We all probably know where we were one blistering August day in 2020, when the news hit. The passing of Chadwick Boseman, further igniting an actor’s combined performance and activist movement forged from his breakout role in 2018’s Black Panther. His omniscient presence is not lost on an anxious audience, nor on director Ryan Coogler who recognizes the challenge of crafting a no-brainer sequel without his closest muse. Those jumpy nerves manifest themselves into a delay-riddled follow-up whose otherwise unwavering heartache is overshadowed by one too many subplots. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, for all its joyful affliction, struggles to reel itself in, just when it needs to focus on the desire for closure.
Coogler is admittedly at his best when celebrating the late King T’Challa’s legacy, and it’s not without tears shed. The prologue, epilogue, and a jagged reminder in the middle are like sharp thumbtacks to the soul with Wakanda’s first family coming to terms with their monarch’s fall. It starts with his final moments, succumbing to a non-specific illness. Science whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright) is doing what she can to defy medical limitations for her big bro, but it’s not enough. Mom Ramunda (Angela Bassett) assumes the throne, her presence on the world stage menacing and cautious while investigating rogue deposits of their precious commodity Vibranium emerging outside their protected kingdom.
Supplies that catch the eye of rival authoritarian Namor (Tenoch Huerta), from the underwater kingdom of Talokan. It, too, is rich with Vibranium, and he looks to capture 100% of the market. To do that, he’ll pursue the knowledge of MIT student Riri (Dominique Thorne), and her prototype device for tracking the element. That is where Shuri and big sister soldier Okoye (Danai Gurira) step in, seeking to protect the prodigy and infuse a more diplomatic solution. On the other hand, Namor is hell-bent on vengeance, a bloody coup to rival the conquistadores.
The very scale of elements to chart in Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay does scream “screen epic”, to quite the lavish scale. And more power to them for sustaining this giant puzzle of soap opera-like threads, particularly involving the likes of Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) returning a few favors, brutal warrior M’Baku (Winston Duke) flexing his muscles, and third sister Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) picking up her own pieces as a teacher in Haiti. That doesn’t mean its ambition weighs itself down like a heady stone. 161 minutes in length, and it’s impossible not to discern the tonnage of each one. A precarious stockpile, unashamedly vivid in both visual force (namely Ruth Carter’s outfit template) and auditory dazzle (Ludwig Göransson’s bone chilling compositions).
It’s not a terrible script, but one in need of deep refinement. Namor does fill the void of a satisfying villain, something the first film struggled to tamp down effectively. His backstory, his very motivation, just about every complicated facet of his tyranny is but one way the story meanders out of sharpness. For a film whose intent is to honor the lost, it makes a great show of reinvigorating the living. Perhaps excessively. Not that it wastes Huerta’s ability to invoke utter anarchy; he can still query water-based terror with minimal gestures.
Coogler doesn’t waste the opportunity, however, to go bombastic with comic-friendly action sequences that do overspend their time, never. His sense of pacing takes a few wobbles, balancing the tender with the sprightly, with little open ground for workable humor. Thorne’s mere ingenuity does feign a welcome counterbalance, as does Freeman’s mildly deadpan mindset. Only he can express third party lucidity when all eyes look toward half-minded retribution. Neither can expand the field, outdone by that first priority. The all-important need for closure after a death in the family, treated somewhat the same way as one would the loss of a longtime member of one’s favorite band. It’s like a chaotic circus, both the memorial and the search for a replacement. The grief is far from nonexistent in Coogler’s mind, nor is the hopefulness, nor that ambivalence in imagining someone else filling Boseman’s shoes. The near-empty filler circling around that mere hesitancy really takes its time to cut through, nearly trapped in a directionless void. When it does, though, the tears expected to flow are entirely genuine.
With the immediate family, their affliction leaves a massive ripple on this fracturing emotional core. To see them pine for what was lost, is to echo the deepest sensation of grief in our lives. Both Bassett and Wright sell us in spades on coping with instant assumption of duty and action. One’s more rational than the other, both navigating bureaucratic controversy in different ways. Both confront their personal feelings and an unreasoning threat in almost the same way, weary and aggravated. Just as one would in the wake of tragedy, tired of the sorrow and impatient to resolve.
Would it be unfair to say I was impatient to see exactly where Coogler and Cole’s story was headed? Not entirely, considering the latter hour does slow the momentum down on such a simple idea belabored by endless comic movie frills. On its own, and without context, the final showdown is a lengthy, inviting buzz. When thrown into the mix of this grieving rigmarole, it disconnects the most valuable point of attention, without entirely severing its justification.
A film like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever could make me forget about the typical MCU short-order recipe. Even as it’s dancing with the ingredients making most of their efforts so impactful, for better or worse. It does incite a great deal of struggle, in allowing one to care again for conflict in the fictional global force, amid a bloated villain with too much baggage. And yet, to witness this community fight once more in the same candor of their fallen comrade equals some mild form of homecoming. What we see in this sequel is far from a complete experience. There’s so much despair, positivity and ascendency in play, in that order. Less really is more, though. Tighten the focus to where we don’t lose sight of why we’re watching, and we’d have one amazing phase capper. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters November 11; rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, action and some language; 161 minutes.