It’s been said that Kevin Feige, the president and mastermind behind Marvel Studios (AKA the MCU) is the greatest casting director of all time. He and his actual casting director, Sarah Finn, definitely have an uncanny eye for talent and really excel at choosing actors and actresses that have been previously overlooked or just hadn’t had their opportunity to shine. One could very easily argue that their casting is a core foundation as to why they have been as successful as they have been. When asked what the easiest casting decision they ever made was, they both responded independently that is was Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. His unfortunate and untimely passing is felt not only by the characters in the MCU, but his absence is palpable in watching Black Panther Wakanda Forever.
Wakanda Forever starts shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame and we see the country (and particularly the royal family) mourning the loss of T’Challa (Boseman), their king and protector known as the Black Panther. A deeply moving and unnerving funeral scene is portrayed that kickstarts the film with its theme of dealing with grief. It then jumps ahead a year, where queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has assumed the throne and is dealing with jealousy from other nation states about Wakanda’s seemingly monopoly on vibranium and the technological advances that this bounty has afforded them.
The film tries very hard to have two themes that it attempts to weave into one another: how grief can change us and how nation states hoarding resources can upset the balance of a peaceful global order. Here we must give Ryan Coogler some slack for persevering in the really terrible circumstances he was dealt. It’s no secret that he had a completely different film in mind before Chadwick Boseman’s abrupt passing in 2020. Dealing with that both inside the story and in the production of the film was obviously forced upon them and I think he did the best he could in such a short time to rewrite the script. However, I expected better from the director of the first Black Panther and of Creed, both of which are more or less modern masterpieces.
The exploration of what happens when a nation hoards resources feels like it could have been a great and natural expansion on the first film’s themes of restrictionism and isolationism. Yet, Wakanda Forever never makes a solid case as to whether it could be a good or bad thing. It only seems to explore the destabilizing nature of “not sharing,” without a solid conclusion or even viewpoint at the end. The characters’ dealing with their grief is mostly well done and handled with care. Although, I think it might have handled it with TOO much care. It leaves the film feeling rather bland and lukewarm in parts.
The movie is a heaping 2 hours and 40 minutes, which is too long. This is the 4th MCU Phase 4 film that feels like they have indulged their seasoned directors too much and let them run wild. Eternals, Doctor Strange 2, and Thor: Love and Thunder all feel too experimental and auteur-driven and I believe that the goodwill that Marvel has earned over the past 12 years will run out soon if they don’t start getting back to their previous quality levels.
The performances are mostly fine, with Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira (Okoye), and the brilliant Winston Duke (M’baku) being the absolute standouts. Unfortunately, while Letitia Wright (Shuri) can be really fun to watch, she just can’t lead a movie. In fact, almost all of these characters don’t feel as good because it is obvious that the presence of Boseman elevated all their performances in their previous outings together.
There are two new huge character introductions as well: Tenoch Huerta as Namor and Dominique Thorne as Ironheart. Huerta is obviously very good at what he does, but as the antagonist never rises above mediocre in comparison to other Marvel villains. Unfortunately, I never felt anything for Thorne’s Ironheart and am really wondering whether she can lead her own series on Disney+ like they have announced. These new lackluster character introductions combined with remarkably bland America Chavez character in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness has me questioning whether the Marvel team’s stellar casting days are behind them.
While I have been very critical of this latest entry of the MCU, it has to be noted that the production quality is really top notch. The music is great, and every scene feels directed with care, wanting to (and mostly succeeding) in honoring the memory of Boseman.
Black Panther Wakanda Forever is moving in parts, has some good action set pieces and performances, but feels overly long and indulgent. The MCU as we know it might be dying when even one of Hollywood’s best working directors can’t avoid the post-pandemic pitfalls that Marvel has been falling into.