Anyone who says they know how Disney should have handled the death of Chadwick Boseman is wrong. In the face of any death, let alone one this unspeakably tragic, there is no one right way to do anything. Grief is the messiest chaos, the unkindest calamity that cannot be sorted into “do this, not that.” That goes for individuals processing the loss and, as it turns out, not for a multi-gajillion-dollar company looking to keep profiting on intellectual property without looking like soulless vultures. Capitalism ain’t got time for five stages of grief, baby.  

Should Disney have recast the role of Black Panther? That seems pretty callous to do so, especially quickly. Should they have shut down the film? That would have been wildly disappointing to a legion of young Black children finally given a mainstream pop culture hero. Should they have done what they did do here, making Boseman’s very real passing into a fictional plot point in a sprawling series about spandex-clad fisticuffs? Let’s talk…

Writer/director Ryan Coogler and cowriter Joe Robert Cole actually navigate a myriad of thorny, impossible questions quite admirably. They chose to steer into the depressive ditch, to make grief the epicenter of “Wakanda Forever.” The MCU has been here before, as the first hour or so of “Avengers: Endgame” was a meditation on half of all life on the planet being snuffed. But there’s a reason for the persistence of that quote about how millions of deaths is a statistic but one man’s death is a tragedy. Also, when driving home profound sorrow, it helps to have Angela Bassett.

Right, smack at the top of what “Wakanda Forever” gets right is how it centers the women involved. Queen Ramonda (Bassett) keens and wails for her child while fending off advances from Western powers who want to plunder her nation. Shuri (Letitia Wright) rages at her impotence and sharpens her remorse into a blade. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is pulled back into her past by the black hole T’Challa (Boseman) left. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is a spear in search of a body to puncture, as much for revenge as for protection of what she has left.

They gnash and mourn while Namor (Tenoch Huerta) rises. He demands the life of a young scientist, Riri (Dominique Thorne), who created a device capable of exposing his secret underwater nation. His people and the Wakandans are linked by vibranium, the magic MCU material found only among those two groups. He vows to make the African power his only ally or his first surface-dwelling enemy. Given there is no Black Panther, the question is how the leaderless tribe will respond, who will respond, and what the fallout will be.

Philosophical questions and existential meditations on death don’t make great blockbusters. It’s why nobody has made a $250 million adaptation of Camus’s “The Stranger,” though let’s not give Amazon Prime any ideas. What doesn’t work in “Wakanda Forever” is the need for gigantic, silly spectacle amid introspection. The result are lots of really dumb, awkwardly placed sequences that interrupt the natural flow.

What’s maddening is that every individual component works. Namor is a spectacular villain, an anticolonial God who is disarmingly charming and exceptionally powerful. But he feels like an afterthought, a ringing alarm meant to heighten tension but just noisy nonsense. Thorne pops as Riri, who is blissfully set to get her own Disney+ show, but she feels grafted on from another movie set in another universe. Bassett, Wright, and Nyong’o turn in top-tier tears. Isolate their scenes, and you’d be convinced you were eating up awards bait. Then they put on silly costumes to willingly lure underwater fish people into a fight in the middle of the ocean, which is an F- idea if ever there was one.

Coogler is a master storyteller, but the pacing feels all wrong. Scenes that should be slow and creepy, like when Namor’s merperson mafia lure Navy SEALS to death with siren songs, are rushed to make room for Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. They are horrifyingly shoehorned into the film so that it connects to the larger MCU, which feels gross in addition to the awkwardness it has given off lately. Thematically, the ending also lands wrong, with an unearned emotional pivot and muddled message about responsibility and revenge or something.

To be all that it aspired to be, “Wakanda Forever” would have taken that at least that long. It is a convoluted and tangled, well-intended jumble that is punctuated with out-of-place set pieces, every bit of which works individually while failing to congeal into a whole. It is almost as forgivably flawed as a broken human heart.

Grade = C+

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Sherin Nicole at Idobi says “The emotional punches just don’t land. I’m guessing that is why our screening ended in an uncomfortable silence. Some of us liked it but weren’t entirely enthusiastic, some of us were mad, and others of us (like me) didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t.”

Kathia Woods at the Philadelphia Tribune says “‘Wakanda Forever’ is a love letter to motherhood, women, and patriotism.”

Kelechi Ehenulo at Movie Marker says “Coogler’s profound film is both heartfelt and spiritually rewarding as a fitting tribute to Chadwick Boseman and the resilience of Black womanhood. By universally tapping into the human frailties of heartache and sorrow, like the collective power of cinema so often reminds us, we never face these challenges alone.”

Leave a comment