There was always going to be a complicated heaviness and unfair baggage attached to the ill-fated production of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. As the 30th film entry in the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s a high level of anticipation and scrutiny to deal with just by default. As Marvel Studios’ final theatrical event for 2022 and the last movie for Phase 4 - their biggest and most ambitious collection of MCU media to date - the pressure is ever higher. As the first official sequel to the billion dollar cultural game-changer that was 2018’s Black Panther, the expectations seem almost impossible to live up to.
And then, of course, there’s the one thing that eclipses everything; the tragic passing of the King himself, Chadwick Boseman in August of 2020. In addition to the obvious shock and heartbreak, the story was forced to be completely (and quickly) reworked while also now needing to serve as a tasteful and touching tribute to the late hero, whose absence is still very much felt. The fates seemed to be actively conspiring against this movie. Director Ryan Coogler called it the hardest thing he’s ever done in his career. That makes it all the more difficult to rate and review something that never got a fair shake to begin with, and whose emotional stakes are inextricably linked to their real world context.
What works best for Wakanda Forever is the way it chooses to tackle those feelings head-on, turning whatever the Black Panther’s second outing was supposed to be into a story of grief that grapples with the brief yet insurmountable legacy he left behind. Channeling their own raw feelings towards their co-star’s passing, the performances from the returning cast are tremendous. In particular, it’s the power in the performances of Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright that carry the film through. It’s impossible to not feel that sense of loss reverberate in the theater. As a heartbreaking farewell to Boseman and his character, the film mostly succeeds thanks to some key scenes. Which is good, because the rest is as frustratingly messy as the MCU has ever been.
Wakanda Forever begins with T’Challa dying of an undisclosed disease. His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is unable to save him. For the first time, her science and her great intelligence fails her. As Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the rest of Wakanda attempt to deal with their mourning and a nation in turmoil, Shuri closes herself off and buries herself in her work. But a vibranium arms race begins across the world, forcing Shuri back into action when Wakanda becomes the obvious number one target. And they soon learn that they’re not the only ones who have access to the precious metal. A secret underwater kingdom by the name of Talokan rises from the depths with vibranium technology of its own Their king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), arrives with an ultimatum: Wakanda must join with Talokan and conquer the surface world, or be the first to perish.
The death of Boseman does end up helping this sequel tie more directly into the events of the first, where the consequences of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) destroying all of the heart-shaped herbs (the things that give Black Panthers their power) becomes a central issue. Shuri isn’t able to simply take a swig and visit the Ancestral Plane the way her brother did. In fact, she doesn’t put much stock in that more mystical side of her culture anyway. That divide between her generation and her mother’s - who still hold themselves to those ancient customs - is another appreciated element of the story.
What T’Challa leaves behind, both literally and figuratively, is what ultimately drives the entire plot. His unveiling of Wakanda and its technology was always going to have ramifications, but now that he’s no longer here to answer for and expand on his historical decision, it throws things into even bigger disarray. Namor blames T’Challa for putting Talokan’s secret existence in jeopardy, but since he’s gone, the consequences fall on his remaining family, neither of whom quite know what to do with the hand they’ve been dealt.
Again, it’s Bassett and Wright that keep the film afloat. The weight and weariness that Bassett puts behind every single acting choice, while still conveying a terrifying sort of strength, is brilliant. Ramonda is probably the most tragic character of the entire story, having lost just about everything she’s held dear. Likewise, Wright expertly portrays Shuri’s disconnect from the world as the result of her relentless grief. She refuses to face her overwhelming feelings to such a degree that it's almost as if she can’t accept the reality of her brother’s death at all. What’s worse, she blames herself for failing to save him and in turn has lost her confidence in her scientific abilities. These are already strong and interesting places to come from acting-wise, and the undoubtedly genuine emotions only bolster the performances and make them all the more memorable.
Unfortunately, the corporate synergy of the overarching, interconnected universe greatly intrudes on this film’s own in-universe ability to treat T’Challa’s death as the monumental event it should be. At this point, T’Challa was already thought dead at the hands of Killmonger in the first film, only to come back and retake the throne. He makes his big move in revealing Wakanda to the world and then is quickly killed by Thanos only to come back once again five years later. Not long after that, he dies again. How could any of these characters possibly process all of that? How exactly is Wakanda dealing with the comically chaotic position of the throne, which has now gone from T’Challa’s father to T’Challa, to Killmonger back to T’Challa, then taken up by Ramonda, then back to T’Challa again, and now back to Ramonda? It’s a mess, one that Coogler and company are unfairly saddled with and could never possibly clean up to a satisfying degree.
Like other recent MCU projects, Wakanda Forever also suffers from feeling like it’s been edited to death. Many scenes feel haphazardly arranged and chopped up, details that seem like they should come back later are never mentioned again, and even entire character arcs end up feeling woefully incomplete. Okoye, a fan favorite for good reason, is especially shafted here. Despite a compelling first half for the leader of the Dora Milaje and a devastatingly strong showing from Gurira, Okoye’s story is almost immediately resolved without effort. But much worse than that, it takes her character from being one of the best grounded, non-superpowered characters to just another soulless CGI creation. Almost everything that made her special feels gone. As for Florence Kasumba’s Ayo and a new character named Aneka played by Michaela Coel, they’re hardly able to register as presences at all. Whatever was originally planned for those two simply isn’t here.
Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) is also introduced in this film, leading to her upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart. It’s hard to say how much her inclusion is due to Disney demands or Coogler himself, but she too feels hindered, not being given the chance to be much of a character either. Instead, she’s the film’s designated Quip Machine, and sadly for every good joke there are two tiresome ones. As a young girl who’s built a suit that rivals Iron Man, Riri could certainly be an interesting new hero. And to her credit, Thorne is occasionally able to break through and give a tiny glimpse at what makes her character unique and engaging. But for the most part, Riri is stuck as both comic relief and a MacGuffin, not allowing her much room to feel like an actual person.
The new characters that do work are Namor and his fellow Talokans. Their chilling introduction is one of the best that Marvel has ever had to offer and their Mesoamerican designs and distinct water abilities stand out even amongst the overcrowded universe they exist in. Namor is a compelling antagonist, one that furthers the original film’s themes concerning the traumatic effects of colonialism. Huerta plays him with godlike menace, righteousness, and surprisingly, a bit of a romantic heart. But the Talokans sadly become Wakanda Forever’s biggest problem. In what I consider to be a watershed moment concerning Marvel’s ongoing VFX issue, the pivotal scene where we go underwater to see Talokan in all of its glory is an ugly and murky visual disaster; one of the most laughably bad sequences to be put on the big screen by a major studio in quite some time.
Stuck in what appears to be an entirely CG diving suit, Shuri is taken on a whimsical tour through Namor’s deep sea utopia to see its people and their culture. None of it looks the least bit real, or even good. The entire thing comes across like the rough cut of an embarrassing music video, one that only gets worse the longer it goes on for. Having Wright - with only her face showing and working in what I presume to be an entirely empty green screen environment - act as if she’s in total awe of the hideous CG jumble around her is pretty funny. Making her say lines like “It’s beautiful!” is downright hilarious. But going ever further with it and deciding to hinge the film’s climactic moment on this dreadful sequence? That’s just harmful. It’s all the more humiliating that Avatar: The Way of Water, whose entire selling point is how remarkable its water effects look, is set to come out only a month later. The trailer alone, which played directly before Wakanda Forever, is enough to put it to shame.
The Talokan scene is the strongest indicator for how unremarkable the rest of the film’s CG-heavy action is as well. There’s nothing nearly as engaging as the original’s casino fight / car chase to be found here. The final action set piece out on the water feels poorly conceived and almost entirely weightless thanks to nearly every character being reduced to digital renderings of themselves. It’s a frustrating sight. Those that complained about the weak effects of Black Panther’s climax are likely to have a field day with this one. There are plenty of films that can overcome less than stellar VFX but Wakanda Forever isn’t one of them, it just relies on it far too much. Combined with how a massively wealthy company like Disney doesn’t have much of an excuse for how bad the end product looks, it’s too glaring of an issue to overlook.
There are a good number of standout moments to be found throughout the movie thanks to powerful performances and some inspired choices on Coogler’s side. Tears will likely be shed in many theaters thanks to both the loud and quiet ways the movie celebrates Boseman and his impact. But Wakanda Forever is critically impaired by its place in the larger Marvel machine and the things that set the 2018 original apart from the rest of the pack are few and far between in this sequel. The MCU used to be better at rolling with the punches of the outside world, adapting and still delivering on what made them the box office crusaders they are. Wakanda Forever makes it seem like they’re still greatly struggling with the tragedies and setbacks of the past couple years. But at least that puts them on the same level as the rest of us; when it comes to dealing with something as shocking as the passing of an onscreen and offscreen superhero, there’s not really a right way to deal with it.
‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ is now playing in theaters.