Directed by Ryan Coogler — Screenplay by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole.
How do you follow up on one of the most popular superhero films of the last decade, when the incredibly magnetic actor portraying the titular iconic character is no longer with us? Such was the seemingly impossible task for Ryan Coogler when he sat in the director’s chair for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. As I sat down to watch the film, this was the big question that was on my mind. Chadwick Boseman, the charismatic actor who passed away in 2020 due to a private battle with colon cancer, was such an amazing screen presence, and he was the focus of that first film, and you definitely miss him in the sequel. However, it must be said that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever actually does work quite well in spite of the big missing link. One of the reasons why it works is because the presence of a gaping hole at the center of it is an intrinsic part of the plot in more ways than one.
In Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the powerful African nation of Wakanda, now led by Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett), is still working its way through the loss of its king, T’Challa (the character made famous by the late, great Chadwick Boseman). Without their protector, the Black Panther, the country is in a period of transition that outside nations wish to exploit by demanding some control over how their precious resource, the metal Vibranium, is being used. America’s search for Vibranium takes them deep under the sea, where they manage to find traces of the precious resource, but it is the property of the fiercely isolationist underwater country of Talokan. The leader of the Talokans, Namor (played by Tenoch Huerta), demands that Wakanda must protect the natural resource that they share by finding the scientist that created the machine able to detect where Vibranium is and bring her to them so they can kill her (so the outside nations will never find Talokan). And if Wakanda doesn’t do as he demands, then Namor, whose people can easily bypass their security system, will bring a war to their shores.
For the sake of not burying the lede too deep, I want to immediately talk about how the film addresses and handles the real-life passing of Chadwick Boseman. The film wastes no time. Although T’Challa’s death happens off-screen due to a mysterious disease, the film opens with a super emotional and very raw scene in which Letitia Wright’s Shuri (essentially the main character of this film) is informed of his passing. It’s an opening that is sure to make some people teary-eyed (in part because of a moment of silence-like Marvel Studios logo) — myself included — and it is also a scene that announces exactly what the film is. This is inherently a film about the ways that these main characters mourn their brother, son, friend, and more, and it is concerned with both stages of grief, but also with how predatory individuals — or nations — will want to capitalize on and exploit this hurt. The film rarely, if ever, loses sight of the gaping wound in the franchise, as even the wider plot of the film sees T’Challa’s decision at the end of the previous film — to not be an isolationist country — be exploited right as he isn’t there to protect Wakanda. The United States and France have made it a priority to try and dictate how the African country uses its natural resources, which those UN nations covet. Make no mistake, this film doesn’t sugarcoat its bleak view of American government interventionism in other countries’ affairs.
Moreover, it must be said that as the entire film is concerned with the aftermath of his passing, and the stages of grief, the film has drastically inflated supporting roles (and you can tell that they started out as supporting roles). Some of this is for the better, as Angela Bassett is quite powerful here, but other relatively thinly drawn characters take up too much space in a film that feels somewhat bloated. Most of the new additions to the cast are brilliant, and they help to lift some of the weight off of established supporting characters, but I was surprised that Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o weren’t even more essential to the plot. I noted how it is relatively bloated, and, honestly, I think you could’ve cut maybe ten-to-twenty minutes of film to streamline the final product. Because in spite of how thematically focused the film is, it jumps around a bit too much. And without the connective tissue of its original main character, the film has to do extra work to make it work. For many scenes in the film, the film makes use of these long-ish handheld takes that are somewhat chaotic, and also these long slow-motion scenes. We see these in both action scenes and in scenes concerned with mourning and grief. It is very effective, and even though I am not always all that happy with excessive use of slow-motion in superhero films, I think Coogler’s sequel does it well. To add to that, I think the music is still really special. The soundtrack really plays well in the emotional moments, and Göransson’s sometimes quite unique score is often excellent.
I suspect that some audience members may have a problem with exactly how understandably grief-stricken the final product is, as it is quite a bit more talkative than your average Marvel movie, but those fans are sure to be appeased by the new characters played by Dominique Thorne and Tenoch Huerta. They both play popular comic book characters (one a lot newer than the other) who have never been on the big screen before. For a film in mourning that struggles to sell the comedic moments, Dominique Thorne probably gets the most laughs as Riri Williams, this brilliant American student who suddenly has a huge role to play. It is a solid introduction to her, even though you don’t get a full understanding of that character. Tenoch Huerta plays a character who fans, such as myself, have been longing to see fully realized for years, and Ryan Coogler’s film dedicates a lot of time to his introduction. Huerta’s antagonist is incredibly well-realized both in writing, performance, and costuming, and Namor, whose people are victims of the Conquistadors and diseases brought with them, lives up to his comic book history. The first Black Panther featured impeccable world-building, and I think the same is true of its sequel. The film really comes to life whenever Huerta and his character’s people are on screen. The underwater scenes, though sometimes featuring slightly iffy visual effects (backgrounds are quite noticeable CGI problems in Wakanda), are magical, and, when Namor and his people show their full powers, they are formidable and quite scary (especially in the film’s first action scene, in which they compel people to jump into the water and kill themselves).
Often when these Marvel films are released, the extent to which they succeed can be related to how much-connected universe heavy-lifting is required of it. For example, Avengers: Age of Ultron tried to set up so much that it kind of got in the way of the individual film’s narrative, which sometimes felt disjointed somewhat. For the original Black Panther, much of the heavy lifting had been done beforehand by way of Captain America: Civil War, which introduced the Black Panther, T’Challa, and King T’Chaka who died in that film. Wakanda Forever already had a lot of heavy lifting to do with regard to explaining the titular character’s passing, but it also has quite a bit to do when it comes to addressing and setting up former and future events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes a distracting and unnecessary appearance after having been seen previously in Disney+ shows and the Black Widow post-credits scene, and, moreover, a character whose contributions in the film have a catalytic effect on the rest of the plot seems to be included for the purpose of setting up a future spin-off. To add to that, the film has to address ‘the snap’ which upended all life in the connected universe after the events of both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. While these inclusions do take away from the central focus of the story (and some of this probably could’ve been cut), I don’t think they outright overwhelm the film. In fact, I think most of the ‘new characters’ serve the film well, with Riri Williams and Namor being huge highlights for me.
Ryan Coogler had an incredibly difficult task to overcome with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but even though his sequel is somewhat bloated it is still thrilling and powerfully elegiac. If the first Black Panther film was focused, then its grief-stricken sequel is decidedly more fragmented. It is a different experience, but it’s also one of the more interesting of the latest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of this permeating soulfulness, the tribute that the film is to its late titular character, and the epic and complex anti-hero that is introduced here through epic world-building.
8 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.