Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is irreplaceable, one of Marvel Studios’ best. And then Boseman died abruptly at 43 from colon cancer.
In response, Marvel opted not to recast T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, and director Ryan Coogler rewrote the planned sequel to the only superhero film ever nominated for best picture.
So a beloved film that earns more than $1 billion at the box office, one of the few featuring a lead star of color, now must move forward without that performance uniting the story and cast. That places such undue pressure on a singular film. Too much.
Luckily Coogler’s “Black Panther” also introduced a stellar ensemble cast, awarded for this choice too, and those stars take center stage here. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) rules a nation largely alone, presenting strength to an international community drooling at the prospect of acquiring the country’s natural resource, vibranium.
At home, however, she continues to mourn a year after T’Challa’s sudden death from an unnamed illness. Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) – a once animated, antagonistic sister and brilliant scientist – no longer laughs or even leaves her lab. She should be the next Black Panther, but the sacred herb was destroyed in the previous film and efforts to synthetically revive it haven’t panned out.
That leaves General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the women warriors of the Dora Milaje to defend Wakanda and her interests. But they aren’t enough to confront a new threat from the ocean floor. Thanks to some surface-world meddling, an entire submerged society led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta) feels threatened.
How it all goes down is half the fun, but these are no Atlanteans. DC’s Aquaman and Marvel Comics’ Namor enjoy many similarities: an arrogant, mixed heritage ruler of the lost continent debates war with land dwellers. Not entirely this Namor.
Out with Greek mythology, in with Aztec folklore. Atlantis is now Talocan, making an oft white story reimagined as Mesoamerican. And it works.
Plenty of the ol’ Namor sticks around. He dances between heroism and villainy, his connection to the surface diminished by centuries below. He’s charming and arrogant, strong and brutal.
Perhaps the most outlandish aspect of Namor, the little white wings on each side of his feet near the ankles, isn’t an obstacle overcome or ignored. It’s a superpower that adds depth to horrors he can cause. This is a rare Marvel flick that cares about the villain (though he’ll likely flip later on, to some degree), but some things don’t work, particularly a flashback sequence to stall the film’s pace, lifts the villain’s mystique.
The villain origin occurs out of obligation, an ongoing dilemma throughout the film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe loves crossovers, but is this the best time? An entire subplot reprises Everett Ross (Martin Sheen), the token white guy in Wakanda. He apparently needs a setup for another appearance in next year’s “Secret Invasion” series. And his ex, Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) makes her third MCU appearance, maybe building to something in the 2024 “Thunderbolts” flick.
At least the introduction of Riri (Dominique Thorne), returning next year in her own series “Ironheart,” is important for the entire film. And Thorne’s performance works wonderfully well. Alas, all these pieces bloat what should be a story about grief and rebirth. That theme intermittently seeps through, but it should be front and center.
And several returners differ from this excess. M’Baku (Winston Duke), who previously challenged T’Challa for the throne, comes to a complete stop, serving only as a voice of reason. That alone is a U-turn, but it all occurs prior to these events on screen.
Speaking of characters stuck in limbo, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) serves a similar advisory role, lacking the depth presented in her inaugural debut. Something seems left out to make room for an unnecessary subplot or flashback.
Aneka (Michaela Coel) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) made headlines as some of the only black lesbians to lead a comics story. First appearing in the primary “Black Panther” run, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the warriors grow closer as they move away from restrictive patriarchal heritage built into Wakandan tradition. None of that textures anything in “Wakanda Forever,” save for Marvel’s passive progressive attempts at LQBTQ+ representation, here parading a brief kiss on the forehead and supporting line.
Atop many writing issues, the care and creativity in the first film’s action sequences are replaced by novelty. Okoye rocks an impressive spear fight, but that marks the end to any memorable thrilling moments, which are eventually replaced with some awkward slo-mo.
To its credit, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is the best Marvel film this year, and its record-breaking ticket sales prove moviegoers love these characters, as they should. But this is a rough cut in need of focus, a follow up with too many ideas.
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