A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2022


2022, PG-13, 161 mins.

Letitia Wright as Shuri   /  Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia  /  Angela Bassett as Ramonda  /  Danai Gurira as Okoye  /  Winston Duke as M'Baku  /  Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams / Ironheart  /  Tenoch Huerta as Namor  /  Florence Kasumba as Ayo  /  Michaela Coel as Aneka  /  Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross  /  Mabel Cadena as Namora  /  Alex Livinalli as Attuma  /  Danny Sapani as M'Kathu  /  Isaach de Bankolé as River Tribe Elder  /  Gigi Bermingham as French Secretary of State

Directed by Ryan Coogler  /  Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole




I don't envy the position of the makers of BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER.  

Not one bit.

Imagine trying to make a sequel to not only one of the most popular MCU films - and films period - of all time (the 2018 super hero epic emerged as the seventh highest grossing film domestically ever), but one that was also a pioneering watershed event picture for the genre and industry as a whole...and you must do so without the lead actor playing the titular character because he tragically died far too young in real life.  

The passing of star Chadwick Boseman left writer/director Ryan Coogler and Disney with an unspeakably difficult assignment here.  The first BLACK PANTHER was one of the first comic book inspired blockbusters made by an African American and starring a 99 per cent African American cast, was done so on a gargantuan scale, and, yes, achieved massive critical and financial success.  How does one sequalize such a historically important and cherished film without one of its most crucial ingredients? 

Coogler, his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and Disney execs had three possible choices: 

(1) Recast T'Challa (which probably would not have gone over very well).

(2) Don't recast T'Challa and have the character die off screen in the sequel (also creatively tricky).

(3) Don't make the sequel at all.  

There was no way that the mighty cash making MCU machine was ever going to choose the third option, not even in the wake of Boseman's battle and death due to colon cancer, so Coogler and company have opted to take the second option and kill off T'Challa, deal with how his death has affected the nation of Wakanda and those closest to him, and show how - during the morning period - new heroes have to emerge to make up for the Black Panther's sizeable and almost irreplaceable absence.  I highly doubt that Coogler ever wanted to make a BLACK PANTHER sequel minus Boseman, but alas...here we are, so the two main questions that emerges with BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER are simply this: 

Did he re-capture lightning in a bottle twice this time without his star and is it a worthy tribute and send-off to him?   

The answer is no and yes...well...to a degree. 

To be fair, who on earth could replace Boseman in this part?  That, and any effort to make a sequel without him might come off as more cynical minded in terms of pure business motive for the House of Mouse (lets be clear, they were never not going to make a BLACK PANTHER 2).  But I will say that BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FORVER is as good of a sensitively rendered eulogy to its fallen star in Boseman and the hero he portrayed that we're likely to get and it definitely scores points with finding ways to organically and fittingly deal with it in the plot department.  On top of that, this sequel does have a fairly good villain (not as good as Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, mind you, but interesting nevertheless) and does some fantastic character building with those that were once supporting players in the first entry and now have been elevated to places of newfound prominence.  Having said all of that, though, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER emerges as lethargically bloated, meandering in its focus, and lacks overall narrative symmetry throughout.  Outside of being too overstuffed and long for its own good, this follow-up is just too messy in its noble minded interests to come off as a truly visionary and worthy successor to the multiple Oscar winning original. 



The opening of BLACK PANTHER wastes no time with addressing the large elephant in the room: T'Challa has died while on a mission (shown off screen) and the entire Wakandan civilization now has to deal with the aftermath of such an unspeakable tragedy.  His mother in Ramonda (the always authoritative Angela Bassett, so perfectly cast here) not only has to process intense feelings of grief and pain over losing her son, but she also finds herself becoming the interim ruler of her people in the process, a task that boast all sorts of newfound internal and external pressures.  Also trying her best to move on from T'Challa's death is his little sister in Shuri (Letitia Wright), whom you may remember was the gadget obsessed Q to T'Challa's James Bond.  Wakanda is now facing massive international pressures from other nations around the world to share one of their most vital resources in vibranium, with the U.S. accusing Ramonda of selfishly hoarding it.  Predictably, the very guarded new leader refuses to share what they have, fearing that it would get into the wrong hands, and this leads directly into the appearance of a powerful mutant named Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who leads the underwater civilization of Talokan that has their own stockpile of vibranium that Wakanda had no idea existed outside of their borders.  Namor wants to align himself with Wakanda to declare a two nation war against the rest of the "colonist" world at large that wants to take their vital vibranium, but the cool headed Ramonda refuses.  When American whiz-kid Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) has created a device that can detect vibranium anywhere, Namor wants to find and kill her, but Ramonda decides to serve as her protector, leaving Namor to take drastic action against Wakanda and the world as a whole. 

Of the things that BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA does well one would be, as mentioned, that it has a compelling villain in Namor, who has some relatable beefs with surface dwelling nations and will stop at nothing - even the mass destruction of Wakanda - to protect his peoples' best interests.  One of the extended subplots of the sequel is his kidnapping of Shuri and Riri to use them as leveraging bait against Ramonda, and during these extended sequences we come to learn of Namor's origins as well as the blue-skinned inhabitants of Talokan (that, yeah, will have many finding them to be distracting similar to the N'avi in AVATAR).  Huerta is quite good at playing up the many layers of this antagonist, who has an understandable protectionist philosophy that clashes with his more despotic join me, or die political stance against countries that harbor land-bound adversaries.  The BLACK PANTHER films thus far - unlike many of the recent MCU films - have granted us some memorable threats to the heroes (and ones with motives that are not inherently wrong on a few levels) with Killmonger before and Namor now.  It's unfortunate, though, that BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER has come out well after DC's AQUAMAN, which did a much better job of visualizing its similar aquatic kingdom.  Compared to the vibrantly colorful and alive Atlantis of AQUAMAN, Talokan seems visually drab and uninspired by comparison.  The visual effects are thankless, yes, at portraying the winged feat, underwater breathing Namor and his brethren, but his whole kingdom on a conceptual level leaves a lot to be desired. 

Actually, I'm going to get back to this film's imagery in a minute, but I also want to highlight how Coogler does a decent job of modifying the whole focal point of this juggernaut franchise away from its male hero in T'Challa and now to its female protagonists.  The death and funeral of the former Wakandan leader is giving large stature in the early stages of BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER, and we not only get a well mounted pre-title sequence that explores how he fell and his funeral, but we also come to understand what a large shadow that both the character and the actor behind him casts on this whole production.  From here, the story has to naturally gravitate to Ramonda trying to pick up the pieces of her son's death and rule in his place with dignity and grace.  The most crucial and finest character arc of the film is easily that of Shuri, whose tech brilliance rivals that of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, but even her vast scientific know-how wasn't able to save her brother, which riddles her with guilt and leaves her struggling to understand her place in Wakanda and its future.  BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FORVER is on confident ground when exploring both of these women being forced to assume greater leadership responsibilities in the wake of family loss. 

If only the rest of this film built around these richly empowered female characters was as thematically potent.  There are so many characters, ideas, and motivations at play in BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER that it's only inevitable that some are nourished, whereas many more seem undercooked.  There's an endlessly fascinating hook here of having two super hero powered nations in Wakanda and Talokan having common enemies in the larger white world around them that they see as a collective threat.  And when these two superpowers that share the commonalities of perceived threats against their well guarded natural renounces end up ethically disagreeing, they then end up waging a war against each other.  The whole notion of two nations dominated by people of color fighting each other is a powerful one, but this theme never germinates as fully and satisfactorily as it should have here.  This is also not assisted by the sheer volume of characters and their respective subplots being introduced, then abandoned, and then followed-up on when the story conveniently requires it.  Just look at the mostly superfluous addition of CIA Agent Ross (a wasted Martin Freeman) and his ex-wife/boss (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) that seems to really distract from Namor/Ramonda's larger hostilities.  Then there's the re-appearance of Okoye (Danai Gurira) and how she gets stripped of her placement and authority in the female Wakandan Army that doesn't seem to get enough screentime here.  This is also true of Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa's love of his life that ended up fleeing Wakanda after his death to teach in Haiti and is called back into service by her home nation.  These last two subplots are more integral to the storytelling here than that of the American intelligence agents (which should have been scrapped altogether), but Coogler and Cole jump back and forth between them and the expositional particulars of Namor that the film sometimes comes off as schizophrenic.   

Everything builds - as it always seems to in these MCU blockbusters - to a visual effects heavy battle between all parties in the climatic third act, and even though these final thirty or so minutes are consummately engineered and impressively staged, there's a decided been-there, done-that vibe that permeates the proceedings, not to mention that so much of the longwinded build-up to it (clocking in at a whopping and watch checking 161 minutes) and its flip-flopping story focus made me feel more tired than excited in the film's home stretch.  As is the potential problem with films of this ilk, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER oftentimes confuses overall bigness with being qualitatively more.  Sometimes the large scale spectacle overwhelms this film's dramatic imperatives and leaves its many, many characters feeling more like action figure props at the mercy of the action and overall visual and auditory noise.  Here's another thing: why oh why is BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER so lackluster in its editing and imagery?  The first BLACK PANTHER epic was a feast for the eyes and imagination and was brimming with color and energy.  The biggest sin of this follow-up - and what drove me ultimately crazy - was how incomprehensibly shot so many action scenes were here.  So many moments on display are so dull, dark, murky, and so on that I often had great difficulty just making out what was happening on screen (I don't chalk this up to projection issues, because I saw this with the finest projection my city has to offer).  BLACK PANTHER was almost like a Technicolor dreamscape compared to the washed-out of fairly ugly grunge of this sequel.   

Maybe - just maybe - the making of this Boseman-free BLACK PANTHER was ultimately a fool's errand.  There's clear cut sincerity at the core of WAKANDA FORVER and there's no denying that Coogler and his cast's hearts were definitely in the right places.  There are also some good, newfound elements here that do work and expand upon the mythology of what's come before.  Unfortunately, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER rarely seems as wonderfully liberated as its antecedent.  BLACK PANTHER 1 stood proudly on its own as a fantastic solo adventure while still having its feet planted in the larger MCU, but this sequel appears more dutifully manufactured to continue MCU's Phase Four assembly line universe building.  It's sad, in conclusion, to label the sequel to one of the biggest films in the recent history of cinema (and one with such an unprecedented cultural impact on the medium) as filler content.  At least BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER understands the seismic impact of Boseman's presence as T'Challa and how the void that he left can't possibly be filled.  Maybe this film reminds us too much of that fact for its own good.  And maybe - just maybe - BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER proves that the MCU is too big to not keep its wheels spinning, but not too big to fail.  

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