Weak action and forced MCU subplots keep “Wakanda Forever” from greatness, but its emotional undercurrents run deeper than any Marvel movie.
The last thing that we see Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa do in 2018’s “Black Panther” is appear before the United Nations, where he reveals to the world that his African nation of Wakanda has secretly been a superpower for several thousand years. While the character would go on to appear in some other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies before the actor who played him succumbed to colon cancer in August 2020 — an illness that Boseman had endured with almost Wakandan privacy — T’Challa’s mid-credits declaration has since assumed the haunted urgency of a man’s dying wish.
T’Challa’s defining act as the king of his country was to puncture the bubble that had protected Wakanda since that fateful day when a meteorite full of vibranium crash-landed onto its shores. Through his fight with Erik Killmonger, a villain forged by colonialism and the abandonment of his own people alike, T’Challa came to accept that the citizens of Earth are inextricably connected to each other, for better or worse. He believed that it was still possible for “better” to win out in the end.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which began production just a few short months after the unexpected death of its leading man and forced screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole to radically overhaul the story it would tell, is a film about how narrow the margins of that victory can be. It’s a film that watches its grieving characters as they grapple with the ripple effects of T’Challa’s last wish (a process that forces more than one of them to revisit the late king’s dilemma between honoring his father and ruling on his own terms).
It’s also a film that internalizes those ripple effects within itself. “Wakanda Forever” reluctantly opens itself up to the rest of the MCU over the course of its 160-minute running time, continuing to do so even as every scrap of mega-franchise synergy eats away at the self-contained identity that allowed “Black Panther” to silo itself away from so much of the usual bullshit and deliver a blockbuster in which amazing craft and active engagement with history saw it tower above most of the spandex-and-CGI spectacles that pass for movies these days.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Despite the culture-shaking impact of its predecessor and the tragic context of Boseman’s death — both of which this film tackles head-on — “Wakanda Forever” is almost by nature more conventional and less exultant than “Black Panther.” Its highs are lower, its lows are more exasperating, and its oceanic undercurrents of loss and healing can be hard to feel amid a cluttered story that spends too much time on the surface.
And yet, for all of the film’s shuddery pacing, thoroughly mediocre action setpieces, and the clumsiness with which it’s forced to double as backdoor pilot for Disney+’s “Ironheart” series, Coogler’s subthread of the MCU continues to operate at a significantly higher strata of thought, artistry, and feeling than the rest of Marvel’s assembly line. Every major character in Wakanda is left to determine whether T’Challa’s memory will be a blessing or a torment, and the movie around them is so wracked by the same tension that even its most formulaic moments are heavy with a human weight that blockbusters seldom have the strength to carry.
Unsurprisingly, “Wakanda Forever” handles T’Challa’s actual (and entirely off-screen) death with grace and aplomb, as the film opens with a self-contained prologue that addresses the inevitable with the bare minimum of MCU nonsense, while also foregrounding the personal toll that Wakanda’s loss takes on the late king’s little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Watching the tech prodigy beg her vibranium-powered “illness”-curing machine for updates about its “confidence rate” of curing her brother feels like a fitting way to start a $200 million blockbuster that was so publicly destabilized just before it went into production. It’s as if the movie itself were holding on for dear life, a candid admission that allows Coogler’s more intimate scenes to involve the audience in mourning someone they miss too in their own way.
Wakanda is a mess in the wake of T’Challa’s death, even if the country has never looked better. A quick note about Ruth Carter: The Oscar-winning costume designer has never been shy about her astonishing talents, but it’s hard to describe the career-best work she does here with the resources and opportunities available to her. The resplendent white cloaks in which people drape themselves for T’Challa’s funeral are just the tip of the tip of an iceberg that stretches from above the surface to the ocean floor, as virtually every scene in this movie wears a stunning visible reminder that “Wakanda Forever” has a sense of self that extends far beyond its Marvel brand identity.
But let’s get back to the drama. Played by Angela Bassett with the delicate stoicism of a mother whose sadness is never far at hand, Queen Ramonda ensures that someone is watching the throne, but Wakanda feels leaderless in spite of her strength. At a time when the country’s traditions were already being tested by the outside world for the first time in its history, Wakanda also finds itself fending off instability from within its own borders, as its various figureheads all have different ideas about how to proceed without a heart-shaped herb to formally consecrate their next sovereign.
Annette Brown/Courtesy of Marvel Studios
These conflicts aren’t framed with the revolutionary fire that Killmonger brought to the table, but rather with the sensitivity of a people scattered in spite of their mutual love and respect. M’Baku (the ever-lovable Winston Duke) isn’t trying to exploit the power vacuum that T’Challa left behind, but he’s got strong feelings about Wakanda’s place in the world, and his characteristic traditionalism doesn’t always sync with his queen’s strategy — it wouldn’t be Wakanda without someone vying for the throne.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is living in Haiti, while Daniel Kaluuya’s traitor W’Kabi is missing altogether, a scheduling quirk that lends to the sense of a nation in disarray. Lucky for us, his wife Okoye has been promoted in his absence, with Danai Gurira making a full meal of her role as the ultra-intense Dora Milaje-in-chief. It’s also fun to see the likes of Michaela Cole fighting by her side, even if the choppy action scenes don’t offer all that much to look at, and it seems like Coogler didn’t even try to stage a setpiece as fluid or memorable as the Busan club brawl in “Black Panther.”
But none of the internecine conflicts are as volatile as the one happening between Shuri and herself, as T’Challa’s kid sister grieves the loss of a person she’s never lived without at the same time as she kicks herself over her failure to save him. “Black Panther” introduced Shuri as a genius who could science her way out of any situation, but the lesson that some problems can’t be solved with brains and pluck alone changes her at the deepest level; it pokes holes in her shield and confronts her with the reality of a world that won’t always keep a respectful distance, making her a natural stand-in for Wakanda at large.
Light enough to float when things get serious but grippingly ambivalent during even her most heroic moments, Wright is excellent in a performance strong enough to earn her an ongoing place in the Marvel pantheon (“Wakanda Forever” still builds in a few eye-rolling contingency plans for the future just in case the actress has some other toxic opinions that Disney doesn’t know about yet). She gives a performance that feels more calibrated for an earthbound drama than a superhero movie, which allows “Wakanda Forever” to continue splitting the difference between those modes during a story that embraces the supernatural a lot more than “Black Panther” ever did.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
And now that Wakanda is on the world stage, there are those who might seek to take advantage of Shuri’s turbulent headspace and play her against her own people. Enter: The pointy-eared Mesoamerican sea king Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), whose Atlantean kingdom of Talokan has been using vibranium to hide under the water in much the same way as Wakanda has been using it to hide above it. Talokan didn’t get a vote in T’Challa’s unilateral decision to share news of vibranium’s existence with the industrialized world, and Namor is, um, extremely not happy when the U.S. government comes digging for the magical space material on his proverbial doorstep.
Without spoiling the geopolitical history of the guy’s Mayan-inspired home or revealing why all the other Talokan have Na’vi-blue skin — to say nothing of how he got the fantastically stupid-looking ankle wings that let him zip through the air look a hummingbird — it’s safe to assume that Namor has some very personal (even molecular) history with colonization, and isn’t much interested in subjecting his people to it again. He hopes that Wakanda might ally with Talokan for a preemptive strike against every other civilization on Earth, and if they refuse, well, he’s happy to drown them along with the rest of the world.
Namor may lack the personal animus that made Killmonger such an unusually compelling Marvel villain, but he shares that character’s postcolonial anger, his distorted righteousness, and his utter disinterest in wearing clothes. Like Killmonger, Namor represents a violent but not altogether illogical threat to Wakanda — one that interrogates the integrity of its Afrofuturistic utopia rather than flatters it, and plays into imperialistic strategies of pitting rival tribes against each other (something that “Wakanda Forever” addresses to whatever extent a modern Hollywood movie of its size possibly can). Combined with a ravishing underwater kingdom that cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw (“Palo Alto”) ingeniously brings to life with counterintuitive flashes of red, that’s enough to make Namor one of the more arresting bad guys that Marvel has ever brought to the screen.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
And yet Coogler still doesn’t quite manage to seize on the character’s full potential, as Namor’s two big action scenes including the movie’s floating grand finale, turn out to be massive duds, with few memorable images or cheer-worthy moments between them (there goes that Oscar!). Listen carefully and you can almost hear James Cameron licking his lips. Nothing here is on par with the infamously cartoonish subway fight in “Black Panther,” but not even Ludwig Göransson having a full-on limit break over the soundtrack — the Oscar-winning composer building on the epic foundation of his “Black Panther” score with Mayan instruments and dashes of Nigerian Street Music — can spice up these generic clashes.
Worst of all is a Cambridge-set chase sequence that finds Shuri and Okoye trying to escape the feds along with Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), the brilliant yet insufferably underwritten MIT student they’ve been sent to bring back to Wakanda. The character is a dull and extraneous slice of corporate synergy to begin with — as you can tell by the way this film can’t find anything for her to do once it’s opened the door for her spin-off series — but Riri is still in the spotlight long enough to personify the Iron Man-ification of the “Black Panther” saga, and chip away at the propulsive uniqueness that elevated Coogler’s movies above the rest of the MCU. This probably isn’t what T’Challa had in mind, but I suppose it’s the price that he was willing to pay.
Of course, the Ironheart of it all is a fitting problem for a Marvel film so focused on how empires struggle to maintain their identity in the face of an increasingly hostile world, and how people struggle to do the same in the absence of the lights who once guided them forwards. “Wakanda Forever” doesn’t always find the most fluid or compelling ways to dramatize those dilemmas, but it never loses sight of their urgency, and Shuri’s path ultimately allows it to tap into rich veins of feeling whenever the movie is able to reconcile the franchise it comes from with the future it maps for itself.
Death is not the end — not for Talokan or Wakanda, not for T’Challa or Chadwick Boseman, and not for anyone who inspires the people who loved them to build off the memory they left behind.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures will release “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in theaters on Friday, November 11.
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