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— Robert Duvall, The Apostle

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An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a mess, but at least it’s an ambitious mess.

T’Challa Forever

Namor (Tenoch Huerta)
Namor (Tenoch Huerta)

How co-writer/director Ryan Coogler handles the passing of Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther) is one of the best things about Wakanda Forever. It’s tasteful and it further humanizes T’Challa; his passing wasn’t during a super battle but rather by an illness (Boseman passed away from colon cancer in 2020). There’s also a very nice tribute to Boseman within the opening Marvel Studios animated logo.

Aside from that — and a very sweet final minute — there is a surprising lack of emotional heft in Wakanda Forever. The trailers feature the bulk of that emotion. And that’s the movie’s biggest problem. Instead of focusing on the cathartic release, the story begins with T’Challa’s passing and within the first several minutes shifts to a storyline that should’ve packed much more punch.

That story revolves around a new villain, Namor (Tenoch Huerta, Sin Nombre). Perhaps he’s better known as Sub-Mariner, a character who first surfaced back in 1939. Quite the back story for this guy, which dates to 1571 in Yucatán. There’s a theme of colonization, this time with Conquistadors ushering in violence and domination. A series of events brings things back to modern times and a 19-year-old Cambridge prodigy, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, If Beale Street Could Talk), who’s created a device that can find veins of vibranium.

International intrigue ensues when rich deposits of the mineral – once thought to be an exclusive property of Wakanda – is found under the ocean, in Namor’s underwater country, Atlantis.

As Above, So Below

It’s an interesting concept loaded with possibilities and Wakanda Forever is most certainly loaded with big ambitions. But the execution is off. With an extended run-time of 161 minutes, the story doesn’t have the requisite pacing. But, more troubling, it simply isn’t as much fun as Black Panther. That movie was a significant cultural landmark for Marvel and movies in general, and it captured a spirit that elevated the characters and the action.

Instead, Wakanda Forever feels burdened. In some respects, it’s justifiable, given the weight of Boseman’s passing. But that’s all the more reason to present more of a heartfelt tribute to Boseman and the larger Black Panther legend of Wakanda. Unfortunately, this installment fails to deliver any sense of triumph, even when a new Black Panther finally arrives. That’s late in the game, right when a spiritual lift would’ve done so much good.

Parallels are drawn between Wakanda and Atlantis. Questions are raised about the future of Wakanda, once deemed the world’s most powerful nation. And there are some savory plot developments that could lead to more encounters with Namor. Perhaps that’s the strongest revelation in Wakanda Forever. Huerta delivers a great performance as Sub-Mariner and it’d be great to see him and his tribe return in a future adventure. At the same time, there’s a serious Pirates of the Caribbean vibe being thrown and it’s a shame there never (more than likely never, even in the multiverse) be a crossover with Namor facing off with Jack Sparrow.

What If…

Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ramona (Angela Bassett)
Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ramona (Angela Bassett)

Ultimately, the biggest surprise in Wakanda Forever is that there simply isn’t much to spoil. And that’s part of the fun of Marvel’s best movies. The elements of surprise, the gasp of excitement at character cameos. Here, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, The Hobbit trilogy ) and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld) are mere distractions, B-list characters with little value to add.

The biggest question about Wakanda Forever surrounds pure perceptions. If Chadwick Boseman were the star as originally intended, how much of the story would’ve changed?

That thought only further underscores the weakness of this episode. Without the drama from Boseman’s absence, there isn’t a lot of truly compelling material here to move things forward.