It’s been almost a week Black Panther: Wakanda Forever arrived in theaters, bringing the latest film to life in the ever-evolving tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even before the project premiered, there was undeniably a lot of importance attached to it – it’s not just the follow-up to 2018’s multibillion-dollar hit Black Pantherbut is about the real life death of franchise star Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020 after a private battle with cancer. Wakanda forever serves as the official ending to Phase 4, the franchise’s movies and Disney+ television shows that have premiered over the past two years. (This month Guardians of the Galaxy holiday special is already being billed as an “epilogue” of the stage.)
The conversation around Phase 4 has been unique from the start, perhaps thanks to 2019’s built-in highlight 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, meets fan expectations, and the like, there have been countless bright spots in storytelling over the past two years – and frankly, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever couldn’t be a better culmination of them. While Wakanda forever Phase 4 might not tie into an arc narratively (we’ve got the next few phases of storytelling for that), the movie proves to be an incredibly fitting conclusion to Marvel’s latest experiment. Obviously major spoilers for that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever lurk below! Watch only if you want to know!
The old and the new
Even in Endgame, as the heroes of the past decade of the MCU united in a battle for the universe, it became clear that the franchise was only just beginning to scratch the surface of its source material. The Marvel Comics landscape has declined and flowed considerably over the better part of a century, all kinds of stories have been told and characters introduced with really bizarre myths surrounding them. With Phase 4, Marvel Studios is starting to catch up with that mindset by weaving in characters and concepts fans never imagined in live action, reinventing them for a modern era. In front of Wakanda foreverEasily that aspect of the bucket list is the introduction of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), one of the very first superheroes ever introduced to Marvel’s mythos – but a character who was still boiled down to a semi-obscure piece of trivia in some geek circles.
Although Namor stories have been told in one way or another 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 reverencing parts of his more ambiguous comic source material. That, combined with Huerta’s charming performance, made Namor an instant standout in the film – continuing a trend of clever reinvention seen in Stage 4. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings effectively considering the messy history of Wenwu / The Mandarin (Tony Leung), down to smaller examples like She Hulk and Mrs. Marvel changing components of their heroes’ origin stories, the Phase have not been afraid to constructively experiment with comic canon, and Wakanda foreverNamor’s adaptation is perhaps the most groundbreaking example to date.
Another part of Phase 4’s take on the comedy canon – something that has fans both baffled and delighted – is the inclusion of many old characters. In The Phase, multiple characters have taken on the mantles or responsibilities of their predecessors, either through Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in The falcon and the winter soldierKate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). Hawkeyeor Jen Walters (Tatiana Maslany). She Hulk. Even beyond that, the hypothetical selection for a Young Avengers film has grown almost comedic, with nearly every Phase 4 project introducing a teenage or young adult superhero. Wakanda Forever fulfills both legacy boxes, the first 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 easily have lost their luster Wakanda forever, but the movie finds ways to make them both incredibly compelling. Shuri’s arc in particular proves to be a shockingly effective interpretation of her original comic book status quo, as well as a moving portrait of how much she’s evolved since first making her MCU debut. While some of Wakanda forever‘s marketing made it abundantly clear that we would be getting a new Black Panther, as Shuri’s steps to take on that mantle turned out to be exciting and rewarding after all.
Sure, getting the earth-shattering disaster of Eternals and the messy street-level story of Hawkeye in the span of two months was probably shocking to some viewers, especially when we’ve largely come to expect every superhero story to carry the same weight. But Phase 4’s dichotomy between larger-than-life and incredibly small stakes is not only true to life, but true to the larger tapestry of superhero comics, and it’s refreshing to see the MCU reflect that. Wakanda forever struggles with that dichotomy in spades: On the surface, the third-act conflict is 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 mother, couldn’t be more personal.
That emotional tension can be effectively felt even from the film’s very first scene, which chronicles the frenetic final moments before T’Challa dies offscreen – a scene that, while we know its outcome, leaves audiences on proverbial pins and needles.
Wakanda forever‘s opening scene, and the countless empathetic and cathartic moments that follow, bring one of Phase 4’s core themes to its climax: sadness. The concept of trauma and loss has reappeared in virtually every project in the stage, starting with WandaVision‘s now iconic portrait of it. From there, we got two separate projects, considering the loss of Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), the cultural grief of the Partition in Mrs. Marveland more character-driven explorations of the concept in projects like Loki, moon knightand Doctor Strange in the multiverse of madness. Even Phase 4’s loudest and most rambunctious project, Thor: Love and Thunder, was rooted in a feeling of love and loss for almost all of its characters. Given the circumstances of the pandemic, which had begun while many of the Phase’s projects were in development, the fact that grief has been such a consistent and poignant theme felt even more groundbreaking.
Of Wakanda foreverIn Phase 4, the idea of grief (understandable given the circumstances) felt even more profound, with Boseman consistently present for the characters, for the cast and crew, and for the audience. But the movie found bits of true beauty in that sadness, keeping the story and cast of characters from getting bogged down in it.
A true miracle
From a global pandemic to countless production delays and the rearranging of timelines caused by that global pandemic, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe probably shouldn’t have worked out as well as it did. It’s nothing short of miraculous that over the past two years, movies and Disney+ shows have managed to effectively entertain and coerce audiences given the circumstances, albeit in a way they might not have expected given the earlier stages. In front of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the idea of settling for what you’ve got is even more important as the film managed to deliver such a beautiful and cathartic sequel amidst the loss of its central star. The fact that Wakanda forever doing so while uniquely carrying the torch of so many other parts of Stage 4 – legacy, grief and the like – feels like cause for celebration.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever now playing exclusively in theaters.
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