[Screen It]


(2022) (Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta) (PG-13)

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Superhero Action: The queen and princess of a powerful African nation must contend with a previously unknown undersea nation that threatens to wage war with them if they don't agree to attack the rest of the world.

It's been a year since the death of King T'Challa (who also served as Wakanda's superhero protector, the Black Panther), with both his mother, Queen Ramonda (ANGELA BASSETT), and younger sister, Shur (LETITIA WRIGHT), still grieving but in different ways. While Ramonda has followed the rituals of their ancestors, Shur has buried herself in her tech work. But they and their general warrior, Okoye (DANAI GURIRA), must contend with outside countries trying to get their hands on their abundant supply of the powerful mineral Vibranium that's the source of their formidable weaponry.

That stems from a device invented by MIT student Riri Williams (DOMINQUE THORNE) that's now been altered by others to find Vibranium deep in the ocean. Such searching has resulted in defensive attacks by a previously unknown underwater people known as the Talokans led by King Namor (TENOCH HUERTA). He wants to form an alliance with Ramonda and her nation against the rest of the world, while demanding that she find Riri and deliver her to him.

Ramonda refuses, and when he abducts the girl and Shur, Ramonda turns to outside help from CIA agent Everett K. Ross (MARTIN FREEMAN) and former Wakandan Nakia (LUPITA NYONG'O), all while preparing for possible war -- alongside tribal leader M'Baku (WINSTON DUKE) and other Wakandans -- with Namor and his nation.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

While rare, it's not entirely unusual for stars of films to die during the making of the movie or after everything has been shot but before the finished product has been released. In such instances, the filmmakers and studio often must figure out how to salvage a work in progress (often using body doubles or digital wizardry) and/or be respectful of the passing in terms of how and when the film is released.

Those behind the mega-popular Marvel movie "Black Panther" found themselves in a similar quandary when its charismatic star, Chadwick Boseman, tragically succumbed to cancer after the film's release and re-upping his commitment to playing the character in two sequels. While some movie series and TV shows have replaced their headliners due to death, illness, or contract disputes, the big question on everyone's minds was if they should proceed and if so, how to do so.

The final decision was to continue the series, but without replacing Boseman either with a digital recreation of the performer or a new flesh and blood actor. As a result, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" serves as a eulogy of sorts for both the actor and the character he played, with a prologue revolving around the latter never being seen, but noted as gravely ill, with his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and sister, Shur (Letitia Wright), reacting to news of his subsequent death.

Following the ensuing comic strip roll that starts every Marvel movie but this time is devoted solely to Boseman (which resulted in some audible sniffles during our press-only screening), the story jumps forward a year with both characters still reeling from the passing, albeit in different ways.

While Ramonda wants to end the year-long period of grieving with a ceremonial burning of T'Challa's burial garb, Shur is still mad, both at herself for not figuring out how to save her sibling via her tech abilities, and at the world in general for letting this happen. The feeling toward the latter is so strong that she verbalizes to her mother that she's willing to burn it all down.

That doesn't go unnoticed by the film's obligatory villain, King Namor (Tenoch Huerta), an immortal being who lives - with tiny wings on his ankles, no less -- alongside his people in the bottom of the ocean nation of Talokan. They've remained hidden from the rest of the world for centuries, but like Wakanda, the rare but powerful mineral known as Vibranium exists within their realm. And outside forces, desirous of creating the most powerful weapons possible, have started sniffing around, misusing a device created by MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) to find just that.

The intrusion doesn't sit well with Namor who wants Wakanda as an ally to take out the rest of the world in a preemptive strike, and demands that Ramonda find Riri and deliver her to him to prevent the introduction of any other such devices. Naturally, the queen refuses, thus setting the stage for the requisite and frenetic third act battle du jour featuring returning characters from last time around including Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), and M'Baku (Winston Duke) among others. But a running subplot featuring returning CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman) and his ex/boss (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) could and should have been jettisoned as it does zip for the story.

As directed by a returning Ryan Coogler who works from a screenplay he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, the film does well in its solemn tribute to its fallen star and is effective in its examination of grief in its many forms. But the inclusion of that material adds to the rest of the story's running time which clocks in at a very bloated 161 minutes (which is 27 minutes longer than its predecessor).

Considering we've seen the seemingly impossible-to-stop villain countless times before, that part of the film, the character, and the battles and fighting don't do much for the flick as all of that feels rote and obligatory rather than imaginative and fresh (as was the case with the deeply layered Thanos elements in the "Avengers" films). And despite efforts to drag out the mystery of who will next don the costume of the Black Panther, there's zero doubt about who that will ultimately be, and the film probably would have benefited by getting to that reveal sooner in the plot.

That said, the action is handled decently and the special effects are top-notch, but it's the less "exciting" material that makes the film work, namely that of the aforementioned grief that pulses throughout the film from start to end (including a mid-credits scene -- and no, there isn't a teaser at the very end of the scroll).

While I never got emotionally worked up like some of my viewing colleagues, I appreciate what Wright, Bassett, and others do with the material that gives the film a bit of a different vibe than most of its Marvel universe counterparts. And for that, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," while way too long and not as good as its predecessor, rates as a 6 out of 10.

Posted November 11, 2022

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