In 2019, Black Panther was a genuine delight, a superhero movie that dared to challenge the preconceptions of the genre. What’s more, it was a film that made Black audiences, previously poorly represented in the world of spandex, flock to cinemas in their millions. Of course, after such phenomenal success, there was always going to be a sequel, but the tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman (who played the lead role of T’Challa) left writer/director Ryan Coogler with a real quandary. How could he hope to make another Black Panther without Boseman? Should he recast the role? Or might there be another way?
Wakanda Forever opens with T’ Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), desperately trying to engineer a cure for the ‘mysterious illness’ that has recently claimed her brother. But of course, it’s already too late and soon she and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) are presiding over an elaborate funeral service, full of dancing, drumming and joyous singing. This feels as much like the cast’s heartfelt farewell to Boseman, as it does part of the story. But a story there must be, so…
We begin with a raid by armed soldiers on one of Wakanda’s outreach posts, an attempt to steal some of the priceless vibranium that makes the African nation the most powerful in the world. But Wakanda’s battalions of fearsome female warriors are lying in wait and one of those 12A style punch-ups duly ensues – the kind where no blow quite lands and no deaths are too clearly signalled. To add to the confusion, it’s all filmed at night, employing a particularly muddy palette, so it’s not always clear exactly who’s not quite punching who. Not an auspicious start.
And then it transpires that somebody else in the world has vibranium! He’s Namor (Tenich Huerta), a sort of merman with winged feet, who commands the Meso American undersea kingdom of Talokan (he’s better known as The Sub-Mariner in the source comic books). Namor is looking to form an alliance with Wakanda and warns Queen Ramonda that, if she refuses his invitation, he’ll consider her an enemy and will declare war on her people. She’s adamant that she won’t accept his terms, so war it shall be.
It was never going to be an easy task to follow up Black Panther, but it’s disheartening to witness just how completely this attempt fails at almost every step. The mournful reality of what’s happened behind the scenes seems to have infected the whole project, reducing it to a collection of turgid conversations featuring people talking about very serious matters in gloomy chambers. Shuri, previously an enthusiastic bright spark of a character, a sort of Q to Boseman’s Bond, has grown up to be a seriously sombre young woman, weighted down by the realisation that she must take on her brother’s former responsibilities. Meanwhile Basset’s Queen Ramonda seems permanently angry about everything and spends most of her time alternately shouting and sneering at people. As T’ Challa’s former wife, Nakia, the excellent Lupita Nyong’o is given precious little to do and the same goes for Martin Freeman as Agent Everett Ross, who seems to have been handed the thankless task of being the ‘comic relief.’ Where the first film hurtled gleefully along, fuelled by its own sense of reinvention, Wakanda Forever trudges dejectedly from scene to scene. At times, I am dangerously close to falling asleep.
Okay, there’s an admittedly epic final battle between the Wakandans and Namor’s aquatic hordes (who, it must be said, look like they’ve wandered in from the set of Avatar) – and, for the more patient viewer, there’s a post-credit sequence that offers up a genuine surprise – but by then it’s far too late to save this project from the doldrums. Some may argue that Coogler has taken the franchise into even more uncharted territory, but unfortunately, Wakanda Forever takes me to places I really don’t want to visit.