Not to mix metaphors or cross franchises, but Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a Herculean effort from director Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole. It’s not quite a Herculean success, but it’s a success, which is more than enough given the numerous constraints they’re dealing with.
First and foremost, the unexpected, tragic, and real-life heroic passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. Cooler and Cole handle it quite well, turning the entire film into a non-exploitative mourning of Boseman from the perspective of his little sister, Letitia Wright. After the prologue, which features Boseman’s off-screen death, the film jumps forward a year. Mom (and again Queen of Wakanda) Angela Bassett wants Wright to grieve, while Wright wants to avoid it and concentrate on her work.
At its best, Wakanda Forever is about juxtaposing Wright against other characters, starting with Bassett. But Wright then starts encountering other alter egos thanks to the film’s events, first Dominique Thorne as a nineteen-year-old wunderkind who has built a vibranium detector (and had it stolen, without her knowledge, by the U.S. government). Naturally, the U.S. doesn’t think Africans should have that vibranium, and they want it; if they can find it themselves, fine, but if CIA director Julia Louis-Dreyfus has her way, they’ll kill all the Wakandians for it.
The film’s incredibly upfront about shitty white people working hard to get white supremacy going again after the Blip. There aren’t any Black people in the post-Blip U.S. government, apparently, not even as window dressing. But Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie when Wakanda Forever gets around to being a sequel to the first film. Until then, it’s about mourning Boseman… and the discovery of vibranium outside Wakanda, which no one knew about.
It’s in the ocean, where its presence has allowed an undersea kingdom—led by “mutant” king Tenoch Huerta—to thrive while entirely hidden from the surface world. Except with the U.S. searching for vibranium, Huerta’s realized he’s got to deal with the potential invaders. So he goes to Bassett hoping to find an ally and is surprised when she’s not thrilled at the idea of killing a young American Black woman just to appease Huerta.
Eventually, Wright and Huerta bond over their shared experience of keeping murderous colonizing white people at bay—though Huerta’s experience was the conquistadors—and Wright’s thinking about the more modern threats.
Except Huerta appeals to Wright’s destructive side, Thorne to her creative one. It could lead to a great balancing arc, but at some point, Wakanda Forever can’t be about a character arc; it’s got to be a Marvel movie. Albeit one with some incredibly nuanced politics and characters. At least until the third act, which ends up feeling more like the end of the second act because there’s so much left unresolved for Black Panther 3. They should have just done another hour and gotten through it. Instead, they minimize almost all the character development and then take the movie away from Wright in the epilogues. Then, just when it seems like she’ll get to sit and play it out, they come back and take away some more.
The film runs just over two and a half hours, so another hour would’ve been a very big swing and probably too much of one. Coogler’s direction’s solid throughout, but during the first act, he’s got some phenomenal stuff going on, particularly with Bassett. The special effects visuals too, but his focus on the performances is key. In the lengthy second act (he and Cole do three first acts, mostly consecutively, while keeping the previous ones running), he gets to do the incredible undersea kingdom sequences—and make Huerta’s little wings on his ankles the coolest superhuman physical attribute in a superhero movie maybe ever—but the character work eventually starts stalling. Wakanda Forever brings in deus ex machinas really early.
The second act also reintroduces characters from the previous film who’ve been absent—Lupita Nyong'o and Martin Freeman, both in glorified cameos. Freeman’s just there for a not all white people hashtag, and to reveal Louis-Dreyfus’s casting as a super-spy ice queen is actually about her getting to do sitcom beats. Better than the high-key racism, I guess.
And there’s a reason Nyong’o doesn’t get much, but it’s a contrived reason, not a good one.
Until Nyong’o shows up, Danai Gurira gets a bunch as Bassett’s chief general and Wright’s odd-couple sidekick. It’s like a quarter her movie. Then she loses all of it. In return, like a couple other characters, she gets an Iron Man suit for the finish. Or the Wakanda Forever version of an Iron Man suit. It’s all in the third act, though, where everything’s a little too lacking. Coogler and Cole ran out of time for the story, then Coogler ran out of energy for the directing.
So Forever finishes a strong, still very special okay, instead of a qualified great.
Wright’s a solid lead; the film fails her, sometimes pointedly, but she does well in a challenging situation. Huerta ought to be a breakout. He’s close, but again, the film doesn’t give him an actual arc. The standout performances are Bassett and Winston Duke.
Gorgeous photography from Autumn Durald Arkapaw, even all the composite shots, and a good soundtrack and decent score from Ludwig Göransson. Hannah Beachler’s production design and, especially, Ruth E. Carter’s costumes are fantastic.
Wakanda Forever is an often rousing, always emotional, unfortunately, singular success.
Leave a Reply