Nobody was happier than I was when Marvel started to conquer Hollywood, but it’s been losing its mojo for a while now, and hasn’t released a truly great movie in at least five years. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) continues the trend, bringing the MCU’s shiny but erratic fourth phase to a close. Like most of the post-Endgame entries, it’s full of elements I appreciated that don’t add up to a very satisfying experience.
Part of it may not be the film’s fault, of course. Forced to pivot drastically by the tragic death of star Chadwick Boseman, the sequel centers the supporting cast of the original, especially T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Leticia Wright), a technological genius in the line of succession to Wakanda’s throne. A year after T’Challa’s death from a terminal illness, she finds herself a key figure in the defense of Wakanda when the nation is threatened by political pressure from the wider world. The controversy surrounds Wakanda’s monopolistic possession of vibranium, a much-coveted wonder element that could transform global technology. Wakanda is determined to prevent vibranium from falling into the hands of other nations. But when a scientific research team discovers a new source of vibranium not located within Wakanda, deep under the ocean, they move in to seize it, creating new conflict when they’re attacked by an underwater race. Its ruler, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), confronts the Wakandans, demanding they turn over the person who exposed the existence of vibranium in their kingdom. What follows is a conflict between the Wakandans and Namor’s people, and Shuri’s ascendance to becoming Wakanda’s new protector, the Black Panther.
There are things to like about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, especially its robust cast of kick-ass female warriors (Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Florence Kasumba, and Michaela Coel, among others). The cultural repositioning of Namor and his people greatly improves an iffy Marvel character with fresh lore, and Mejía brings the Sub-Mariner memorably to life. There are moments of fun action, and by and large it serves as a moving tribute to Boseman, a beloved actor whose contributions to the MCU are lasting. But the film sure is missing that certain something. Part of it may be that Wright doesn’t quite have presence enough to hold the spotlight. (How much improved would the film have been with Nyong’o in the driver’s seat?) But mostly it’s a problem of story and tone. The clumsy plot feels like conflict for conflict’s sake, resolving too easily with a common-sense decision that should have arrived much sooner, except that it would have forestalled the requisite violent spectacle. The stakes of the conflict are lost in a muddle of logistics, and tonally the piece is one-note, a flat, steady sequence of Marvelly familiarity. However much I wanted to like it, by the end I felt as though I had barely watched a movie, and I walked away feeling that much less excited about the franchise’s next installment.