By Janie Walenda
Not every movie can make me cry before the opening credits roll, but not every movie loses its star seven months before filming. Somehow, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” manages to both continue the themes of colonialism and imperialism from the first movie, but also craft a raw, complex portrayal of grief.
The actors are the absolute shining jewel of “Wakanda Forever.” There are no weak links in the cast, and there are too many standout performances to count. Among the supporting cast, Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o and Dominique Thorne stand out the most.
Much praise has been heaped upon Angela Bassett’s head for her performance as Queen Ramonda, and I completely agree. From her powerful opening speech to the UN to her tender conversations with Shuri and her jaw-dropping monologue in the throne room, Bassett is electrifying. Ramonda is recovering from years of grief while also guiding her daughter toward recovery. Meanwhile, she is trying to protect her nation and family. It’s a testament to both Bassett’s acting and Ryan Coogler’s direction and screenplay that Ramonda can make large-scale mistakes in such an understandable way. If ever a Marvel performance deserved an Oscar, she would be it.
Perhaps the biggest breakout star of “Wakanda Forever” is Tenoch Huerta as Namor. His performance is simultaneously warm and menacing, making him one of the most interesting Marvel villains to date. In a similar vein to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger from the first film, he is a villain that is easy to sympathize with. Unlike Killmonger, Namor is often reasonable. While the actions he takes are unquestionably evil, they are born out of a love for his people and his kingdom of Talokan.
The use of Talokan and Namor as a foil to Wakanda and Shuri is brilliant and seamlessly carries over the themes of the first film. Where “Black Panther” explored the fantasy of an uncolonized African country and the stark reality of the African experience, “Wakanda Forever” contrasts Wakanda and Talokan. Both are hidden kingdoms that have lived protected from the world, but their leaders have very different experiences.
The leaders of Wakanda we have seen so far – T’Chaka, T’Challa, Ramonda and Shuri – have been isolated from the world. Not ignorant, but their kingdom has been untouched by the greed and destruction of the rest of the world. That is until Killmonger brings into sharp focus the suffering they could prevent, and T’Challa makes the decision to reveal Wakanda’s power to the rest of the world. This action inadvertently affects Talokan, a kingdom founded as a way to escape from Spanish conquerors and ruled by Namor, a centuries-old king who still harbors resentment towards those conquerors. These dramatically different views come to a head in “Wakanda Forever” and sets the stage for the further involvement of both Wakanda and Talokan in the MCU going forward.
At the center of the film is Letitia Wright as Shuri. Initially cast as a supporting comedic character, she seemingly effortlessly transitions into a leading role, shouldering the film’s emotional core. Shuri’s journey throughout the film as she struggles with grief, religion and leadership is endlessly compelling and heartbreaking. Wright depicts both the loud and quiet moments of grief in a painfully realistic way while also portraying the darkest moments of grief and the lightest moments of hope.
Marvel’s Phase 4 has had its strongest emphasis on grief. Almost every entry has explored grief in some way, with some of the strongest being “Shang-Chi,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Hawkeye” and “Moon Knight.” However, the phase is bookended by its two strongest portrayals of grief, starting with “WandaVision” in 2020 and ending now with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” In “WandaVision” grief is heartbreak and denial. “After all, what is grief if not love persevering,” is arguably the most famous line from “WandaVision,” perhaps the entirety of Phase 4.
In “Wakanda Forever,” grief is more than just love, it is war, it is anger towards our family, towards religion. We see Shuri crying out and asking why the death of her family is not worth eternal war and her rejecting her belief in the afterlife yet clinging to it as the only way to reach her family. We see Ramonda making rash decisions to protect her daughter. We see two nations and two leaders reject the love of those who went before them so they can embrace the hate and anger that their loss has left them with.
But “Wakanda Forever” also shows what it looks like to heal from grief. We see Ramonda and Shuri begin to come to peace with the loss of their family and make choices that would honor them. We see Nakia as she has processed her grief and has spent her life cultivating the ideals that T’Challa embodied. Despite the darkness, we see characters choose to support each other and make compassionate choices. And it is through this that T’Challa lives on.
While Chadwick Boseman’s passing has shadowed “Wakanda Forever,” in many ways the discourse around the film has overshadowed the real tragedy of Boseman’s death. It would’ve been easy for the film to slip into overly sentimental and exploitative territory. Instead, it honors Boseman, not just through the character of T’Challa, but through continuing the ideals that were important about his character. T’Challa is a revolutionary hero because of his compassion, his leadership and his commitment to doing the right thing in the face of complex situations. As the superhero genre becomes increasingly obsessed with portraying darker and morally gray characters, T’Challa remains a positive example of what a hero can be. “Wakanda Forever” refuses to let these values die, and in the process honors what T’Challa and Chadwick Boseman stand for.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is currently playing in theaters
Janie Walenda is a sophomore Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation, and cold brew.
Images courtesy of Marvel Studios