"Black Panther" sequel suffers from Chadwick Boseman's loss
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Starring Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Dominique Thorne, Michaela Coel, Martin Freeman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lake Bell. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler (with Joe Robert Cole). Now playing at theatres everywhere. 161 minutes. PG
⭐️⭐️½ (out of four)
It’s both a tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman and a problem for the movie that “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” feels his loss so keenly.
Other superhero franchises can adeptly move on with major personnel changes. A succession of actors have played James Bond, Spider-Man, Batman and Superman over the decades, with little discernible impact on fan loyalty or box office results.
The departure of the charismatic Boseman, who died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 43, is a whole other matter. He is sorely missed in the dispiriting “Wakanda Forever,” which labours to find a compelling narrative in this second chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. It pales in almost every way when compared to the 2018 origin story.
It may well be that Boseman was irreplaceable in the role of King T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, the benevolent ruler and powerful protector of the remote (and fictional) African nation of Wakanda. “He was everything!” a character laments.
Whether or not Boseman was essential to “Black Panther” remains to be seen. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler chose not to go the standard franchise route of immediately swapping in another actor for Boseman and carrying on as if nothing had changed.
Instead, Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole double down on genuine audience grief over Boseman’s untimely loss by making it a big part of the story.
The movie opens with T’Challa’s death from an unspecified illness, despite valiant efforts to save him made by his brilliant scientist sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).
After a stirring funeral that sees T’Challa’s coffin being airlifted into a spaceship, Wakanda is plunged into a state of uncertainty regarding vibranium, the blue-glowing magical substance that is the source of the tiny kingdom’s outsized power and technological achievements.
Other countries want Wakanda to share its vibranium, thought to be available nowhere else on Earth. New Wakandan ruler Queen Ramonda, the mother of T’Challa and Shuri played with marvellous fury by Angela Bassett, swiftly smacks down that idea at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. She also dramatically demonstrates how a supposedly peaceful UN member has already tried to steal vibranium.
An even greater threat to Wakanda and the world suddenly arises from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean: a Mayan-derived Indigenous people from the underwater realm Talokan. Led by the fierce warrior Namor (Mexico’s Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a wing-footed mutant, the Talokans have a serious grudge against “the surface world,” which is another way of saying “colonizers.”
The Talokan fighters make their presence known in the film’s most compelling action sequence, when a U.S.-led effort to extract a deep-sea cache of vibranium — notably located outside Wakanda — meets with fierce resistance. Namor wants Wakanda to ally with Talokan in keeping interlopers out of their hidden kingdoms, but Ramonda and Shuri are understandably wary about trusting a ruthless dude who looks like an extra from an “Aquaman” film.
All of this would be enough personnel and plot for most superhero movies, but “Wakanda Forever” is just getting started on its nearly three-hour journey, one made all the heavier by Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s colour-drained cinematography.
The middle portion of the film groans from expositional overload, as familiar “Black Panther” characters return with differing impacts: Danai Gurira’s Okoye, leader of Wakanda’s all-female Dora Milaje military force; Lupita Nyong’o’s Wakandan master spy, Nakia; Winston Duke’s gruff M’Baku, a rural Wakandan defender; and Martin Freeman’s CIA good guy, Everett K. Ross.
Gurira’s Okoye fares the best of all the supporting players. Her supremely stoic character is allowed to grow and experience pain and humour, the latter an important asset to the film. She brings much-needed levity in her interchanges with Shuri, whose ebullience from the first “Black Panther” film is understandably dialed down for the melancholy the sequel summons.
Also worth noting is that the Dora Milaje are less spirited in this film than they were in the first “Black Panther.” They’d likely be no match for their ferocious Agojie counterparts from “The Woman King.”
One new character is almost risibly unnecessary: Dominique Thorne’s Riri, a 19-year-old MIT polymath who has somehow invented, all by herself, a machine to track vibranium. Coming across as Shuri’s doppelgänger, she’s the most comic-book character in a franchise that until now has exceeded its pen-and-ink origins. On the plus side, and it’s a big plus, she’s another diverse female member of a cast blessed with abundant female characters and actors of colour.
And what of the Black Panther? Who will wear the magical black-and-purple suit, the best of Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s awesome sartorial creations?
“Wakanda Forever” answers that question but also leaves the door open for another development. It’s a state of limbo appropriate for a franchise situated midway between a dynamic beginning and an uncertain future. 🌗
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)