonial and postcolonial brutality with centuries of history.
Wakanda will rise o the challenge, and while Wakandan women were central in the first instalment, this time they are simply everywhere: Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’ o, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Shiquita James, and Dominique Thorne are some of the biggest names. Queen Ramonda (Bassett) sits on the throne as her Queen dealing with her pain. Shuri (Wright) faces loss while healing a nation. Nakia (Nyong’ o) has followed a different path but will return to defend her country. Dora Milaje (James) stands to protect the country, always led by kickass General Okoye (Dane Gurira). Dominique Thorne plays Riri Williams a.k.a Ironheart (who will appear again in her upcoming MCU show), a young genius and kindred spirit for Shuri. The former will be central in the conflict between Wakanda and a new world power, the underwater empire of Talokan.
Coogler’s movie diverts from traditional Marvel lore, as Namor (played with gravitas by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta) has a different origin story from the Submariner of the comics, son of a British sea captain and an Atlantean princess (a character who debuted in 1939, two years before DC’s Aquaman and one of the first Marvel characters). His origins are connected to Mesoamerican mythology, and specifically K’uk’ulkan, the Feather Serpent God worshipped by Yucatan Maya. The presence of Namor enriches the movie by expanding diversity and inclusion to Latinos and descendants of native populations of Mesoamerica, and the focus on colonialism and the annihilation of the native people of Central America at the end of the Spanish Empire, while also preparing the franchise for the introduction of the X-Men Following the approach seen in the first movie, Namor is not a power-hungry supervillain, but a more layered character, whose decisions cannot be only based on his personal welfare (after all, he is a king).
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is out in cinemas across the nation on Friday, November 11th.