With the exception of 2021’s crowd-pleasing blockbuster, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is easily the best Marvel franchise movie since its 2018 predecessor—though the film works best when it is honoring its fallen king, Chadwick Boseman, who died in August 2020 following a silent battle with colon cancer.
Boseman’s absence is deeply felt here and his presence looms large. The actor’s untimely death forced director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole back to the drawing board for this sequel, and for what it’s worth, they address the loss of T’Challa with grace and dignity (“He is with the ancestors now”). But it’s the new Marvel Studios logo for this film that may very well provide its single most poignant element, as you could hear a pin drop in my theater, which was silent with respect and reverence. This was not just for the fictional king that is lost in the film but for the man who imbued him with meaning to millions of fans.
Once the sequel deals with the death of the Black Panther, it quickly establishes his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), as its indisputable lead—though she’s in mourning, so she’s not quite the Shuri we remember. This film finds her wrestling with her grief. Moving past the powerful prologue of sorts, Coogler introduces a new villain, Kukulcan (Tenoch Huerta), who is better known as Namor, the Feathered Serpent. His people, the Talokanil, have existed in secret for ages, just like the people of Wakanda—and like Wakanda, the Talokanil also has access to the powerful metal known as vibranium.
Everyone is trying to get their hands on vibranium, for whoever controls vibranium controls the world, but when the CIA makes an ill-advised attempt to steal some of the Talokanil’s supply, Namor makes an example out of them. However, he knows that his people are still vulnerable to attack, so he sets out to forge an alliance with Wakanda. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) doesn’t quite trust him—he’s a slippery one, literally.
Huerta, a breakout actor in Narcos: Mexico, makes for a pretty compelling villain; it’s hard to blame him for wanting to ensure that Wakanda is on his side when the next enemy, whoever that may be, attacks the Talokanil in the hopes of mining their vibranium. I really liked the character’s design, as Namor has winged feet, pointed ears, and a nose piercing that sure looks like it hurts. But I have to say, the Talokanil looked a heck of a lot like the Na’vi, who are about to return to screens in just a few weeks in Avatar: The Way of Water.
What should age pretty well are the impressive action sequences (judging by Marvel’s standards), as Coogler makes it clear that no expense was spared in the creation of Wakanda Forever, though the cinematography (courtesy of Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who shot Loki) is, at times, a little too dark. I don’t know if that’s just Marvel’s murky house style or what, but as beautiful as certain shots are, others are pretty difficult to see. What pops, however, are Ruth Carter’s colorful costumes, which are once again dynamite. She’s practically guaranteed another Oscar nomination for her work on Wakanda Forever, which also features another noteworthy score (pun intended) from Oscar winner Ludwig Goransson.
The film’s performances are also strong across the board. Wright gives it her all as Shuri, though the character seemed to stand out more in the first film, in which she was just a supporting player. Likewise, Bassett stands out in this sequel, which finds her rising to the occasion as T’Challa’s grieving mother. Wakanda Forever also brings back Winston Duke (charming as the film’s intimidating comic relief), Danai Gurira (a total badass once again), and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, (solid in an understated role), and introduces Michaela Coel as well as Dominique Thorne, whose young hero Ironheart gets plenty of screen time in advance of her own Disney+ series next year.
That said, Boseman’s absence hangs like a dark cloud over this sequel, which carries an air of melancholy over it, though that helps elevate the stakes above a typical Marvel movie, even though the outside world is never really threatened here. In fact, a close call for the surface world might’ve actually helped a bit, especially when the movie begins to drag somewhere around the 60-90 minute mark. In the end, Wakanda Forever overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes, as a 161-minute runtime is just a wee bit self-indulgent.
At least your patience will be rewarded with one of Marvel’s better epilogues. Normally, the studio’s movies feature a mid-credits scene and a jokey post-credits scene, but Wakanda Forever skips the latter, which wouldn’t have fit with the serious tone of this sequel.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may not be the best Marvel movie ever made but it’s better than most of the company’s recent efforts and it has an even greater cultural significance than the last film, in a way, because while that may have broken new ground as the first MCU movie with a Black lead, Boseman was still a relative unknown; now, he has a place in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people around the world. He may be gone, but he is certainly not forgotten—especially by the folks at Marvel. If I were you, I’d bring a few tissues to this compassionate sequel.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters around the world on Friday, Nov. 11, with previews beginning Thursday night.
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