SCREEN TIME: Mourning in ‘Wakanda’

‘Black Panther’ sequel pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death

Photo credit: Marvel Studios
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN: Angela Bassett rules in ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not just the dominant franchise in pop culture, at least in cinemas and streaming services. For almost a decade it’s had a place in Atlantans’ hearts as kind of a “home team,” thanks to local productions attracted by the Georgia Film Tax Credit.

For natives, it’s a genuine pleasure to see Atlanta landmarks used as international locations, like the Fox Theatre doubling as a New Jersey mosque in the “Ms. Marvel” series. “She-Hulk, Attorney-at-Law” gave recurring roles to popular local actors Tess Malis Kincaid and Steve Coulter as the title character’s mother and boss, respectively.

But since 2021, when Marvel emerged from the pandemic as a producer of both feature films and TV shows for DisneyPlus, the home team has been in a bit of a slump. The franchise’s “Phase Four” has been creating more content than ever but with a conspicuously weaker track record, as if its spread too thin. And despite the blockbuster success of Spider-man: No Way Home, it’s feature film earnings have underperformed pre-pandemic levels and the critical response more generally tepid than usual.

That puts pressure on the 30th and latest MCU movie, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, to turn Phase Four around. Already director/co-writer Ryan Coogler has been facing enormous expectations. Released in 2018, the original Black Panther became the jewel in the MCU’s crown, a wildly successful popcorn movie with striking political relevance that feels personal to its creator. (Supposedly after its success, Coogler wanted to make a drama about the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal, but it didn’t get off the ground.)

With Black Panther earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination and escaping many of the problems that befall the MCU, any sequel has big shoes to fill. Black Panther was one of four films to feature Chadwick Boseman as the title character, also known as T’Challa, heir to the throne of the technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Boseman tragically died of colon cancer in August of 2020, with the sequel already in development.

Marvel Studios opted not to recast the character, despite T’Challa being clearly positioned as a central figure in the franchise, likely to take the torch from the likes of Iron Man and Captain America.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever begins with T’Challa dying off-screen of an undisclosed illness, so the Wakandans’ grief for the character serves as a touching surrogate for people’s real feelings for the actor. It’s a testament to the strength of the original film’s setting and ensemble that the hero’s off-camera death doesn’t end the story outright.

Perhaps inevitably, Wakanda Forever doesn’t have the lightning-in-a-bottle excitement of its predecessor. But compared to the vast majority of special effects spectacles, it delivers on levels where others fall conspicuously short.

Coogler centers the sequel on Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T’Challa’s sister and mother, respectively, which gives the film an emotional weight that superhero films theoretically should have, but almost never do. Ramonda now rules the country in her son’s place, leading Wakanda in its new role as the world’s newest superpower while other nations think the Black Panther’s death has left the country weakened.

Shuri, one of Marvel’s many scientific genius characters, blames herself for not finding a cure for her brother’s illness, her sorrow frequently giving way to anger. Mother and daughter face an escalating crisis with the emergence of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of the undersea nation of Talokan. Like Wakanda, Talokan has access to vibranium, the world’s most valuable natural resource. Namor reveals that the United States has a “vibranium detector” and demands the Wakandans deliver the machine’s American inventor to protect Talokan’s secrecy.

The inventor, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), turns out to be a teenaged college student who needs the protection of Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurai), head of Wakanda’s elite guard. With Lupito Nyong’o playing the major role of T’Challa’s former love Nakia, Wakanda forever is the rare zillion-dollar action film fronted almost entirely by Black women.

Superhero films should show audiences sights they’ve never seen, but increasingly rely on the same-old, same-old. But Black Panther’s Afro-Futurist designs felt new and thrilling, and the Talokan’s Mayan origins provide a fresh feast of fascinating costumes, art direction and soundtrack choices. As Namor (a character who debuted two years earlier than DC Comics’ similar Aquaman), Huerta combines smoldering anger with diplomatic savvy, so he can smoothly switch from persuasive ally to intimidating adversary.

The conflicts between the Wakandans and Talokans are completely compelling, but the American supporting players feel superfluous. While Riri gives Shuri a chance to mentor a kindred spirit, the character gets treated more like a plot device (as well as a high-profile introduction to her own DisneyPlus series, “Ironheart,” debuting next year). Most MCU movies feel overstuffed and Wakanda Forever ultimately falls prey to this, its many plot threads fraying apart by massive action scene in the final act.

The core of the story remains strong, with Bassett giving an appropriately regal and impassioned performance, and Wright carrying far more of the movie than one might expect. Thanks especially to them and Huerta, Wakanda Forever proves to be a flawed but impressive action-fantasy that doesn’t lose sight of its real emotions and shows due respect to Boseman’s loss. The best film in Phase Four, Wakanda Forever scores for the home team without being a grand slam like the original.
One warning: I saw a screening at the Atlantic Station IMAX, where the visuals looked crisp and clear. But I’ve heard of people who saw the film in normal projection and found the nighttime and underwater scenes to be dark and muddy-looking, so consider that a potential warning. —CL—

EMOTIONAL WEIGHT: Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Photo Credit: Marvel Studios