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‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’: A long eulogy for Chadwick Boseman

‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’: A long eulogy for Chadwick Boseman

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(2 stars)

From its frantic opening moments, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” announces its intentions. Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) desperately tries to save her brother King T’Challa’s (the late Chadwick Boseman) life, checking his vitals with Griot, her personal AI assistant, and anxiously making micro-adjustments until mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) arrives to deliver the terrible news: “Your brother is with the ancestors.”

So addresses “Wakanda Forever,” nods regardless, the tragic loss of Boseman, who died of colon cancer in 2020. As a fitting tribute, the line-up of iconic characters that opens every Marvel film here consists entirely of images of Boseman, a touching tribute to a gifted and charismatic actor who left the scene far too soon. The next scene, a solemn memorial service in which Shuri, Ramonda and hundreds of other Wakandans pay their respects to their leader dressed in funeral white, underscores Boseman’s loss, not only to the franchise he anchored with such sure command, but to an audience primed to have their own grief acknowledged and divided.

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So far, so classy. But the rest of “Wakanda Forever” also turns out to be one long eulogy, with the next 2½ hours moving between busy storytelling and dealing with grief and loss. “Wakanda Forever” ultimately feels hopelessly stalled, masking its inability to move forward by resorting to repetitive, all-too-familiar action sequences, choppy emotional beats and an unengaging, occasionally incoherent story.

That story, co-written by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, puts Ramonda on the throne as Queen of Wakanda, who apparently holds the world’s only reserve of the all-powerful metal vibranium. When we catch up with Ramonda a year after her son has returned home, she violently rejects American and European pleas to share (i.e. control) the wealth, “not because of the dangerous nature of vibranium, but because of the dangerous nature you.” Meanwhile, a cache of valuable ore is discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, where a mysterious tribe of feathered, fish-like creatures defend it with a combination of hypnotic powers and fierce fighting spirit.

Who are these strange blue-skinned creatures, if they are not extras from the set of “Avatar”? All will be revealed in a film that travels from Wakanda, Haiti, Mexico and the CIA headquarters in Virginia to the MIT campus, which Griot describes as “the equivalent of a Wakandan country school.”

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Finally, we are introduced to the leader of the amphibious army, which hails from an undersea kingdom called Talokan, ruled by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía from “The Forever Purge”), who approaches Ramonda and Shuri with an offer to join forces against the Western colonizers whom they all have reason to distrust.

As in the first “Black Panther,” the visuals of “Wakanda Forever” are first-rate, with production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter once again diving into nature, history, Afro-futurism, and mystical lore to create a lexicon of textures and embellishments that seem ancient and visionary at the same time. The female troops led by Okoye (Danai Gurira) are still equipped with an impressive array of sleek metal armor. With their turquoise beads and headdresses, Namor and his minions harken back to Mayan influences, the only misstep—literally—being the silly Tinkerbell-like wings around his ankles.

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In other words, the production values ​​that made “Black Panther” such a groundbreaking addition to the otherwise ho-hum cape-centric escapism canon is still the best reason to re-enter the world Coogler and his cast have built with such imagination and brio. But what “Wakanda Forever” highlights is how dependent that world was on the actors at its center. It takes nothing away from the talents of the mostly female cast that carries the new sequel — Bassett, Wright, Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Michaela Coel and newcomer Dominique Thorne — to note that even they can’t quite reproduce the ballast and chemistry of Boseman and co. by Michael B. Jordan. And it doesn’t do them any favors that the story keeps reminding us of that fact, constantly burying its questionable cast under overlong fight sequences and dialogue-laden passages that are either stiff and self-important or cheesy.

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The problem with “Wakanda Forever” ultimately doesn’t lie with its main players; if Coogler and his collaborators had sent the script through another pass, stripping it down to its starkest essence and balancing the elegiac self-awareness with some purifying humor, they could have sent Black Panther down a new and refreshing path. Instead, they leave viewers feeling as lost as the characters on screen: What’s next for a character who has taken on such immediate cultural significance, not just as a Marvel figurehead but in global culture? “Wakanda Forever” has no answer. Still.

PG-13. In regional theaters. Contains sequences of intense violence, action and some strong language. In English, Wakandan, Mayan, Spanish and French with some subtitles. 161 minutes.



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