Even before we see the first frame of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, it is clear that the film is a tribute to Chadwick Boseman. The actor, who played Marvel’s original Black Panther, is ever-present in the film in spirit. And Ryan Coogler’s film beautifully pays tribute to the late actor in perhaps the best way a film can. And yet, the Black Panther sequel falls short of being a truly great film. Maybe it’s the length, the long stretches where nothing happens, and the disappointing payoff that make it so. The sad (or happy depending on how you view it) part is that Wakanda Forever is still the best MCU film in at least a couple of years. Also read: Why Black Panther Wakanda Forever is the most important Marvel film in years
What the film does get right is how it weaves Chadwick’s death into the story in how Wakanda also lost King T’Challa to an illness. The parallels are emotional, particularly a throwaway line from Shuri (Letitia Wright) on how her brother suffered in silence. Then, the film builds from there, showing how the tiny African nation is led by Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) in a period of rebuilding. But as the global superpowers encroach upon their territory and resources, a new player enters the game: the underwater empire of Talocan led by their God-king Namor, who wages war against the surface world. And sadly, Wakanda finds itself in the middle of his path of destruction.
Wakanda Forever takes forever to set up the conflicts it showcases in its climax. There are so many stretches of the film where the pace slows down too much. The exposition is cleverly written and the film does get out of Chadwick Boseman’s shadow. But it tries to do so many things with too many characters. This choice to focus on multiple arcs softens the emotional blows somewhat. Instead of it ending up being a story of redemption and overcoming grief, it is reduced to the standard tropes. It irks me because MCU can do better. It has done better.
It is magnified further when you look at what truly makes the film strong. The best moments of Black Panther 2 are not its stunning underwater sequences or the chemistry between Shuri and Okoye or even Namor (who is the best new character in the franchise in a while), but it is when characters talk about loss and hope and vengeance. The dialogue, the exposition, and the emotions make Wakanda Forever what it is, and not the action or CGI glitz. But sadly, there isn’t enough of that to make it truly captivating. The music, particularly Rihanna’s Lift Me Up, adds a touch of melancholy to the mood. The CGI is good but action does go overboard. It is hard to keep track of who is beating whom and who is getting stabbed by whom in the big climactic battle.
The film is Shuri’s journey, as she copes with her brother’s loss, and Queen Ramona’s as she mourns her son. That means the film sits squarely on the shoulders of Letitia and Angela. The latter carries it off gracefully due to the decades of experience she has. Her Ramona is a strong, commendable performance. Letitia does well too but at times, the viewer can be unfair in comparing her to Chadwick. She falters, loses focus and yet registers a performance of note. But the true star of the film is Tenoch Huerta and his Namor. Marvel’s streak of giving villains more complex than heroes continues. In Namor, we have a villain so powerful that you fear him, yet so relatable that you root for him. And Tenoch, in his Hollywood debut, must be applauded for how easily he brings humanity and vulnerability to such a powerful character.
The rest of the cast does well without doing anything extraordinary. Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams aka Ironheart is a pleasant addition to the franchise but sadly, she does not stand out. In fact, the high point of the film for me was an unexpected cameo right before the climax, which brings a panting film back to life.
What dampens Wakanda Forever’s impact is that in a film laden with such heavy emotional moments, there are very few that are memorable. As I rewind the film in my head, I realize there are very few moments that will be remembered in months to come, let alone years. That is something Marvel films have done well earlier and where this one fails. As a tribute to Chadwick’s memory and legacy, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is almost perfect. As an entertaining superhero film, it is good. But as a standalone story, it is a missed opportunity.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Tenoch Huerta, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, and Dominique Thorne.