Black Panther was always going to be a hard film to follow. Despite the criticisms about its VFX or the inclusion of an FBI agent as a protagonist in a movie about black empowerment, the first movie was an enormous success. Of course, a huge part of that was the incredible central performances from Chadwick Boseman and Michale B. Jordan, who turned their characters into household names and fundamentally changed the superhero genre forever. The fact that Marvel were left having to not only craft a story that could do that first movie justice, but doing so without either leading actor, felt like a tall order. They had to respect Boseman's legacy, whilst advancing the in-universe narrative, and still producing a superhero film 😬
Overall, I think they achieved this balancing act. Wakanda Forever is not as good as the original - not by a long shot - but it also isn't a failure. It allows the characters - and the audience - the space to mourn the loss of both T'Challa and Boseman himself, whilst building a richer world around Wakanda and its shared universe. Most importantly, they haven't tried to do anything distasteful here. There's no CGI Boseman hamming up a death sequence, or injection of recut flashbacks, or any kind of digital or film trickery. Boseman is gone and they did the right thing to just leave him out of this film entirely. Instead, we get an altered front-reel of the MCU logo only featuring his moments from the film franchise, shown in black and white, with no sound. There's a tasteful in memoriam at the end, and no after credits sequence. Even the mid-credits surprise just doubled-down on the themes of loss and legacy, showing us that T'Challa has a son. These all felt fitting, natural points for the filmmakers to acknowledge Boseman's passing, without any hint of trying to milk his death for profit or story.
Yet, at the same time, T'Challa's death is front-and-center throughout the film. Right at the start we see a distraught Shuri desperately trying to synthesise a chemical equivalent of the magical plant that gives the Black Panther their power, and the theme of loss is continually revisited throughout the narrative. In many ways, Wakanda Forever is the story of Shuri's grief: over her father, her brother, and ultimately her mother as well. It's a powerful story to try to tell, and Letitia Wright does an incredible job portraying it - she's become an absolute powerhouse of an actor and I can't think of a single instance in this film where she sets a foot wrong. Part of that is a significantly improved script for her (thank god there are no more "what are those!" moments 😅), but the acting is what really sells things.
As for the rest of the plot, there's a lot going on, but for the most part the film makes good on its promises. I really loved this interpretation of Namor, and thought tying his powers to a similar origin as the Black Panther's was a nice touch. I'm not sure if this has been done before, but it worked well and wove him into the plot in a way that felt more natural as a result. Certainly, his relationship with Shuri was cleverly done, and provided a useful backdrop for her own battles with grief and revenge, which made for a more thoughtful villain arc overall. Also, the wink-nod line about being a mutant was a good little easter egg 😉
I didn't need Martin Freeman's Agent Ross to return, although controversy aside, I can't help but like him, and it was at least nice to see him heavily bending the rules to help out his friends, rather than simply being a government lackey. Plus, the reveal about his ex-wife was a fun touch, albeit an unnecessary one.
Similarly, I'd have been happy to not really have M'Baku in this film, but in this case I couldn't have been more wrong. Winston Duke is exceptionally fun in this role, but I really enjoyed putting him into a "wise uncle" position, and felt like the culmination of his arc was a particularly good one. I'm interested to see where they go with him from here!
I'm less sure about the direction that they took Ramonda. It felt a little odd that she was counselling Shuri to forgive and forget in one scene, and then furiously throwing away any semblance of diplomacy in the next, but I also feel like her character had run out of obvious room to grow, so why not push Shuri further over the edge?
Still, overall, I enjoyed Wakanda Forever. There were some nice moments of foreshadowing (particularly around T'Challa Junior); they wove the plot together pretty well; provided plenty of space to acknowledge everything that has happened, both in-universe and in the real world; and introduced an entirely new culture/faction with a stunning aesthetic and interesting history. (And a slightly more grounded attempt at Atlantis, particularly compared with Aquaman 😅).
Is the end result a little tonally inconsistent? Sure, but only barely. Is it a little messy and cramped? Yes, but it still gets all of the key points and character moments across without rushing them individually. And does it set up a new path for the people of Wakanda and the legacy of the Black Panther that I'm interested in? Absolutely, but without actually tying itself down to anything.
Oh, and I'm just realising that I've written all of this without even mentioning the introduction of Riri Williams! Again, a curveball that the film didn't overly need, in terms of bringing in an entirely new character, but a fitting way to do so and she played the role well and added to the plot, so I'm okay with it.
Which is probably the best way to sum up the film: I'm okay with it. It tries to do a lot and perhaps fails to excel at any one thing, but it also doesn't fail at any of them either. It has a lot of plates spinning, but none of them go crashing to the floor, even if the final spectacle isn't quite as exciting as you might hope. It's a solid movie, without being exceptional. And that's okay.