“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022) is epic when we needed intimate

It’s hard to imagine a better recipe for a sequel to a truly meaningful and broadly appreciated movie like “Black Panther” (2018). Any future projects exploring Wakanda would inevitably have some difficulty drumming up the same awe as the first film’s stunning visuals and production design. Yet, a similar excitement for its characters and perhaps further emotional resonance was prime for development in a sequel. 

Especially in light of Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing in 2020, any future Black Panther project carried not only the cultural momentum and intrigue that fans of the first film would bring, but also an opportunity to collectively grieve a respected star. 

And grieve it does. Opening with a deeply somber — though brief — tribute to Boseman and goodbye to T’Challa in narrative, the film seems aware that its real anchor is in both the weight of Boseman’s death and curiosity about how the film will rise to fill his absence. 

However, the conventions of the superhero movie genre ultimately prevent the film from in any way maintaining the steadiness and sobriety of its opening minutes. Quickly we’re thrown into the first of several unnecessary action set-pieces. In this case, it’s a slow, largely disinteresting boat siege that succeeds only in reminding you that previous Marvel movies, in this case “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), have done the “superhero” parts of this movie already.

The first of two movies to feature blue people crawling out of the water in 2022, “Wakanda Forever” centers its geopolitical and action-thriller tensions on what almost feels like another spent trick: another secret nation with the special, omni-useful vibranium. While the villain Namor (José Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is fascinating, and his Atlantis-esque nation of Talokan is visually phenomenal, every attempt at playing a larger political game within the narrative is dwarfed by the emotional gravity of the other characters as they grieve T’Challa.

Despite the way in which the larger story diffuses the parts of this movie that are excellent, there are very real, raw moments at the core of this movie, anchored by down-right incredible performances, primarily from Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). The anger and grief are tangible, even as they are forced to collide with the film’s unfortunate commitments to standard superhero blandness. 

And though the Wakandan characters at the core of this movie are its strength, and in most circumstances would be strong enough to carry the film, the sheer amount of characters turns into another weakness. By my estimate, 40 minutes of this film are spent introducing or plugging American characters for future films, ones who have zero business being in this film. 

Even Riri Williams or Ironheart (Dominique Thorne), who displays a charm and spunk that’s sure to be enchanting in future ventures, creates a tonal dissonance by both wasting the story’s time setting her character up and by quipping the writing out of some of its most emotional moments. 

This is to say nothing of how the writers somehow found that they needed more characters in Wakanda, on top of the entire nation they have to introduce, and the Americans they bumble around with. Despite a nearly three-hour runtime, the film simply does not have space for all of the characters it is trying to work with, leaving those we’ve come to love with the bare minimum of attention and failing to make us love any of the new characters with a similar affection.

Even with excellent performances, stunning production design, visual flare and a world primed for an emotionally gripping story, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” cannot resist the trappings of its genre. Grief is diffused by quips, action sequences interrupt intimacy and flat characters shove beloved ones off screen. While its peaks are high, its troughs are middling and ultimately it is disappointing to see Marvel Studios use their “magic” and “splendor” to muddle one of the few important, and perhaps most-needed, stories being told in blockbuster cinema today.