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Faced with the challenging prospect of following his $1.3 billion-grossing blockbuster without the charismatic lead actor who provided that first film’s noble heart, Ryan Coogler delivers an emotionally resonant tribute to Chadwick Boseman in the early scenes of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever that will leave no fan unmoved. Extending through the Marvel logo on the opening credits — redesigned to feature stirring images of the late actor — the entire intro invites audiences to share in the grief felt by the filmmakers and cast, as well as the characters they play, planting a vein of exquisite sorrow that ripples through this epic sequel.
The simple words on the end credits, “Dedicated to our friend Chadwick Boseman,” define the prevailing spirit of the movie, with its melancholy acknowledgement of loss and legacy. Which is not to say it’s short on excitement, action or even humor. Just thinking about Winston Duke’s swaggering Wakandan mountain warrior M’Baku chomping on a carrot while snarling “You bald-headed demon” at Danai Gurira’s Okoye, his rival general from the all-female Dora Milaje special forces unit, makes me laugh.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
More than any other entry in the MCU canon, Black Panther became a genuine cultural phenomenon in terms of proud representation — a futuristic action-adventure that embraced history and tradition. It was an implicitly political depiction of a staunchly independent African nation resisting the grasp of colonizers hungry for its natural resources, a boldly imaginative response to generations of real-world trauma. Wrapping all that up in some cool superhero shit was a considerable achievement.
Coogler and returning co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole maintain and arguably even fortify that vein here. They introduce another ancient civilization of Indigenous people who have escaped a brutal history of enslavement and genocide, living in fantastical seclusion and ready to unleash all their considerable might against any global plunderer angling to tap their most precious natural resource. That, of course, is vibranium, the same meteorite-derived metal element from which Wakanda draws its power.
Whether those hidden underwater-dwelling Mayan descendants, led by the formidable ruler of Talokan, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), become valuable allies or dangerous enemies to the Wakandans is the chief intrigue driving the plot of the sequel — and possibly future installments.
Coogler resists the tireless cross-pollination impulse of so many MCU movies by concluding with two clear separate indications of ongoing conflict, as well as a mid-credits sequence both moving and jaw-dropping, which induced gasps at the press screening I caught. Black Panther characters might continue to lend a hand in those other Marvel exploits populated by characters who talk like quippy teenagers, but every seed planted here is of a more somber saga predominantly contained within its own complex universe.
If the storytelling occasionally gets messy with its endless location switches, the battles sometimes sacrifice visceral action for CG magnitude, and the running time (an expansive 2 hours 41 minutes) is definitely felt, particularly in the ambling midsection, this eagerly anticipated sequel is every bit as thrilling as it needs to be.
The presence of two principal characters, Letitia Wright’s royal tech geek Shuri and her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been amped up in affecting ways to which both actors respond with bracing authority. That comes as a direct result of the death of King T’Challa and consequent loss of the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda, a devastating blow depicted in the opening scene.
MCU films have generally not been distinguished by their emotional weight, but there may be no more shattering moment in the canon than a stricken Ramonda telling Shuri: “Your brother is with the ancestors.”
This lays the foundations for uneasy mother-daughter conflicts — one taking comfort from the spiritual world, the other intensifying her dedication to science — but also divergent views on how to keep the country safe. Even the need to find a new Black Panther for the survival of Wakanda becomes a matter of dispute, initially dismissed by Shuri as a relic of another time.
It’s gratifying, however, that Coogler and Cole don’t simply barrel onward. Instead, they linger poignantly over the elaborate funeral ceremony, a balance of solemnity and kinetically charged dancing to drums and percussion, with the coffin borne by Okoye and the Dora Milaje. This breathtaking sequence also provides an early opportunity to be awed by the incredible beauty and detail of Ruth Carter’s costumes, arguably even outdoing her Oscar-winning work on the previous film with garments combining elegant future-world sophistication with African symbology.
Comics history aficionados who have been waiting impatiently for the appearance of Namor — first introduced as the proto-mutant Sub-Mariner in 1939 — will not be disappointed by Mexican actor Huerta’s glowering demeanor and burly physicality in the role. The winged feet might be a bit much, but the regal attire is spectacular, his hard-bodied naked torso adorned with shells and beads and gold and robes of kelp.
Namor and his Talokanil warriors first emerge as a hostile response to a CIA-operated American ship in the mid-Atlantic in an action sequence that has the hard-charging energy of a Bond opener. It demonstrates the Talokanil’s strength and strategic coordination but also their siren-like ability to hypnotize adversaries, luring them to plunge into the ocean depths.
Having thwarted that attempt to tap his vibranium deposits, Namor goes to Wakanda, which had no previous knowledge of the Talokanil civilization’s existence, let alone the invaluable resource they have in common. Namor demands an alliance against the interlopers. Catching Ramonda and Shuri in an intimate moment of grief, he warns them that new technology makes their vibranium vulnerable.
The Queen has already expressed her displeasure with foreign territories attempting to get their hands on it in an electrifying moment that sees Bassett at her don’t-fuck-with-me grandest, dressing down the U.N. Security Council with a promise that she won’t go easy next time. But neither Ramonda nor her daughter is inspired to trust Namor.
With Okoye as their principal facilitator, much to M’Baku’s eternal chagrin, they contact longtime CIA ally Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and War Dog Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the master spy in self-exile running a school in Haiti. Sparking another explosive faceoff among different factions trying to abduct the inventor of the vibranium tracker, they also recruit 19-year-old MIT science whizz Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).
Riri is a terrific new addition and Thorne (Judas and the Black Messiah) brings sparky humor to the mix, though in a movie pushing three hours, they might have found a few minutes for a quick training montage to make her transition into a kickass fighter more believable. Still, Riri’s technological ingenuity gives her an instant sisterly kinship with fellow genius Shuri, which lessens the latter’s isolation, particularly after another tragedy strikes Wakanda.
She also further reinforces the thread consistent to both Black Panther movies of women as vessels of inestimable power, resourcefulness and intelligence. There’s a corresponding echo of that even among the Talokanil, where Namor relies no less on his fierce cousin Namora (Mabel Cadona) than he does on the mighty hulk-like Attuma (Alex Livinalli), his two principal warrior lieutenants. Carter’s look for Namora is a stunner, with glamrock-style shoulder pieces fastened by lobster claws and a massive headdress inspired by the lionfish; her floating diaphanous robes make her look like a sea ghost.
Of course, any halfway attentive Marvel fan will know that a new Black Panther must emerge as the stakes are heightened and the threat intensifies, and despite Disney urging early audiences to avoid spoilers, the identity of that new protector swiftly leaked out. Not that it was so hard to guess. But the process of discovery — which happens via a visit to the ancestral plane, complete with superstar cameo — remains suspenseful and exhilarating, especially once the new, improved Panther suit gets put into action.
While the majority of the film’s battles take place on the surface world, it’s the ability of the Talokanil to harness the power of water — I mean, these folks can ride whales — that gives rise to the most sensational set-piece, in which Coogler deftly orchestrates the destruction to mirror the real-world catastrophes of floods and tsunamis. A major clash at sea, on a massive Wakandan ship and in the skies above, is another high point. But Coogler balances action with character-driven human drama throughout, keeping the stakes personal as well as global.
That duality gives the actors more to chew on than the usual MCU fare. Wright and Bassett are the sequel’s standouts, their characters refusing to let their pain diminish their dignity as both of them proudly carry the torch for T’Challa. Nyong’o has a less central role but as always is a compelling presence. The same goes for Gurira, with the ever-vigilant Okoye sidelined until late in the film when she proves her unshaken loyalty in combat.
Much has been written lately about too many cinematographers not knowing how to light actors of color. But new DP Autumn Durald Arkapaw picks up where Rachel Morrison left off in Black Panther by giving us strikingly beautiful and physically powerful Black and Latino actors as resplendent Movie Stars. Production designer Hannah Beachler’s impressive world-building extends from the dazzling Afrofuturism of Wakanda to the majestic undersea halls of Talokan, meaning not one but two advanced civilizations resistant to white encroachers.
Even if the length feels overextended, Coogler and his editors deserve credit for allowing breathing space between the action scenes for character and relationship development, with Ludwig Göransson’s African-inflected score enhancing both those quieter moments and the big smackdowns. It’s impossible for Wakanda Forever to match the breakthrough impact of its predecessor, but in terms of continuing the saga while paving the way for future installments, it’s amply satisfying.
Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Martin Freeman, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Alex Livinalli, Mabel Cadena, Isaach De Bankolé, Danny Sapani, Dorothy Steel, Zainab Jah
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Producers: Kevin Feige, Nate Moore
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Barry Waldman
Director of photography: Autumn Durald Arkapaw
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Costume designer: Ruth Carter
Music: Ludwig Göransson
Editors: Michael P. Shawver, Kelley Dixon, Jennifer Lame
Visual effects supervisor: Geoffrey Baumann
Visual effects producer: Nicole Rowley
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 41 minutes
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