One of the great strengths of Ryan Coogler’s long-awaited follow-up to 2018’s cultural zeitgeist champion, Black Panther, is how it’s unabashedly a proper sequel and not merely another piece of the MCU quilt. With much ground to cover, especially in regards to the tragic loss of leading man Chadwick Boseman, a new underwater world to explore, and someone else to don the suit, any kind of quippy Marvel cameo would have surely been an awkward fit. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Coogler’s direction and the incredibly talented team in front and behind the camera that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever enthralls, inspires, saddens, and makes us laugh. Although not necessarily in that order.
Not since 2018’s Avengers: Endgame has an MCU entry completely grabbed my attention since frame one. Most blockbusters keep the audience’s expectations at bay until any last-act plot twists and reveals. Yet, with Boseman’s passing in real life only two years ago, speculations spread on how the series would move forward without their true King. I was confident Coogler wouldn’t succumb to cringe CGI of late, like Peter Cushing’s uncanny valley appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yet, I didn’t know what exactly to expect. Maybe an action opener with the Black Panther in his suit, fighting baddies, only to succumb to injuries? Or the opposite? Perhaps a “years later” title card informing viewers T’Challa had passed, and Shuri and the rest of Wakanda had moved on? None of these options seemed good (or narratively interesting).
***very minor spoilers***
I was relieved and appreciated how meta T’Challa’s death is handled. I won’t go into specifics, but it’s less about how he died and more about how his death greatly affects his younger sister, tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright). Think Clark Kent’s “all those powers, and I couldn’t even save him” speech regarding the loss of Pa Kent in Richard Donner’s Superman. Wisely, T’Challa’s death brings about a feeling of loss alongside frustration. The resulting anger inside Shuri is the heart of Wakanda Forever. A smart inverse of the original film, where T’Challa’s inaction externally led to outer conflict, Shuri’s tale is about the outcome of action when led by emotions in lieu of more pragmatic ideals.
As much as I loved Black Panther, as a character, T’Challa was the Hamlet of the MCU, a man grappling with family betrayals who wondered what action to take to protect his people. Boseman was charismatic and made interesting choices in ways a lesser performer would been limited by. Chadwick got into our hearts as more than just the titular hero but as the King.
Conversely, no inner conflict will stop Shuri from doing what’s needed against a stranger who arrives unannounced late at night on Wakanda’s shore. This intruder floats above the water, flying with winged feet. He is Namor (Tenoch Huerta) and, like Shuri, has no moral conflicts when it comes to protecting his kingdom, Talocan.
For ages, the underwater city based on Mesoamerican culture from the 16th century was unknown to the surface dwellers, but then Lake Bell (in a quick cameo) shows up scouring the ocean floor for vibranium (the powerful resource Wakanda has purposely held back from the rest of the world). Suddenly, a blue-skinned strike team attacks Bell and her team with lethal ways of the water. (It’s hard not to think of their appearance as at least a nod to the peaceful Navi in Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequel.) Unlike Wakanda’s Dora Milaje warrior clan, the Talocan’s soldiers kill indiscriminately. And with that, the stage is set for a battle between Wakanda, the Talocans, and possibly, the woefully underpowered Americans and other “super-powered” nations.
Two films in, and the Black Panther films, like Iron Man, are steeped in the responsibility of mighty technological power versus its exploitation. Unlike those Stark-led entries, the world of Wakanda inspires nearly as much as their hero. The script for Wakanda Forever knows it’s both unexpected yet inevitable that some other unknown city would have vibranium and, naturally, their history with surface dwellers will make them cautious for any peace with Europe, the US, etc. Wakanda might be the most powerful nation on the planet, but after being able to protect itself for so long, the threat of invasion casts a different feel. Talocan knows the danger is imminent, making his people less trusting and much more dangerous.
Like Erik Killmonger, played terrifically by Michael B. Jordan, one of the MCU’s best antagonists, Namor is a threat from his earliest intro, yet we completely understand him. The script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole is down for epic battles (of which there are plenty) but keeps the interpersonal stakes just as high. Tenoch Huerta’s kind, thoughtful eyes make him a hard actor not to root for. Until, of course, Namor crosses some lines. With Namor, Black Panther can now rightly claim to have the MCU’s most compelling and overall best villains.
Wakanda Forever is a big film clocking in at just over two hours and forty minutes. I didn’t really feel that length until the action-packed but a tad tiring final forty minutes, which happens with even the best MCU movies. Alongside the main plot of Namor versus Wakanda, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) is finally introduced. For those not in the know, she’s a super smart MIT student who builds her own Stark-like tech not in a cave and not with Tony’s billions. Though the bulk of the film can be sad for obvious reasons, this subplot, which involves Shuri and Okoye (the always incredible Danai Guriria) out to track down Riri, is often hilarious and light-hearted. A welcome balance just when I thought this might be the first MCU endeavor with little-to-no jokes.
Like many ginormous, huge-budget spectacles, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is not without issues. While it’s miles better than most of the COVID-era films of the MCU’s Phase Four, production limitations pop up now and then. One scene near the end featuring Shuri and another character screams, “two actors on set chatting in front of a Wakandan background” fakeness. It’s not a big deal, but those moments can distract. Also, for a film with such a long runtime, there are one too many montages. Otherwise, I appreciated the various real-world locations used, like Haiti, as well as the character exchanges amid the locales. Finally, as a director, Coogler can film action with clarity of motion, but most of the fight scenes in the film are just okay. The editing is solid but not exactly blood-pumping, either.
With an all-star cast and no weak links, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever hit its emotional beats very well. Angela Bassett has upped her game as Wakanda’s Queen Mother considerably. However, this strong sequel belongs to Wright as Shuri. While she may lack some of Boseman’s star quality, she 100% holds her own. Her late exclamation of the film’s title is both rousing and terrifying. That kind of risk-taking is what’s badly needed in the MCU. I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.