‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’: The tributes are memorable but the movie is not

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022) – The King is dead.

Chadwick Boseman tragically died from colon cancer on Aug. 28, 2020, and the world continues to mourn. 

The man played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on the big screen, but Chadwick’s most celebrated role is T’Challa, The Black Panther.  T’Challa was an Avenger, and he first burst onto the MCU scene in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016).  Boseman gladly reprised the charismatic character in his Oscar-nominated solo film “Black Panther” (2018) and the MCU’s colossal entries “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Avengers: Endgame” (2019). 

Prince T’Challa became Wakanda’s King, but in 2022, Boseman and his super-hero alter ego are gone.

In “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”, Marvel Studios and director/writer Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther” (2018), “Fruitvale Station” (2013), “Creed” (2015)) did not replace Boseman in the iconic role, and Wakanda residents and a dedicated movie audience are left to pick up the pieces. 

Although Coogler offers two beautiful tributes to T’Challa and Boseman, this Black Panther sequel is depressing, apprehensive, and noticeably slow.  The pacing and tones are tired and contain barely any joy or thrills.

In fact, this Marvel cinematic account may incorporate, perhaps, a scant 15 or 20 minutes of action during the first two hours, and with a runtime of 161 minutes, the film feels like a sedate six-hour affair.

Those are a lot of numbers to process.  Look, the first two acts are principally conversational, as several players wrestle with loss – and the entrance of a new threat – through subdued one-on-one discourse.

Shuri (Letitia Wright)

At the very beginning of the picture, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole address the elephant in the room.  Straight away, they quasi-mirror Boseman’s death with T’Challa’s demise during the film’s opening few minutes, but in a mysterious and off-camera fashion. 

After that, downhearted moods are understandable, as Wakanda royalty and leaders like Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), M’Baku (Winston Duke), River Tribe Elder (Isaach De Bankole), and an entire nation grieve.  Still, Wakanda no longer has its protector, and despite space-age technology and the all-female Dora Milaje force – led by Okoye (Danai Gurira) –  the country is vulnerable. 

While Wakanda laments, a second story awakens across the globe: somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.  A U.S. government faction discovers vibranium on the ocean floor, but a superhuman covert army – in the dark of night – halts their mining process.  These soldiers are led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a being as powerful as The Hulk and who can breathe underwater and on land.  This legion of warriors live in a subaquatic home, and they wish to protect it, a place enriched with vibranium, and these American outsiders assembled too closely. 

In the comics, Namor hails from Atlantis, and according to the Marvel Database, the locale sits in the “Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe.”  

In “Wakanda Forever”, Namor’s home is called Talokan, an undersea paradise near Mesoamerica.  Hence, Namor and the Talokan people speak Mayan throughout the movie.  Although, note that Namor speaks English as well, which comes in handy when Shuri stops by for a visit.  The on-screen cultural representation – with language, traditional dress, and focus on history – is an intriguing, curious, and welcoming addition to the MCU. 

Namor (Tenoch Huerta)

However – for some reason – during Namor’s origin flashback, he’s nicknamed “The Child (or Boy) without love,” which is apparently signifies that his orphaned status helped fuel his more threatening adulthood tendencies.  Quite frankly, the purposely injected line is entirely unnecessary, and – for some reason – the audience meets Namor’s mother, but his dad is weirdly absent.  Another bad dad in the universe…

But, I digress…and roll my eyes.

Anyway, these two kingdoms – Wakanda and Talokan – eventually collide, and the sole reason for the entire conflict is one specific action by Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a genius teenager from M.I.T.  Riri’s inclusion in this picture feels as forced as attempting to jam Shaquille O’Neal’s size 23 foot into a size 6 stiletto, but hey, we need a reason for these two empires to fight. 

For the record, Riri will star in her new 2023 Disney television series, “Ironheart”, where she’s a next-generation Tony Stark/Iron Man, so let’s start her marketing campaign right now.

Ms. Williams’ intro isn’t the only obligatory admission, as Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) makes several appearances with no evident purpose whatsoever.  However, Coogler introduces a surprising MCU connection to Ross, but even this mystery guest’s reason for existing here is undetermined, and the inclusion of both characters are needless wastes of additional ticks on the already bloated aforementioned runtime.

So, how does this movie add up? 

Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett)

It’s hard to say. 

Rather than recast T’Challa with another sterling actor, the film matches reality with a gloomy MCU outlook for Wakanda, and a new leader needs to step up and soar.  It’s not terribly difficult to guess which local will take the mantle, and when this moment occurs, it – regrettably – doesn’t feel authentic or earned.  The said passing of the torch uneventfully lands in the third act, and there are not plenty of minutes left to emotionally and logically dial into this new actuality. 

Can this said character carry the weight and responsibility of Wakanda’s protector for upcoming MCU films?  Does the unnamed (in this review) actor or actress have the charisma to carry another Black Panther film?  Based on this particular cinematic experience, these are sincere questions without clear answers. 

From an action-adventure perspective, the entire first-act introductory ambush and portions of the third-act climatic clash do dazzle, but almost every other second of physical conflict in between is formulaic and familiar.  (However, there is one particular moment of daunting consequence.) 

Still, this is a movie where deadly wounds to the abdomen are magically healed without explanation, and a humongous war cruiser suffers crippling blows to its hull but miraculously still floats!     

Shuri (Wright) and Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne)

Bassett and Huerta deliver the film’s most charismatic performances, but Namor sometimes volleys between reason and irrationality depending on the “tide” (pardon the pun).  The man also changes his entire rationale for promoting his conflict with Wakanda.  Originally, Riri was the point of contention, but somewhere in the second act, he shifts to an entirely different enemy.  Our aquatic antagonist also has two chief lieutenants in his marine militia, but who are they exactly?  What are their names?  Do we learn something specific about at least one Talokan citizen in present day? 

The answers are:  No idea, no idea, and no.

To make matters worse, Okoye is sidelined for a while, and M’Baku only flashes in and out for a few minutes here and there.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is frustrating. 

To be fair, when there’s a death, any death, the remaining family members and friends are usually left wavering on a wobbly foundation.  That’s how this film feels.  The experience is an uneven collection of morose and cloudy mindsets, a brand-new origin tale, obligatory inclusions to support a future Disneyplus series or two, and the late, late, late emergence of a new hero. On the plus side, Coogler’s Chadwick Boseman/T’Challa tributes are memorable and beautifully crafted, and so are the gorgeous costumes and makeup of Wakanda and Talokan residents.  Those are the reasons – probably the only significant ones – to see this well-intentioned but painfully slow and messy misfire.

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Ryan Coogler

Written by:  Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole

Starring:  Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o, Dominique Thorne, Isaach De Bankole, and Martin Freeman

Rated: PG-13

Runtime:  161 minutes

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