Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
The sequel honors T’Challa while blazing its own.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Drama, Thriller, Fantasy
Starring: Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Thorne, Dorothy Steel, Florence Kasumba, Lake Bell, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Marlon Hayes, Martin Freeman, Michaela Coel, Richard Schiff, Tenoch Huerta, Winston Duke
After King T’Challa is killed, his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright), his right-hand man M’Baku (Winston Duke), his right-hand woman Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the Dora Milaje (among them Florence Kasumba) fight to defend their country from foreign interference. As the people of Wakanda look forward to the next stage of their history, it is up to our heroes to work together with the guidance of War Dog Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to pave a whole new road for the kingdom of Wakanda.
The core of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”—the sequel to the massively successful “Black Panther,” and a homage to the late Chadwick Boseman—is genuine, even if the whole picture seems artificial. It opens with a cremation/funeral for the recently departed King T’Challa. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and her sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) wear all white as they follow the black casket adorned with a silver Black Panther mask symbol as well as the crossed arms of the Wakanda bow. Their solemn procession, traveling across the realm, is juxtaposed with slow-motion tracking images of dancers jubilantly dancing in remembrance of their slain monarch. After the coffin reaches at a plain, where it ritualistically rises to the sky, we switch to an intense, heartfelt scene of Boseman as T’Challa. The melancholy, pained continuity of pictures soon becomes the “Marvel Studios” emblem, signaling that this is still a Marvel movie. Worse still, it makes “Wakanda Forever” a less enjoyable film.
What did “Black Panther” do right that made it so popular? Like the beautiful, isolated African country of Wakanda, “Black Panther” took place within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It mostly decided to stand on its own, without the heavy expectations that every other movie has to meet: The humor came from the interactions between the characters, not from random references to other properties. The characters, with the exception of Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, were unique to the story, and the focus rarely strayed toward building a franchise.
But writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole don’t have the same kind of freedom with this sad sequel. Some of their problems are out of their hands, like Boseman’s sad death. Others feel like giving up and becoming part of a machine that makes movies.
Large amounts of thought and emotion are packed into the writing. The film delves into the cultural trauma that persists from the historical extinction of Central and South America’s Indigenous nations by pitting them against one other, rather than battling their shared adversary (European colonists), a notion that never thematically lands. It also has to deal with a lot of other things, including addressing The Snap, mourning Boseman’s loss, casting a new Black Panther, and setting up the Marvel TV series “Ironheart,” in which Dominique Thorne will feature. Blockbuster expectations (that this must be a mainstream smash and usher in the next chapter of the cinematic universe) and the burden of satisfying Black people who feel seen by the fantasy affirmation of Black regalism do a good job of balancing these contradictory goals. You can’t fit all of it into a single film. This seems like it could have used another.
From its premise forward, “Wakanda Forever” is doomed to a series of failures. Fearing an African powerhouse, colonial nations are exploring the oceans high and low for vibranium (the metallic ore that powers the African kingdom). A young scientist called Riri (Thorne, given little to no screen time) plays a part in a quest that takes mercenaries far underground, where they confront Namor/Kukulkan, king of Talokan (a threatening and bold Tenoch Huerta), and his people, who are not pleased with the surface world. In fact, they want to eliminate it entirely. In the future, the godlike Namor appears in Wakanda, his ears cocked toward the heavens and his winged feet flapping. He approaches a still melancholy Ramonda and a resentful Shuri with a threat disguised as an alliance, water still trickling from his jade earrings and a glistening, vibranium-pearl-gold necklace. In response to his arrival, Wakanda contacts Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), setting in motion a chain reaction of appearances and subplots that ultimately drag down the picture because of franchise expectations.
The way Coogler concentrates righteous wrath is crucial to “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Ramonda’s first major scene is her reprimanding the United Nations for asking her to share vibranium with the globe while attempting to take it from her country. Bassett performs in a passage in which her voice soars, her stare is focused and harsh, and the venom is palpable. Shuri, who has hidden herself in her lab, designing lethal weapons, feels even worse. She wants to see the world’s destruction. Their common rage drives them to make rash actions, which escalates tensions with Namor, who is anxious to revenge on his mother and forefathers. The film tries to frame the three as distinct phases of mourning, but in order to bring viewers up to speed on Namor’s misdeeds, it becomes ponderous and overwrought.
Maybe there was a way to link these arcs someplace. However, this would need a stronger visual narrative than the film provides. Far too frequently, the speech remains on the surface, either via reams of exposition, externalizing precisely what’s on the character’s mind, or attempting to blend the performers’ real-life sorrow with that of the characters. The latter undoubtedly allows these actors to handle their pain on screen, but when did filmmakers lose how to present without telling? Why are modern blockbusters so obsessed with holding the audience’s hand and delivering minute details? “Why are you telling me all of this?” Shuri asks at one point after Namor relates his whole biography. It seems like a letter from Coogler to himself.
Eventually, this film aims to build up the future via Shuri. Wright is a terrific actress with the capacity to emotionally bear a movie when given solid material. Nonetheless, she is always going against the grain here. She battles through a cringey bit part; she goes past awkward jokes; she works past a conclusion that seems all too perfect. Winston Duke, as the confident and charismatic M’Baku, is available to aid, and Lupita Nyong’o, as the underutilized Nakia, is also there to help. Okoye, performed by Danai Gurira, gives resilience. And new addition Michaela Coel (“I May Destroy You”) as Aneka, a whimsical figure who tonally doesn’t fit in this melancholy ensemble, is there for comedic relief … I guess? Regardless, the united front of these artists isn’t enough to stop a movie that depends on screaming matches and sweeping visual and political analogies stripped down to their simplistic core rather than their nuanced realities.
A massive naval battle occurs, new, ropey devices are utilized, and loose ends are thе mоѕt knotted here max. While the picture is a jumbled mess, you’ll be glad that it opens and closes on strong notes thanks to a montage honoring Boseman. That is, until the cloying post-credit sequence. I’m not clear what Coogler was thinking. For this picture, he took on more responsibility than any director should have. But when this scene came up, I openly moan since it was such a weepy, treacly moment that was completely uncalled for, emotionally manipulative, and only half merited. It’s one of the many moments when “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” possibly has its heart in the right place but is in the wrong mentality and in the least appropriate space—at the center of a constructed movie universe—to grieve on its own terms.