Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
The Marvel Cinematic Universe's most electrifying instalment yet gets an engaging-enough sequel, which grapples with grief and also franchise box-ticking.
November 09, 2022
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever isn't the movie it was initially going to be, the sequel to 2018's electrifying and dynamic Black Panther that anyone behind it originally wanted it to be, or the chapter in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe that it first aimed to be — this, the world already knows. The reason why is equally familiar, after Chadwick Boseman died from colon cancer in 2020 aged 43. At its best, this direct followup to the MCU's debut trip to its powerful African nation doesn't just know this, too, but scorches that awareness deep into its frames. King T'Challa's death starts the feature, a loss that filmmaking trickery doesn't reverse, no matter how meaningless mortality frequently proves when on-screen resurrections are usually a matter of mere plot twists. Wakanda Forever begins with heartbreak and pain, in fact, and with facing the hard truth that life ends and, in ways both big and small, that nothing is ever the same.
Your typical franchise entry about quick-quipping costumed crusaders courageously protecting the planet, this clearly isn't. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler (Creed) like its predecessor — co-scripting again with Joe Robert Cole (All Day and a Night) — Wakanda Forever is about grief, expected futures that can no longer be and having to move forward anyway. That applies in front of and behind the lens; as ruminating so heavily on loss underscores, the movie has a built-in justification for not matching the initial flick. The Boseman-sized hole at Wakanda Forever's centre is gaping, unsurprisingly, even in a feature that's a loving homage to him, and his charm and gravitas-filled take on the titular character. Also, that vast void isn't one this film can fill. Amid overtly reckoning with absence, Coogler still has a top-notch cast — returnees Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke, plus new addition Tenoch Huerta, most notably — drawing eyeballs towards his vibrant imagery, but his picture is also burdened with MCU bloat and mechanics, and infuriating bet-hedging.
The emotional tributes to T'Challa and Boseman hit swiftly, after the former's tech-wiz sister Shuri (Wright, Death on the Nile) agonises over not being able to save him. In a swirl of song, dance, colour, movement, rhythm and feeling on par with the first instalment, but also solemn, Wakanda erupts in mourning, and the film makes plain that the Black Panther audiences knew is gone forever. A year later, sorrow lingers, but global courtesy wanes — now that the world knows about the previously secret country and its metal vibranium, everyone wants a piece. Such searching incites a new threat to the planet, courtesy of Mesoamerican underwater kingdom Talokan and its leader-slash-deity Namor (Huerta, Narcos: Mexico). The Atlantis-esque ocean realm has vibranium as well, and it's not keen on anywhere else but Wakanda doing the same. If Queen Ramonda (Bassett, Gunpowder Milkshake), Shuri and their compatriots don't join Namor to fight back, Namor will wage war against them instead.
Given Coogler and Cole's basic premise, bringing back Okoye (Gurira, The Walking Dead), head of the Wakanda's formidable Dora Milaje warriors, is obviously easy. The same applies to fellow soldier Ayo (Florence Kasumba, Tatort), and to introducing Aneka (Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You). Straight-talking tribal leader M'Baku (Duke, Nine Days) makes a seamless comeback and, although she's working in a school in Haiti, former spy Nakia (Nyong'o, The 355) does the same. Even excusing seeing CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, Breeders) again is straightforward enough, but keeping overarching Marvel saga cogs turning means a pointless reappearance for another character familiar from the broader series but new to Black Panther movies. And, it results in the clunkiest of kickoffs for "young, gifted and Black" college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, Judas and the Black Messiah), the star of upcoming MCU Disney+ TV show Ironheart, who is needlessly shoehorned in on the big-screen.
Serving itself first and foremost, rather than the behemoth of a franchise it's in, was one of the OG Black Panther's many glorious delights. That picture felt alive, unique, rich and impassioned — and dedicated to standing out, including via its Afrofuturism — in a way that nothing else in the MCU has. While the colours lensed by cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw (Loki) are more muted now, befitting the tone of mourning, the grand visual spectacle and love for everything Wakanda stands for thankfully remains in the second go-around; however, 30 films in instead of 18, Wakanda Forever sadly isn't allowed just to be concerned with its own patch. Worse, that box-ticking, piece-connecting switch comes with an unwillingness to be truly bold where it matters: the future of Black Panther. The women of Wakanda get their time to shine here, and to show they deserve the spotlight. Alas, then arrives an end-credits scene that's sentimental where the rest of the flick firmly isn't, and gives Marvel a convenient way to change course if Wakanda Forever sparks a manchild backlash.
Coogler knows that viewers will watch wondering what Wakanda Forever might've been if it was the movie originally intended. Indeed, grappling with that within the film itself will always be its smartest move. Accordingly, come for the meaningful musing on grief and lost possibilities, and a heartfelt tribute. Come, too, for plenty that made the initial Black Panther engaging and resonant: the cast and their stellar performances, especially Wright and Bassett; Wakanda's look, vibe and sound; and the commanding yet nuanced and fleshed-out antagonist, with Huerta nailing his MCU debut (and following capably in Michael B Jordan's footsteps). There's also the inherent commentary, this time pointing out battles over the earth's resources, and how colonial powers push people who should be aligned into conflict among themselves. And, yes, come for brief flashbacks of Boseman — although in a better all-round film, they wouldn't be as key a highlight.
Staying — and with a 161-minute duration, viewers are in for an overlong sitting — heralds much that's simply standard, far less impressive, curious or a missed opportunity, though. Some examples: the workmanlike climax despite eye-catching action beforehand, shortchanging Wright and Bassett's scenes together, too many easy comic-book tropes, too many subplots, trying to do to many things, all the blue and undersea dives so close to Avatar: The Way of Water's release, and failing to give T'Challa's death a named cause. (Imagine how potent it would've been to say that cancer claimed this mighty superhero, as it does to too many ordinary folks every single day, and also to recognise the disease that took Boseman.) When Wakanda Forever is at its most by-the-numbers, too, it plays like Marvel dragging its most diverse and distinctive arm down rather than lifting it up. Of course, the film tells you how it wants you to respond to its struggles and messiness, because it acknowledges that they're a part of mourning. But forging through can resemble treading water — it does have the wing-footed villain for it.