I was overseas when Marvel Studios’ most recent theatrical release came out, but it is available now on physical media and Disney+, and I have at last found the time to watch Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The original Black Panther managed to supersede its Marvel heritage and become a genuine global phenomenon. That alone would put pressure on its sequel to succeed, but then the nascent series was struck by the tragic death of its star Chadwick Boseman. It is a tall order to advance the story, replace its star, and both celebrate and mourn them as well. It also has the challenge that faces all Marvel sequels: the first film can get away with telling its own narrative, largely independent of the studio’s over-arching narratives. The follow-ups tend to get dragged into the long grass of franchise building instead.
To be honest, Wakanda Forever succeeds and fails in equal measure. More than that: it succeeds and fails in precisely the aspects one would expect it to succeed and fail. It is laudable that it does not try to avoid Boseman’s death. King T’Challa the Black Panther is dead before the opening titles, and the rest of the film is as much about his absence as it is about the characters he leaves behind. It is also a smart choice to bring Black Panther‘s array of supporting characters into the spotlight to fill that absence. This is a strong film for Danai Gurira’s Okoye, and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, and particularly Angela Bassett’s mournful and resilient Queen Ramonda. Most powerfully of all, it is a strong film for Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister Shuri. She was the obvious candidate to replace Boseman as protagonist, and she takes on the role admirably and with both dramatic and comedic flourishes. It is nice to see so many powerful women in an action film without it ever feeling tokenistic.
There is a serious chance that Wakanda Forever will be best remembered for introducing Namor the Sub-Mariner to the MCU. He is literally the oldest Marvel character in existence, his first publication in 1939 predates Marvel Comics itself by 22 years. Rights issues with Universal Pictures resolved, he is now free to make his big screen debut. It is gloriously effective, capturing the character’s ambivalent morality and unusual position as both a hero and a villain for the broader MCU. Tenoch Huerta is superb in the role, making an immediate and hugely enjoyable impression. There has also been some very clever work done behind the scenes to give Namor a distinctive cultural identity steeped in Aztec culture and mythology.
It is a shame that the attention paid to Namor is not quite paid to his people. The undersea nation of Talokan is certainly well designed and beautifully realised, but it never gets the in-depth focus that Wakanda famously received in the original Black Panther. The people of Talokan in particular feel rather under-developed, effectively existing to be CGI-enhanced and generated soldiers during battle sequences. Hopefully a future Namor feature has the chance to flesh them out somewhat – if Marvel’s deal with Universal even allows such a thing.
CGI enhancements are a broader problem across the entire film. The film is positively soaked in visual effects – no real surprise there – but the climax in particular strains to achieve all of the required shots without tumbling into an ‘uncanny valley’ where too much is unconvincing. Marvel Studios are becoming notorious for under-investing in time for CGI work to be achieved, and here that under-investment is sadly visible on the screen.
There is also Marvel’s ongoing issue introducing future plot threads in their films. In addition to Namor, Wakanda Forever also introduces Riri Williams, aka Ironheart (Dominique Thorne) and further establishes the mysterious Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) – who had previously cameoed at the end of Black Widow. In both cases these characters are the least effective, and distract from the central plot and themes – albeit through no fault of the actors.
This film has such a large cast, so it is worth pausing to acknowledge more strong, appealing work done by the likes of Winston Duke as M’Baku, Michaela Coel as new character Aneka, and Lake Bell and Robert John Burke in a small but plot critical sequence.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good film, that much is certain. At the same time it fails to quite match the extraordinary impact of the original Black Panther. It has a tendency to lose both drive and focus from time to time – it categorically did not need to be 160 minutes long – but when it is running at full speed and on target it is easily the strongest MCU film of its year. Ryan Coogler has a superb talent for finding intimate human moments, and drawing sensitive performances from his casts. He also has a brilliant visual eye: his two Panther films are arguably the most striking and beautiful films that Marvel’s ever had. A third instalment feels inevitable, and most welcome.