The Best-Case Worst-Case
The act of making a movie is the act of solving an escalating series of fiendishly difficult problems. If there’s a story problem the dumbass screenwriter missed, you have to fix it. If your lead actor can’t perform the role the way you need, you need to handle it. If you run out of money three-quarters of the way through filming, you must find a way to work the problem.
Ryan Coogler understands this concept intimately. He broke in as a filmmaker with the independent film Fruitvale Station. He invigorated the way past dead Rocky franchise with Creed. Most notably, he made one of the most intelligent and relevant entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Black Panther. Coogler was on track to make a sequel. Confidence was high.
And then? Chadwick Boseman died of cancer unexpectedly.* For Coogler, he didn’t just lose the lead of Black Panther, the man who played T’Challa. Coogler lost his friend. When Boseman passed in August of 2020, Coogler was deep into writing the sequel. Clearly, that draft needed to go out the window, but what was Marvel Studios supposed to do? What was Coogler supposed to do?
There was talk about recasting the role of T’Challa. It was decided not to out of respect for the memory of Boseman. It was also decided that the Black Panther franchise would continue with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. While the film doesn’t entirely work, it was made under enormous pressure and exists as a genuine memorial to grief.
In the nation of Wakanda, a king has gone to his rest. King T’Challa has succumbed to illness. His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) fights desperately to save her brother. She believes that if she can create a synthetic version of the heart-shaped herb, the plant that gifts enhanced abilities, her brother will survive. It doesn’t work out.
A year passes. Wakanda is squeezed by multiple nations to share their stockpile of vibranium. Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has ascended to the throne, and she encourages Shuri to continue researching a way to create an artificial heart-shaped herb. Wakanda needs a protector. Wakanda needs the Black Panther. But Shuri isn’t so sure. Her brother is in the past, and perhaps the mantle of the Black Panther should stay with him.
The Wakandans have more immediate problems than a hostile United Nations. A CIA-led expedition searches for vibranium deposits on the ocean floor using a one-of-a-kind machine. What they find instead is Namor (Tenoch Huerta). He’s the leader of the undersea nation of Talokan, and they’re all strong, tough, and dangerous.
Once the expedition is ferociously dispatched, Namor breezes past Wakanda’s security and offers an ultimatum to Ramonda and Shuri. The Wakandans can either give Namor the scientist who developed the vibranium tracker, or he’ll drown Wakanda. That’s a little tricky as the scientist is actually Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), an MIT student of preternatural intelligence. Now Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) must protect Riri and prevent Namor from demolishing their home. Plus, Shuri will have to decide how she fits into the legacy of the Black Panther.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is one of the best films of the year, despite having some sizable flaws. It’s not a movie engineered to be a pure entertainment experience like Prey or Top Gun: Maverick. Nor is it a film of pure ideas, such as The Long Walk or Everything Everywhere All At Once. Instead, it’s a somewhat unwieldy hodgepodge of both, a movie that features exciting action alongside genuine emotion. Unfortunately, it’s hobbled by screwy pacing, a sluggish runtime, and a frustrating lack of character focus.
Ryan Coogler is one of those filmmakers that seems to be incapable of making a straight-up bad movie. Here, he does a lot right. Wakanda continues to feel like a vibrant, distinctive, and real place, due to skilled production design and visual effects work. The action scenes are energetic, particularly an early sequence with the Talokans that feels like serious aquatic horror. While that’s all good, the film’s pacing is off, which meant that I genuinely felt every second of the two-hour and forty-one-minute run time.
The largest problem is the screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, even though they suddenly needed to redo the entire concept of the film after Boseman’s death in a limited amount of time. There are three protagonists, Shuri, Ramonda, and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, and the script can never quite decide whose story we’re following. So we’ll follow Ramonda and the geopolitical challenges she faces, then we’ll hang with Shuri and her grief toward her brother, and then we hang out with Nakia and explore her ambivalence toward being Wakanda’s top spy after years away. Ideally, those characters and their corresponding themes should have come together and paid each other off. They don’t, and that lack of focus makes for a distracting viewing experience.
Remember Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness? Remember how the thrust of the plot concerned everyone chasing America Chavez, a character meant to be spun off while never being allowed to be particularly interesting? We have the same problem again with Riri Williams. Dominique Thorne is a skilled and charismatic actor. As Riri, the only character aspects she’s given are that she’s highly intelligent and sassy. How does she feel about the U.S. government stealing her vibranium detector? What does she want? Is she conflicted by being thrown into the middle of an international incident? The script never gives her much of a point of view or allows her to push back against everyone chasing her.
Like the previous film, Wakanda Forever is stuffed full of absurdly talented actors. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Angela Bassett get an Oscar nomination as Ramonda. She’s fiery, charismatic, tormented, decisive, and constantly interesting. The wildly charming Winston Duke doesn’t have a ton to do as M’Baku, though I was happy to see him. Kind of the same goes for Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia. While she’s got more screen time than Duke, her character often feels like a third wheel. That’s a shame considering what a strong actor she is. Tenoch Huerta grabs the film and steals it as Namor. He’s not quite as haughty as his comics counterpart, yet Huerta sells the physicality, determination, and flashes of humor needed to be an effective antagonist.
Then there’s Letitia Wright as Shuri. While she’s a good actor and stole the first Black Panther due to her superb comedic timing, two factors work against her here. First, as one of the main characters, she’s stepping into a place previously held by Chadwick Boseman. That’s a hell of a hard act to follow as Boseman was a powerfully subtle actor who made the role of T’Challa iconic. Wright doesn’t quite have the gravitas or power that Boseman had. That brings up the second factor, which is that Wright has multiple scenes with heavy hitters like Bassett, Nyong’o, and Duke. It’s not that she does bad work compared to them, it’s just that she’s not operating on the same level as they are.
Ryan Coogler and the cast and crew made a film for noble reasons. They believed that Chadwick Boseman was irreplaceable. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever exists as an elegy for him, one that’s occasionally clunky and often lyrical. It’s the first MCU film this year with real weight, and only one of two superhero movies in 2022 that’s consequential.** It’s flawed, and perhaps I’ve dwelled too much on those flaws. What matters is that it’s a piece of pop art that says goodbye to both a fictional character and a flesh and blood man. This film could have been tone-deaf or insensitive. It could have simply not existed at all. The fact that it does exist and is a solid cinematic experience is, on its face, fairly miraculous.
*As I understand it, Boseman told very few people he was sick. Why didn’t he speak up about it? I don’t know, but my gut tells me he was confident he could beat cancer. He may also have worried that a public cancer diagnosis would have rendered him uninsurable.
**The other being The Batman.