On Set: Black Panther is dead, long live Black Panther

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts travels back to Wakanda to see how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is coping with the loss of Black Panther.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios

by | Nov 23, 2022 | Culture, Film & TV

Let me say from the start that I do not intend to equate the death of a fictional character to the loss the actor who played him. One is fake and the other is very, very real. When Chadwick Boseman passed away in 2020 at 43 after a battle with cancer, he was already in possession of a formidable artistic legacy, but those who knew him closely must certainly miss the man more than the myths. That said, the Marvel family needed to mourn too and, to do so, they had to figure out where to take the Black Panther story.

I applaud director Ryan Coogler’s choice to confront the subject of Boseman’s death head-on in “Wakanda Forever.” Rather than use technology to keep him in the MCU a bit longer like Star Wars did with Carrie Fisher, “Wakanda Forever” begins with King T’Challa’s passing and works out from there. It’s the right move to mirror the real and the imagined in this way. The topic is handled with incredible sincerity and respect, allowing the remaining cast to stand in for the fans of Boseman’s work as Black Panther. From the cold open to the end credits scene (of course there is one, so stick around), Boseman’s and T’Challa’s lives are beautifully remembered. It’s time now to see where the story of this powerful nation and the icon who protects it can go from here.

The basic plot of “Wakanda Forever” centers on the increased global interest in their culture and resources, now that both have been fully revealed after the events of the Infinity War. After a bit of geo-political thumb-wrestling, Queen Ramonda (played again by Angela Bassett) finds herself potentially at odds with Earth’s other great powerful nations. It seems that, absent a huge purple psychopath to bind their collective will, humans are dutifully considering a return to what they do best — you know, to be kind of terrible to each other. Beneath this big picture is a more intimate one featuring T’Challa’s sister Shuri. Played wonderfully by Letitia Wright, Shuri is sad and angry and struggling to see a way forward without her brother.

To say more about the narrative would be bad form. But suffice to say things get complicated in ways only a Phase 4 Marvel movie can. What I mean generally is that there is a ton of unfocused action going on, with overstuffed but often dangling subplots and a set of risks and rewards that don’t always feel consequential, despite the epic visual scale. What I mean specifically is that there is yet another hidden world to learn about, filled with unbelievably fierce people, and this begs the same question I had when I saw the “Eternals” film in 2021. Where were these people when Thanos was killing everyone? Twice! We could have really used them.

Without a doubt, “Wakanda Forever” is stunning to look at and really fun to inhabit again for a couple of hours, but the Black Panther part of the movie takes too long to develop. And when it does, it’s rushed and disappointing. I should be clear. It’s not what they chose to do with the mantle of Wakanda’s superhero protector — I love that progression — it’s how they did it. This torch is too important to pass so quickly, and with so little gravity. Both Panthers deserve better.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe was already facing a challenging lull after the Thanos storyline ended, and Boseman’s devastating death forced an unexpected transition for one of the most beloved individual brands. I still enjoy these movies and will run out to see the next one, but I think we need a new mega-villain to get everyone on the same page again. Word is, one might be on the way.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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