Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Shuri, Ramonda, and Namor anchor this understandably messy but undoubtedly meaningful expansion on the themes of the massively successful 2018 film.
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No one can envy the challenge that writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole faced with the tragic death of titular star Chadwick Boseman. The duo had already finished a draft of the script with him in mind before he passed, and they had to retool much of their story for the cast that remained when it was decided that King T’Challa would not be recast.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is, in many ways, impressive in its ability to forge a meaningful path forward in the absence of its intended main character. The tributes to Boseman, both overt and subtextual, are generally handled with grace and the appropriate reverence. The socially incisive and uniquely Black lens of the first film is maintained, with Coogler and Cole continuing to call out white colonialism in its various forms, both traditional and modern. Simultaneously, the film succeeds in providing its new leads with the depth and strength they need to carry this story forward, such that Boseman’s absence doesn’t feel like a gaping hole.
But with such a balancing act in play—honoring its legacy while also moving forward—it’s hard not to notice how Wakanda Forever wobbles on the landing.
King T’Challa is dead. In the wake of his passing, his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), takes the throne to ensure that Wakanda will not become (nor be seen as) weakened in his absence. After the global revelation of Wakanda’s hidden prosperity at the end of the first film, Ramonda now faces a world that would devour her home for its resources at even the slightest opening. The knowledge of Wakanda’s vast quantities of vibranium prompts other international powers into something of an arms race—or, for now, a resource race—as they begin scouring the rest of the planet in search of more.
Meanwhile, T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), buries her head in her laboratory to avoid thinking about her brother or the responsibilities that lay before her as Princess. She blames herself for not being able to save him and refuses to buy into the traditional Wakandan rituals of grief and acceptance. Bast—or any of the other gods, for that matter—have never done anything for her. She’d rather just keep working, creating new technologies that will protect and advance Wakanda, as she’s always done.
But her ability to ignore things is hampered when she and Ramonda are visited at the riverbank by a mysterious, amphibious visitor calling himself “Namor” (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), who informs them that vibranium does, in fact, exist outside of Wakanda, and that his people, the undersea kingdom of Talokan, are in danger as the world turns its gaze upon the resource. If Talokan is in danger, then so is Wakanda.
To protect his people from being ravaged by greedy empires, the sea king wagers a confident all-or-nothing deal: become our ally in an all-out war against the surface world, or be branded an enemy. Namor assures the Queen and Princess that even Wakanda is not equipped for the oceanic vastness and stormlike strength of Talokan’s military.
Coogler has said that he wanted to bring the iconic Atlantis-Wakanda conflict from the comics to screen since the very beginning, and it’s an absolute joy to see his version of it come to life. Atlantis has smartly been altered to more closely resemble an ancient Mesoamerican kingdom, making Talokan (taken from the mythological Aztec paradise of Tlālōcān) feel distinct, both from other iterations of Atlantis (since Aquaman already gave us DC’s version, with a sequel on the way) and from other realms within the MCU. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time in the kingdom itself, but I admire the commitment to making it a truly aquatic civilization, rather than an air-breathing bubble city beneath the sea.
And what would a kingdom be without its king? Namor is a beastly powerhouse, dealing out all the film’s best action and making good on Coogler’s recent claims that he could contend with Thor or Hulk. Huerta Mejía is perfect in the role, capturing Namor’s typical aggression and action-oriented leadership while also grounding him with pathos and a keen understanding of the world around him. This distinguishes Namor from other Marvel villains, in that he really doesn’t feel like a villain at all. A threat and an obstacle, absolutely, and certainly a bit reactionary; but completely understandable in his passion and justified in his rage.
So understandable, in fact, that Shuri finds herself relating and connecting to Namor’s anger. After all, her brother and father are dead, her people subjugated all around the globe, and countless other nations wait eagerly for the chance to destroy her home and plunder its resources. Shuri’s arc is handled with precision and gravity, and I’ve been sold on her as the new lead. I wasn’t exactly hyped for a Black Panther film focused on her, but Wright meets the role head-on, and Coogler and Cole make sure to beef her up from a lackluster comic support into someone who can lead a story.
Likewise, Bassett is incredible as Ramonda, being responsible for the film’s heaviest emotional beats. Lupita Nyong’o returns as a wayward Nakia, mourning the loss of her lover in her own way, and she is powerful even in her relatively limited presence. Across the board, the cast does a great job even when the film has no idea what to do with its secondary characters. Winston Duke is still fun and imposing as the warrior leader M’Baku, though his role is reduced and he lacks a real arc this time around.
We’re also introduced to Dominique Thorne as young genius Riri Williams, ahead of her own Disney+ series Ironheart. Thorne is well-cast in the role, and makes for a charming addition in her initial scenes, but it quickly becomes clear that the film isn’t sure of her function beyond a second-act plot device. Her role in this mostly feels like it should be the pilot episode of her show, and it’s out of place here.
Aside from its peripheral use of its supporting cast, where Wakanda Forever falters the most is in the momentum and machinations of its plot. The film feels choppy from its opening seconds and never really finds its groove. Bizarre editing choices abound: scenes are cut short before they’ve marinated, and cross-dissolves are everywhere, in all the wrong places. Fight scenes feel largely unnecessary to the story and interrupt interesting character moments—and, aside from a distinctively score-less bridge clash, aren’t very memorable in themselves. Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett Ross returns in an almost entirely superfluous role that gums up the pacing. (And that sucks, because I love Martin Freeman.)
Coogler takes a “drop you right in” approach to the film’s opening and T’Challa’s death, which is fine in itself, but from the outset, there is never really a second to inhale. The film assumes our familiarity with Boseman’s real-life passing and thus makes no attempt to explain, in any depth, what happened to T’Challa or why.
I understand this approach—it not only avoids awkwardly mucking around in sensitive territory, but also effectively generates empathy by paralleling the sudden way in which the world lost a beloved artist—but I’m not entirely sure it serves this sequel all that well as an extension of the first film. Something about a film centered concretely on T’Challa being followed by a direct sequel in which he’s rather inexplicably dead and entirely absent, registers as strange and creates a slight feeling of detachment when viewing these two films as part of one story. It is by no means the worst way such a tender matter could have been handled, but I’m convinced there are better ways to have done it too, without needing to wade into “digitally puppeteering the dead” territory.
It’s worth noting that, so far, I seem to be in the minority in that sentiment, as one of the most consistent praises of this movie is its handling of both Boseman’s and T’Challa’s passing. Mileage may vary, I guess. Certainly, the ways in which this film functions as an homage to a real person are respectful and effective.
Another shame is how many of the first film’s strengths, aside from its thematic commentary, seem to fade in this sequel. Wakanda is less prominent, both as a character and a backdrop, as the main characters are constantly tied up either globetrotting or making decisions in Shuri’s lab. Likewise, both Ludwig Goransson’s original score and the pop soundtrack lack the memorability, emotional power, and presence of their previous counterparts.
But one marked improvement over the original is Coogler and crew’s more deliberate use of the camera. He returns to a more grounded, naturalistic style: choosing lenses, lighting, and shooting methods that make each scene feel more tactile and earnest, in contrast to the often overly flat, digital look of many Marvel films. That visual intentionality is somewhat lost in the film’s latter action scenes, which also lack creativity in choreography and logic in setting, but for the majority of the movie, I was struck with how pretty and how real much of the film looked.
Overall, it’s hard for me to say, personally, which Black Panther film is better — though I have no doubts that Wakanda Forever will generally be seen as a lesser but worthy sequel. I’m not as high on the first film as others, as its myriad narrative issues are widely overlooked, somewhat understandably, in favor of highlighting its gargantuan cultural influence and its addition of a distinct voice and setting to the MCU. Both suffer from structural issues and a lack of depth given to its ancillaries. But while Wakanda Forever does not benefit from the first film’s newness, and often fails to expand on its corner of the Marvel world in an exciting way, Coogler satisfyingly builds upon themes established in his first outing, and pushes Wakanda’s main players forward into a new era, and I think that does a lot for the film.
I’m not sure what’s in store for our Wakandan friends in the future, as the film doesn’t lay much obvious groundwork for sequels, aside from the Ross and Riri subplots (which feel more like setups for spinoffs, rather than a direct sequel), and frankly, I don’t much care. I’m in no rush to get to chapter three. What we get here, a meditation on grief and healing, is satisfying enough for now.
Really, I just want to know when we’re getting more Namor. The man’s a badass. Take me away, Indominus Rex.