The most striking images in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” can be found in its opening scene. Wakandans, ethereal in their white costumes (courtesy of designer Ruth E. Carter, who won an Academy Award for her stunning work on 2018’s “Black Panther”), gather to lay T’Challa, the Black Panther who passed away off-screen due to an undisclosed illness, to rest. Dancers, their movements slowed down to a lethargic pace, convey the moment that is both a celebration of life, and a devastating loss. When the parade reaches its conclusion, the sleek coffin rises into the air into a waiting ship hovering above the crowd, a beautiful continuation of the Afrofuturist imagery marrying sleek technology with traditional African customs established in the first film. It’s a gorgeous and somber opening whose purpose is twofold. Narratively, it establishes the death of the previous movie’s hero, allowing the characters to mourn while posing the question of what is next for them, and for Wakanda as a whole. Off-screen, it allows the actors playing those characters an outlet for their very real grief, after T’Challa’s actor, Chadwick Boseman, passed away suddenly from colon cancer in August 2020, while writer and director Ryan Coogler was polishing off the sequel’s script. It gives the audience watching the film a moment to breathe that’s a rare find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days as well, a second to pay tribute to Boseman and the legacy he left behind as footage of his previous MCU appearances rolls over the Marvel Studios logo, nothing but silence to back it up.
To say that “Black Panther” was a sensation when it was released in February 2018 is an understatement. It’s the rare Marvel movie that was both a commercial and critical smash—critical as in it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture the next year. With its almost all-Black cast and celebration of African culture, it marked an important moment of representation in comic book movies and Hollywood blockbusters as well, and Boseman’s lead performance, equal parts humble and stoic, immediately cemented him as an icon. Unfortunately the film’s sequel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” has a lot more on its to-do list than mourning Boseman, even though his loss is deeply felt throughout the movie beyond the introduction. In fact, it probably has an unfair amount of items to deliver on: it needs to establish the new Black Panther, acknowledge everything else that’s going on in the MCU, set up a spinoff or two, and remain a piece of art that Black audiences in particular can connect to and be proud of. And yet, despite being nearly three hours long, that’s all still too much for “Wakanda Forever” to handle. Whereas the first movie was tight, its sequel is too broad, convoluted, and tepid to be fully engaging or memorable, despite some individually moving moments.
After T’Challa’s funeral, the film fast forwards one year. T’Challa’s younger sister, tech whiz and Princess of Wakanda Shuri (Letitia Wright), still deeply feels her brother’s loss and her inability to save him, choosing to bury herself in her computers instead. Meanwhile, Queen Ramona (Angela Bassett, who dominates the movie with her strong and singular presence), is contending with the outside world’s frustration that Wakanda has still not shared their advanced technology with them, despite the fact that they do not provide aid to Wakanda in return. The CIA uses a vibranium (the strongest metal in the world, supposedly only found in Wakanda) dectector to find traces of the metal under the sea, but they are attacked by a tribe of water-breathing people of the ancient hidden underwater kingdom Talokan. Like the Wakandans, the Talokans possess vibranium and chose to keep out of human affairs to protect themselves and their kingdoms. Rather than take this issue up with the humans who attacked them, however, the Talokans’ king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), takes the fight to Wakanda, tasking them with finding and disposing of the scientist—a plucky young MIT student genius, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne)—who invented the detector, or else he and his tribe will wage war against Wakanda.
The Talokan kingdom, with its mythology, architecture, and costumes borrowing from Aztec and Mayan civilizations, is a fascinating addition to this story. And Mejía cuts a striking figure as Namor as he rises out of the sea on winged heels, his performance leaning into both the character’s cunning and his humanity. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t afford the Talokans the amount of consideration they deserve. Even Wakanda doesn’t get that this go around either, as if the first film did such a great job establishing the kingdom’s way of life that they didn’t need to get into it this time around. But they did need it. There is so much going on in “Wakanda Forever” that almost everything feels like an afterthought. Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o both reprise their roles as M’Baku (the leader of the Jabari mountain tribe and the Wakanda royal family’s on and off rival) and Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest and a former spy for Wakanda who left the kingdom for a different life several years ago. These are two actors with reliably strong presences whose undercooked roles in this movie hardly register. Danai Gurira is thankfully back as Dora Milaje (Wakanda’s all-female guard) General Okoye, who gets to stretch in both comedic scenes and emotionally devastating ones. Wright takes the mantle of lead from Boseman, but while the role that was previously noted for wisecracks this go around demands much more of her physically and emotionally, her performances struggles to reach the demands. Thorne is bright but doesn’t get to do much more than throw out some bad jokes here and there; her presence reeks of an obligation to create a prelude to her upcoming Disney Plus series “Ironheart.” Martin Freeman is back as CIA agent Everett Ross while Julia Louis-Dreyfus appears as CIA head Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a character first introduced last year in the Disney Plus series “Falcon and Winter Soldier,” the film’s only white characters of note and the most grating, serving little more purpose than to tie the conflict between Wakanda and Talokan back to the world—and the MCU—at large. All in all, it’s a mixed bag, and it’s evident how Boseman and T’Challa held the characters together so well before; despite some emotionally resonate moments here and there as the characters reckon with their grief and how to lead others while caring for their own hearts, they struggle to connect without him, as cool as it is to see a predominately Black female cast taking the lead.
Technically, “Wakanda Forever” falls short of expectations as well. The first movie was brimming with vibrant Afrofuturist imagery and well-blocked action scenes that emphasized the physicality of its warrior characters who primarily engage in hand-to-hand combat. “Wakanda Forever” is replete with scenes that are so dark we can barely see what is going on, and action sequences that don’t make good use of the space or the characters within them. The beauty of Wakanda and its people fade into the background, as do the contributions of the first film’s returning contributors, from Carter’s costumes to Ludwig Göransson score, so striking and memorable in the first movie (on the subject of music, Rihanna’s song “Lift Me Up” that plays over the end credits is a maudlin bore). Maybe some of it has to do with a change in cinematographer (after numerous delays, Coogler’s frequent collaborator Rachel Morrison was unavailable to return), but it feels like there’s more than dull visuals at work contributing to the film’s lack of cohesion. It’s poorly paced, too talky in the first hour-and-a-half, too reliant on action sequences in the final hour. It reaches for a political statement at the beginning with Ramona’s powerful UN appearance, but ends up opting for a tired conflict between the two minority groups instead. Narratively, it’s too meandering, politically, it’s too shallow. It wavers between the two and occasionally strikes a chord, but it’s never enough to pull it all together.
“Wakanda Forever” still possesses more of a unique voice than the bulk of the MCU’s projects, and it still manages to exist just outside of the connected universe enough to feel like its own thing. It actually does concentrate less on physical conflict and flashy effects and more on the characters’ feelings, which is refreshing. But the magic of the first “Black Panther” is mostly gone. “Wakanda Forever” ends similarly to how it begins: with a montage tribute to Boseman. But “Black Panther” was a movie that knew what it was. Outside of those affecting scenes, “Wakanda Forever” does not.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 161 minutes. Rated PG-13.