It’s easy, perhaps flippant, to dismiss a product that gives people joy. No matter this critic’s feelings about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or comic book-based fantasy films in general, Ryan Coogler’s task of mounting the sequel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the final movie in the MCU’s Phase Four was mountainous.
“Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, who delighted audiences with his regal performance as King T’Challa, died during the development phase of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole had a mountainous task in front of them. Not only did they have to fit this story into the ever-burgeoning MCU, but they had to contend with the actor’s death in a meaningful way.
Did the duo succeed? Yes and no, mostly no, though.
Coogler and the entire production’s respect for the actor are felt in a somber, sincere way. Coogler uses silence to evoke the shared mourning between the actors and the audience. Boseman and T’Challa’s death is directly reflected within dialogue given to Letitia Wright, who returns as Shuri, the Wakandan princess and younger sister to T’Challa. Wright has a far more prominent role in this film, carrying the torch for more than just the fallen character.
Wright is not alone in this new journey, as the kingdom of Wakanda is threatened by global powers bent on getting their hands on vibranium following T’Challa’s revelation of Wakanda’s true nature. These global powers demand that the kingdom make the metal, technology, and weapons available to all of the world’s powers as a new threat emerges to fracture a precarious peace.
Protecting Wakanda’s interests and its continued isolation are Nakia (LupitaNyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Winston Duke as M’Baku. Duke is easily the standout of these returning characters. As the various tribes that make up Wakanda’s population debate over the impending threats, isolation is once again a primary motivator. Before his death, T’Challa set out to make the isolated country’s presence known to the world, threatening another civilization, the Talokan, led by its king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta).
Namor’s backstory is given more breadth, reflected in the 161-minute run time. Huerta plays the dramatics, and the character is far more involved in the story of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” than in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. Their politics are not so far apart, a sore spot; after two Black Panther films, retribution as a theme, especially in “Wakanda Forever,” doesn’t balance effectively against the themes of isolation. Characters and their further motivations lose importance quickly. While isolation is addressed on the surface, it is still deeply rooted within the characters, general politics, and situations presented in this story.
Angela Bassett returns as Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda. Her grief over T’Challa is balanced by the need for leadership over the Wakandans. Bassett is powerful in certain moments within the story. Martin Freeman also returns as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, though a sub-plot involving his character is less effective than it was in “Black Panther.”
Understanding that the story’s need for plots, sub-plots, and plots-within-subplots is to set up stepping stones for Phase Five grew tiresome. The contrast between retribution and isolation only weakens any attempt to recreate the grandeur of “Black Panther.” Scope, scale, and epic do not mix well here. Some might be thinking “The Phantom Menace” here, but I think George Lucas had a better handle on political ideologies.
Marvel’s Phase Four has introduced younger, more ingenious characters throughout its stories. Dominque Thorne’s Riri Williams fits that mold. Granted, the statement is uncharitable; Thorne is an interesting character, directly linked to this film’s inciting incident, having a grand entrance and then given very little to do in the later acts. Marvel’s mandate makes sense for the theatrical films to continue. The actress’s spunk and attitude give the character personality, which was sorely lacking with the established characters.
Music remains a critical and powerful component of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Ludwig Göransson audaciously scores the sequel with Rhianna recording her first solo work since 2016, “Lift Me Up,” a beautiful piece paying tribute to Boseman, his impact on the franchise, and his character.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” runs 161 minutes, 27 minutes longer than its predecessor, and is uneven in pacing. Editing duties were shared by Michael P. Shawver, who returns from the first film, and Kelley Dixon and Jennifer Lame. The trio tries to balance exposition with character development and plot, with all three elements relying on and weighing each other down. Those familiar with the Marvel Comics this story is based on will experience “aha!” moments.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” works in fits and starts, and it still feels like “The Lion King” in terms of theme and character, which wouldn’t have been an issue if the mechanics had worked. Of the Phase Four films, it is worthy of being called an event; its weighed-down dramatic largesse limits the epic scale it was aiming for, something “Black Panther” achieved. The respect paid to T’Challa and Chadwick Boseman is the film’s highlight. The death of a character, let alone that of a profound actor, is no easy feat, and my hat’s off to Ryan Coogler for making an attempt. We’re nearly left without hope for a better and brighter future for the Wakandans; though the mid-credits sequence restores some of that effect, its power is more critical than the mid-credits sequence in “Black Adam,” and that’s saying something.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on “Black Panther” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Story by Ryan Coogler
Starring Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominque Thorne, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
PG-13, 161 minutes, Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures