2018’s “Black Panther” wasn’t just a wild success, it was an axis-shifting historically significant moment — the first major comic book movie featuring a Black superhero, it was the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and it won three Oscars, for its score, production design and costumes. But after star Chadwick Boseman died in 2020 following a private battle with cancer, where do you go from there?
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole went back to the drawing board for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” writing a script that addresses the death of Boseman’s character T’Challa, and turns its focus to T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who takes over leadership duties in Wakanda, and sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), the tech-oriented scientist who is more comfortable in her lab than out in front of Wakanda.
Ultimately, “Wakanda Forever” becomes a film about Shuri stepping into her power as she grapples with grief and loss, and the tension between science and spirituality, the balance of which has always ruled the culture of Wakanda. Wright steps up to the plate, and proves her chops and gravitas as an actor, carrying the emotional weight of this film, which is as much a bittersweet sendoff to Boseman as it is for T’Challa.
Coogler and Cole have crafted this story for Shuri, positioning the Marvel Comics character of Namor as her antagonist, the force against which Shuri has to define herself as a leader. Played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, Namor is a powerful, centuries-old amphibious Aztec superhero, whose mother escaped the wrath and smallpox of the conquistadors in the 16th century when her people turned to plant medicine and developed the ability to breathe underwater, settling the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Vibranium, the element that powers Wakanda, is also found in Talokan, and is the current target of American mining companies that seek to exploit the resource.
It’s a story of two indigenous cultures wrestling with how best to protect themselves from the rapacious greediness of developed nations. Namor’s aggressive approach clashes with Wakanda’s carefully diplomatic isolationism, and Shuri has to figure out what kind of leader she wants to be in the vacuum of her brother’s leadership.
“Wakanda Forever” suffers a bit from the fact that Namor is an overly sympathetic “villain” (see also: Eric Killmonger of “Black Panther” and Bane of “The Dark Knight Rises”). Huerta is too compelling a screen presence, his cause too just to fully root against him. Despite the sharp style, there is little pleasure to be found in watching the violent clashes between the Talokan and the Wakandans. But in presenting an antagonist such as Namor, who seems more of an ally to Shuri, Coogler creates a story that occupies shades of gray, rather than easily digestible black and white morality. Namor becomes the stone against which Shuri must sharpen her skills as a leader and develop her own personal moral code, pulling from her ancestral influences as well as her real-world experiences.
When the film is focused on these dual approaches to resisting colonialism (co-existence vs. revolution), it excels. There are a few script fumbles, like the American MIT student, Riri (Dominique Thorne), who has created a vibranium detecting machine that sets off this international incident, but she never feels like an actual character, just a story device. Similarly, the storyline with CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) lends to the political intrigue but feels underbaked.
But there’s no denying the intoxicating effect of the world of Wakanda. Once again, the artisans behind the camera on “Wakanda Forever” work to create a style that is uniquely “Black Panther,” which is fantastical and futuristic, but grounded, and most importantly, cool. Coogler is a director with a grasp of cinematic language and imagery that distinguishes his work from the other Marvel movies, and Oscar-winning production and costume designers Hannah Beachler and Ruth Carter put their signature stamp on the style as well. Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw captures shots of true beauty, like the sun piercing the landscape on a rocky shore, or a magic hour on the sand, which brings an uncommon intimacy to the proceedings.
Considering the challenges facing “Wakanda Forever,” Coogler pulls off an incredible feat, despite some story stumbles, creating a superhero film that is emotionally affecting, politically and culturally urgent, and that pays loving tribute not just to T’Challa but Chadwick Boseman too. While Namor just about steals the show, this sequel is all about Shuri, and Letitia Wright carries the mantle of Wakanda’s legacy beautifully.
‘BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER’
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, action and some language)
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