Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — out now in cinemas — already had the big task of following its universally beloved 2018 predecessor, which I dubbed the king of Marvel movies. But then in 2020, after the death of Chadwick Boseman, the franchise was forced into an impossible corner. What do you do with a sequel when the actor who plays your lead character is gone? Returning director Ryan Coogler, who almost quit filmmaking after the tragedy, has attempted to infuse the loss of his friend and colleague, and his feelings associated with it into Wakanda Forever. But although the second Black Panther movie is cast in the shadow of grief, it’s sadly not too poignant. (Maybe Coogler is just too overwhelmed. You could sense that in his voice during the film’s press tour.)
Instead, the newest chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is at times more a meditation on the cycles of violence. Though its commentary is far from convincing or successful, that’s what Black Panther: Wakanda Forever spends more of its time on. This is primarily thanks to the introduction of Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the flying king of a new underwater civilisation called Talokan. With Atlantis having already come into play in the 2018 DC film Aquaman, Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole have shifted Namor’s comic book origins in a Mayan direction, with a history tied to Spanish colonisation. But the world of Talokan feels weirdly muted — you can’t help but compare it to Aquaman‘s richer and more vibrant Atlantis.
It never invokes the same sense of awe that you got with Wakanda’s Afrofuturism in the original Black Panther. An even bigger problem for Wakanda Forever is that it’s disjointed. (Maybe that’s because there are three credited editors: Michael P. Shawver, Kelley Dixon, and Jennifer Lame.) It’s also longer than it should be at 161 minutes, Coogler fails to impress with the few action sequences there are, and the occasionally incoherent narrative doesn’t know how to bring its promising pieces together. At the same time, Wakanda Forever is very moving in parts; mournful and unlike most superhero movies. It also wants to unpack ideas that other MCU films are eager to avoid. Unfortunately, the bad outweighs the good — I just wish everything had been thought out better at each step of the way.
A year after King T’Challa/ Black Panther (Boseman) dies of an unspecified illness, all responsibility for the kingdom of Wakanda has fallen on the shoulders of the Queen mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Publicly, she’s trying to carry her son’s torch to make Wakanda more open to the world — though opportunistic powers believe this is the perfect time to get their hands on some vibranium, what with Wakanda having lost its protector. Privately, she’s trying to get her daughter, Shuri (Letitia Wright), to move forward — but T’Challa’s younger sister has buried herself in her technology to avoid confronting the pain of her loss. Shuri is the gateway through which Coogler channels his grief over his dear friend.
With the lead star and protagonist missing, from a narrative standpoint, Coogler had to figure out a way forward. So he retooled the world of Black Panther around his former wise-cracking sidekick. In the original Black Panther movie, Shuri did elaborate handshakes, bristled at tradition, and showed off her cool innovations. Most of that is gone in Wakanda Forever — though there are remnants, such as Shuri believing the Black Panther itself to be a figure of the past. She becomes more of her past self whenever she leaves Wakanda. It’s almost as if being at home, in the shadow of her brother’s legacy, weighs on her. In some ways, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is like a rite of passage for Shuri. She’s not only discovering the kind of person she is, but whether she has what it takes to be a leader.
All of this comes to the fore after Namor delivers an ultimatum to Ramonda and Shuri: if they don’t deliver what he wants, he will attack Wakanda. This conflict drives the bulk of the new MCU movie, as the Wakandans and their allies — including T’Challa’s former spy lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), special forces Dora Milaje chief Okoye (Danai Gurira), and CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), all returning from the first Black Panther film — try to keep Namor at bay, without giving him what he desires. But given that no one has previously dealt with the Talokanil, this is uncharted, underestimated territory for Wakanda. Namor, who’s referred to as K’uk’ulkan (the feathered serpent god) by his people, leads a nation that’s more than a match for the Wakandans.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever strains to serve its ensemble cast, feeling smaller than its predecessor despite introducing a new whole world. While Ramonda, Shuri, and Namor are at the centre of things, everyone else gets the short shrift. The new MCU film carves out as much room as it can for Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), the MIT child prodigy who creates a suit of armour just like Iron Man. She’s set to get her own Disney+ series next year, but in Wakanda Forever, she’s more a MacGuffin than an actual character being developed. Nakia, the one closest to T’Challa’s heart, feels shielded in some ways. Okoye and the others — including Wakandan mountain tribe leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) — get even less. Ross, and another surprise return, seem so ancillary to the whole story that they feel like a producer’s call.
The problem with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is that it’s never as thrilling as the 2018 original. For one, it’s missing those juicy characters who operated on a different moral and ethical plane. Michael B. Jordan’s villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens and Andy Serkis’ smuggler Ulysses Klaue were magnetic and enigmatic in ways that Namor simply wasn’t designed to be. Sure, he’s rip-roaring, takes charge, and has a powerful backstory — but he’s more muted at the end of the day. And two, Wakanda Forever fails in terms of satisfying action scenes. The third act calls for something special, but Coogler isn’t great at designing action set pieces. Talokan’s water bombs are cool, but that’s basically it. There’s so much wasted potential here, it pains me.
While the Black Panther sequel is certainly an attempt at a tribute to Boseman, I kept trying to think of what T’Challa would have wanted for Wakanda after his death. He was against the isolationist practices of his father, and driven by Killmonger who said almost all the right things, he threw open its doors at the end of the original film. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever posits that this huge, bold move essentially backfired. By exposing vibranium-rich Wakanda, he made the world envious. No country is happy with a resource being that exclusive, especially one as valuable as vibranium.
And so, although T’Challa had the best of intentions, it didn’t pan out as he envisioned. With T’Challa gone and Wakanda facing sneak attacks from Western forces trying to get their hands on the impossible metal, the country has become even more defensive and isolationist than before in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Early into the new MCU film, Ramonda delivers public rebuttals that make good theatre, but are not great foreign policy. The depressing lesson the new Black Panther movie invokes is that the world is messy — and idealistic approaches don’t go down well.
Wakanda Forever is also messy; unable to hammer home its themes in a meaningful and resonant way like the original managed to. Ultimately, it’s too much like standard Marvel fare. It feels as though it was made because the legacy of Black Panther needed to be continued, not because those making it were sparking with ideas. Now, thirty movies into the MCU, we’re at a stage where content is the product that keeps the machine going.
On the back of what has been a largely disappointing “phase” since Avengers: Endgame, it fell to Coogler to salvage the situation. But the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever director already had too much on his plate. Just like Shuri is unable to move on, Coogler has also struggled to move on with Wakanda Forever. The film grapples with the gaping hole left behind by Boseman’s death — and it discovers that it has no answer. That feels fitting, albeit frustrating.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is released Friday, November 11 in cinemas worldwide. In India, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.