Fresh from a catalogue of Phase 4 projects which achieved nothing outwith alienating large proportions of its fanbase, the Marvel Cinematic Universe made a return to dull, formulaic and forgettable content with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Filling the void left behind by Chadwick Boseman was always going to be an uphill task, but if truth be told the writing team never got this film off the ground. Their tributes to the late actor were touching enough, but when it came to the script itself he was never adequately replaced.
We reach somewhere around the halfway point of the film before we can even discern who the new lead protagonist is supposed to be. Is it Shuri, mourning her deceased brother? Is it Ramonda, a mother doing the same? Is it Okoye, left alienated by the loss of a role she loves, or was the stage set for Riri Williams (Ironheart) to take up a lead role?
Of course it’s Shuri, and it was always going to be, but for reasons unknown the film waits an age before deciding on that for good. Without a true protagonist to focus on for so long, large portions turn into a series of blockbuster film events with no true character focus.
This isn’t helped by some real pacing issues, particularly in the opening act. The first fifteen minutes are exceedingly rushed through, with three or four plot points introduced at breakneck speed to try and get the film up and running with minimal effort. Things do slow down after that, but there are still moments where the writers could have taken a moment to breathe and explore Wakanda’s characters a little better.
Pacing aside, however, Wakanda Forever is also severely hampered by the fact that Letitia Wright is a fairly average actress. In the first Black Panther film she served as a somewhat annoying but harmless side character, an immature younger sister to Boseman’s T’Challa.
Suddenly thrusting her into the limelight as the sequel’s lead looks to have been a mistake. She simply cannot command the screen with the wow-factor needed to light up such a huge movie. Wright isn’t awful, but she doesn’t have the aura to live up to the billing.
Naturally, her character of Shuri is also torpedoed by – you guessed it – Disney’s writing staff. They simply don’t have an ounce of talent between them, and even when they’re not destroying famous and well-loved characters or creating new ones to shoehorn their own agendas into popular media, they can’t muster the skill to formulate a coherent script.
Vain attempts are made to build up Shuri’s apparently uncontrollable rage, but no reasons are given for it. She wants to burn the world and everyone in it, but why? What have they done? What role did they play in T’Challa’s death?
A lack of answers means that when Shuri finally takes a somewhat dark turn into anti-hero territory, it is utterly unearned. Nothing in her character suggests she would do this. It doesn’t work.
In very much Disney fashion, that dark turn lasts for all of one or two scenes before a quick nostalgiac flashback brings Shuri to her senses. They don’t have the bottle to follow through with a slightly risky idea – and that leads us onto another sore thumb in the Wakanda Forever anatomy.
The supposed main villain, Talokan, flops massively. His motivations are questionable, his actions are script-dependant, and José Tenoch Huerta Mejía plays him in such boring and one-dimensional fashion.
Huerta reportedly said that it was important “to humanise the character by making his motivations understandable despite him having an antagonistic role in the film”. He certainly didn’t do that.
The MCU is in the midst of a very much prolonged villain crisis, as I’ve written about before, and Talokan has slotted in nicely despite those heroic aims – the character is neither evil and interesting enough to strike fear into viewers, or “understandable” enough to succeed as an anti-hero. He is forgettable.
Other characters are too. Williams/Ironheart, for instance, is just as pointless an addition as America Chavez was in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness earlier this year. The entirety of Wakanda Forever could exist without her, and the character’s presence simply bloats an already-packed cast list. Why waste time on her when valuable screen time could have been used to bolster Shuri’s development?
The shallowness that comes from such a huge number of characters leads to a dull event with close to no re-watch value. No risks are taken, no one thinks outside the box. The writers fail to deliver strong characters, an interesting hero-villain relationship, a meaningful plot or a strong set-up for future projects. It’s just another safe cash grab which, by trying to offend nobody, entertains very few.
There is not a single point in this movie where you truly feel like either side might actually come out on top. A safety net where both end up happy is always on the cards.
The production of the film also leaves much to be desired – there are a few too many slow-motion action set pieces, adding to a number of strange cuts between characters when delivering lines.
There are some strong points, however. The filmscore itself is excellent, as it was in the first Black Panther movie, although the soundtrack isn’t as good as its predecessor’s, for which Kendrick Lamar’s additions slotted in seamlessly with the movie.
The cast in Wakanda Forever, for the most part, do the best they can with what they’ve been given by the writers. Hairy moments aren’t completely out of the equation, but they’re rare enough so to avoid major criticism.
And finally, as briefly mentioned already, the tributes paid to Boseman’s death are a nice addition. Opting not to re-cast his character and to instead write his death into the script was a smart decision, even if it did set the film up for failure when not done correctly. His absence is sorely felt throughout.
Unfortunately, aside from acting as a touching memorial to its former star, Wakanda Forever does little else of note. It isn’t brave enough to take any major risks with its characters or plot, and it therefore goes down as another Phase 4 failure for the MCU.