The last time Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa appeared on screen, he was standing solemnly at the funeral of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” Stark had just sacrificed his life to save half of the universe. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opens with another funeral, this time for T’Challa, who has fallen to illness, much like Boseman did in real life.
T’Challa’s death was as devastating to the fictional nation-state he protected as his performer’s passing was for real world audiences worldwide. Boseman was the charismatic star of the highest-grossing movie ever to feature a predominantly Black cast. His leaving this world so young, right when the long-awaited sequel was written, felt like a cruel joke in a pop-cultural landscape already so short on wins for the marginalized. So, it’s no great surprise that “Wakanda Forever” spends so much of its nearly three-hour runtime exploring the respective grieving processes of the four women who were core to the first film.
Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) puts on a brave face, while a globe full of rival nations looks to pillage Wakanda in the absence of the Black Panther. Her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) throws herself into her science experiments, shunning the spiritual side of their culture entirely. General Okoye (Danai Gurira) frets for them both, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) hasn’t shown her face in Wakanda since before The Blip, the cosmic catastrophe from “Avengers: Infinity War,” where half of the universe’s population was blinked out of existence.
In this crossover-happy cinematic universe where every corner of Marvel interacts with every other, Wakanda and her citizens feel more isolated than ever. In the first act, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler stage stirring displays of Girl Power™ and Black Excellence™ to show that Wakanda’s women are holding down the fort. Still, the West’s thirst for Vibranium looms large.
Enter Namor. Played with inconceivable charm and allure by Tenoch Huerta, Namor is an ocean-dwelling living god draped in Vibranium jewelry. His winged ankles flap with the distinct sound of a rattlesnake’s tail. His very existence, and that of his entire race of people living underwater, calls into question Wakanda’s foundational mythology. He presents Ramonda with an ultimatum and a plea for an alliance against the rest of the surface world, driving the rest of the film’s conflict — but something about how it unfolds never settles into the proper groove.
Four years have passed in the real world since “Black Panther” was released. With the global pandemic, those four years might have well been 40. However, on screen, despite all that has also changed within the fictional world of the MCU, not much feels different.
Coogler hits many of the same basic beats that made his last film such a crowd-pleaser. He employs the same pandering, meme-seeking humor that preemptively made this film’s title sound like a joke after years of people crossing their arms at social gatherings and in viral videos. Helming a successful major blockbuster hasn’t sharpened his action chops much, as every set piece in “Wakanda Forever” feels stylistic and thematically derivative of one from his last work. He and co-writer Joe Robert Cole even repeat the first film’s most incendiary element, again creating a fascinating, compelling, and thirst-generating antagonist who overshadows the good guys.
Huerta’s Namor is as delectable, memorable, and exciting in his screen time as Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, only moreso. Reinventing a classic Marvel anti-hero as a reluctant villain here is the film’s most riveting fixture. Coogler seems most motivated by the scenes outlining Namor’s history, the most exciting of which is the sequence revealing the awe-inspiring splendor of Talokon, a Mayan-influenced take on the character’s Atlantean origins in the source material. It feels like much of Namor’s subplot survived intact from the version of the script pre-Boseman’s death, conjuring “what could have been” pangs at the thought of these two men going toe-to-toe on screen, both physically and ideologically.
But positioning Namor and his plans for war against the surface world against a mourning collection of T’Challa surrogates just doesn’t work. For one thing, the script gymnastics necessary to give Wakanda’s ensemble room to grieve and grow within the film’s plot takes up so much screen time that the core conflict is shuffled off into afterthought status. For another, by the time the two halves have no choice but to fully intermingle, the limitations of superhero movie morality inhibit what could otherwise be a more enthralling narrative.
Through the PR rollout for “Wakanda Forever,” some irony-poisoned Twitter users have reduced the film’s “race war” plot to “Space Africans versus Sea Mexicans.” But that absurd clout-bait phrasing is only marginally worse than the confusing and thematically muddled conflict we’re left with. “Wakanda Forever” is a movie that spends its first half characterizing the outside world —more specifically, America — as predatory and exploitative imperialists before remembering in its second half that this is the 30th feature film in an ongoing series that codes all the heroes as being extensions of that same America.
The result is a film that expects audiences to watch the guy promoting solidarity between two peoples who are more alike than they are not and root against him. In the last two years, as MCU Czar Kevin Feige and his many underlings sought to find the elusive answer to the burning question of just how little the masses are willing to settle for in the continued pursuit of Funko Pop escapism, Marvel movies have gotten exponentially worse. The brand’s prevalence has prevented diminishing returns in quality from translating to heavy financial losses or even much wavering in consumer confidence.
By that metric, Coogler’s heartfelt love letter to his fallen collaborator is a significant success. It’s a moving, entertaining blockbuster, housing powerhouse performances from Bassett and Huerta and some truly gorgeous music.
But it exists within an apparatus that will never allow the creatives working inside it the freedom and space to make it anything more than the best possible compromise. “Black Panther” ended with audiences desperate to return to Wakanda as soon as humanly possible. “Wakanda Forever” leaves us thinking “Wakanda… for now.”