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'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' is a thrilling ride, but it deeply misses Chadwick Boseman

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” bore a heavy burden. Its predecessor, “Black Panther” (2018) is easily the best film ever produced by Marvel Studios (mostly because it’s the least Marvel-like). And, of course, the star of that film, the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman — who played King T’Challa with such grace, dignity and vulnerability — died of colon cancer in 2020 at the age of 43.  

This presented a daunting task for the new film, and even with Ryan Coogler at the helm again and a cast in fine form, I couldn’t help but be left wondering what a “Black Panther 2” with Boseman might have been like. The one we get focuses on T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri, the snarky science wunderkind delightfully played by Letitia Wright in the first film. She must assume the mantle of protecting Wakanda after the death of her brother (and, later, another important character).   

Shuri’s sense of humor and her indefatigable spirit — which made her so endearing in the first film — are under strain from the first frames. In her now-famous lab, she frantically attempts to save T’Challa from a mysterious, unnamed illness. It is beyond her powers to save him, and closely following is his funeral. Shuri observes Wakanda’s rites of mourning, which involve white robes, not black, lively dancing and thundering drums, with her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). It’s a heavy beginning; never has one of Marvel’s films dealt so directly with the senseless tragedy of loss, and this film did so because it had to; it was forced to do so by the senseless tragedy of a real loss.  

Both fortunately and unfortunately, though, the weight of grief lifts from “Wakanda Forever” after this overture, and it is felt more peripherally throughout the rest of the film, which generally falls below the higher thematic plane of “Black Panther.” The most glaring problem that “Wakanda Forever” has is its silly mess of a plot, in contrast to its superbly constructed predecessor. There’s always a diabolical threat coming from somewhere in the Marvel Universe, and at the beginning of the film the Wakandans think to fear other countries that are after their precious vibranium, now that they’ve been alerted to its powers.  

Queen Ramonda, before the UN in Geneva, sternly warns world powers not to search for vibranium, the magical resource which gives Wakanda, and its leader, the Black Panther, its extraordinary powers. In the dubious political logic of the script, Ramonda rebukes not Russia or China, but NATO, to stay away from the purple stuff, which these countries are apparently hellbent on obtaining in order to create weapons of mass destruction. One can spend a long time griping about the implausibility of Marvel geopolitics, but this was a real doozy. But even in her delivery of these lines (she gets some more appropriately hefty stuff later on), Bassett is a a towering, regal presence, and she exudes ferocity.  

Fortunately, this ridiculous strand is just a head-fake for the real villain, a slippery customer named Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who’s already got some vibranium for himself, and is the source of most of the mass destruction in “Wakanda Forever.” Namor is a mishmash of figures from pre-Columbian myth, such as Chac and Quetzalcoatl, and, based on his winged feet, it seems he’s got some Hermes in him as well (as to his provenance in the comics, I haven’t the foggiest). Namor leads Talokan, an underwater realm which,  with its warrior citizens, vibranium reserves and legendary record of defying or evading imperialism, is essentially the Wakanda of the Americas.  

Namor, played with well-calibrated intensity and considerable panache by Huerta, and a small cadre of his tall blue followers (James Cameron is shaking his head somewhere, and Blue Man Group is lamenting a missed job opportunity) raid a ship that’s searching for vibranium near Talokan, using a detector made by a mysterious American scientist. Namor makes it his mission to find and kill this scientist to prevent encroachment on his dominion. On his nifty ankle wings, he racks up the frequent flier miles by jetting to Wakanda, where he finds Ramonda and Shuri. It’s a year after T’Challa’s death, and Ramonda is still attempting to get her sorrowful daughter to come to terms with T’Challa’s passing. Namor interrupts them performing the rite of burning their mourning robes, and relates his tale: his description of Talokan clearly hits them close to home, but Namor sounds too threatening to be trusted, and Wakandans don’t generally agree with proposals such as murdering scientists, so they refuse Namor’s conditional gesture of friendship, and face the consequences. 

In order to stop Namor, Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of the fearsome group of elite warriors known as the Dora Milaje, set out to find and protect the creator of the vibranium detector, who turns out to be... a nineteen-year-old black girl at MIT, named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). Whiz-kid scientists are everywhere in comic book movies, but I found Riri’s character to be unreasonably hard to believe. Riri’s clearly not studying chemistry because her relationship with Shuri rings flat, and Coogler does little to plumb the potential depths of the relationship.  

Nevertheless, this period of the film is highly entertaining. Okoye and Shuri battle with Namor’s lieutenants as they attempt to rescue Riri from Boston. The action is great, involving the obligatory car chases, flying suits and swinging magical spears, and also, bizarrely killer whales, the transport of choice for the Talokandans (that’s what I’m calling them). I’m still not sure how they got from the Yucatán to the Charles River. Even without a compelling ancillary villain such as Andy Serkis’ Klaue from the first film, whose equivalent in “Wakanda Forever” seems to be Val, the CIA Director played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (her distinguishing feature of purple-flecked hair, in contrast with Klaue’s — a bionic arm — makes her a little less frightening of a foe). In all, this sequence is a worthy counterpart of the excellent Seoul scenes in “Black Panther.” I preferred the action in this part of the film to the underwhelming third act, which takes place over water (where specifically? All we get is “The Atlantic Ocean”) and during which it can be challenging to recall why the two sides are fighting in the first place.  

Ryan Coogler plants some seeds for rich interrogation in “Wakanda Forever,” despite the limits of his toothpicks-and-marshmallows plot. I was therefore a little disappointed to see them go mostly unexplored. For example, the culture shock between imaginary advanced African civilization and the realities of modern black America, which was so insightfully investigated in the original, could have been further explored in the relationship between Shuri and Riri. I couldn’t fully put my finger on the problem, but I know that part of what succeeded in the first film was the meeting of fantasy and grounded social realism. That indelible image of the boys on the basketball court staring up at the departing Wakandan ship is a moment of lasting visual poetry. That unflinching realism, which, within the confines of the superhero film, had so startled, is pretty much gone — instead, the African American-focused component of the film is unrealistic; we’re supposed to believe that the only person in the world who successfully built a detector for a highly precious natural resource is a college student, and that she did it for a class project. Aspirational fantasies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean make for a less interesting juxtaposition. A campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, makes for a less meaningful counterpart to Wakanda than inner-city Oakland.  

The most extraordinary thing about “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is that it was even made at all. To have transformed unimaginable grief into something, to have created a complete product in the wake of such a loss, is a remarkable feat. “Wakanda Forever” is consistently an exciting ride, mostly engaging, and less frequently, but still occasionally, thought-provoking. As a work of filmmaking craft in its genre, it’s certainly a triumph. Ludwig Goransson had produced another pulse-pounding score. It’s arrestingly shot, by Autumn Durald Arkapaw, and enhanced by the new palette of possibilities opened by the watery beings of Talokan. Nevertheless, it fails overall to conjure up the spirit of the first. It’s Marvel’s second disappointing follow-up in a row, after “Thor: Love and Thunder,” from this summer, which was dreadfully devoid of the humor and charm of “Ragnarok.” When the proverbial wells in the most original corners of the studio seem to be drying up, I think it’s natural that many will be questioning why the films keep coming. “Black Panther Will Return,” the credits tell us, in a phrase usually reserved for James Bond. But should she?  

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