“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” – An Epic Send-Off To A Hero

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER AHEAD!

All films have a lot riding on them. Even the most obscure arthouse films, though rarely expected to make all that much money in the handful of theaters where they’ll find available screens on which to play, still need to catch the attention of critics (or of a streaming service looking to buy up content on the cheap), while the biggest and “safest” Hollywood blockbusters still need to make a frankly ridiculous amount of money at the worldwide box-office, enough to sate the greed of studio executives and to recoup the cost of making them (ironically, the reason they’re so often “safe” from an artistic standpoint is because they’re very much not safe from a financial standpoint, and their creators, however visionary they may be, aren’t in a safe position to make demands of studios). The stress that puts on filmmakers is no joke.

Wakanda Forever
Shuri | koimoi.com

Few filmmakers would willingly shoulder another burden on top of that, particularly one as heavy as the legacy of the late Chadwick Boseman, but Ryan Coogler has made it his mission with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to bring a much-needed sense of closure to the character Boseman portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to fans of that character, and to himself and to Boseman’s close friends in front of and behind the camera – and the reason I believe Black Panther: Wakanda Forever succeeds at what he set out to do is because Coogler was surrounded and supported, each step of the way, by a team comprised of Boseman’s friends and people who understood his impact on the entertainment industry and the world. It is no coincidence that Wakanda Forever is a story about the importance of community in the aftermath of tragedy, and about the dangers of trying to work through grief alone; it’s not just a tribute to Boseman, but to Coogler’s entire support-system who helped him build this beautiful memorial to his friend.

When Wakanda Forever remains single-mindedly focused on accomplishing that one task, motivating its entire cast and crew to do their best work, the film is eloquent, soulful, and important,¬†standing a full head and shoulders above all other Marvel films since the first Black Panther; particularly in the first act, when the pain of Boseman’s passing is most fresh, and in the latter half of the third act, when the emotions that accompanied it are again evoked. Between those two high points, the film is a better-than-average Marvel movie brimming with action and adventure, but cluttered with far more characters than were actually necessary to tell this self-contained story.

Most egregiously, the choice to shoehorn Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into Wakanda Forever feels like the result of an unfortunate studio mandate, and her surprisingly large role in the film’s second act could easily have been whittled down to a single quick cameo, if Kevin Feige’s intention was merely to start laying the groundwork for the Thunderbolts movie she’s supposed to co-lead. Same with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman); charming fellow, but totally extraneous. These two characters are the furthest removed from the core thematic conflict of Wakanda Forever, and the time we spend with them seems especially undeserved seeing as their subplot trails off without a satisfying conclusion – presumably waiting to be picked up in another film.

Black Panther in Wakanda Forever
Black Panther | rottentomatoes.com

For the most part, Wakanda Forever limits its attention to the here and now, although several characters are established who will have a long future in the MCU, if there is any justice in this world. The delightfully menacing antagonist, Namor (Tenoch Huerta) a hot amphibious mutant perpetually clad in bright green gogo-boy shorts, is obviously one of these – there is a historical precedent in the comics for him interacting with Wakanda, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men (and recently, it’s become nearly impossible to scroll through Twitter without running into a joke about Sue Storm leaving her husband for Namor, something that has never actually happened in the comics but is still an oddly appealing idea to a lot of people), and his MCU counterpart has unfinished business with the Black Panther who brutally strong-armed him and his people into a truce after he nearly brought Wakanda to its knees. He’ll be back, and frankly I can’t wait: Namor is up there with Killmonger as one of the MCU’s most interesting, fully fleshed-out villains, not to mention the most devastatingly beautiful.

I can only pray that Michaela Coel, after being relegated to the sidelines in this story, will someday get another chance in the role of Aneka, an endearingly defiant member of the Midnight Angels (an autonomous subdivision of the Dora Milaje, who protect the royal family of Wakanda). Aneka is one of Marvel Comics’ most prominent queer characters, although that aspect of her character is only briefly hinted at near the end of the film, when she and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), her lover in the comics, share a deliberately chaste kiss on the forehead. It’s a disappointing debut for such an interesting character, portrayed by such a talented actress – but much like how Ayo herself was essentially an extra in Black Panther before she became an actual character (with her own small fandom) in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, I can foresee Aneka becoming extremely popular, particularly with LGBTQ+ fans, if given a sizable role in a Disney+ series…like, say, the Wakanda series that Ryan Coogler is apparently producing, that still has no cast or crew attached to it almost two years since its announcement.

Though I may be in the minority who actually liked the look of the Midnight Angels’ distinctive blue armor in live-action (but even if you hated it, I think we can all agree that Ruth E. Carter’s costume design was overall stunning and Oscar-worthy), I’d love to see the concept used again, and properly this time. As for their coolness factor (a necessary part of any superhero’s persona), the Midnight Angels are finally deployed in the third act battle as a last resort by the Wakandans, but apart from their suits allowing them to fly and dive underwater, they’re not outfitted with the kinds of cool gadgets and high-tech weaponry I was eagerly anticipating by that point. Luckily, they do have Okoye (Danai Gurira), who joins the Angels after being expelled from the Dora Milaje, and you need only put a vibranium spear in that woman’s hands for an instantly iconic action sequence to just happen.

In the absence of a Black Panther throughout most of the film, no one else besides Namor and his lieutenants come close to matching Okoye’s prowess on the battlefield until the third act, when Shuri (Letitia Wright), the actual star of Wakanda Forever, dons the Black Panther mantle at long last before launching herself recklessly into a no-holds-barred duel with Namor on the beach, where her objective is to prevent him from reaching the water and regenerating his strength (a twist on the story of Antaeus, a character from Greek mythology who could not be defeated while his feet touched the ground). At the end of the day, brains win out over brawn, but Shuri does put her panther-claws to good use, so I think it’s safe to say she’s a full-fledged action hero at this point…or perhaps antihero would be the more appropriate term?

Namora and Namor in Wakanda Forever
Namora and Namor | me.mashable.com

Shuri’s character arc in Wakanda Forever takes her to a very dark place from which it’s difficult (though in my opinion, still too easy) to extricate herself in the third act, when the accumulated rage she’s bottled up inside her heart breaks free of its fragile vessel and takes control of her with little resistance: rage over T’Challa’s tragic death at the beginning of the film, which Shuri missed while frantically seeking a cure to his illness in her lab, and over Ramonda (Angela Bassett)’s death at the hands of Namor; rage at the goddess Bast for allowing them both to die and for preventing Shuri from visiting either of them in the afterlife; and a general, all-encompassing rage at the world, which she tells Namor (in a moment of vulnerability) she would burn to the ground just to feel something again. It’s no surprise that Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) appears to her when she first enters the Ancestral Plane – because at that point, she’s not seeking guidance but validation for the violence she knows she’s about to unleash upon the world, and he’s the one person who understands.

Or so she thinks. What Shuri refuses to acknowledge, even to herself, is that she’s actually a lot like Namor, in that both of them are still beating themselves up about a tragedy in their lives that they’ve never moved on from (the inciting incident in Namor’s origin story was the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th Century, which forced his people to take refuge in the depths of the ocean). Both of these characters have a community at their backs who would support them, but crucially, they’ve both been isolating themselves from their communities for a long time – Shuri by outwardly pretending that she’s fine while privately hurting, and Namor by adopting the role of an aloof god-king inaccessible to most of his people (as one does). They’re only ever emotionally honest with each other, which is partially why some fans are aggressively shipping the two (that, and enemies-to-lovers ships are always popular, although it’s still relatively rare to see any ship featuring an unambiguously Black woman – coupled with a brown Indigenous man, no less – gain traction in the mainstream at the rate this one has).

But while they’d make for one hot power couple, I maintain that Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who has been rumored to be bisexual in the MCU, was coyly trying to ask Shuri out on a date at the end of the film. There’s chemistry there that I’d like to see further explored in the Ironheart Disney+ series. Sure, I might just be inventing queer subtext to make up for the lack of Aneka and Ayo, but Shuri needs Riri in her life, whether as a love interest or a friend; someone her own age whom she can talk to without any strings attached, who intimately understands grief (canonically, Riri’s father died before she was born, and her step-father was killed in a shooting) but has had time to adjust and move forward with her life.

From the opening scene onwards, Wakanda Forever is sad – but until the second act, it’s sad for all the reasons we expected it to be. Then the film delivers a shocking emotional gut-punch by killing Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, the solid rock upon which Wakanda rebuilt itself following T’Challa’s death. Bassett was one of the franchise’s unparalleled stars, delivering magnificent performances in both Black Panther films but especially in this one, where her role was greatly expanded…and to lose her so suddenly, almost unceremoniously, without even a final word of farewell to her daughter, just felt cruel. It would hurt less if the film had adequate time to mourn her properly, but following a quick funeral we rush on to the third act battle and Ramonda appears again only for a split-second on the Ancestral Plane. At least she slayed in her dozen or so different royal outfits (seriously, Oscars all around for the costuming department).

Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Wakanda Forever
Ramonda | gamesradar.com

In conclusion, Wakanda Forever knows what it wants to say and delivers its message eloquently when it stays focused long enough to do so – which is admittedly difficult when the film has so many subplots it wants to pursue and so many characters clamoring for more screentime. It is, however, the satisfying send-off to Chadwick Boseman that it needed to be, and a decent middle-chapter in the story of Wakanda and its continued struggle with the outside world. But on that note, I also hope that Ryan Coogler is allowed some much-needed time off before jumping into his next project for Marvel, because the unique stress of making this particular film, compounded with the usual stress of making any film, cannot have been easy to handle, even with the support of a team.

Film Rating: 8.5/10

Marvel Developing “Ironheart” For Disney+!

Avengers: Endgame brought about an end to the storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s founding father Tony Stark, but new rumors suggest that the super-genius inventor’s legacy will carry on in the new character of Ironheart, soon to make her MCU debut on the Disney+ streaming service. While the move is almost certain to anger many people, there are also a number of reasons to be very excited for Ironheart taking on the mantle of her predecessor Iron Man.

Ironheart
tvovermind.com

If true, the Ironheart series will join seven other Marvel series’ currently in development for Disney+ – and two others rumored to be in pre-production, a Secret Invasion series and a Ghost Rider project which I will also cover. An argument could be made that Marvel is over-expanding themselves, but so far we have yet to see the studio make a mistake: and many of their upcoming series’ are already attracting very positive buzz, as fans clamor to see the stories of characters like Falcon, Bucky Barnes, Wanda Maximoff, Loki and Hawkeye (is anyone actually clamoring for that last one?) continued on the small screen and with more screentime than they would receive in the movies. But the streaming service is also a place where Marvel is looking to introduce several new heroes, including Ironheart, also known as Riri Williams.

Williams is a recent addition to the roster of Marvel heroes in the comics, having made her solo debut in 2018. She’s an intelligent and capable young black woman who builds her own iron suit while still an M.I.T. student, and later receives Tony Stark’s own blessing. Her story is largely wound up with that of Stark and his wife Pepper Potts, who give the young heroine advice, refuge and assistance during her Ironheart missions. That obviously poses a little bit of a problem for the MCU version of the character, since Tony Stark is already dead and Pepper seems to have been retired.

Ironheart Tony Stark
inverse.com

The comics do provide a solution for this problem, as Riri Williams’ Ironheart is often accompanied by the Tony Stark A.I., a sentient hologram of the hero. In the MCU, it wouldn’t be hard to explain the existence of something like that – Tony Stark was constantly inventing things, and he prepared for his death far in advance: in Endgame, it was revealed that he had even prepared one last holographic message for his daughter to comfort her during his funeral. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to have Riri discover that he had also built himself a second body and brain with a fully-functioning consciousness – again, there’s precedent in the way Stark (albeit unintentionally) designed and created his own sentient A.I. personal assistants, most notably Jarvis.

There’s just one more obstacle. Robert Downey Jr. would have to return – he would likely only be willing to do that if his role was substantial enough to warrant it, but to do justice to Ironheart, any role Tony Stark plays would have to be small enough that he doesn’t overshadow her character. It definitely wouldn’t benefit either character, or the show in general, if Tony Stark’s return to the MCU drew criticisms for a white savior narrative. If the screenwriters for the series could find a delicate balance, they might just be able to convince Downey Jr. to make a return to the MCU – but in my opinion, it would have to be a one-off: the A.I. tech might be broken or only half-finished, meaning that Stark only gets to stick around for the duration of the series.

Without Downey Jr.’s involvement, there’s still ways for Riri to be a compelling character. If having her encounter Tony Stark himself is impossible, she could still be inspired by his enduring legacy in the MCU – a fun alternative might be to have one of her role models be someone like Tony Stark’s best friend and sidekick War Machine, who is one of the saga’s most underrated characters, or Princess Shuri of Wakanda, another young, black super-genius. Riri’s main villain in the comics has an origin story that could be tinkered with to tie into either the Ms. Marvel Disney+ series or Shang-Chi, or both: Tomoe, or “Techno Golem” as she is more commonly referred to, is an Inhuman who uses her power as the head of the Southeast Asia Crime Syndicate to control an army of ninjas from her hideout in the criminal underworld of Osaka, Japan. And Riri herself, apart from all outside influences, isn’t just a tokenized legacy character, as some are quick to claim – quiet and introverted, but driven by her ingenuity, resourcefulness and passion for science to pursue her dreams, she also suffers from the trauma of witnessing the death of her best friend and her step-father in a shooting. With a talented actress in the role, she could easily be on par with Tony Stark, or his own hand-picked successor, Peter Parker.

Ironheart Marsai Martin
latimes.com

And who better to play this pioneering character than an actress like Marsai Martin? Martin is currently fifteen –¬† the exact same age as Riri Williams in the comics – and has the distinction of being Hollywood’s youngest producer, as well as a winner of several NAACP Image Awards. She is best known for her roles in ABC comedy Black-ish, and as the star of Universal’s Little, but she should have no problems transitioning over to Disney+.

So what do you think of the idea of an Ironheart series? Have I helped to convince you that it’s actually a pretty good idea, or are you still on the fence about it? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!