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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)::rating::3::rating::3

As an epic elegy on the passing of Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever works extremely well.  It’s a stately, moving benediction, and the filmmakers deserve credit for hitting all the right emotional notes.  Unfortunately, the film suffers from the same bloat that afflicts so many other Marvel sequels:  Wakanda spends much of its overlong runtime introducing new characters, new TV series, and several future movies.  The filmmakers cram information into the story until the seams split and stuffing flies everywhere.

Both the film and this review assume you’ve seen the first Panther film, and have at least a vague understanding of the universe around it.  I can’t avoid a few mild spoilers from those previous films, so you’ve been warned.  Wakanda begins with T’Challa (Boseman) dying offscreen, and the subsequent deluge of grief it brings.  Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s baby sister and high-tech armorer, blames herself for not being able to cure his illness.

Cut to one year later.  With no Black Panther, the world’s other powers now see Wakanda as ripe for plundering.  Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who again reigns after the death of her son, warns the United Nations to stop seeking Wakandan vibranium, or face an all-out war.  Shuri has since immersed herself in work, in the desperate hope of tuning out her sadness.  Her main quest is to synthesize the heart-shaped herb, the magic plant that supplies each Black Panther with a vision of their forebears and a subsequent boost in speed, strength, and agility.  All traces of the plant were destroyed in the first Panther–could a replicate have cured T’Challa?

Concerned with her daughter’s bottled emotions, Ramonda takes Shuri into nature to meditate.  On the water’s edge, a mysterious figure emerges from the deep.  He is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of Talokan, an underwater civilization.  Burly, surly, and scantily clad, Namor informs the two women that not only does Talokan have an abundance of virbanium, but unknown forces are trying to steal it, as well.  He brings an unusual ultimatum:  Join us in a war against the surface world, or be branded as an enemy of Talokan.

This encounter forces Ramonda to hurriedly investigate the source of the vibranium heists, and avoid a destructive war.  She sends Okoye (Danai Guirira) and Shuri to Boston.  Naturally, their work uncovers a larger conspiracy, and a surprising new player on the superhero scene.

From this point, I don’t want to give many specifics away.  Wakanda is chock full of easter eggs, cameos, lore drops, and unsubtle hints on Marvel’s future cinemania:  This includes long stretches of Namor’s origin, which cries out for its very own movie.  I also counted two future Disney+ series, a spinoff team-up movie, and even morsels of the X-Men and Avengers flicks.

That brings up Wakanda‘s biggest flaw:  The first Panther film benefited from its laser focus on T’Challa, and his inspiring rise to king and protector.  Director Ryan Coogler tossed in a few morsels of the MCU proper, but this was Boseman’s franchise, and he carried it mightily.  His untimely death tore a hole across the Marvel topography, and the filmmakers wisely choose to not even try and fill it.  Instead, they build the story around that terrible wound, and how the characters–and, clearly, the actors behind them–grapple with the necessarily slow process of healing.

And when the movie centers itself on this process, it’s as strong as anything in the MCU yet.  The problem?  Too often, Coogler veers the movie into the weeds.  We get long scenes about things that aren’t nearly as compelling as Wakandan grief, or too many departures on tertiary characters we’re not ready to care about yet.  If a fair amount of Wakanda‘s flab had been trimmed, its emotional impact could’ve been tremendous.  As is, this Panther installment is more sprawling and ambitious, much to its great detriment.

On the plus side, the core performances are superb.  Wright effectively plays Shuri as a young woman who will never be fully whole again.  She nails the billowing emotions of young grief–the pyroclastic anger, the magmic flow of sadness, the confused heartache.  Wright forms the heart-shaped center of Wakanda, and much of the film’s success will be due to her strength.  Credit also goes to Bassett, whose Ramonda must rule, console her daughter, fend off bloody conflict, and mourn her only son.  (Seriously, has Bassett ever turned in a bad performance?  Anywhere?  I’ll wait while you look it up.)

Also, Coogler smartly packs the inevitable action bonanza into the film’s final act.  Unlike many other MCU films, this isn’t a nonstop assault on the eyeballs and eardrums.  Coogler takes time for good emotional beats, and it almost made me love this movie.

Almost.  And don’t get it twisted:  There’s a lot to enjoy here.  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever provokes strong emotions.  Many people in my theater shed tears.  In those moments, this is the movie that millions of fans probably needed to see.  I won’t say that it needs any more of those moments.  Just less of everything else.

161 min.  PG-13.  In theaters.

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