Monday, November 14, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a moving, if crowded, return to Wakanda


The very first line of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, spoken by Shuri (Letitia Wright) off-screen against a black screen, makes it clear that the real-life demise of Chadwick Boseman will not be dismissed with an offhand line of dialogue or a quick easter egg in the background. It's going to be the crux of Ryan Coogler's fourth directorial effort. Not only that, but that initial line establishes the emotional urgency of what's to come. This isn't necessarily a bleak venture into Wakanda, but it isn't afraid to confront the complexities of loss and the different ways people respond to the process of grief. In other words, bring some tissues if you're like me and have any sort of emotional vulnerability.

Shuri is our primary focus of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and her story picks up a year after the loss of her brother T'Challa. She's still walking around in a fog from losing someone so close and personal to her, preferring to toil away in her lab rather than lingering on the memories of T'Challa. Her mom, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is now in charge of Wakanda and protecting it from all kinds of threats interested in taking on this country now that it's devoid of the Black Panther. One of those challengers is Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the king of the underwater civilization Talokan. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) are tasked with a mission that could provide some peace between Wakanda and Talokan while everyone tries to figure out what the future of Wakanda even looks like.

Screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have wisely opted to devote long stretches of Wakanda Forever to just intimate conversations, the kind that makes us understand the nuances of these superpowered people and what they want. Wakanda Forever adheres to my favorite kind of superhero storytelling, the kind where the unabashedly silly elements like Namor's winged feet or the sight of people riding orcas like horses into battle are maintained, but there's also an embrace of tangible pathos. A harrowing scene depicting a fraught exchange between Ramonda and Okoye, for instance, is incredibly powerful, particularly due to Bassett's emotionally raw performance. If she was executing this same dialogue in a grounded Broadway play, there'd be no differences from her line deliveries in this movie designed to move Disney Store merchandise. 

Those kinds of performances, and Coogler's willingness to let the low-key scenes just breathe, do wonders for Wakanda Forever's sense of poignancy. It's also a wise idea to give so many of the players in this expansive narrative the thematic connective tissue of coping with grief, particularly Namor and his fascinating backstory or the eventual reveal of where Nakia has been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the events of the first Black Panther. There isn't a single size for coping with loss and the various players of Wakanda Forever nicely reflect that while also ensuring there's thematic consistency in the various narrative detours. In other words, it feels like these characters all belong to the same movie...mostly.

The greatest shortcoming in Wakanda Forever is, unfortunately, in that same screenplay, which is ultimately too overstuffed for its own good. Certain supporting players can get lost in the shuffle, but more egregiously is an extraneous subplot involving Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and a character someone at Marvel is more in love with than general moviegoers. Their whole storyline is tedious from top-to-bottom, especially in terms of visuals (why do I care about Ross's conversations in bland government buildings when I could be in an underwater kingdom or the vibrant land of Wakanda?), and since it's entirely detached from the main action, just comes off like a distraction. Given how well the original Black Panther fared at functioning as largely a standalone story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's a shame that Wakanda Forever's pacing gets undercut by a storyline designed to remind audiences of future Marvel adventures. 

While Wakanda Forever isn't as divorced from other Marvel adventures as its predecessor, other superb elements of the original film are as sharp as ever. Ruth E. Carter's costumes still dazzle while Ludwig Göransson's once again knocks his score out of the park. Certain sections of Wakanda Forever opt to eschew dialogue entirely in favor of letting Göransson's compositions carry the day and his music is more than up to the task. Meanwhile, fan-favorite characters from the original Black Panther, especially M'Baku (Winston Duke), are just as entertaining as ever while new player Namor is bound to be an audience favorite. Tenoch Huerta Mejía's performance here has doubtlessly solidified him as a standout heartthrob in 2022 cinema, his screen presence and commanding aura are just spectacular.

But what works best in Wakanda Forever are the elements working within the shadow of the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman. His presence looms large over Wakanda Forever, particularly in an opening funeral scene that kickstarts the feature on an appropriately melancholy note. Coogler and the cast manage to nail the ensuing emotional beats without coming off as either manipulative or exploitative of a tragedy. It's especially nice that their approach evokes a line spoken by T'Challa in his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, regarding how "death is not the end, it's more of a stepping off point." Chadwick Boseman is absent from Wakanda Forever, but it's fascinating and touching to see the small ways his character's legacy reverberates throughout this motion picture.

I wish the entire film was less crowded (read: less Martin Freeman) to allow that kind of emotional exploration more room to breathe or at least make Wakanda Forever's runtime more manageable. But enough works here to make Wakanda Forever follow in the footsteps of Creed and Black Panther (albeit without matching the overall quality of either film) as a mainstream Ryan Coogler film that tackles pathos as effectively as it approaches thrills.

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