Cast your mind back to early 2020, before the world got turned upside by the global pandemic, and Marvel Studios was shortly set to unleash a new collection of movies and TV shows, which would become ‘Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’. This fourth phase was to begin with the big budget blockbuster, Black Widow, before continuing with a collection of movies and television shows, including the likes of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

But things changed rather rapidly. COVID-19 caused the whole world to shut down, various productions were put on hold, and Marvel’s movie and television schedule got re-jigged and/or delayed.

With the world in a mess, a new plan had to be put in place to get things going again. Some shows were brought forward, a few movies were pushed back, and Phase Four was tweaked so it could still roll out, albeit on a slightly different timescale.

Sure, the whole situation wasn’t ideal, but Marvel Studios could still do everything as per the original plan, it would just operate in a different way. No biggie, the world was flexing, and Marvel would simply flex with it.

However, in August 2020, while the pandemic was still causing major devastation and disruption around the world (not just to Marvel’s release plans), news broke that Chadwick Boseman had passed away. The actor – who was known to Marvel fans as King T’Challa the Black Panther – died at the age of 43 from colon cancer, and the sudden announcement of his passing shocked fans the world over.

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Boseman was diagnosed with cancer back in 2016, the same year he appeared in Captain America: Civil War, and all throughout his time fighting the likes of Killmonger and Thanos on the big screen, he was fighting a battle for his own survival. But as Boseman had never gone public with his illness, and only a select few family members were made aware, this was a battle that was largely fought in secret.

The team at Marvel did not know of Boseman’s illness. His friends and colleagues at the studio were as shocked as everyone else about his passing, and they mourned alongside his fans.

But the studio had a new problem to deal with, which now existed alongside the challenges of the pandemic. Boseman was set to take the lead role in a sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, and the film was shortly set to begin shooting.

With the movie in the early stages of pre-production, Marvel Studios had to put a halt on the project. The whole movie would have to be rethought from the top down, and that was only if it was to go ahead at all.

Lots of conversations needed to take place and big decisions needed to be made. According to Black Panther producer, Nate Moore (via Marvel), “(Boseman’s) passing caught us off guard.”

But after much discussion, Marvel Studios decided to press ahead with the Black Panther sequel. However, the studio decided it would not recast and replace Boseman, it would instead work from a revised script, which would respectfully allow T’Challa to bow out of the MCU and at the same time pay tribute to the actor.

Speaking about the decision to continue with Black Panther 2, without the involvement of Chadwick Boseman, producer Nate Moore said: “Not doing the film would be doing him a disservice because he would certainly be the first person to raise his hand and say, ‘hey, even though I’m not here you should continue this film because it means so much to so many people, in so many ways.”

So, with this in mind, the production of Black Panther 2 was shifted back once again, as the project went into redevelopment. Along the way it encountered a few more challenges and delays related to the pandemic, got given the title Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and was awarded a new release date of November 2022.

And that’s where we find ourselves now. After some incredibly bumpy years, and some very difficult times, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever makes its debut in cinemas today, as the final film in Phase Four of the MCU.

The film isn’t quite the final entry in Phase Four, as that is reserved for the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (due out November 25th on Disney+), but it is the last feature film. Phase Four is coming to a close, after easily the most turbulent time in the MCU’s production history, so it seems only fitting that one of its most challenging pictures should wrap things up.

Directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever stars Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, and Martin Freeman. The movie – set a year after the events of Avengers: Endgame – opens with the death of King T’Challa and details a new threat to the East African nation of Wakanda.

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In the movie, it is a year since King T’Challa passed away having succumbed to a disease. In this time, his mother Queen Ramonda has assumed the role of leader of Wakanda, while T’Challa’s sister, Shuri has become obsessed with fortifying her nation’s defences, now there is no longer a Black Panther to act as its protector.

And trouble is indeed brewing. Tensions are mounting around the world and in particular, the United Nations is displeased with Wakanda for failing to share its collection of vibranium.

Keen to access its own vibranium, the US Government acquires a special machine, built by a genius MIT student, to seek out any alternative source of the valuable metal. This leads the CIA to an underwater location, which appears to be the home of an untapped resource, not connected to Wakanda.

But as the team attempt to retrieve the metal, all the operatives are attacked and killed, leading the US Government to believe Wakandans were responsible. However, Wakanda had nothing to do with the attack, it was instead a new, unknown and hidden nation called Talokan, led by the super-powered being known as Namor.

After revealing himself to Queen Ramonda, Namor threatens Wakanda with an invasion unless she agrees to help him. Namor wants the Wakandans to travel to the US, to capture the MIT student responsible for building the vibranium-detecting machine, so he can kill her and stop the US from encroaching on his home.

Ramonda agrees in part to his request, sending General Okoye and Shuri to the United States to find the student. But their mission is not to deliver her to Namor, but instead to bring her back to Wakanda, so she can be protected.

However, with the US Government suspicious of Wakanda, and unaware of Namor and the Talokans, they don’t take kindly to the presence of Okoye and Shuri on US soil. The situation escalates further when there is another attack by the Talokans, leaving Wakanda as the chief suspect once again.

In order to resolve the situation, it is up to Shuri to learn the secrets of the Talokan before the US and Wakanda go to war. But a mission such as this requires a leader – possibly even a new Black Panther – leaving Shuri with much to think about as she considers how best to protect her people.

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I think it is fair to say that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever not only had a difficult production, but a production that was always going to be steeped in sadness. It was filmed shortly after the death of Chadwick Boseman, and this not only altered the direction of the story, it also meant the cast had to conduct certain scenes which would have been incredibly emotional for all involved.

Because of this, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever could easily have struggled, and could have arrived in cinemas today half-cooked, with too many problems to fix, and no real direction. So, the fact this isn’t the case, is a triumph in itself, which shouldn’t go unnoticed.

While Black Panther: Wakanda Forever does have a couple of issues, which stop it from being better than its predecessor, on the whole, it is a very accomplished piece of film. This is an epic Marvel picture, which carries significant weight and depth, and this should be celebrated.

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Now, before I get to all the good stuff, let me address the issues this film has first, which are two-fold: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a lot of ground to cover, which impacts the pace of the film; and in the absence of Chadwick Boseman, it suffers without a main lead actor. These issues don’t derail the picture, but they are its biggest bumps in the road, and they do cause it to wobble in places.

With this film introducing new characters (including a whole new nation), having to deal with T’Challa’s passing, and find time to provide material for all of its major players, it has a lot on its plate. As such, there are times where Black Panther: Wakanda Forever gets a little caught up in lore and exposition, and it struggles to maintain momentum.

This issue is then impeded by the movie not having a central character for quite a significant amount of time. All of the key Wakandans step in to fill the void, including Shuri, but without one central figure leading the story throughout, the film spends a great deal of time unsure where to place its focus.

While watching Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I was reminded of Marvel’s The Eternals, which was released in 2021 and suffered similar issues in regards to exposition and the handling of its cast. However, where Black Panther: Wakanda Forever differs over The Eternals, is that this picture eventually works through its problems, finds its focus, and becomes a much stronger film.

In fact, once the movie has made it past the midway point, it feels as if Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has found its groove. The final third of the film in particular is robust, and it manages to balance its emotional core, with its need to deliver action and spectacle.

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Moving beyond these issues now, and as I previously mentioned, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is an accomplished movie. It brings back all the familiar faces from the previous instalment and makes you instantly invested in the characters, while at the same time ups the stakes, expands the scope and scale of the MCU, and (most important of all) finds a way to make newcomer, Namor, interesting – which is something Marvel has struggled with for years.

I’m sure many Marvel fans out there will be shouting out in disgust at me suggesting Namor is anything but a god amongst comic book characters, but personally, I have to disagree. As a Marvel reader for 30+ years, I’ve never found Namor even remotely interesting, but Black Panther: Wakanda Forever worked its magic and got me a little more invested in him.

For this film, Namor’s origin and nationality gets reworked, but in essence he is the same the character. However, on the big screen he feels somewhat more rounded and a little more relatable than his comic book counterpart, with Tenoch Huerta Mejía proving to be a fine bit of casting for the role.

But then, when it comes to casting, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a stellar ensemble anyway. The cast are spectacular, truly wonderful in this film, with everyone delivering again, and again, and again.

It is difficult to single anyone out, but Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira are very good in this movie. Bassett excels in the role of Queen Ramonda, while Wright brings both strength and vulnerability to the part of Shuri, and Gurira continues to be effortlessly cool.

If I had to whittle down my love for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to just one thing, it would be the cast. The central cast were perfect for the first Black Panther movie, and they are superb in this latest chapter.

Even when the story dips here and there, and the pace slows a touch, the characters are always captivating. They enrich the world they exist in, and they are a true asset to the MCU.

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Outside of the above, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has a great soundtrack, some excellent action sequences, and nice touches of humour. The movie also looks fantastic, with the costumes and scenery being a visual treat throughout.

While watching the movie I didn’t just want to see what was going on in Wakanda, I also wanted to step into the screen to give the place a quick visit. There’s something about this corner of the MCU which is so inviting, that when the film was all over, I was a little disappointed that I had to return to the real world which seems far less appealing in comparison.

And speaking of the real world, I think it is important to note just how well Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the MCU as a whole, addresses a real-world event such as the passing of one of its biggest stars. We’re now fourteen years into the MCU, and 30-films deep, and this means we are at a stage where sadly the outside world impacts this universe.

Marvel Studio’s had to find a way to address the passing of Chadwick Boseman, while keeping its universe going, and it did so with respect and compassion. The strength of Marvel (both on screen and in comics) has always been its focus on people and humanity, and that is exactly what we get here.

Image: ©Marvel Studios/Disney

Earlier this summer, I reviewed Thor: Love and Thunder, and I spoke about how much the movie, and in particular the story of Jane Foster, had an impact on me. My mother passed away earlier this year from cancer, so I found certain aspects of the movie relatable and quite moving.

I had a similar experience with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and for the second time this year, I walked out of an MCU movie feeling quite emotional about aspects of the film. The opening scenes, dealing with T’Challa’s passing caught me a little off guard, while the mid-credit scene (which I won’t spoil here) tugged at my heartstrings a little.

I’m still working through my grief over my mother, I expect it will be a lengthy process, and one which I may never come to terms with. But watching films such as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the aforementioned Thor sequel, are helping me move forward, thanks in large part to their messages of hope and perseverance.

Whether Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has the same cultural or commercial impact the first film had is something we will find out in the fullness of time, but for me, it struck a chord and I found much to appreciate in the picture. So long as the MCU can keep finding ways to connect with the audience, and find some triumph in tragedy, then long may it continue, forever and beyond.

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