It’s been nearly a week since Black Panther: Wakanda Forever arrived in theaters, bringing to life the latest film in the ever-evolving tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even before the project made its premiere, there was an undeniable amount of significance surrounding it — it’s not only the sequel to 2018’s billion-dollar-grossing Black Panther, but deals with the real-life death of franchise star Chadwick Boseman, who passed away after a private battle with cancer in 2020. Additionally, Wakanda Forever serves as the official ending of Phase 4, the franchise’s movies and Disney+ television shows that have premiered over the past two years. (This month’s Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is already being billed as an “epilogue” to the Phase.)
The conversation around Phase 4 has been unique from the start, arguably thanks to the built-in high point of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, as well as various delays and schedule changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the questions of whether or not Phase 4 has a point, is meeting fans expectations, and the like, there have been countless bright spots over the past two years of storytelling — and honestly, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever could not be a better culmination of them. While Wakanda Forever might not narratively tie up Phase 4 in a bow (we have the next few Phases of storytelling to look forward to for that), the film proves to be an unbelievably fitting conclusion to Marvel’s latest experiment. Obviously, major spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever lurk below! Only look if you want to know!
The Old and the New
Even in Endgame, when the heroes of the past decade of the MCU rallied together in a battle for the universe, it became clear that the franchise had only begun to scratch the surface of its source material. The landscape of Marvel Comics has ebbed and flowed significantly for the better part of a century, telling stories of all kinds of variety, and introducing characters with genuinely bizarre mythos surrounding them. With Phase 4, Marvel Studios has started to catch up to that mentality, weaving in characters and concepts that fans never could have imagined in live-action, and reimagining them for a modern era. For Wakanda Forever, that bucket list aspect is easily the introduction of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), one of the very first superheroes ever introduced in Marvel’s mythos — but a character who still, in some circles of geekdom, had previously been boiled down into a semi-obscure piece of trivia.
While Namor stories have been told in some form or fashion since the 1930s, Wakanda Forever found a brilliant way to introduce him to the masses, recontextualizing his origin story and his undersea kingdom within Mesoamerican culture, while still keeping a reverence for parts of his more-ambiguous comic source material. That, combined with Huerta’s charming performance, immediately made Namor a standout in the film — and continued a trend of clever reinvention that can be seen throughout Phase 4. From Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings effectively reckoning with the messy history of Wenwu / The Mandarin (Tony Leung), to smaller examples like She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel changing components of their heroes’ origin stories, the Phase has not been afraid to constructively experiment with comic canon, and Wakanda Forever‘s adaptation of Namor might be the most groundbreaking example yet.
Another component of Phase 4’s take on comic canon — something that has equally baffled and delighted fans — has been the addition of a lot of legacy characters. The Phase has seen multiple characters take on the mantles or responsibilities of their predecessors, whether through Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) in Hawkeye, or Jen Walters (Tatiana Maslany) in She-Hulk. Even beyond that, the hypothetical roster for a Young Avengers movie has been growing at an almost-comical rate, with nearly every Phase 4 project introducing a teenage or young adult superhero. Wakanda Forever ticks both of those legacy boxes, the former with Shuri (Letitia Wright) taking on the mantle of the new Black Panther, and the latter with the live-action introduction of Riri Williams / Ironheart (Dominique Thorne), and later T’Challa’s young son, Toussaint (Divine Love Konadu-Sun).
Both storytelling techniques could have easily lost their luster by Wakanda Forever, but the film finds ways to make them both incredibly compelling. Shuri’s arc, in particular, proves to be a shockingly effective interpretation of her original comics status quo, as well as a moving portrait of how much she has evolved since she first made her MCU debut. While some of Wakanda Forever‘s marketing made it abundantly clear that we were going to get a new Black Panther, seeing Shuri’s steps towards taking on that mantle proved to be thrilling and rewarding nonetheless.
Sure, getting the Earth-shattering disaster of Eternals and the scrappy street-level story of Hawkeye in the span of two months was probably jarring for some viewers, especially when we’ve largely grown to expect every superhero story to have the same weight. But Phase 4’s dichotomy between larger-than-life and incredibly small stakes is not only true to life, but it’s true to the larger tapestry of superhero comics, and there’s something refreshing about seeing the MCU reflect that. Wakanda Forever wrestles with that dichotomy in spades: on the surface, its third-act conflict is an all-out war between two groups of incredibly-skilled warriors, with the fate of an incredibly powerful MacGuffin hanging in the balance. But what ultimately settles that conflict, a shared sense of grief between two people who have lost their mothers, could not be more personal.
That emotional tension can even be effectively felt from the film’s very first scene, which chronicles the frantic final moments before T’Challa dies offscreen — a scene that, even though we know the outcome of it, leaves the audience on proverbial pins and needles.
Wakanda Forever‘s opening scene, and the countless empathetic and cathartic moments that follow it, bring one of Phase 4’s core themes to its apex — grief. The concept of trauma and loss have ruminated from practically every project in the Phase, beginning with WandaVision‘s now-iconic portrait of it. From there, we got two separate projects reckoning with the loss of Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), the cultural grief of the Partition in Ms. Marvel, and more character-driven explorations of the concept in projects like Loki, Moon Knight, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Even the loudest and most boisterous project of Phase 4, Thor: Love and Thunder, was rooted in a sense of love and loss for nearly all of its characters. Given the circumstances of the pandemic, which had begun in the middle of many of the Phase’s projects being developed, the fact that grief has been such a consistent and poignant theme has felt even more groundbreaking.
With Wakanda Forever, Phase 4’s notion of grief felt (understandably, given the circumstances) even more profound, with Boseman’s presence consistently being for the characters, for the cast and crew, and for the audience. But the film found pockets of true beauty within that grief, preventing its story and its cast of characters from being swallowed up within it.
A True Marvel
From a global pandemic, to countless production delays and rearranging of timelines caused by that global pandemic, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe arguably should not have worked as well as it did. It’s nothing short of miraculous that the past two years of movies and Disney+ shows have managed to effectively entertain and compel audiences given the circumstances, albeit in ways that they might not have expected given the Phases prior. For Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the notion of making do with what you have is even more significant, as the film managed to deliver such a beautiful and cathartic sequel amid the loss of its central star. The fact that Wakanda Forever did so while uniquely carrying the torch of so many other parts of Phase 4 — legacy, grief, and the like — feels like a cause for celebration.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing exclusively in theaters.