Friday 18 November 2022

Film Review: Black Panther – Wakanda Forever

The 30th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever sees writer/director Ryan Coogler deftly traverse the narrative, emotional and spiritual tightrope left behind by Chadwick Boseman's tragic passing. 

In 2018, following a staggering box office tally and a swathe of Oscar nominations, a sequel to Black Panther seemed not just inevitable prospect, but a mouthwatering one that would once again serve as a confluence of critical praise and commercial success. 

But by mid-2020, all that was thrown into doubt when the franchise's charismatic leading man, Chadwick Boseman, passed away aged just 43. All of a sudden, the continuing adventures of King T'Challa and his Wakandan subjects seemed trivial by comparison. 

But for the creative team behind Black Panther, they felt that continuing in such a way that concluded T'Challa's story is not just what he would've wanted, but could serve as fitting tribute to his memory and legacy, as both a beloved actor and popular character.

Consequently, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a strange beast; both a touching and emotional goodbye to Boseman, as well as your conventional, rock 'em sock 'em Marvel film that intertwines with the wider universe. These two don't always mesh, but come the end of this two-and-a-half-hour juggernaut, Coogler is able to dial out the white noise and deliver a fitting farewell and a satisfying entry in the saga. 

We start, unsurprisingly, with the death of T'Challa. The Wakandan royal family and their inner circle – Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda, Letita Wright as Princess Shuri, Winston Duke as Jabari cheiftan M'Baku, Danai Gurira as fearsome warrior Okoye, Lupita N'yongo as sharp sleuth Nakia – are reeling with this reality, as well as the prospect of major world powers vying for control of the African nation's elusive and precious vibranium. 

So when Riri Williams (Dominique Throne), teenage tech prodigy, develops a machine that can detect vibranium through the depths of the ocean, it's up to Shuri and Okoye to track her down and ship her off to Wakanda for safekeeping, before she's stolen away by the US Government – or worse, a tribe of ocean-dwelling people lead by the godlike Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a merman with wings on his heels and a spear in his grasp.

The first thing you need to know about Wakanda Forever is that there's a lot of plot; on top of everything I've gone through already, there's character arcs for Shuri, Okoye, Nakia, M'Baku and Namor. Some, like Shuri and Namor, are coherent and satisfying; others, like Okoye and Nakia, suffer from significant cuts. A new character, played by I May Destroy You's Michaela Coel, feels like she was a key figure at some point in the filmmaking process, only for most of her scenes to end up on the editing room floor. 

There's also some stuff that tees up Phase Five projects, like the inclusion of Riri and Julia-Louis Dreyfus' CIA director Valentina. A lot of ingredients in the mixer, and not all of it complements the other flavours. Clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes, Wakanda Forever would've benefited from fewer characters, fewer subplots and a sharper runtime. 

And yet, I couldn't help but find myself swept up and engrossed by it all, warts and all. Shuri makes for a compelling lead, and I can see Wright growing more comfortable with the role in future instalments; Bassett's screentime is vastly expanded and the film is better for it; and the simple fact that Wakanda Forever is all about its fierce female characters is refreshing given Marvel's boys club track record. 

Tenoch Huerta's performance as the nefarious Namor is great too, with a level of depth and nuance that Marvel villains are often lacking. Once again, Coogler has crafted an antagonist that kind of has a point? Or at least is more interesting that someone who just wants to watch the world burn. 

The action is much improved from Black Panther, with an early fight and car chase set piece in Boston dishing out some seriously punch – even if the third act smackdown reverts to indulging in some all-too familiar Marvel trappings. 

And of course, the behind-the-scenes artistry is exemplary again; Ruth Carter's costuming is gorgeous, colourful and creative, and the production design draws us into the world of the characters, from luscious Wakanda to the watery depths of Telokan. 

The Verdict: 8/10

In spite of its flaws, I'm cutting Black Panther: Wakanda Forever some slack on account of Coogler's big swings and deft handling of tragic circumstances, as well as its impactful core narrative. Without all the usual Marvel fluff and some rough edges, this could've been something really special – but what we got is still compelling, emotional and interestingly imperfect. 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in cinemas across Australia now.

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