Review - Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
The Black Panther sequel was always going to be a challenge after the untimely death of its star Chadwick Boseman in 2020. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler honors Boseman's legacy while also creating an intermittently entertaining and frequently affecting film. He rises up to the challenge of moving the story forward but Wakanda Forever is a bloated film, hampered by a nearly three-hour runtime.
As with almost all sequels, Wakanda Forever doesn't have the same power or uniqueness as its predecessor. This can be attributed to the ambitious storytelling here that tries to deal with the grief and loss of a hero, deal with the transfer of power, and introduce new characters into the MCU. It is a lot, hence the long runtime of the film. While the film addresses all of these plot strands, it struggles to bring them together. Rather than weaving these narrative ideas into a successful whole, the film often feels episodic. For all its strong elements, it doesn't have the impact of the original. The film's ambitious sprawl dulls the power of its themes.
The film opens with the off-screen death of T'Challa despite desperate efforts by Shuri (Letitia Wright). Wakanda mourns, in a beautifully rendered funeral sequence. However, this does not last long as a squad of soldiers attempts to steal Wakanda's vibranium. Since T'Challa shared Wakanda with the world, the world powers now want its resources. When a US research team finds vibranium deep in the ocean and is quickly slattered, Wakanda is blamed.
The ocean attack was orchestrated by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of a secretive undersea kingdom called Talokan. They have weaponized vibranium, making Namor's army more powerful than any other in the world. Namor's people were once indigenous people who were exploited by colonizers until they drank some vibranium and were able to live underwater.
Namor wants Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to assist him in taking on the rest of the world in order to protect each nation's vibranium. When she refuses, he demands that Wakanda surrender a young college student Riri (Dominique Thorne) who invented a vibranium detector. This sends Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) on a mission to save the young scientist. This leads to plenty of globe-trotting and familiar faces along the way including Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), M'Baku (Winston Duke), and CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).
When Wakanda Forever is focused on the grief and mourning of Ramonda and Shiri, the film is at its best. Rarely have Marvel films felt so emotionally resonant as they do in these moments. The initial hour of the film is some of the best stuff in any Marvel film to date. It is when the plot complicates itself and focuses on Namor and Riri that the film stumbles. The pacing is sporadic causing you to feel the film's length often. There are too many soaring vistas and shots of ships landing to keep the pace moving.
The cast is overall very good here. Bassett in particular shines as a grieving mother who has to show strength as a leader even when her pain is immense. Thorne is fine as Riri but the character is not written very well and relies too much on the charm of the actor. Thorne has charm but not to the level that the role requires. They want Riri to be a Spiderman type but her personality just isn't given enough chances to shine.
Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw confident style combined with Ruth Carter's stunning costume design creates some stunning visual moments. The undersea kingdom moments are less sharp than the Wakanda set scenes. There are simply more striking designs, colors, and set pieces in Wakanda. The undersea kingdom ends up feeling cartoonish by comparison.
Generic action sequences combined with labored pacing and some uneven writing makes Wakanda Forever feel like a drag at times. However, the highs of this film are so good that one could overlook them. Composer Ludwig Göransson has created a thrilling and moving score than shines even when a scene doesn't work. The way Coogler and company have honored Boseman is nothing short of stunning. When the film focuses on grief, it wrestles with an emotional theme rarely seen in the MCU. The scattered plot fails to come together but this is a film with plenty of great scenes. While it may lack the thorniness that Killmonger brought to the first one, it still is full of ideas and vision. Coogler has made a personal film, too bad it is a bit buried under so much plot.