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It takes a lot more than claws and a full bodysuit to be Black Panther. The superhero is also the leader of the world’s most advanced country, a warrior intellectual who can lead by example and on the battlefield. That is why Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer in 2020, left such an incredible void. Ryan Coogler, who directed and co-wrote Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, had to figure out how his production and story could continue. This is nearly an impossible task, one made more difficult due to the now unwieldy Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coogler and his team nearly pull it off, leading to moments of real power and emotion not normally found in superhero films, and yet Marvel’s need for a shared universe practically undermines it at every turn.
Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole begin with Boseman’s death. His character, T’Challa, succumbed to an unknown disease, while his brilliant scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) raced against time for a cure. That she could not save him is a source of grief and guilt that weighs on her in ways she cannot articulate (to their credit, Coogler and Wright avoid histrionics, giving each major character time to reflect on what T’Challa meant to them). Their mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), barely keeps it together, while his partner, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leaves Wakanda because the pain is too much. Like in the first Black Panther film, Coogler surrounds himself with strong women on both sides of the camera: All the women warriors are convincing action heroes, especially General Okoye (Danai Gurira), while Coogler’s collaboration with cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw can give the images a crisp sense of darkness or color.
A power vacuum exacerbates these feelings of grief, loss, and guilt: The nation has not replaced their Black Panther and the international community seizes the opportunity, attempting to steal vibranium, Wakanda’s most valuable resource. But an unexpected complication weakens Wakanda’s position in the world. Deep under the sea, the god king Namor (Tenoch Huerta) rules Talokan, a hidden civilization that also has access to vibranium. Namor wants to strike a deal with Wakanda, forming an alliance so they can defend their supply from the rest of the world. If they refuse, he promises all-out war against them.
Aside from Boseman’s charms, the original Black Panther had two other unique qualities that made it stand out from most Marvel films: It told a relatively self-contained story, and its villain had a charismatic ferocity and relatable plight. Wakanda Forever, at more than two-and-a-half hours, tries to weave so many narrative threads that it sometimes seems Coogler’s not making a film, but directing traffic. There’s the business of the next Black Panther and Namor’s siege—plus a lengthy section where we learn his backstory—and meet other new characters such as Ironheart (Dominique Thorne), the second coming of Tony Stark. This all because the MCU cannot simply tell one individual superhero story. Producer Kevin Feige must connect different narrative threads, including many Marvel television shows, all in service of a later film where all the heroes have another final showdown. With so many films coming at such a steady clip and a clunkly overlap, the MCU dilutes the quality of its brand.
You may recall that, in the original Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan played Killmonger, T’Challa’s cousin who grew up in the United States and wanted to further militarize Wakanda. Jordan’s performance was so good and forceful that he unintentionally did Huerta no favors. Huerta does what he can, showing how his character compromises himself for the dignity of his people, but still has trouble with Namor’s inherent silliness. Unlike Killmonger’s more realistic antagonist, Namor breathes underwater and can fly due to little wings on his ankles. Namor’s underwater kingdom also seems like it’s from a different movie—perhaps Marvel’s version of Aquaman’s Atlantis, a place where people are literally blue and ride across the ocean on the back of giant whales. If anything, those scenes will build unintentional anticipation for the upcoming Avatar sequel, since James Cameron also loves to depict underwater worlds and has a seemingly innate sense of how to shoot action in thrilling ways.
The Marvel approach to action and special effects does not aid its blue underwater people. The action scenes, including requisite fights and car chases, are blurs of color that lack any sort of spatial coherence. It is well known that the same second unit directs all the Marvel action scenes, which is another way of saying they all look mediocre in pretty much the same way (e.g., a fight scene where the editing and blurred characters make it so you cannot see how they’re attacking each other). That pervasive sameness is most obvious during the big climax, one that takes place on a giant hovercraft. Multiple MCU films have climaxes on giant floating ships, as if the studio paid for exclusive rights to this particular brand of visual effects and plans to get the most bang for its buck. In all these supposedly thrilling scenes, the characters converge to the same blurry CGI soup, a kind of frenzy that moves quickly as a way to hide clumsy choreography.
In between all the CGI glop and side plots that do not advance the story, Wakanda Forever almost becomes a compelling film. Wakanda itself is still a beautiful Afro-futurist fantasia—T’Challa’s funeral procession is an early highlight—while other characters, like the hotheaded M’Baku (a scene-stealing Winston Duke), add levity and insight where you least expect it. In terms of story and subtext, it is clear Coogler had a version of the film when Boseman was still alive, then rewrote key scenes with different characters in his place. Shuri, Ramonda, and the others have no choice but to endure. The same could be said about the film itself, or, put another way, it is harder to believe in Wakanda without the singular joy radiating from its greatest champion.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever plays in theaters everywhere starting Nov. 11.