Synopsis – The people of Wakanda fight to protect their home from intervening world powers as they mourn the death of King T’Challa.
My Take – Though Marvel Studios releases had already well become a global phenomenon by then, the response to 2018’s Black Panther was unlike anyone had ever seen before. A rare type of film that struck a chord with critics, audiences, box office and the awards circuits alike.
But most importantly saw a cultural impact, considering how the film premiered during the Trump administration, a dystopian period when Black life felt more precarious than usual, making the call for Black superheroes feel more urgent, and giving its messages a much required charge.
As one would expect, it was always going to be a tough task for returning director Ryan Coogler to strike the same chord he did with his beloved first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A task made all the more difficult by the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed the titular character of T’Challa/Black Panther with poise and charisma, leaving Marvel, director Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole with a loss they never had to overcome before.
Nevertheless, despite all odds the sequel succeeds in somehow managing to work with the passing of Boseman to make a cohesive film, that may not make an impact as strong as its predecessor, but by offering up a very different type of superhero film that is both centered and emotionally driven both onscreen and off-screen. Drawing from grief and brokenness from life and infused onto screen, the sequel is a heart numbing, visually engrossing, spectacular blend of action and emotion. Personally, I loved every minute of it.
It’s a moving effort and occasionally an unwieldy one, but I left admiring director Ryan Coogler‘s decision to acknowledge the reality of loss and honor Boseman‘s memory as respectfully as possible. While Phase 4 has been gaining notoriety, despite the onslaught of films and Disney+ series, for not maintaining the previously held standards, director Coogler‘s sequel arrives at the right time, reinstating hope and interest, all the while delivering among the best films of the MCU.
Picking up six years after the events of its predecessor, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), King of Wakanda, has passed away and the eyes of the world are once again on the African kingdom. T’Challa’s younger sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), feels the immense pressure to take over as ruler but believes she cannot handle such a huge responsibility all by herself.
Though for the past year her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has assumed the throne, and has done her best to maintain the nation’s standing as a sovereign power, the rest of the world particularly the U.S. has grown restless as Wakanda remains rich in vibranium, the mystical ore used to create cutting-edge weaponry and tech, and refuses to share its resources with allies.
However, when a vibranium-tracking operation in the Atlantic Ocean is mysteriously thwarted by an unknown power, the people of Talokan, an ancient civilization of underwater dwelling people, whose city is the home to the only other wellspring of vibranium on Earth, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), General Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri, and young scientist Riri (Domonique Thorne) are forced to band together to take on Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), their powerful mutant leader, who is hell bent on keeping Talokan’s existence a secret, and ready to rage a war on Wakanda and the rest of the world to do so.
Without a doubt, the sequel is haunted by Boseman‘s absence, draped in the kind of sorrow that can’t be ignored and director Coogler‘s efforts are at their most powerful when the film is in conversation with the loss of T’Challa. Here, director Coogler builds Shuri’s slide into despair up to one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes: an unbearably tense moment of self-reflection that serves as reminder that a well-deployed exchange between two characters can be just as breathtaking as a grand battle for the fate of two nations. Along with dishing out some nail-biting action sequences, the film dares to delve deeper. It addresses healing, co-existence, humanity and conscience.
With imminent threat surfacing, Queen Ramonda, Shuri and Okoye must conceal their sorrow and personal tragedies to protect and empower their kingdom. Their weaknesses are as brazen as their courage and they must find strength in the face of pain. Unlike MCU’s excessive obsession with comedy these days, the film thankfully evades Marvel stereotypes and tropes. Of course, there are some funny one-liners but they don’t dilute the gravity of the situation or its emotional conflict. And with the help of a 161 minute run time, he doesn’t have to shortchange the emotional journey of his characters, who mourn with us.
Similar to the first film with Wakanda, there’s also a lot of world-building with the newly introduced Namor and the underwater world. Here, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole infuse Talokan’s culture with Mesoamerican history, which gives Namor’s resolve to go to any lengths to protect his people’s home and resources a real richness. Talokan is an interesting society for the MCU to explore in the future, but the film doesn’t establish it quite as gracefully as Black Panther did Wakanda.
Outside of a few establishing shots early during our introduction to Talokan, much of our understanding of it comes from narration during a rushed flashback of its origins, and some important details during that scene feel brushed over. Last time around, the film took pains to dive into both the political and societal structures of Wakanda, and while Talokan’s past is interesting, what it’s like in the present remains a bit murky throughout.
Visually, the film looks great. The underwater sequences are truly astonishing and the one big battle on a Boston bridge manage to be a standout.
Sure, it is not a perfect film, there are some moments that were dragging in the middle for me, but I think it was necessary for this film to be a bit longer than usual. Every character has their shining moments, Shuri is at the heart of this film but Nakia, Okoye, M’Baku and Queen Ramonda all get their shining moments and a solid story arc that is rewarding by the end.
Performance wise, Letitia Wright excellently shoulders the entire film. She was always a strong presence beforehand, but here, Wright is truly allowed to come into her own. Though I must admit, none of this would have worked as well for Wright without the help of Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, who are compelling in their crucial roles. Winston Duke’s M’Baku is a scene-stealer from the moment he appears on screen while Dominique Thorne‘s feisty Riri is likely to be a new fan favorite.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Tenoch Huerta, previously seen in projects including Narcos: Mexico and The Forever Purge, is magnetic in the role, an imposing physical presence but not without nuance and vulnerability. His new adversary Namor is one of the more effective villains Marvel has introduced in the cinematic landscape.
In other roles, Mabel Cadena, Martin Freeman, Michaela Coel, Florence Kasumba, Alex Livanalli and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are effective. On the whole, ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever‘ is a fantastic, effective and very emotional Marvel sequel that excellently honor’s Chadwick Boseman legacy.
Directed – Ryan Coogler
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 161 minutes