Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, lost in grief, volunteers as tribute.

Setting a new standard for “in media res”, Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER opens with a scene which echoes the ongoing Phase’s preoccupation with the multiverse only this time it’s a metatextual incursion as real-world events – the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman – bleed through to irrevocably alter the narrative direction of a shocked cinematic universe that’s palpably in mourning.

With T’Challa dead from an unspecified disease – there’s a real sense of angry determination that the cause of the actor’s death cannot and will not be credited with bringing his fictional counterpart down – Wakanda finds itself in the cross-hairs of an international community that regards its resources with envious eyes and senses the absence of the protection of the Black Panther as vulnerability. When Wakanda demonstrates it can and will defend itself, the same international community turns to an alternative source of vibranium – a source that reveals and provokes a new and deadly threat to the world and Wakanda itself.

Although it tries, figuratively and literally, to lay Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa to rest before the purple Marvel Studios, his loss looms large in a film that sets out to explore grief but ends up wallowing in it. The grief on show isn’t just at a personal level, as deep as that wounds the film, but at a cultural level too. Where BLACK PANTHER explored the sins of the father, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER stares unflinchingly into the dark sins of the past, particularly the

Themes of grief and loss, not just at a personal level but a cultural one too as the ruthless colonisations of the past threaten to return in the geopolitical race to secure scarce resources. The wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels much less friendly and hopeful than ever before and it appears that the expanding cosmic awareness, rather than unifying the world, has deepened existing prejudices and positions.

It’s a depressingly bleak – but admittedly realistic – backdrop to a story which is overstuffed with hurt people hurting people and yet lacks a unifying central figure with the presence to hold it all together and make it mean something. There are echoes of the situation with Carrie Fisher and STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER in the way you can see where wirter/ director Ryan Coogler had to write around the absence of a main character, although its accomplished with a great deal more dignity here. Two-and-three-quarter hours is a long time to spend with supporting characters being sad; and the film itself can’t seem to settle on who it wants to focus the heroic mantle on as it tries a shell game of potential Black Panthers before finally settling on the most predictable and yet most disappointing choice, contradicting one of the established character conflicts of tradition versus progress.

Balancing out the thematic overload, bloated pacing and occasionally clumsy plotting, however, are some profoundly powerful performances. Angela Bassett is imperiously magnetic as the angry and embittered Queen Ramonda and Tenoch Huerta imbues Namor with so much pathos and authenticity that you barely give the more ridiculous aspects of his comic book character (the wings on his feet) a second thought, or compare much of his lore and scenery to DC’s AQUAMAN. Indeed, if any of the visuals are derivative of anything, it’s of James Cameron’s AVATAR, especially in the final grand scale battle where the underdeveloped blue-hued denizens of Talokan resemble a Navi tribute act in both word and deed.

While it’s been said that many of the Disney+ series in Phase 4 could have benefitted with being judiciously edited down into feature-length stories with tighter focus, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER might have been better as a limited series, giving it time to process its emotional payload and flesh out its antagonists more fully. Even in its introductions, it feels rushed. While Namor (Tenoch Huerta) gets a fulsome yet still hurried flashback, the introduction of Riri Williams repeats a common Phase 4 mistake of being in too hasty in bringing in the new. In the MCU of old, Riri Williams would have been in the movie, no doubt, but the only hint of what was to come for her would be the question Shuri asks her about the “Stark tech” schematics in her workshop. Instead, she’s fully mech suited and booted in the movie’s overblown and derivative milquetoast AVATAR final battle. On this basis, Terrence Howard would have been War Machine by act three of IRON MAN.

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER works best as a heartfelt tribute to its lost leading man and while there’s something to be said for a mega-budget popcorn franchise like the MCU being confident and broad enough to tackle such potent themes with patience, maturity and deep cultural respect in blockbuster fashion, there’s no denying it loses something in trying to be true to too many things at once, unable to fully stay in this moment under pressure to move the MCU as a whole forward.

Score 6

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