The development of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was an exercise in blockbuster creativity: how do you make a sequel to a superhero movie after the untimely death of its beloved star? Ryan Coogler, who directed both films and who cowrote Wakanda Forever's screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, made it clear that he would not recast the role of T'Challa/Black Panther, so perfectly embodied by the late Chadwick Boseman. Thus this sequel could only be about the people T'Challa/Boseman left behind.
Does it work? Reader, I wish it did. But it doesn't.
The movie begins with T'Challa dying – off-camera, of course – and leaving his kingdom of Wakanda in mourning. It's agreed that no one else is worthy of the Black Panther mantle, so everyone must simply move on. Yet here comes the plot: as it turns out, the priceless and powerful metal known as Vibranium, which Wakandans had believed was found only in their hidden country, is also at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, guarded by an underwater civilization of mer-people led by Prince Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). When an African American science student (Dominique Thorne) discovers a method to locate Vibranium, Namor rightly fears that "the surface world" will destroy his society in its quest for the metal, so he wants to kill the girl and her knowledge – and asks the Wakandans to help.
Prince Namor will be familiar to any longtime Marvel Comics fans. Nicknamed the Sub-Mariner, he was depicted for years as Spock in a Speedo – not an easy character to bring to the screen without looking ridiculous, but Coogler, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, and Huerta Mejía honor the old look, winged ankles and all, while updating Namor into a worthy contemporary badass. In the comics, he rules over Atlantis; in Wakanda Forever, his kingdom is called Talokan, and Namor himself is also known as Kukulkan, the Mayan serpent god.
In short, Namor and his people are Mayan, and it's certainly no accident that they are played by Mexican and Central American actors, facing off against Wakanda's all-black cast. Yet the real world's racial and economic complexities that were so well explored in the first Black Panther get short shrift here. Namor makes it clear to Wakanda's Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) that other countries will think nothing of enslaving any of them in order to get their hands on that precious Vibranium – yet aside from a couple of scenes with cynical CIA manager Valentina Allegre de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing the first character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who you won't know anything about unless you also watch the Marvel TV shows on Disney+), we don't see that "surface world" posing any threat. The story is really just about the Talokans fighting the Wakandans until someone inevitably realizes that war is not the answer.
Coogler and Cole's script is a warren of plot holes. Even the most advanced nations can't find Wakanda, so cleverly do its people use technology to hide themselves. Yet Namor manages to sneak in via some sort of waterway? Right when Ramonda and Shuri happen to be hanging out alone on the shore? And then after Namor's first vaguely threatening visit, why don't the brilliant Wakandans think to secure said waterway from further incursion? And for a secret civilization living hundreds of feet underwater, the Talokans sure are good at hand-to-hand combat on dry land. How did they train? Their skin turns blue outside the water – nobody ever noticed? And isn't it convenient that Namor alone can walk around outside without breathing apparatus or turning blue? He casually explains that he's a mutant, hence these special powers and those winged feet, but while that adheres to Marvel canon, it's a real contrivance. Finally, it's as though Marvel über-producer Kevin Feig and his story team forgot that T'Challa was turned into dust at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, and although he was brought back to life five years later during the convoluted machinations of Avengers: Endgame, he was presumably back in charge of Wakanda for only a few weeks or months before dying again. In other words, shouldn't Wakanda already be accustomed to life without its king – without its Black Panther? It's never addressed.
There's nothing wrong with Letitia Wright's performance, but lacking the star power of Chadwick Boseman, she fails to anchor the film. (Huerta Mejía fares better and I hope Namor returns to future Marvel movies.) And the world-building that production designer Hannah Beachler did so well in Black Panther feels uninspired this time. Instead of being a land of wonder, Talokan just looks messy and dark and I couldn't help but wonder how or where these underwater people slept.
As you can tell by this lengthy rant, I was disappointed by Wakanda Forever. Chadwick Boseman alone wasn't what made its predecessor work. It simply had a better story and a more coherent point of view.