As the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues to expand now 30 films deep into its plethora of movie and television franchises, it’s become exceptionally hard for the comic book studio to produce quality entertainment that doesn’t feel repetitive and increasingly mundane.
Studio head Kevin Feige has done a more than adequate job attempting to fill this gap by finding directors with unique visions to bring bold, fresh ideas both visually and from a storytelling perspective to create buzz and life for his projects. This is especially true with the return of Sam Raimi to Marvel filmmaking with the second Doctor Strange film as well as Oscar winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals.
But the most successful pairing of celebrated auteur into the MCU has been Marvel’s relationship with Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, whose 2018 film Black Panther was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and saw Coogler create a truly dynamic, visually arresting world that felt authentic both to the comic book experience and modern cinema.
He returns to the MCU director’s chair with his most difficult task to date, continuing the legacy of Black Panther after Chadwick Boseman’s unexpectedly tragic death due to colon cancer in 2020.
As a result, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a conflicted superhero tale without a hero that does a masterful job memorializing Boseman while attempting to sort out its own future in the balance.
The best elements of the film come in the more dramatic storytelling moments that it feels Coogler has his hands all over, especially in the opening funeral sequence and endcap of the film that are bathed in bright sunlight and rich costumes from Ruth E. Carter, who won an Oscar for costuming the original Black Panther film and sure to be nominated again for the sequel.
Coogler’s strengths as a worldbuilding filmmaker continue here though he spends less time developing Wakanda itself opposed to crafting a second underwater civilization to introduce the film’s questionable antihero Namor and the world of Talokan.
It often feels as though Coogler – perhaps on his own, but more likely at the behest of Marvel – puts as many characters as possible into major parts of Wakanda Forever to find the franchise’s next major star.
This creates some problematic excess in storylines and a bloated nearly three-hour runtime that while it never feels choppy or poorly edited, it’s as if Wakanda Forever bites off one or two more ideas than it can chew on.
It appears Letitia Wright’s Shuri, a fan favorite from the original film, is a primary benefactor of the spotlight in Wakanda Forever, a role that the actress is capable of handling but the largely somber, sometimes rageful Shuri is a far cry from Wright’s original interpretation of the character in 2018 and doesn’t quite have the same positive impact.
Larger roles are given to both Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda and Danai Gurira as Okoye with both actresses being bright spots in the film for different reasons. Bassett brings much needed gravitas to the dramatic elements while Gurira more than capably handles the intense action sequences Okoye is given, which are the most compelling fights in the entire film.
Relative newcomer Tenoch Huerta is the most well-rounded character in the film as Namor, both in the fact that Coogler spends the most time developing Namor’s backstory and crafting the world of Talokan, but also allows Huerta to take the time to emotionally mine the complexity of the revamped character to reflect nuanced culture origins evoking Yucatan Maya.
Much like the original Black Panther, Lupita Nyong’o gets a billing far beneath her considerable talents and the limited moments the Oscar winner can act beyond simple plot mechanizations are among the most compelling in the entire film.
What stands out in a negative light about Wakanda Forever is the disparity between Coogler and Marvel within the same film.
Audiences will clearly see the moments where Coogler has full control over storytelling, visuals and worldbuilding which is awkwardly juxtaposed against audacious and unnecessary illusions to other MCU projects and mediocre CGI battle sequences.
Awards season expectations for the sequel to Marvel’s lone Best Picture nominee were high, but it feels as though Wakanda Forever will fall significantly short with perhaps only costume, production design and best original song nods.
The best film in a very weak MCU class post Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever must be seen in the theaters in order to fully engage with Coogler’s more dynamic storytelling while also being the only opportunity audiences will have to enjoy the film without being spoiled about major plot points.