The first Black Panther movie was both a watershed moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and superhero movies at large with its incredible scale and scope, bolstered by its all-star cast and the directorial vision of Ryan Coogler. A lot has changed in the four years since its release, however, both outside the fictional shared universe and within it. In 2020, star Chadwick Boseman tragically passed away, forcing the script and the plans for the movie to be completely reconfigured while the COVID-19 pandemic put strains on production. Meanwhile, Disney pushed full steam ahead on MCU related content on Disney+, meaning the MCU was speeding up at an exponential rate--not the best circumstance for an impromptu pivot on a tentpole franchise.
Now, despite these setbacks and tragedies, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has officially arrived--and, with both expectations and emotions running higher than ever, it would be difficult to really understate the weight this particular sequel is carrying. The question is, of course: Does it manage to shoulder it all across the finish line? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes and no.
Wakanda Forever picks up in the heat of a tumultuous moment--Boseman passed away in real life, but the character T'Challa still has to be dealt with. As such, the movie really had no choice but to introduce a cause of death to the fiction as well. We learn what happened to him and how his loss affected both his nation and his family. This devastating moment sets up the emotional engine for the rest of the movie--Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister (Letitia Wright)--buries herself in her science and engineering rather than confronting her grief, while her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), turns to faith. Meanwhile, Okoye (Danai Gurira) feels increasingly drawn to tradition while the rest of the Dora Milage push to embrace change and new technology.
Both of these conflicts provide the theme for the larger issue that eventually arrises--Wakanda made itself public at the end of Black Panther and now, in the wake of both T'Challa's death and Thanos, has not made themselves as available as the UN would like. Powerful nations like France and the US have taken it upon themselves to try and uncover Vibranium on their own--even if that means trying to surreptitiously steal it from Wakandan sites. But this effort has caught the attention of another mysterious power--the hidden underwater domain of Talocan (what would have been called Atlantis in the comics), and its king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta).
The Talocanil have been watching silently, even more hidden than Wakanda itself, for hundreds of years, and now the greed of the surface world and their search for Vibranium has put them at risk of discovery. That risk has become all the more real after a young girl, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), developed the world's first Vibranium detector, which the US government plans to use to find Vibranium in the oceans. Now, Namor has an ultimatum to deliver to the people of Wakanda: Either deliver Riri Williams to Talocan so he can kill her and ensure the Vibranium detector is destroyed for good, or risk all out war.
Put plainly, there is a lot going on here. It doesn't take long for both pacing and focus to become issues. Specifically, there's a subplot involving Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and the newly introduced Val (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) that feels flat out vestigial--neither actor is giving a bad performance by any means, but their inclusion feels simultaneously like a studio mandated note and an afterthought, bloating an already busy movie in ways that ought to have been avoidable.
Similarly, Wakanda Forever was tasked with the herculean feat of introducing not just a new A-list villain/anti-hero in Namor, alongside his entire mythology and backstory, but also a new teenage superhero as well in Riri Williams. Dominique Thorne is a joy and a character that will surely capture many hearts, but it's hard to watch Wakanda Forever and not wonder why her introduction couldn't have come beforehand in her Disney+ series--it's already coming, why not mess with the schedule a bit to ease some of this movie's burden and free up some time?
More frustrating is the fact that the parts of the movie that are good and incredibly good--there is a level of raw emotion sitting right on the surface of Wakanda Forever's cast and characters and its core actors were able to tap into it brilliantly. Basset, Wright, Nyong'o, and Gurira specifically deliver some knock-out performances both in their most quiet heart-to-hearts and their beautifully choreographed fight scenes. Gurira, specifically, shines in both her acting and her physicality--no spoilers but she's got one of the most brutal fight scenes in recent MCU memory in this one and every hit lands like a bomb. It's mesmerizing to watch. Oddly enough, however, it's tee'd up by one of the MCU's requisite car chase product placement scenes which feels considerably less inspired.
This unevenness is really the crux of Wakana Forever. For every beautifully shot, emotionally resonant monologue or surprising punchline or character moment, it feels like there's an equal and opposite generic studio set piece--the sort of thing that only exists in the movie because the movie must, by design, fit into the Big Disney Machine. This is true of a lot of MCU movies, to be sure, but there has yet to be one as glaringly obvious as Wakanda Forever and it's difficult not to feel frustrated while watching the glimpses and ghosts of what Ryan Coogler could have done if he'd been fully let out to play without caveat.
None of this is to say that Wakanda Forever fails as a movie--or even that it's bad. It's not. It may well be the most genuine and least contrived of all the Phase 4 offerings, the cast never drops the ball, the visual effects are stellar throughout, and even the new characters manage to claw their way to the surface under the heaps and heaps of exposition they're forced to shoulder. But it's also trying to be a few too many things at once, making all of its beautiful ideas a little duller in the process by forcing them to compete with one another for space and time--and, given Disney's power and reach as a company, it's hard to not see all the solutions that could have made that burden a bit less impossible to bear.