The king of Wakanda is dead. Long live the king.
The original Black Panther was about Black joy in the face of ongoing, generational trauma. It came out in 2018, a time when much of the western world was at a particular low point in terms of racial politics, which has only gotten much, much worse. The film’s sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is that film in its mourning period. Its main star, the original title character portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, is sadly no longer with us, leaving the succession of his superhero legacy an irksome question mark. The kind of thing no one really wants to admit they’re thinking about, let alone want to talk about, because most are still just trying to wrap their heads around the loss of a human being, not just a fictional character.
Yet the show must go on. It’s easy to be cynical about all this, the Marvel machine and its self-greasing wheels. Black Panther was a huge hit financially and critically, and audiences have been languishing for a fully-realized return to Wakanda, both the idea and the place, for nearly five years. Get it they shall in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which picks up the pieces of several loose ends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely this world’s most powerful nation struggling to maintain its sovereignty now that the entire world is aware of and actively seeking to exploit their most prized resource, Vibranium.
There are times, though, when that Vibranium reminds a little more of Unobtainium. To be clear, the main thread of Wakanda Forever‘s story follows the methodical grieving process of its main characters, the once secondary players in the previous entry. That is truly no longer the case. Wakanda Forever is pretty much an ensemble piece that slowly morphs itself into something more singular by the end, with a keen focus on the central women who were most important to T’Challa, who dies offscreen at the beginning of the film from a disease not unlike what happened to Boseman.
Marvel’s “eternal war” of expectations.
As for the plot, Wakanda Forever is a war movie wearing a familiar superhero suit. It turns out Wakanda wasn’t the only nation hiding from the rest of the world in order to protect its own power. A nation of underwater people with ties to the ancient Mayan civilization have recently emerged to beckon an alliance with the Wakandans. It’s an interesting deal. As allies, these Talokan can help bolster Wakanda’s defense against an increasingly anxious world that does not understand them. The only problem is that the Talokan have no interest in waiting to be struck first.
Angela Bassett returns as Ramonda, the queen of Wakanda who served in T’Challa’s absence during the “blip” and was reinstated after his eventual death. She desperately wants to shepherd her daughter Shuri, portrayed by Letitia Wright, who is no longer the bright and quippy sidekick sister constantly supplying her older brother with gadgets and catchphrases. Like with most things, the hardships of a traumatic early adulthood have matured her considerably, and disarmingly so. Wright plays the newly redefined character with an almost perfectly clumsy confidence, one that is certainly regal in its essence but managed by unsure footing. She never quite knows what to feel in a given moment, or how to present herself to strangers as authentically as she might like. There’s obviously an outright antagonist in Wakanda Forever, but for most of the film, Shuri serves that role against her own self well enough.
“Show them who we are.”
Speaking of villains, Tenoch Huerta makes his Marvel debut as Namor, the ruthless king of Talokan and a fair attempt at recapturing the same unrelenting energy of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, who also looms large over this sequel in subtle, but poignant ways. Namor is nowhere near as impactful or surprising as Killmonger, but he’s still a wealth of charisma and heart, even if the other Talokans aren’t nearly as memorable or sure to make an impression.
M’Baku (Winston Duke), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and even Ross (Martin Freeman) are all back in addition to Shuri and Ramonda — though, seriously, Ross? Really? Ryan Coogler is back, too, as both director and co-screenwriter with Joe Robert Cole. The brilliant costumes, impeccable production design, and sharp cultural details are all back as well. So it’s a wonder they managed to avoid a few other things returning, like the lackluster action sequences.
This time around, Wakanda Forever has a decent share of gripping fights, all of them still rooted in the emotional pull that saved Black Panther from being a talky costume contest. Though the special effects still aren’t quite up to the higher standards of even some of Marvel’s TV shows, the choreography and basic visual appeal behind these encounters elicit some significant tension, much of it aided by how this world feels more fragile and prone to breaking than ever.
An emotional punch of a tribute.
For how complete the film feels emotionally, it’s still a bit searching in regards to its war games. Sure, there’s a half-hearted attempt to tie all the pain and political strife of these misunderstood nations to the cyclical nature of vengeance, but not in a way that stands out all that much from lessons T’Challa already learned six years ago in a Captain America movie of all things. Wakanda Forever has no shortage of thought-provoking ideas, to be sure. It just doesn’t give all those ideas the set pieces they need to land with some serious impact. Except the parts when it surely does, and all is quickly forgiven.
This all wears quite thin, though, as the movie stretches to 161 minutes. To the point where one seriously has to wonder why more of the Ross scenes didn’t get cut (likely due to how certain characters will tie into other movies and shows, and you already know how all this works, right?) Again, it’s the Marvel machine. We know its little tricks and foibles by now, and it’s not like the last Black Panther movie was able to escape these committee bylaws, either.
Many who find themselves somewhat bored with the recent glut of Marvel content have good enough reason to step back into the circle for another round with Coogler and his amazing friends. It’s another Marvel movie, but it’s also another Black Panther movie. It’s the king for a reason.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters on November 11. Watch the trailer here.
Featured Image Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER - 7.5/10