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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever review – Marvel mourns Chadwick Boseman as it takes Wakanda to war

The tragically departed star casts a long shadow over Ryan Coogler's intermittently excellent but otherwise bloated sequel

After the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, the question facing Black Panther sequel Wakanda Forever has long been: What does Black Panther 2 look like without the actual Black Panther? It’s a dilemma that the latest MCU outing is wrestling with for almost its entire runtime, paying mournful homage and tribute to Boseman while also trying to find a new path into the future for this world and its characters. The result is an intermittently moving but also somewhat confused film, exploring a lot of new ideas and characters, some of which are excellent, with others feeling like filler in an undeniably bloated blockbuster.

Wakanda Forever’s strongest moments are mostly front-loaded, as returning director Ryan Coogler takes us to a Wakanda in the throes of grief after the sudden death of King T’Challa from an unspecified illness. Far more reliant on woozily mobile handheld camerawork than we’re used to in Marvel movies, Coogler captures the shock and confusion of both the nation and T’Challa’s loved ones, especially his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and genius younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). It’s a genuinely affecting tribute to Boseman, complete with the best-in-franchise design work and music that so defined the first Black Panther, setting an immediately high bar that the rest of the film struggles to reach.

Though there are still some great moments, the middle act often really drags, weighed down by unnecessary subplots. The key conflict between Wakanda and the underwater nation of Talokan (a sort of Mayan-inspired version of Atlantis) is compelling; the introductions to Talokan and its people are by turns eerie and beautiful and their ultra-powerful leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta) makes for an imposing antagonist who’s never just a sneering villain. Meanwhile, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole get a lot of mileage out of a clear-eyed at the colonialism, both present and past, that have pushed the two central nations into their current states of ultra-defensiveness.

Whether it’s the Spanish genocide of native Mayans that serves as the semi-immortal Namor’s origin, the imperial ambitions of America’s security, or France’s ongoing looting of its former West African colonies, Coogler and Cole bring a real-world fury to the story, vital in grounding the otherwise sci-fi-adjacent plot. It’s just a shame that this has to get pushed to the wayside to make room for the obligatory Marvel world-building, which is where Wakanda Forever finds most of its problems.

Central to the conflict between Wakanda and Talokan is Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a super-genius Harvard student (in the comics, she’s Iron Man’s successor as an inventor-superhero) who has found a way to track Vibranium in the ocean, a skill Talokan wants wiped off the earth but Wakanda seeks to protect. It’s a potentially fine Macguffin to kick off the war story (which is mostly escalated by the personal hubris and hurt of each nation’s leader), but Riri is due her own Disney+ show, so the film is obliged to stop everything to essentially give her a pilot episode within the story.

It slows down an already overlong film (at 160+ minutes, Wakanda Forever is one of Marvel’s heftiest offerings) and creates a lot of tonal whiplash; Riri’s sense of humour is very much in the general vein of “MCU quipping,” which the world of Black Panther otherwise does without, and Thorne’s performance is mostly poor. Add to this an America-set subplot involving CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) that goes absolutely nowhere and barely even intersects with the Wakandan characters, and you can’t help but feel that Wakanda Forever is wasting a lot of its own time.

It picks up again towards the end, though, as the Wakanda-Talokan war comes to a head. A lot of the one-on-one fight scenes are put together pretty choppily here, but the grander battles are marshalled very well by Coogler, balancing the fantastical scale and powers with more real dangers and impactful deaths. There’s a fear and desperation to the Wakanda side – outmatched as it often is by the size and superpowers of Namor’s army – captured well in a series of decent-to-strong performances, the highlights of which are Bassett and, once again, Winston Duke as the consistently scene-stealing M’Baku. Of course, Boseman’s regal presence is deeply missed, but you also really feel the lack of Michael B. Jordan – his mercurial villain Killmonger was the best thing about the original, and there’s no-one here with his charisma or unpredictability.

Bookended by mourning and warring, Wakanda Forever makes great first and last impressions (though the credits scene really should just be part of the full movie), but badly loses its stride in the middle. It’s another casualty of just how damn busy the MCU is these days, its ties to the wider universe doing nothing but weakening it. When Coogler is simply allowed to make Black Panther 2, and not MCU Movie 30, processing the grief of Boseman’s loss through both sadness and rage, it shines.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is released in UK cinemas on 11 November.

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