Between 2021 and 2022, Marvel Studios released “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Eternals,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and “Thor: Love and Thunder.” With “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the theatrical journey of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four has come to an end. It’s important to mention the “theatrical journey” aspect of this statement because, after releasing “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki” Season 1, “What If…?” Season 1, “Hawkeye,” “Moon Knight,” “Ms. Marvel,” “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” and “Werewolf by Night,” the production house is about to release “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” on our small screens. And at this point, it is safe to say that this is exhaustive, especially because each entry into this “cinematic” tapestry keeps decreasing in quality, thereby wearing down the sheen of the overall product. Does “Wakanda Forever” manage to stand out, though? Absolutely not.
Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and based on a story written by Coogler, “Wakanda Forever” opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright) trying to save T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) from a mysterious disease. Since Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) burned all the plants with the heart-shaped herb in Wakanda, she tries to synthetically recreate it. But she fails to do so, and T’Challa dies. One year later, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) informs the United Nations that, post-T’Challa’s death, Wakanda has faced multiple incursions in order to acquire vibranium. She leaves them with a very grave warning so that nobody dares to step into Wakanda or any Wakandan outpost. That doesn’t stop the CIA from using a new vibranium-detecting machine and digging up a spot that’s apparently filled with the mineral. And they encounter the deadly Talokans (blue-skinned, water-breathing people) and their leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta Meja). He presents Ramonda and Shuri with a choice: they can deliver the inventor (Riri Williams, who is played by Dominique Thorne) of the vibranium-detecting machine or face his wrath.
Coogler and Cole’s script is an absolute mess, and the reason stems from the fact that they are trying way too hard to transfer the grief of losing Chadwick Boseman, the actor, to T’Challa, the character. This endeavor not only feels exploitative, but it looks like a cheap way to avoid doing any of the legwork required to justify the grief the characters are experiencing on-screen. Boseman’s legacy isn’t limited to the character of T’Challa. He was more than just that character. His humility in his interviews, his work in movies like “42,” “Get on Up,” “Marshall,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and his philanthropy are why his loss hit so hard. The character of T’Challa is, firstly, fictional and, secondly, not that fleshed out. So, to expect that the process of integrating Boseman’s real-life untimely demise into the MCU canon should be considered as a poignant and emotional decision is actually gross and hilarious. And don’t be fooled; the film’s intentions aren’t noble at all. Marvel is very much trusting you to be overwhelmed enough to buy into this grift and ignore the blatant flaws in the movie.
Let’s start with the dialogue. It’s atrocious because it isn’t conversational at all. The characters are either inciting an expository sequence, or they are spewing exposition. Even the genuine heart-to-heart conversations between Ramonda and Shuri or Shuri and Namor are just information dumps. They use buzzwords like “grief,” “loss,” “mourning,” “trauma,” and “vengeance,” and none of it seems like it’s coming from their gut. They always feel distant and plastic, which is probably an issue plaguing the entirety of Marvel Phase Four and not just “Wakanda Forever.” You see, as much as Coogler and Marvel want you to believe this is a “tribute” to Chadwick, it’s ultimately a vehicle for Marvel’s future properties. The film is supposed to be about Wakanda’s mourning phase and Talokan’s interruption. Then why is Riri Williams in here? Why are Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in the film? I’ll tell you why. It’s to hype you up for Phase Five’s “Ironheart” TV series, the “Secret Invasion” TV series, and the “Thunderbolts” movie. That’s why this whole expression of sadness and these repetitive scenes of crying feels like a farce.
“Wakanda Forever” is dark. As in, there are scenes where you can’t see anything. The underwater sequences are a misfire. And, no, I won’t be hearing the excuse that it’s realistic for Talokan to be underlit because sunlight doesn’t reach there, when there’s a mutant with feathers on his ankles. So, I think we are way past realism at this point, and that should reflect in the cinematography with some unmotivated lighting to make the frames clear and visible! However, this problem isn’t limited to the sea. Any scene on the surface is mostly ugly and textureless. Even when cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw and director Ryan Coogler manage to install some dynamic camerawork and creative staging into a scene, editors Kelley Dixon, Jennifer Lame, and Michael P. Shawver chop it up to hell. The action sequences are horrendous and weightless. The costume designs start off really well and then become gaudier and uglier (Okoye unintentionally addresses it as well). In addition to all that, the pacing is dreadful. Yes, Coogler is going for stillness and silence. However, since the writing is bad, that “deliberate pacing” starts to induce a headache. Ludwig Göransson’s score is probably one of the only positive elements of the film.
The other positive elements of “Wakanda Forever” are Danai Gurira, Winston Duke and Angela Bassett. Even when the writing is bad, and they have to spend line after line and scene after scene delivering hollow dialogues, they give it their all. Yes, it’s over-the-top and not nuanced or subtle. But this is an unsubtle subgenre, and they are playing unsubtle characters. So, it works. Actors like Lupita Nyong’o, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Martin Freeman, Michaela Coel, and Maria Mercedes Coroy are wasted. What is the point of bringing in Lupita, Freeman, Coel, and Coroy and then giving them nothing to work with? Is Marvel just collecting them like WWE Trump Cards that they can show off to other studios and mock them because they don’t have the money to do the same? Tenoch is in this movie and is severely underutilized. And then there is Letitia Wright, who is doing a lot, but it largely feels insincere. She fared well as a supporting actor in the previous films. However, she clearly doesn’t have the chops to be the lead, thereby making her one of the biggest reasons why the film’s most somber moments fall flat on their faces.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is undoubtedly one of the worst movies of the year and a clear indication for Marvel to start making movies again instead of peddling products that promote future products. They need to choose a genre and stick to it. Everything doesn’t need to be an action spectacle. If the narrative requires an intimate approach, then they have to let go of the bigger set pieces where hordes of unknown characters are fighting each other or whizzing past the frame before we can notice what’s going on. They have to let their characters breathe. They have to let the scenes have a sense of gravity. They have to let their directors make a movie instead of an advertisement for the franchise’s endless sequels and spin-offs. But going by the slew of Phase Five and Phase Six announcements, Kevin Feige and Co. are clearly not too interested in doing any of that. In fact, they don’t need to. As long as they can see the dollar signs reflect on their eyeballs and feel the deafening screams of fans pierce their eardrums, they can keep doing what they are doing. And if they want to be remembered as the production house that made the most movies and shows instead of the studio that made the best movies and shows, then who are we to stop them?