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film review

Winston Duke as M'Baku in Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.Eli Adé/Marvel Studios

  • Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
  • Directed by Ryan Coogler
  • Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
  • Starring Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett and Tenoch Huerta
  • Classification PG; 161 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 11

As a wise man once said (maybe Machiavelli, maybe Omar Little from The Wire): When you come at the king, you best not miss. But what happens when there is no king, just an empty throne? Such was the monumental challenge facing director Ryan Coogler and his team ahead of making Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a superhero blockbuster that lost its superhero. That is: King T’Challa of Wakanda, a.k.a. Black Panther, a.k.a. actor Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer in 2020 at 43 after leading a box-office and cultural revolution.

The fact that Wakanda Forever exists at all is a testament to not only the deep coffers of Marvel Studios but also the perseverance, patience, even courage of Coogler. The director and his returning co-writer Joe Robert Cole come at their kingdom-without-a-king with a careful plan to subvert expectations and widen perspectives. Instead of recasting T’Challa (unthinkable) or punting some arbitrary Marvel tough guy under his crown and behind his mask (unfortunate), the filmmakers focus on the many powerful women of Wakanda who keep the memory and meaning of T’Challa alive and well, all while introducing new and diverse dimensions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever treats her dialogue as if it was the most mouth-watering of Shakespearean confectionery.Marvel Studios/Marvel Studios

This, Coogler and Cole announce early on, will be a Black Panther sequel in spirit and synergy. It is a killer conceit that tries so very hard not to miss. But the film’s aim is not nearly as steady as its intentions.

Initially, Wakanda Forever’s problems feel minor-key, even forgivable given the circumstances. The story, for starters, is a slick packaging of comic-book canon, MCU franchise obligations, and grand thematic urgency.

Wakanda Forever’s Ryan Coogler honours Chadwick Boseman through a new Black Panther

This time, our heroes – some familiar and some new – range from T’Challa’s younger scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to warriors Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Aneka (Michaela Coel) to expatriate spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and all the way up to Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). While mourning the loss of their friend, brother, son, leader – Coogler and Cole keep the details of T’Challa’s death respectfully vague and off-screen – they encounter a new threat in the form of the superhuman Namor (Tenoch Huerta).

In his Marvel debut as Namor, Tenoch Huerta Mejía stews with a rage that is both blinding and accessible, frightening and sympathetic.Eli Adé/Marvel Studios

The sub-mariner is the leader of an underwater nation called Talocan, which was originally known by Atlantis in the Marvel comics but is recontextualized here as a Mesoamerican culture that borrows its name from the Aztec paradise Tlālōcān (this also helps the movie differentiate itself from Aquaman, even though Namor’s first comic appearance predates that DC character by two years). Any way: Talocan, as Namor tells it, is in the midst of fighting global superpowers that want to appropriate its natural resources – a loaded commentary on colonization that expands and amplifies the central themes of Coogler’s first Black Panther film.

Will Wakanda join Talocan in waging a war against the supremacists of the surface world? Or will Namor – who could easily be read as a sympathetic eco-terrorist – find a new enemy in the isolationist, and existentially leaderless, Wakanda?

As is Marvel Studios corporate policy, the answer involves a lot of CGI-heavy set-pieces, narrative interruptions from other, far less interesting corners of the MCU (hello special guest star Richard Schiff, for some reason), and flinty introductions to fan-favourite characters who promise to be much more compelling in the next movie and/or Disney+ series – or so the producers swear on their stack of limited-edition Avengers annuals. The thunderous explosions and clenched jaws and steely speeches are all stretched and inflated to an interminable, unjustifiable length that underlines just how much pressure Coogler placed upon himself (and was placed upon him) to get this tribute-slash-cash-cow right.

More than any other MCU outing over the past three years, though, there is more to appreciate here than not. The performances are all filled with sorrow and spirit, a true melding of real-life emotion and whatever heightened reactions are typically required for an expensive play session in a superpowered sandbox.

Wright came into the film facing the biggest challenge, with Coogler promoting her Q-like gadget scientist Shuri up to heir-apparent status: She has to be the smart-aleck genius as well as the central emotional tether to T’Challa (but really Boseman’s) memory. Wright nails the role, even when put up against the always formidable Bassett, who treats her not especially delicious dialogue as if it was the most mouth-watering of Shakespearean confectionery. The same goes for Gurira, who gets to step outside the simple kick-butt requirements of the first film to showcase a crushing vulnerability, and returning secret comic-weapon Winston Duke, all faux-cocky machismo as warrior M’Baku.

Letitia Wright nails her role as Shuri, even when put up against the formidable Bassett.Marvel Studios/Marvel Studios

Huerta, meanwhile, enters the film a relative unknown but exits a natural born star. Even though his version of Namor is saddled with a laboriously explained backstory (complete with the utterance of one word that will drive MCU acolytes mad), the actor simmers and stews with a rage that is both blinding and accessible, frightening and sympathetic. The fact that Huerta pulls the act off while clad in a tight little green speedo and sporting flip-flapping CGI wings on his feet (both ridiculously comic-accurate details) only makes his performance that much more impressive. (It also proves that, like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in the first Black Panther, Coogler has a habit for giving his villains just a touch more energy than his heroes.)

Yet for all that works, Wakanda Forever constantly feels in fierce conflict with itself. Its first half-hour acts as a tremendously affecting, impressively non-exploitative tribute to the legacy of Boseman – while also acting as a quasi-tribute to its own franchise, a justifiable self-kudo given how groundbreaking the first film was for Black culture and on-screen representation. The next hour also crackles as it introduces Namor and his people. But once the central conflict is established, Coogler just lets his film sit there, hoping that an accumulation of myriad things (car crashes, heart-to-hearts, MacGuffins) will naturally result in escalating drama and tension and thrills. Instead, the film slips into the familiar, grinding maw of the MCU machine. Even the genuine grief fuelling the effort is chewed up and spat out, a half-digested act of mourning.

This might not all be so deflating if Wakanda Forever worked, simply, as an action spectacle. But very little here pops. Vehicles (cars, drones, planes, ships) burst into flames and seemingly hundreds of people die exceptionally violent deaths, but good luck being either energized or even able to follow any of the destruction. Either Coogler has failed to develop his set-piece sensibilities since his first similarly action-deficient Black Panther or, more likely, he remains as trapped as any MCU director in adhering to a previsualized formula. X number of explosions must happen by minute Y, this time engineered with sloppier and shoddier CGI than ever before. Truly, some moments appear so blatantly green-screened that I could smell the panic-sweat of the visual effects artists toiling away in windowless rooms.

At its best moments, Wakanda Forever proves that not every nation needs a king. But it is hard to lead when the powers-that-be at Marvel Studios are so carefully watching the throne.