Lack of fun, exaggerated visual effects ding the drama in anxiously awaited 'Black Panther' sequel
"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" - ★ ★
The anxiously awaited sequel to 2018's critical and box-office hit "Black Panther" provides a textbook example of what happens when action scenes and visual effects drive the story instead of empathetic characters driving the action and visual effects.
"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" begins on not just promising notes, but perfect ones.
So, this sensational (especially with Ruth Carter's eye-arresting costume designs) movie becomes all the more disappointing when the increasingly confusing fight scenes pile up during a sloggy 2 hours and 41 minutes as the initial surge of exhilaration slowly devolves into respectful endurance.
Plus, who removed the Fun Chip from this computer-generated-imagery-dominated adventure?
Practically every frame of "Black Panther" radiated the fun and thrills that have become a hallmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
"Wakanda Forever" settles for a few sparse moments of humorous put-downs, along with a series of glum and oh-so-serious conversations, respectful acknowledgments of deceased ancestors, emotionally vacuous encounters, plus ludicrous instant recoveries from ordinarily 100% fatal wounds. (Apparently, only lead characters can be Wolverines.)
The passing of a key character in "Wakanda Forever" should have created tears. Yet it has been presented in such a pedestrian manner that it generates no heartfelt sense of loss. (I scanned the faces of the viewers behind me at a Monday-night screening and noted unchanged placid expressions.)
"Wakanda Forever" does confirm something we already knew from the 2018 movie: that the late Chadwick Boseman playing T'Challa (alias Black Panther) proved to be one of the most magical pairings of performer and character in cinema history, up there with Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Sean Connery as James Bond.
Boseman's 2020 death from colon cancer cut short what promised to be an electrified film franchise that blended Jules Verne, authentic global politics and comic book imagination.
Director Ryan Coogler and his fellow filmmakers pay a superbly fashioned tribute to Boseman during the opening credits. The usual collage of Marvel characters has been replaced by a flurry of images of Boseman as T'Challa. The usual musical fanfare gone, replaced by total silence.
The final services for the deceased T'Challa are conducted by the entire nation of Wakanda, its grieving residents wrapped in white. There are no dry eyes here as T'Challa's remains receive a spectacular tribute and send-off as befitting their protector, Black Panther.
This is both wonderfully and regretfully the best part of this movie, an odd sci-fi fantasy in which two warring nonwhite cultures fight to wipe out each other while the white-represented United States of America sits in the shadows, smacking its lips in anticipation of obtaining and presumably weaponizing the metal vibranium, a valuable commodity and power source that T'Challa's hidden African nation Wakanda had kept under wraps for a long time.
The chief antagonist here ("villain" isn't quite accurate) turns out to be Namor, an aquatic Marvel character introduced in the 1939 publication Motion Picture Funnies Weekly.
Mexican star Tenoch Huerta plays Namor, leader of Mayan descendants now living in the underwater city of Talokan. They have the magical power to sing sirens' songs to humans, who then kill themselves by jumping off high places, including ships.
He approaches Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and her high-tech-smart daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) warning that they should join together to protect their supplies of vibranium.
But the queen doesn't know if Namor is a friend or foe, and her mistrust of him becomes confirmed later as events unfold.
Rejoining the ranks of smart, dedicated and independent women are Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, a spy now operating a Haitian school, and Danai Gurira's fierce general Okoye, with supersmart MIT science student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) added to the group.
CIA ally Everett Ross (reprised by Martin Freeman) has a less substantial role to play here, with Winston Duke's cocky warrior M'Baku firing off comic insults such as "You baldheaded demon!"
So, why does Namor have little parakeet wings on his ankles when his body has been reformatted to live under water?
Why would the Wakandan army choose to fight Namor's forces while on a ship on the ocean where Namor has whales at his command and his fighters can easily overtake the vessel?
What would T'Challa do?
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Starring: Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Freeman, Tenoch Huerta
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for language, violence. 161 minutes