Black Panther is one of Marvel’s best, and most iconic, films not because it eschewed the studio’s hallowed formulas but because it embraced and enlivened them with an authenticity that remains unmatched by most films made at its level. Its weakest bits were when it fell into the rote requirements of its genre, with superfluous fights and action beats that served neither character nor story. That’s also the main problem with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a supersized sequel to the first (running close to three hours) that has several interesting pieces that don’t always fit together. Its closest antecedent in the franchise is Avengers: Age of Ultron, which struggled to merge a bigger story with more intimate character work. The balance here is generally more successful, and the most frustrating elements come from just how close Wakanda Forever comes to being wholly great rather than mostly good.
What works best is the way director / co-writer Ryan Coogler and company handle the passing of their star, Chadwick Boseman, set to reprise his role as King T’Challa prior to his death in 2020. A full draft of a script featuring him was written at the time, and in the months that followed, the team re-conceptualized the film to account for his absence. Rather than gloss over the real-world context with an awkward recasting, Coogler shaped his story around the loss he and his fellow artists felt while making the film. It’s handled deftly and forms a true emotional core that might be one of the finest in the Marvel Studios films.
At the center is Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sister and tech guru, who finds herself unable to move beyond her inability to save her brother. Her grief leads her on a journey of self-discovery not unlike that of her late brother’s. Wright was a standout in the first film and rises to the occasion as the new lead of the franchise in a story that lets her character grow considerably. With Boseman gone, the franchise is in good hands. Equally important is Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, who also plays an expanded role and sells several crucial emotional beats.
These films would be nothing without their antagonists, and Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the king of underwater empire Talokan, is marvelous. In the comics he’s an Atlantean but Coogler smartly recasts his submariner as Mayan in heritage, which adds an element of anti-colonial sentiment to his worldview. Just like Wakanda, Talokan is a civilization empowered by Vibranium, and T’Challa’s decision to let the world see the power of this hidden metal has placed a target on the back of any nation that wields it. Namor sees it as only a matter of time before the surface nations decide to invade his people, and he’s hardly one to wait for his enemies to strike. His aggressive stance brings him into conflict with Wakanda, which he will accept as either an enemy or ally — and nothing in between. Huerta Mejía is wonderful in the role, bringing a nuance to his motivations that stands well next to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger.
Unfortunately, just about everyone else gets short shrift. Newcomer Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), aka Ironheart, is immediately likable, but her role in the story fizzles by the end. She’s a tech prodigy whose invention inadvertently sets off the conflict between Wakanda and Talokan. Shuri’s immediate friendship with Riri is introduced with tons of potential but never blossoms in the way that it should.
Returning characters M’Baku (Winston Duke), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) all have smaller character arcs that feel unfortunately underdeveloped. Ross, in particular, is completely superfluous here and only really present to set up another Marvel film. To set your expectations: Think about the wasteful scenes right in the middle of Age of Ultron where Thor has a spirit quest to deliver exposition about the Infinity Stones. Ross’s material should have been cut in favor of more scenes for the much more compelling characters, particularly Riri.
The rest is similarly a real mixed bag. Several action sequences don’t feel natural to the plot or even all that visually interesting, especially a car chase that takes the place of what could’ve been more real character work. Coogler returns to a more handheld style for much of the film, similar to his earlier work, and it sometimes means action becomes clunky and over-cut. Scene transitions are choppy and sometimes oddly abrupt, as if the final edit was mandated for a specific runtime and scenes were thus cut within an inch of their lives.
Nothing in the film is as underdeveloped or baffling as most of Thor: Love and Thunder, but like many of the Phase 4 films, there’s the sense that Marvel Studios has lost the magic touch it seemed to have between 2016 and 2019, when almost all of their films felt like re-watchable events. None of the action scenes in this come close to the Korean casino fight in the first film; none of the Wakandan iconography feels nearly as grounded or lived-in as in its predecessor, either.
It’s impossible to know how much of Wakanda Forever‘s faults are due to its hasty, tragic rewrites. Audiences are probably inclined to forgive the film for its odder elements given just how well it handles Boseman’s passing, and I can’t blame them. This review may seem negative, but ultimately the parts that work, like Shuri and Namor, really work. It’s a shame everything around them feels so lacking in urgency, so inorganic within the larger story.