Synopsis: The people of Wakanda fight to protect their home from intervening world powers as they mourn the death of King T’Challa.
Stars: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running Length: 161 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: By all accounts, 2018’s Black Panther was far more than just another Marvel movie. Director Ryan Coogler’s film arrived after the success of Thor: Ragnarok and before the beginning of the bend rounding that was Avengers: Infinity War, yet it stood out. Instead of feeling like it was serving as another puzzle piece that told a larger story, it flipped the power dynamic to invite the Marvel fans into its orbit instead of the other way around. That formula paid off incredibly well, not just in audience satisfaction but in the movie becoming the first Marvel Studios property to be a major awards contender, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and in six other categories. Ultimately winning three (rightfully so), Black Panther set a high bar that no other similar genre film has met as of this writing.
A sequel was inevitable even if the awards hadn’t come and there were always plans to bring back Black Panther down the line. No one could have predicted how difficult that would be, though. Getting Coogler and the cast to come back was a matter of signing on the dotted line, but when original star Chadwick Boseman tragically died of colon cancer in 2020, questions were raised on how the film and franchise would deal with this loss. Considering Boseman’s legacy and his too-short career’s tremendous impact on the world, Coogler and Marvel have made wise decisions regarding their follow-up. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever allows a time for mourning befitting Boseman’s immense contributions.
The opening of Coogler’s sequel is this passage of time as heroic efforts by princess Shuri (Letitia Wright, The Silent Twins) cannot save her brother King T’Challa from a mysterious illness that claims his life. As her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, Olympus Has Fallen), and the Wakandans mourn, Shuri cannot forgive herself or let go of her brother’s memory. With T’Challa’s passing and the throne reverting to Ramonda, the Black Panther, a symbol of protection for Wakanda, has also been laid to rest. A year later, Wakanda’s protection of vibranium, their powerful natural resource, is called under question by the United Nations, which feels the country should be more willing to share it with the world, even though it has proven dangerous when it falls into the wrong hands.
It appears that vibranium may not be as exclusive to Wakanda as everyone thought. A deep sea rig has discovered a possible new source within a subocean cave but couldn’t have predicted that another nation of underwater people is ready to protect it as fiercely as the Wakandans. Led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía, The Forever Purge), a super-powerful leader with wings on his ankles and “ears that point toward the sky,” they speak ancient Mayan and fight with an extreme severity that makes them nearly invincible either underwater or on land.
When Namor asks Shuri and Ramonda for help in locating a ‘scientist’ Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, If Beale Street Could Talk), really an MIT college student, who has unknowingly created the only device that can detect vibranium so that he may eliminate her, the two nations become divided over how to handle the threat of outsiders. Namor would instead wipe all danger out immediately, whereas Shuri and Ramonda know that taking down one enemy often creates numerous others in their place. As Namor’s armies demonstrate their power over the Wakandan people, striking with deadly force and creating more tragic situations for all to deal with, Shuri must decide whether to continue living in an unresolved shroud of guilt or emerge from self-imposed darkness into the light as a leader her people deserve.
The first half of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is about exciting as any film you’ve seen in recent memory. After that opening which may have you dabbing your eyes, Coogler’s film wastes little time kicking into high gear with impressive action sequences and story-building that again manages to keep his movie centrally located as opposed to other Marvel endeavors, which can fly all over the world. This doesn’t need to jump locations to keep us engaged; the set-up and characters make us inch forward in our seats. Brief trips outside of Wakanda, like Shuri and head of special forces Okoye (Danai Gurira, Avengers: Endgame) taking a trip to capture Riri before Namor gets to her, are opportunities for Coogler and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw to have fun with action sequences and the results are spectacular.
It’s the last hour of the sequel that gets dicey. Maybe it’s the special effects that aren’t as polished as the first (an alarming trend in many Marvel movies), or perhaps it’s just because something is missing in Wright’s performance that doesn’t align as nicely as Boseman’s did with the hero track. Wright is a fine actress with good instincts, but an action star? I’m not so sure about that. Her dramatic scenes carry a nice heft, but when she’s asked to take center stage, it feels a little like asking the solid second-chair violinist to lead the entire orchestra suddenly. They get the job done, but there’s more effort than necessary in the work. Luckily, Wright often has the towering Bassett and the excellent Gurira (where is the spin-off show for this character?) by her side for support.
Filling out the rest of the cast, Mejía makes for a surprising villain of sorts, though even classifying him as such can be tricky, seeing that his goals are often in lockstep with Shuri and Ramonda’s. He’s just going about it in a slightly more forceful way. It’s not the cruel world dominator we’ve seen in other Marvel movies of the past. Funny enough, it’s the stars of Jordan Peele’s creepy Us don’t share many (if any) scenes, but Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Winston Duke (Nine Days) have several excellent moments in the spotlight throughout. Don’t you dare, don’t you even dare, leave before the mid-credits scene (the only one) for an emotional wallop game-changer.
The biggest nitpick I had with the film is that for a movie that focuses so much on tradition and ceremony to honor the dead (multiple funerals happen in the movie), there is often little acknowledgment of the loss of life of those that serve the leaders of these nations. Though they are fictional, many people give their lives to protect their homes, but both leaders fail to mention their sacrifice. At the same time, Coogler focuses a great deal of effort on funeral services for others. In a movie about uniting and not dividing, I think having even one sentence of acknowledgment would have helped.
Successfully continuing the Black Panther franchise was a monumental undertaking, not just in terms of a regular sequel but with the added cloud of loss hanging above the filmmakers. Instead of it being a time of sorrow, you can almost feel Boseman’s presence around the endeavor at times. I wouldn’t dream of saying something as gauche as “he would have approved,” but I’m happy that these were the filmmakers responsible for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever because they had worked with him and respected and mourned him. You can tell they took this seriously, which shows in the quality sequel that rose from such a tragedy.