Despite the tragic death of star Chadwick Boseman that results in his repurposed-footage appearance here, Ryan Coogler’s sequel to his own 2018 smash hit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe did pretty good business for the pandemic era; a worldwide recoup of $759 million to date is not to be sniffed at, even if it’s around half what the first film made. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever would have been a cornerstone in the MCU’s Phase IV, but amongst a selection of not-quite-there ventures, nay-sayers will see this as evidence of a franchise that’s running on fumes. Wakanda Forever may well have fans, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who could prefer this bloated, confusing film to the far more effective original.
So we don’t even get a backwards glimpse of T’Challa, the titular Black Panther from the first film, until a sentimental ‘T’Challa-was-inside-us-all-along’ montage during the final scene. It’s explained that T’Challa died off-screen, and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) was involved in a failed effort to save her brother by developing a synthetic herb. T’Challa’s mom Ramonda (an imperious Angela Bassett) heads off to the UN to warn other countries not to steal the precious vibranium on which Wakanda is largely built, but the Wakandans have their own beef with Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). He’s the pointy-eared leader of the Avatarian blue fish people who are annoyed that vibranium-seeking devices are being used on the earth’s surface. That puts the fish people on a collision course with Wakanda, and everyone else is caught up in the conflict…
Black Panther 2’s plot was clearly written with Boseman’s return in mind, and then the main character’s interactions were hived off to other characters; it’s a gambit that stymies the emotional range of the film which becomes rapidly bogged down in funereal mourning, po-faced diplomacy and agonising techno-babble. ‘So y’all gonna stop having Black Panthers just when I get kidnapped?’ is probably the funniest line in Wakanda Forever, but there’s not enough to lighten the gloom; the gag comes from outspoken science-boffin Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who seems to have been included just to set up yet another forthcoming MCU tv show, Ironheart. There’s all sorts of randos to jolly up the supporting cast including Lake Bell as a CIA agent, Martin Freeman as a CIA boss and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his ex-wife; the casting promises comedy, but this sequel doesn’t have many laughs by design.
161 minutes is a long time to keep an audience entertained, but Wakanda Forever lives up to the promise of its title by taking forever to watch, not bringing the action with a subdued car chase and tedious sub-aquatic brawl which both suffer from advanced fakey-green-screen-itis. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is certainly respectful to the character of T’Challa and to Boseman’s memory, but although it’s released in the slot of last year’s Spiderman movie, it’s unlikely to inspire the same kind of fanboy love. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever aspires to be a more mature prospect that the previous MCU fodder, but Coogler’s political and aspirational pretentions aren’t quite borne out by a garbled narrative that’s both convoluted and muted in equal parts.