When 43-year-old Chadwick Boseman passed away of colon cancer in 2020, the industry lost a huge talent and Marvel lost a pivotal hero. Director Ryan Coogler –whose script for the sequel was already complete– was left with a devastating challenge: How do you carry on a film franchise when the heart and soul of the story is gone? In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, it starts by mourning the man. The film begins with the passing of King T’challa, acknowledging the very real loss so that the cast, the crew, and the fans can grieve together.
As the film begins, the characters are in a state of heartbreak after T’challa/”The Black Panther” dies from a sudden, unknown illness. To remember the fallen hero, there’s a special MCU opening scroll made up of images of Boseman. It informs the audience that there will be no Black Panther franchise without him. This movie seeks to move forward.
A year after the funeral, a U.S. naval vessel discovers Vibranium on the ocean floor thanks to some newly-developed tech, which would mean Wakanda would no longer have the monopoly on the rare material. But as it turns out, the inhabitants of the underwater empire of Talokan are none too keen about sharing.
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Their leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is even less thrilled by the Wakandan’s decision to let the world know about the existence of Vibranium, which will send government agents and the military scouring the Earth on a global glowing Easter egg hunt. He wants his people to remain a secret and will do anything to protect them. Even if it means wiping out the nation of Wakanda or kid-genius Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who accidentally created a Vibranium-finding machine in her spare time.
Longtime fans of Namor of the Sub-mariner from the comics will find the reinvented screen version a little disconcerting; it’s quite different from its original pulp form. Less of a salty, son of a bitch and more of a soft-spoken sea god, Marvel fudged with Namor’s mythos in an attempt to give him a backstory that can rival Erik Killmonger (the great Michael B. Jordan). But without Namor’s seething contempt for mankind that made him a badass antihero in the comics or Killmonger’s cockiness fueled by self-righteous indignation, this Namor just doesn’t make a big splash.
The movie is the usual special effects extravaganza we’ve come to expect from Marvel pics, using much more water here than green flashing lights or ginormous explosions. There are so many slow-motion water bursts and set pieces featuring blue-skinned warriors carrying spears, you can practically hear James Cameron rage-eating popcorn miles away.
In Wakanda Forever, the women are in the forefront of the Black Panther saga, whereas before it was a power struggle between sons and fathers. Letitia Wright does an admirable job of carrying a poignant story, something she probably never expected to do. And she does it skillfully. As Shuri, she feels what we feel, not wanting to carry on without Boseman/T’challa, but finding that she must move on. She has helped with the wonderful Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, who appears to put her heart and soul into the film, honoring her castmate the best way she can. Boseman’s passing is the emotional touchpoint for the film and rarely during the 2 hours, 41 minutes run does it allow you to forget it. There is a remembrance or a callback that pulls on the heartstrings, in nearly every non-action moment.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a hero’s journey for a new savior. Wrapped up in the grief, there is growth and the creation of a new champion. But its an attempt to tell an actual story, the one about Namor and Vibranium, is a bit muddled. Take away the emotional elements and much of the narrative is an average superhero tale. Coogler was given a very difficult task to pass along a baton that not many people wanted to see passed. It was clearly a daunting task. Because of that, the film operates under a shadow. Though it will be remembered for the strong performances by Wright and Bassett, and the way it powerfully honors Boseman, the storytelling is standard and lacks the same strength.