'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' Review
November 9, 2022
To paraphrase James Cromwell’s Captain Dudley Smith from L.A. Confidential: “I wouldn't trade places with Ryan Coogler for all the whiskey in Ireland.”
Just on a purely basic level, the bar for the sequel to the box office smash / Oscar-winning / pop culture phenomenon that was Black Panther was almost insurmountable. Add in the untimely death of lead star Chadwick Boseman and the overall decline in reception to the preceding bunch of Phase Four, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an anxiety attack.
To Coogler’s credit, he makes a valiant effort to craft something unique out of his unfortunate situation. It’s just that his efforts didn’t turn into results, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever feeling more like MCU entry #30 rather than a distinct work by a talented filmmaker.
Just as Boseman is tragically gone from this world, so is King T’Challa from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright) unsuccessfully attempting to cure her brother of an unknown illness. She blames herself for his death, leaving her unable to properly grieve the loss. With Wakanda stripped of its chief protector, the superpowers of the world see an opportunity to seize their coveted vibranium resources, leading to hostile relations for Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to deal with.
But, as it turns out, vibranium is not solely located within Wakanda. It’s also found near the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean thanks to a detector built by MIT student and overall wunderkind Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). Unbeknownst to all, the underwater civilization of Talokan, led by the ankle-winged (an objectively silly concept) Namor, has observed the surface world for centuries and treats their underwater vibranium excursions as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Namor wishes for Wakanda to join him on his crusade, but his request is swiftly denied. Knowing that the Wakandan forces are the only ones powerful enough to stop him, he wages war on the briefly vulnerable kingdom.
The premise of Wakanda Forever is awfully by-the-numbers, especially when compared to its ever-interesting predecessor. The complex arguments from Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger have been replaced by surface-level (pun intended) anecdotes about how “humans are bad” by Namor, who falls far down the MCU villain power rankings. It also doesn’t help that his motives and the design of his underwater kingdom look and sound scarily similar to 2018’s Aquaman, which actually performed better on a technical level. Of course, James Cameron will probably have the last laugh with Avatar: The Way of Water next month.
The blandness that Namor suffers from can also be found in Riri, aka Ironheart. Along with America Chavez from this year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Kate Bishop from Hawkeye, Riri fills the role of the “young protege who needs to be saved by the current hero so that she can take their place.” Florence Pugh’s Yelena remains the cream of that crop, with Riri being adequate, yet entirely forgettable.
Still, there are many things that Coogler does within Wakanda Forever that give it just enough personality. One of those things is the emotional heft he conveys through T’Challa’s passing, with the talented cast more than up to the challenge. Wright effortlessly takes on a leading role in this story, and Bassett brings her signature gravitas to every bit of dialogue.
Barring the final battle, which, like the first Black Panther, looks shockingly poor, and some off-putting uses of slow motion, the action set pieces are thrilling. Danai Gurira as Okoye remains a venerable badass, wielding her spear with fury. Her introduction out of the shadows is one of the countless beautiful shots.
Even with all its shortcomings, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever closes out a beleaguered Phase Four as one of its best entries thanks to its emotional honesty and quality action. Except those commendable attributes are in service to a lacking plot and an (at this point, expectedly) uninteresting villain. This return to the land of Wakanda was a welcome one, but it could have been so much more fruitful.