When Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was first proposed, no one imagined that the sequel to the huge hit of 2018 was going to be made without its star, Chadwick Boseman, who unexpectedly died in 2020, having kept his battles with colon cancer super-heroically to himself.
What to do? Cast someone else in his place? It was an option, and one Boseman’s own brother Derrick suggested, as a memorial to the character Chadwick had played. Or marshal the forces of CG to bring the lead actor back to digital life? For various reasons neither was considered a goer – social media kickback always being an issue.
In the end, writer/director Ryan Coogler et al decided to try something different, with Letitia Wright now bumped up to lead. She was impressive as Shuri in the first film, as she has been ever since – see Small Axe or The Silent Twins for two very different but powerful performances.
And so that’s what happens. After an opening funeral sequence in which respect is paid to T’Challa, the original Black Panther, and by extension to Boseman, Wakanda Forever strikes out in an entirely new direction.
By “entirely new direction” I mean a very familiar Marvel Cinematic Universe direction, as the African superpower reliant on its monopoly of the super-element vibranium discovers that it has a foe on its flanks, in the shape of the Talokans, an Atlantis-style undersea kingdom who turn out to have supplies of vibranium of their own.
This face-off between the Wakandans and the Talokans is the grit all Marvel movies need and drives the film towards the finale all Marvel movies must have – the big fight finish which will dominate most of the last hour of the film.
In between the funeral and the fight, there’s plenty of activity and lots to look at but not much happens. Characters are re-introduced, like Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, Angela Bassett’s imperious Queen Ramonda, Danai Gurira’s Okoye, Winston Duke’s M’Baku and Martin Freeman’s Wakanda-leaning CIA wonk Everett Ross. New characters arrive, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Ross’s boss and ex wife, Dominique Thorn as Riri, a whizzkid student inventor recruited by Shuri, but most of all Tenoch Huerta as Namor, leader of the undersea Talokans, an actor seemingly designed for striding manfully out of the ocean – not quite Jason Momoa impressive, but on the same page.
An entirely engaging but never gripping movie is the result, more a series of wispily connected impressive sequences than a story – a brilliantly choreographed spear fight here, an underwater encounter with blue whales there. Spectacle is what’s on offer and it’s brilliantly done. In its longline plotting and clash-of-the-civilisations arc it feels influenced by Game of Thrones, and that might also be where it has picked up its tendency for too many speeches in which one person re-pledges allegiance to another on the basis of some old debt not yet repaid.
It is simultaneously great and a bit meh, the black/female supremacy angle versues the usual white/male of the MCU being almost enough to bounce it over objections about lack of story and the suspicion that Coogler et al are hedging their bets with Wright by parcelling out side stories to minor characters and undercutting her, the new Black Panther, in the process.
The costumes (Ruth E Carter) are remarkable, wonderful, gorgeous. It is a gorgeous film all round, in fact, one that can be watched with the sound down for its visuals alone. Like the original Black Panther, Wakanda Forever does not look or behave like an MCU movie. Quippage is scarce. Cross-references to the other elements in the meta-franchise ditto. It remains a refreshing outlier, and Africa as a source of inspiration looks like being a seam that can be exploited for decades. As I write, Black Panther 3 looks like it’s on the way.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023