Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is at its most effective when paying tribute to its fallen king, and strong performances from the returning cast keep it afloat through its occasionally choppy plot.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will hit theaters on Nov. 11. Below is a spoiler-free review.
In a cinematic universe where half of all living beings have already died and come back to life, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever reminds us that losing one person can feel just as devastating. The death of T’Challa - and actor Chadwick Boseman - weighs heavy on Wakanda Forever, with the fictional nation struggling to replace both their monarch and their champion, and Marvel Studios deciding how to honor a man it was clearly ready to work with for years and years to come. Wakanda Forever is an effective, emotional farewell to T’Challa - a meditation on forging one’s own future out of a painful past - but with a plot that has to introduce an entirely new nation and pave the way for a new wave of Marvel stories, it does struggle under the weight of all that expectation.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever wastes no time addressing Boseman’s passing, with a chaotic and tense opening scene leaving Shuri (Letitia Wright) feeling responsible for her brother’s death. The funeral procession that follows speaks to the incredibly fine line Wakanda Forever has to walk: even in their mourning, there’s joyous dancing and celebration of what T’Challa brought to the nation, but Shuri’s solemnity as she moves through holding T’Challa’s Panther helmet is a strong reminder of the conflicting emotions she and the movie at large have to balance.
Wright has mostly been used as comic relief up to this point, and Shuri’s character arc necessitates refocusing that energy into how she processes her pain. Everyone in Shuri’s life is urging her to let T’Challa go, and her tendency to lash out in those cases goes a long way towards grounding Wakanda Forever during its frequent flights of fancy. It’s a sharp about-face, but Wright’s emotional availability and intensity carry Shuri through that fraught grieving process. Director Ryan Coogler builds Shuri’s slide into despair up to one of Wakanda Forever’s most jaw-dropping scenes: an unbearably tense moment of self-reflection that serves as reminder that a well-deployed exchange between two characters can be just as breathtaking as a grand battle for the fate of two nations.
It doesn’t take long for the power vacuum left by T’Challa’s death to incite a challenge to Wakanda from the outside world. With Killmonger having destroyed the Heart-Shaped Herb that granted T’Challa superhuman abilities, there’s no new Black Panther to rally behind – and even though T’Challa’s outreach program from the end of the first film remains in full effect, there’s immense political pressure for Wakanda to submit to regulations the country’s leadership fears will endanger the world. That ire is directed at Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who’s acting as steward to the throne until T’Challa’s replacement is named, and doing so in magnificent fashion. At once heartbroken and hopeful, Bassett delivers a commanding performance and, as King T’Chaka did for T’Challa, provides Shuri with a connection to her culture’s past. But though the United Nations’ ultimatum for Wakanda to relinquish control of its resources sets up Wakanda Forever’s themes of colonialism well, this storyline is largely abandoned after the conflict draws Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) and his underwater kingdom of Talokan into the fray.
As that society’s figurehead, Namor is an engaging antagonist - whipping a helicopter around like a shotput in midair 30 seconds into your introduction means the audience will at least wanna see what kind of havoc this guy wreaks on the battlefield. But while he’s a force to be reckoned with, Tenoch Huerta Mejía’s performance is at its best in Namor’s intense dialogue scenes with Shuri, as the two share much in common as important members of their monarchies’ royal families.
Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole infuse Talokan’s culture with Mesoamerican history, which gives Namor’s resolve to go to any lengths to protect his people’s home and resources a real richness. Talokan is an interesting society for the MCU to explore in the future, but Wakanda Forever doesn’t establish it quite as gracefully as Black Panther did Wakanda. Outside of a few establishing shots early during our introduction to Talokan, much of our understanding of it comes from narration during a rushed flashback of its origins, and some important details during that scene feel brushed over. Coogler and team took pains last time to dive into both the political and societal structures of Wakanda, and while Talokan’s past is interesting, what it’s like in the present remains a bit murky throughout, especially because there are only two other named Talokanil given any significant screen time.
T’Challa’s peers are called on to step into older sibling roles for Shuri, and the supporting cast rise to meet the moment.“
Of course, an opposing force of a nation of undersea warriors provides Wakanda Forever ample opportunity for maritime mayhem, and gives the MCU a new palette for action. Wakanda Forever does, however, push its luck too far going into the climactic third act battle with a poorly conceived and logically baffling tactical choice. Still, credit where it’s due when it comes to the more personal side of that encounter: Coogler definitely seems to have taken the note on the first film’s digital effects-heavy final duel and Wakanda Forever’s corresponding final confrontation is much more grounded and effective.
Befitting Wakanda Forever’s outsized emphasis on community, T’Challa’s peers are called on to step into older sibling roles for Shuri, and the supporting cast rise to meet the moment. Danai Gurira’s Okoye is willing to put her career at risk to aid Shuri’s grieving process - and gets more dimension for herself, though Okoye’s standout scene is an emotional exchange with Ramonda.
Winston Duke’s M’Baku is a scene-stealer from the moment he saunters in whilst chomping on a stick of jerky. T’Challa’s positive influence is at its most visible in how the Jabari leader’s edges have softened, as M’Baku provides Shuri with surprisingly sensitive counsel in one of her darkest moments. As T’Challa’s love, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) ends up supporting Shuri through the most personal parts of her journey, and while she enters the story too late to make too much of an impact, she does facilitate some memorable moments in the movie’s latter half. Collectively, T’Challa’s friends are there to remind Shuri that life goes on, even if Shuri isn’t ready to accept that at first.
The other new additions to Wakanda Forever’s roster represent a tendency of Wakanda Forever’s to overindulge in the other ongoing plotlines the MCU is building out, with Dominique Thorne’s fiery, industrious Riri Williams as the best example. Riri’s personality is infectious, and her appearance certainly sets an intriguing stage for Disney+’s Ironheart series, but Wakanda Forever bends over backwards and burns valuable time on keeping her involved in the action far past the point of believability. The saving grace there is that Riri gives Shuri someone to act as an older sibling (or a Tony Stark) for as a means of celebrating T’Challa, something that Coogler takes maybe too light a touch in highlighting.
Riri’s embedded with the main players, so she at least feels relevant, but Wakanda Forever’s aimless political subplot shows its hand as being almost pure MCU housekeeping as Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) is paired with an MCU up-and-comer with plenty on their plate. That character is a huge personality and though they bring a fun energy to scenes with Ross as he attempts to aid the Wakandans, they become more distracting and less essential as Wakanda Forever goes on. It may be the nature of making movies in this universe these days, but there’s a significant disconnect between scenes in Wakanda Forever that feel vital in how they develop characters and the ones that just feel more like homework for next time.
This story originally appeared on: IGN - Author:Tom Jorgensen