By Marc S. Sanders
Marvel does it right. DC doesn’t. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not a perfect film, but it’s not Black Adam. The latest Marvel production offers sharp visual effects and action scenes, along with thought provoking moments that reflect on loss. Black Adam offers a crusty, yellow lightning bolt on the chest of The Rock.
Director Ryan Coogler was faced with a terrible challenge to make the follow up to his smash hit, Black Panther. The star at the center of the film, Chadwick Boseman, unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer. A screenplay for the film’s sequel had to suddenly be rehashed. A unified cast had to work with a hole in its structure. Coogler opted not to recast the role of T’Challa, the King of the fictional African nation, Wakanda. That was a smart choice. Boseman’s portrayal was so embraced in that film, as well as three other Marvel chapters, that he was seemingly irreplaceable. T’Challa was not just another James Bond or Batman.
I liked most of Wakanda Forever. First and foremost, the primary cast is mostly female and Marvel’s early reputation with female characters left a lot to be desired when all they would do is flirt with the action star and scream for help. As well, none of the women characters were very diverse. The African influence of the Black Panther characters demonstrate that the Marvel universe is unlimited in appearance and style. (Star Wars productions of late prove that as well.)
The design of the picture is also gorgeous. I still yearn for Wakanda to be a real locale that can be toured. I’m sure Disney is already giving this some thought. At times, it was hard to know what overhead locations were mere CGI and what was real. The backdrops are seamless. The whole movie is gorgeous.
The sensitivity to the loss of Boseman is especially handled beautifully. The opening sequence is a ceremony we have all been waiting for since the actor’s death two years prior to the release of the film. Some of the customs and practices might be fictional, albeit inspired by what has been researched in other factual nations and observances, but it is also endearing. The silence of the Marvel logo montage will especially grab you.
Wakanda Forever is carried primarily by Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister. The film takes place one year after T’Challa has passed away from a disease and she is not ready to burn the funeral garb she wore when his soul was sent off to the ancestors. However, while Wakanda was once thought to be the sole resource of Vibranium, the most powerful element in the world, a new character is introduced from under the ocean. Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is the mutant who leads a nation of underwater dwellers with their own source of Vibranium. He proposes that his nation works in conjunction with Wakanda to protect what they possess from other nations (like the United States and France; though why must Marvel show these countries in a bad light?) who could potentially use this commodity for nefarious purposes.
From this seed in the storyline, subplots are branched out. They just don’t work, though. Wakanda’s American ally, Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), is brought back into the fold. He only adds unnecessary running time to a very long film. First, he provides a lead on to a new character, that’s expected to fill the hole left by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. A character named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who I have learned becomes the super hero Iron Heart with a new Iron suit. After that Ross is left to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN as we have already seen the plot unfolding for ourselves, and have conversations with a character named Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus, looking at her most uninteresting and boring). I know. This character serves as teaser fodder for what the MCU promises in future installments, but why is it necessary? I believe this is her third appearance between the films and Disney + shows. All she does is drag the stories down. Wakanda Forever is a 2 hour and 40-minute film, that could have saved thirty minutes without the characters from Freeman and Dreyfus, and likely Thorne as well. Let’s just stick with the Wakandans and forget about advertising what’s coming next from the Marvel factory, please.
Another issue with the film is the delay of showing the new Black Panther. That’s what we ultimately paid for. The middle section of this long running time had me yearning for when I could see the new suit in action, and who was going to wear it. When it finally arrives in the third act, I gotta say I was let down. While there’s a newly inventive design, like each time there was with Iron Man, we don’t see much of what’s new in action and there’s hardly anything that’s novel about it. Does this Black Panther suit offer any new tricks?
What’s fortunate for the film is the cast. Letitia Wright has a good balance of youth segueing into maturity as she toils with loss. I love this angle in the same way I appreciated the cancer storyline written for Natalie Portman in Thor: Love And Thunder. Superpowers do not shield us from what slowly dwindles our lives away. Angela Basset remains a very strong actor after an over forty-year career as the surviving Queen of Wakanda. She commands a powerful presence of authority. Danai Gurira as the spear wielding acrobatic Wakandan warrior Okoye is absolutely cool in action scenes. She also has well written scenes to perform with the other two leads, as her character’s commitment to country is tested.
Ironically, the Namor character is one of the oldest Marvel characters in print, introduced long before Spider-Man or the Hulk came on the page. I was never a fan of the character though. He just didn’t have a cool enough costume for me as it was only a bathing suit and he had wings on his ankles. Meh. I feel the same way here. The back story of the character is altered to fit the mold of the script, and that’s okay, but I didn’t feel for this antagonist’s plight. In the prior film, I was more on the side Eric Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) cause than I was on T’Challa’s. In this film, Namor is just a guy to do battle with while he flies and swims.
Ryan Coogler is a detailed director. When I’m in Wakanda, I want to explore every building and hop aboard each vehicle that hovers overhead. He leaves no stone unturned. I would have chosen for some of the action scenes to be shot in the daytime so I could get a better look at what goes on. I feel that way about all action and adventure films. However, a darkened action scene in nearly any Marvel film is much more articulated than any scene, daylight or otherwise, in Black Adam from DC.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good film, but not great, mostly due to its overstayed running time. What should have been cut from the final reel is obvious. Yet, good writing and acting allows for the film that many Marvel fans needed after one of their heroes left us. Losing Chadwick Boseman likely equates to how we lost our Superman, Christopher Reeve. It seemed so unfair that someone who offered such heroic optimism and joy could be taken from our reach so early in life. At least, the loss of Boseman was thankfully not washed over with a replacement that could never fill his void.