The Stew Review: ‘Black Panther’ sequel wears its wounded heart on its sleeve

A still from "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."
A still from "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 4:44 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2022 at 8:06 PM CST
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - It’s possible we’ll never see another blockbuster movie quite like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Comic book movie sequels are a dime a dozen anymore, and there’s a lot about this movie that feels familiar. But the circumstances which inspired (necessitated?) this film, and the way those circumstances simultaneously affect the film’s characters and respective actors, results in something that is unique and heart-wrenching and even beautiful in its own way.

Chadwick Boseman wasn’t supposed to die. He deserved to be around for decades delivering scores of performances that would only surpass the already superlative work he’d built over a relatively short amount of time. And even though he’d managed to film 10 movies after his colon cancer diagnosis (including every appearance of T’Challa/Black Panther), it was not meant to be. Boseman’s light was no more. Some might consider it crass to immediately wonder what would become of T’Challa, but Boseman’s performance and presence was so indelible that it was hard not to.

Would they recast? Should they? One gets the sense that writer/director Ryan Coogler found the idea too painful, especially within such close proximity to Boseman’s passing. Instead, he chose to let his art reflect his reality. It’s normal for filmmakers and actors to allow their lived experiences to shape and inspire their work. But to have a film where the grief of the characters is a direct mirror to the grief of the actors, and to use their artistic medium as a way to process that grief almost in real time, feels unlike anything I’ve seen. Wakanda Forever is remarkable in its emotional honesty and serves as both a look at the ways we process grief while also delivering a pretty cracking good (albeit somewhat messy) comic book movie.

The film’s cold open is the death of T’Challa. His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is frantically working to find a cure for the unnamed disease destroying her brother’s body. She is unsuccessful. A year passes and Wakanda is still without a king or a Black Panther, all while Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) must fend off a multitude of nations demanding she share access to the wealth of Vibranium inside Wakanda’s borders.

Things are complicated even further when a heretofore unknown nation attacks a United States expedition to try and find Virbanium on the ocean floor. Led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the Talokans see this expedition as a threat to their sovereignty and demand Wakanda hand over the scientist responsible for inventing a Vibranium-detecting device or else. The problem? That scientist is only a 19-year-old girl. Granted, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) has a genius-level intellect (she’s building an Iron Man-inspired suit in her spare time), but Shuri and Ramonda aren’t about to just let some water-breathing weirdo with wings on his feet take her to depths unknown. Things, obviously, only escalate from there with a small-scale war eventually breaking out on the high seas.

Wakanda Forever can be a rousing movie when it’s firing on all cylinders. Letitia Wright provides a tremendous emotional anchor to the film and this is as much about Shuri learning to channel her passion and anger and grief so that she can become the leader and hero her country and family needs. It’s substantial, complex and Wright knocks it out of the park. If the future of Black Panther now rests on her shoulders, Coogler made the right call.

Likewise, Angela Bassett is superb and low-key my favorite aspect of the whole affair. By necessity her character is pushed more to the front of things and Bassett is wonderful at every turn. Ramonda, as she so vehemently reminds us, has lost everyone she loves and yet still finds depths of strength and resolve to mine. Bassett conveys this effortlessly.

The biggest treat of the film, though, is the discovery of Tenoch Huerta at Namor. It’s not terribly often that I look at a performance of an otherwise unknown actor and think, “They’re gonna be huge.” But with Huerta it’s almost impossible not to. Namor has always been one of the more (pardon the water pun) fluid Marvel characters, rarely taking sides and mostly doing only that which benefits his own kingdom regardless of who he ends up fighting. That remains the same here, but Huerta’s performance adds a layer of humanity to Namor that is much-needed. Namor can be incredibly intimidating on-screen (no easy feat for a character who uses tiny flappy ankle wings to fly around wearing a green Speedo), but Huerta’s performance is packed to the gills with a perfect mix of charm and quiet authority. It’s as memorable and meaningful a debut as we’ve had for a new character in the MCU in a while.

It’s a shame that the film’s other new character doesn’t fare as well, especially considering her centrality to the story. I have no real experience with Riri Williams outside this film, so she was something of a blank slate for me going in. Thorne certainly does her best, but there’s just very little for the character to do other than just, sort of, be around. Sure, she puts her mechanical genius to good use when there’s an action scene afoot, but there’s basically no reason for her to be here or for the movie to go out of its way to introduce her to begin with. I get that Marvel wanted her to show up so they wouldn’t have to go through an elongated introduction for her upcoming Disney+ show, Ironheart, but swerving out of the way to bring her in only serves to bloat a movie with an already unwieldy runtime of nearly three hours. There’s no reason Shuri couldn’t have been the one to have invented the Vibranium detector, etc.

The film’s other source of bloat is Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). At least Riri has a central role to play. Ross mostly just shows up at crime scenes after the fact and says stuff. You could cut 99 percent of his appearance and it wouldn’t affect the movie one single bit. Mostly he seems to be in here to remind people that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is still around as Valentina (who likely won’t show up again until the Thunderbolts movie in 2024).

But even when the film doesn’t cohere like it should or it loses focus for a bit, what always shines through is its heart. This is a deeply human, emotionally-driven film to a degree that you rarely get in blockbuster movie-making, and for that alone I’m grateful it exists as it does.