**1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of strong violence, action, and some language)
Released: November 11, 2022
Runtime: 161 minutes
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Alex Livanalli, Mabel Cadena
Black Panther transcended the superhero genre by serving as a modern parable about global African identity (from specific African-American agency to the broader diaspora). It was substantial, provocative, and inspiring. For an entire race that has borne its historic share of persecution and struggle, Black Panther was a rally cry.
Wakanda Forever, by contrast, is a pretty decent Marvel movie.
Despite hailing from Ryan Coogler (the returning co-writer / director / visionary of the original pop-masterpiece), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is virtually devoid of thematic ambition. Rather, it succumbs to typical comic book conflicts and stakes (though not on a global or galactic scale, thankfully), serving corporate ends over creative ones. It’s as if Marvel chief Kevin Feige is exercising a “one for you / one for me” bargain with Coogler, right down to forcing an entire subplot setup for a future Disney+ streaming series.
Wakanda Forever still stirs at times, if rarely, most notably in the poignant prologue that dramatizes the passing and mourning of King T’Challa / Black Panther. That tragic turn was precipitated, of course, by the death of star Chadwick Boseman, the franchise star who, having made the character so iconic in 2018, passed away in 2020 after a private battle with colon cancer. But beyond that, Wakanda Forever is only intermittently effective, whether attempting to be mythical or meaningful.
At two hours and forty minutes, this overstuffed tentpole packs in too much plot after its opening pathos. It’s not fresh or surprising, either, even rehashing a core element of the previous movie: another hidden kingdom, named Taiokan (home of the underwater man-fish race led by the film’s new villain, Namor), is also a secret protector of the miracle ore Vibranium – just as Wakanda has been.
Now, as the world demands full and equal access to Wakanda’s Vibranium reserves, Taiokan’s king Namor (Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, well-cast as the leader of these aquatic Aztecs) wants to form a Wakandan / Taiokan alliance against the rest of the world – by force, if necessary.
Suffice it to say, Taiokan and the human global powers both perceive Wakanda as vulnerable without its King. But in T’Challa’s absence the women rise, namely his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s presumed betrothed before his death.
This returning cast is strong in their respective roles but the script – which is more focused on Marvel world-building – doesn’t serve them well. Only Bassett, by her sheer force of will and conviction, brings a level of heart and soul that resonates. Winston Duke’s M’Baku, leader of the Wakanda mountain tribe Jabari, also brings strength and humor with a lively charisma, and Huerta’s Namor intrigues as more of an anti-hero than bad guy, but he lacks the dimensions that made Killmonger so rich and compelling.
The introduction of Ironheart, the MCU’s Ironman replacement, is the movie’s biggest albatross. Added for the sole purpose of setting up the character’s Disney+ series, Ironheart’s Riri Williams is poorly developed, providing no credible basis for how this college-age inventor of a Stark-level super suit could create and build such a high-tech invention (other than the fact that she’s a genius). Riri’s Ironheart is a franchise-imposed third wheel in a movie already burdened by Marvel mandates.
The action sequences are well-staged (as you’d expect from Coogler) and, perhaps most importantly, the emergence of The New Black Panther has a spiritual weight that elicits genuine chills…but otherwise, the main narrative lacks a deeper sense of meaning or purpose.
The original Black Panther had something to say and Coogler used the MCU to say it. Wakanda Forever lacks any such artistic statement. It’s a fitting tribute to the fallen King, but mostly it’s just little more than an adequate close to Marvel’s Phase 4.