On the one hand, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most ambitious films. Although it doesn't have quite the multi-character scope of, say, Avengers: Endgame, it attempts a grounded, essentially political story of national character and international relations—Dan Drezner, call your office—set in a world of exalted, fantastically powerful characters. It aims to be a solemn domestic family drama, a succession struggle, and a parable about the dangers of American interventionism, as well as a rollicking superhero action movie, all at once. It was also made under genuinely trying conditions: Chadwick Boseman, who played the title character in the previous film and several other MCU installments, tragically died of cancer in 2020 as the sequel was being developed. In some ways, it's astounding and impressive that the film exists.
But the movie that resulted is, sadly, a mess; narratively convoluted and flat-out ugly at times, with sub-streaming-TV special effects and indistinct imagery throughout. The story is laden with subplots intended to set up or nudge along strands of the overall MCU plotline, almost entirely to ho-hum effect. And while there are several strong performances, the story's attempts at political relevance come across as half-hearted efforts to recreate the frisson of intra-national conflict that defined the first film. The result is a bloated, aimless, visually unappealing two-and-a-half-hour blockbuster that feels less like a distinctive vision and more like something cobbled together out of bits of Marvel movie detritus.
That's not to say there are no stirring moments, especially when the movie pays tribute to Boseman. The film begins with the death of his character, King T'Challa of Wakanda, the long-secret afrofuturist nation and the home of what is believed to be the world's only supply of vibranium. The somber funeral sequence—a march through the streets of Wakanda in the shadow of a mural of the departed king—is one of the most affecting moments in Marvel movie history, capturing a profound grief that is almost unheard of in comic book movies where death is rarely permanent.
But that grief struggles to assert itself through the rest of the film, which mostly plays like a grab bag of MCU sidequests and side plots. The plot is set in motion by an underwater machine that detects vibranium. The machine is invented by Riri Williams, a brilliant young scientist who, ah, yes, will become Ironheart, an Iron Man-like character who just happens to have an MCU series in development for Disney +, and who will presumably play a role in the forthcoming Iron Wars movie. And then there's Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), the Wakanda-sympathetic American intelligence agent who is back from the first Black Panther. This time it turns out he's the ex-husband of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, the Julia Louis Dreyfus-played spy boss who has been turning up across the MCU for the last several years. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that a quarter of the film is devoted to setting up other movies and series in the MCU. It's a two-and-a-half-hour movie, give or take, but it might be better understood as an hour and forty-five-minute film with 40 minutes or so of integrated house-brand commercials.
I have nothing against corporate synergy, and crossovers are part of the fun of both comic books and modern comic book movies. But crossovers should primarily serve the story you're watching, not the one creators hope you watch next.
The film is on much stronger ground when it focuses on its trio of female leads: scientific prodigy Shuri (Leticia Wright), Wakandan military leader Okoye (Danai Gurira), and matriarch Ramonda (Angela Basset), who has taken the Wakandan throne. The trio made for a strong supporting cast in the first Black Panther; here, they carry the movie, not only powering through sometimes weak, sometimes disjointed material, but giving it heft and emotional impact. Wakanda Forever is deeply flawed, but the decision to let the supporting cast take center stage rather than try to find someone to replace Boseman's movie-making charisma was the right one.
As replacements go, the movie's flying, water-breathing antagonist, Namor, isn't quite as successful. Although actor Tenoch Huerta Mejía makes for an enjoyably menacing quasi-villain, he's stuck rehashing the anti-colonialist argument made more forcefully by the first film's baddie, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Parts of his argument, particularly his case for war against Wakanda, don't make much sense, undermining the movie's attempts to bring more thoughtful forms of political conflict into superhero films.
Comic book fans know Namor as the cranky sometimes-villain, sometimes-hero Sub-Mariner, the King of Atlantis, but here he's been given a new history as the leader of the Mayan-inspired underwater nation Talokan. This might be intriguing except for the fact that it's so haphazardly developed, delivered mostly as rehearsed backstory told to the audience rather than experienced as part of the plot.
Talokan itself may or may not be an interesting place to explore. Honestly, it's hard to tell. The movie is muddy and dark and edited so that no image can linger or make an impression. I simply didn't care one way or another.
People have complained recently about the indistinguishable darkness of small-screen shows like Game of Thrones. But a TV or streaming series can always take refuge in the argument that the budgets are smaller and not everyone has a great TV. I screened Wakanda Forever in an IMAX theater, which should be a premium experience, and it frequently looked flat-out awful, with choppy action and unfortunate CGI that would look right at home on a streaming service. Marvel's movies are never exactly pretty, but this one looked especially rough.
The first Black Panther remains one of the strongest, most exciting entries in the MCU canon—many would argue the best. It succeeded by jettisoning just enough of the Marvel movie baggage and focusing on clear characterization, a discrete narrative with minimal extra-movie linkages, and an intriguing (at least for a superhero movie) political conflict.
But despite strong performances and moments of real feeling, Wakanda Forever often feels stitched together and kludgy, even tedious at times—as if its title is mostly an inadvertent attempt to capture how long it goes on. It's not an awful movie, exactly, but it's an exceptionally disappointing one.