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HomeIndustry SectorFilmBlack Panther: Wakanda Forever Review: Ryan Coogler's Turgid Marvel Sequel Has No...

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Review: Ryan Coogler’s Turgid Marvel Sequel Has No Time for Joy and Buckles Under Its Own Weight

Chadwick Boseman‘s death cast an extraordinarily long shadow over Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the sequel to a bonafide cultural phenomenon that was originally intended to reunite its charismatic lead actor with director Ryan Coogler and the idyllic African nation that they had realized together on the big screen, where audiences embraced its predecessor to the tune of $1.3 billion worldwide.

Boseman’s passing at 43 came as a terrible shock, not just to his countless fans around the world, but to Coogler and his other close collaborators, not to mention the entire industry, which nominated Black Panther for seven Oscars. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole had already turned in a draft of Wakanda Forever when, in August of 2020, the actor died from colon cancer, a condition he’d chosen to keep private. Impossibly, Boseman was gone — and with him, so was King T’Challa, the troubled monarch he’d so proudly embodied. 

It’s difficult to convey the galvanic force of Boseman’s work in Black Panther. With a statesman’s dignity and poise, the actor embraced the symbolic value that T’Challa held to Black audiences worldwide. A majestically commanding presence who fought Marvel in order to deliver his dialogue in a South African accent, Boseman captured T’Challa’s regal bearing and fierce inner turmoil, his sense of heroism as both burden and responsibility, and his efforts to honor his ancestors’ sacrifices while learning from their mistakes.

Boseman had played real-life Black icons across a series of biopics (Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42, James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall in 2017’s Marshall), and he sought to portray T’Challa as a similarly iconic but authentic figure, ingraining the dualities of Black excellence, endurance, and nobility that Black Panther‘s story so thoughtfully weighed within his character’s very soul.

That Wakanda Forever exists at all despite the loss of its leading man is a testament to the strength and perseverance of everyone who chose to stick with the production through the tragedy. However, it was perhaps inevitable that the finished sequel would struggle mightily to recover from the staggering absence at its core. No one could envy the position Coogler found himself in, faced with further exploring the characters and world that Black Panther had introduced while simultaneously mourning the fallen hero who stood powerfully at its center.

Such a film would have to serve as both a funeral dirge and a creative reset, a eulogy that looked to the future. Wakanda Forever‘s placement within the swollen Marvel universe — now growing at an alarming rate across streaming as well as the multiplex — means that the film is also obligated to shoehorn in vague teases for upcoming Marvel movies and double as a full-on backdoor pilot for the upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart starring Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams, a fast-talking MIT student who — of course — builds her own Iron Man suits. 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Angela Bassett in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever/Marvel Studios

That’s more weight than any film, even a superhero sequel, should have to carry, and Wakanda Forever is compromised by it on multiple fronts. Black Panther felt miraculous in part because its blazingly political vision of Afrofuturism opened a world away from the rest of the MCU. Though set in a fictional African nation shielded from colonization, which it rendered in colorful detail, the film’s sensitivity to those forcibly displaced from Wakanda — like Michael B. Jordan’s tragic antihero Killmonger, a forgotten child scarred by imperialism and fervently devoted to global Black power — expressed the need for a true pan-African unity to embrace people of the diaspora and address white supremacy’s psychological fractures. That Coogler and collaborators realized such rich, provocative ideas in the propulsive, widescreen language of the superhero blockbuster fantasy made Black Panther feel all the more like a revolutionary triumph.

Wakanda Forever is dramatically less successful because it lacks the same time, space, and resources committed to crafting Black Panther in a world all its own. Squeezing in a mass funeral for T’Challa before the opening Marvel logo, this frantically rushed yet alarmingly turgid sequel has no time for awe, joy, and revelation, instead focusing on building bridges between Wakanda and the larger MCU at the expense of all the emotionally resonant, palpably personal world-building that distinguished Coogler’s previous film.

To recap, Wakanda once existed in secret, its rapid development fueled by deposits of a cosmic metal called vibranium within its mountains (as well as by the absence of colonial violence), before the events of Black Panther led T’Challa to renounce his father’s isolationist ways and reveal Wakanda to the world. Picking up a year after his death, this sequel explores the implications of a technologically advanced African civilization interacting for the first time with the United States and UN member states, which are already angling to exploit Wakanda’s resources. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, ever dignified) holds her own, but the CIA lucks out and — with the help of a “vibranium detector,” built by Williams for one of her MIT class projects — discovers another vein along the ocean floor.

Below the Atlantic Ocean, however, lies another hidden civilization: the underwater kingdom of Talokan, ruled over by the 700-year-old Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a godlike figure with pointed ears and winged feet. Much as Wakanda’s culture is steeped in African tribal and societal influences, Talokan reflects Indigenous Mesoamerican traditions and styles; as a child of the Yucatec Maya people, Namor witnessed the violence of Spanish conquistadors arriving in Yucatán and retreated beneath the waves. Enraged by the surface world’s latest intrusions upon his domain, Namor infiltrates Wakanda in order to forge a discreet alliance with another imperiled world power.

This storyline has promise, setting up a continuation of Black Panther‘s interest in the interrelationships of indigeneity, settler colonialism, and white supremacy that could dig further into the ways that imperial forces have historically pitted marginalized nations against one another over resources. One imagines this side of Wakanda Forever would have been immeasurably strengthened by Boseman’s presence as King T’Challa, his head of state facing off against another powerful monarch and continuing to wrestle with Wakanda’s responsibilities to the outside world.

As Namor, Huerta cuts an intimidating figure, and he pitches the character between barely contained rage and disarming mystique in a way that makes you wish he’d been afforded a capable foil. Alas, T’Challa’s absence leaves Wakanda without a champion, and the film struggles throughout its first hour to settle on a protagonist, let alone to detail its antagonist with anything approaching the level of precise and prolonged attention applied to Killmonger.  

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever/Marvel Studios

T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) — so entertaining as the kid-genius sister last time around — is eventually thrust into the role of avenging hero, a miscalculation given that Wright lacks the gravitas and physicality needed to hold the screen. Shuri was too neatly conceived by Black Panther as a sidekick to convincingly square off with Namor over the future of their respective nations; Wright struggles as well to sell her character’s journey through grief, a storyline that competes with the brewing conflict between Wakanda and Talokan rather than complementing it. One can pinpoint moments at which Wakanda Forever‘s scenes feel stitched together rather than cohesively connected, and emotional beats between Shuri, Ramonda, and Wakanda’s grieving population feel most ill-served by the film’s overwhelming busyness, an issue that’s compounded as the film barrels through significant plot developments it has no time to seriously contemplate the gravity of.

Other fan-favorite characters — such as Danai Gurira‘s defiant Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o‘s heartbroken Nakia, and Winston Duke‘s boisterous M’Baku — are still in the mix but sporadically so, none registering as fully fleshed-out characters with their own dramatic arcs. Nyong’o, a sublime screen presence who’s been sorely missed in recent years, comes the closest, but her character’s nebulous connection to the rest of the plot proceedings is only clarified by a contrived mid-credits scene. Coogler handled this same ensemble deftly in Black Panther, which ran nearly 30 minutes shorter than Wakanda Forever, but he’s never seemed more lost as a filmmaker than he does here, managing the oddly hollow yet over-elaborate machinations of a narrative that never stops moving for long enough to settle into a story worth watching. 

Even more disastrous is the film’s murky, shallow-focus cinematography; it’s credited to Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who shot the Disney+ series Loki, and feels like as much an imposition of Marvel’s house style as the generic green-screen action beats and enervating reliance on characters who quip their way through supposedly heated, emotional battles. Black Panther was elevated by the work of cinematographer Rachel Morrison, with crisp colors and an extraordinarily tactile sense of place; everything from the superhero’s glittering black suit to the striking vibrancy of Wakanda’s city streets was rendered more convincingly last time around.

Wakanda Forever also displays an overreliance on full-VFX and full-composite sets that’s typical of modern Disney but that the film’s predecessor wisely avoided; here, the underwater sequences intended to visualize Talokan are drab and washed-out to the point of distraction, and even a street-level car chase shot at night is near-impossible to track, all the darkness seemingly intended to cover for lackluster CGI. It’s as harsh a criticism as one can muster to say that, visually, Wakanda Forever could be mistaken for just about any other Marvel movie besides Black Panther. 

Wakanda Forever‘s failures would appear less notable had its predecessor not constituted such a potent, bar-raising burst of blockbuster filmmaking, and one mourns the sequel that Coogler, Boseman, and the rest of those involved with the original Black Panther might have been able to make together under kinder circumstances. But struggling to close the distance between making a true Black Panther sequel and delivering Marvel a new piece of product, Coogler has made his messiest and least personal film yet.

Bowed and beleaguered by tragedy, Wakanda Forever slogs its way forward, devoid of real punch and purpose. With its viscerally rich celebration of Black culture, humanity, and experience, Black Panther left its audiences high on a wave of collective euphoria. Aligned with the rest of Marvel’s featureless Phase 4 but cut off from its own sense of identity, Wakanda Forever provokes only that same, sinking feeling.

Grade: D+

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Nov. 11, with previews beginning Thursday night. 

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