The people of Wakanda fight to protect their home from intervening world powers as they mourn the death of King T'Challa. (from IMDB)
The untimely death of Carrie Fisher had sent Disney's Star Wars sequel trilogy into a tailspin, which drastically changed their original plan for the third and final film in the series and saga, Episode 9. This led to a change in directors and an entirely new script, abandoning the film's (and series') original intended trajectory. In 2020, Marvel experienced a similar problem with the shocking loss of beloved Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the 43-year-old actor had been battling colon cancer for four years before he finally succumbed to the illness. This left Disney - and Marvel - again having to figure out what to do with the character and the announced Black Panther sequel.
In short, Marvel decided not to recast T'Challa, the Black Panther hero, but decided to continue moving forward with its first sequel. Boseman had starred as T'Challa in four films -- Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and finally in 2019's Avengers: Endgame. Boseman would go on to posthumously reprise his role as T'Challa in animated form, featuring his voice, in the Disney+ series, What If?, concluding his run as the Black Panther. It was made widely known that the Black Panther sequel would deal with Boseman and T'Challa's death, crown a new Black Panther, and continue the series from there. And with that, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was born.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens immediately with Letitia Wright's Shuri, T'Challa's scientifically brilliant sister, scrambling in the lab to make a cure for T'Challa's unnamed illness. We never see T'Challa/Boseman, but only see the incident from Shuri's point of view. After his passing, when we get to the opening Marvel credits, there's absolutely no sound - no Marvel theme of any kind - and all of the hero imagery has been replaced with images of Chadwick as T'Challa / Black Panther. The normally-red Marvel logo is then shown as purple, the Wakandan royal color. This somber beginning, which left our respectably full afternoon theater in complete silence, set the tone for the next 2 hours and 40 minutes of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Understandably, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever follows T'Challa's surviving family - his sister Shuri and his mother, Ramonda, who is now Wakanda's queen. A year passes after the death of the beloved hero, and Shuri is still struggling with the loss of her brother, blaming herself for not being able to save him. The emotion of Wakanda Forever is real and palpable; anyone who was a fan of the character or Boseman already have had to deal with the shock of his loss, but Wakanda Forever digs in and really makes the viewer feel the weight of the character's passing. The love the filmmakers and cast had for Boseman is also tangible. This isn't a light movie by any means. Writer and director Ryan Coogler spends ample time allowing the audience to mourn along with Shuri and Ramonda, and showing just how impactful this is on their characters, the MCU, and Wakanda. But heaven knows that life doesn't usually slow down just to allow people to mourn, and a new threat is introduced in Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta, an underwater mutant who leads a previously undiscovered underwater civilization. It makes for some different set pieces, action, and some impressive visuals, but also an action-packed finale that doesn't really add up to the satisfying payoff the movie sets up for.
In some aspects, the near-3-hour runtime moves quickly, but you do start to feel it around the last act of the movie. I actually found myself looking forward to it ending. Yeah, that's a not a good thing to say about a movie, but it ultimately feels like Coogler has the core movie he wanted to make here, with obligatory MCU setups forced into it. For example, to sort of setup the film's MacGuffin, the story introduces another teenage genius, Riri Williams, who modern Marvel comics fans will know instantly as being Iron Heart, a post-Tony Stark Iron Man. Her introduction makes sense for the plot - even if it feels extremely convenient - but it gives Wakanda Forever the job of having to introduce and develop yet another character, who already has a planned future in the MCU franchise (with a forthcoming Disney+ TV series). And it also means that our heroes have to protect her at all costs. Riri's character is fine, but it is definitely bittersweet to have a new iron-suited hero to replace Iron Man. The setup here doesn't at all seem to give Riri any kind of motivation for copying Iron Man (I don't think she mentions Tony or Iron Man even once), but I assume that will get explored in future Iron Heart stories. Her revealed suit design is also over-the-top with the heart symbolism, with its end design looking more like something a 7-year-old girl might scribble in crayon than something designed by a brilliant college student. Nitpicks aside, it's a delight to have the return of Martin Freeman's Agent Ross, but somehow the revelation that he has a connection to a recent new character just feels forced and ridiculously convenient (even if I do really enjoy that mysterious character and the person who plays them). Still, Coogler makes sure to use these tools to his story's benefit, while checking off the boxes the MCU needs to keep the overarching story progressing forward. He even uses these other side plots to illustrate other character's integrity and personal growth, which helps it all feel less disjointed.
When we met Shuri in Black Panther, she was a spunky, confident, and kind of childish teenager, who had a playful and endearing relationship with her older brother. Her journey here feels all too real, as her experience with loss forces her to grow up faster than she should have to, and helps her deal with, and hopefully overcome, some really heavy issues. Sure, her story may start to feel a little like Peter Parker's in a way (any of the Peters, really, particularly Andrew Garfield's), but Letitia Wright's performance is wonderful and it's hard not to love her character throughout this journey.
The content for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is similar to the 2017 film, but definitely a lot less bloody. There are a handful of cuss words here and there, but they're spread out over the course of its lengthy runtime, so it never feels excessive. Even still, I'd love for Marvel to cut back on it at some point. There isn't really any sexual content, but knowing Disney's current not-so-subtle agenda, there's a super brief, and extremely random and unnecessary, moment near the film's end where a Wakandan woman kisses the bald head of another Wakandan woman (who is seated) as she walks by, places her hand on her shoulder and refers to her as "my love" in a way that suggests they're in a relationship together. It has no bearing on the story, and there's no other suggestion of their relationship in any other part of the movie, so it feels like yet another box the studio is checking off for this movie. Nearly every Marvel movie since Avengers: Endgame (except for Black Widow, Shang-Chi and Spider-Man: No Way Home) has added gay characters to their movies and TV shows - whether it fits the story or not - and this feels especially forced in its execution. There's quite a bit of violence, with characters being shot, stabbed, sliced or even impaled by spears, but it's seldom graphic or bloody. We do, however, see a dying man in a flashback with blood on their face, an amphibious woman with a blue-bloody blaster wound on her abdomen (briefly), and a character who receives bloody scratches to their back and face. Otherwise, the movie deals heavily with the theme of death and loss, mourning, and moving past the loss of loved ones. There's also a heavy moment when a character dies from drowning. One big action sequence shows a town being flooded and its inhabitants attacked, and the finale involves a big fight that shows characters getting sliced, stabbed, and thrown (but again, it's seldom bloody).
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may not be the sequel originally planned for the franchise, but it's a very good one. I have to say I'm not sure how rewatchable this one will be, given how heavy in nature most of the story is - especially dealing with a major character's death in T'Challa - but it's most definitely the best Marvel movie of 2022, and proof that, despite all the recent hiccups, the studio can still make some good movies. Oh, if you do see the movie, do know there is a mid-credits scene, but nothing at all at the end of the credits.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 11/12/22)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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