Marvel had an unenviable task with its sequel to ‘Black Panther’, one of the most, if not the most, celebrated comic book adaptations ever made. After the sudden and tragic passing of its star Chadwick Boseman, the speculation as to what Marvel/Disney would do ranged from recasting, to mantle passing, to canceling the franchise completely. While no option could have ever been perfect, ‘Wakanda Forever’ is somehow able to pull off both an affecting and solemn tribute to its fallen hero as well as present a compelling narrative to propel the stories of the characters so deftly created in the first film.
*** MILD SPOILERS AHEAD ***
As the story of ‘Wakanda Forever’ unfurls, it’s quickly apparent that Ryan Coogler, the creative force behind the franchise, truly understood the gravity of the moment, not shying away from the tragedy of Boseman’s absence, but rather weaving it into the fabric of the film. The movie opens with a frantic Shuri (Leticia Wright) trying everything in her scientific power to save her offscreen brother to no avail. This gives way to a gorgeously imagined and designed funeral procession (Oscar winning costumer Ruth Carter continues to showcase beautiful and vibrant unique designs) that ushers him into the ancestral plane. The fade to a silent, purple MCU opening crawl only featuring images of Black Panther himself as opposed to the traditional blend of shots from across the MCU, is truly moving, and sets the stage for proceedings that will simultaneously mourn and celebrate what has been lost.
From here, audiences are updated as to the status of the Wakandan nation. At the conclusion of the first film, King T’Challa and the royal family/leadership revealed themselves to the world as a true technical marvel and utopian bastion. Now with their leader and protector gone, other nations perceive a weakness and attempt to usurp Wakanda’s resources, namely the element Vibranium, the source and foundation for the level of technological complexity created by the country’s brilliant minds. This provokes Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett in another strong, regal performance) to assert her presence among world leaders and maintain that Wakanda will not suffer foolish behavior. In their zeal to ascertain the versatile and powerful mineral, American scientists use an elemental detector designed by a young genius from MIT, new character Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, soon to be in her own spin-off show on Disney+, ‘IronHeart’), and find a Vibranium deposit in the ocean off the coast of Central America.
This sets off the driving plot of the rest of the movie as a race of advanced beings who live underwater, a la Atlantis, are revealed. They are led by Namor, introducing Tenoch Huerta as a hard-charging, stubbornly protective, charismatic antagonist for the characters to play off against. He reveals himself only to Shuri and Ramonda, but provokes them by saying that they must help each other in defending their Vibranium and thus, their nations, by any means necessary. This conflict results in a series of refreshingly female-led action sequences involving the aforementioned Shuri and Riri, plus Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, reprising their iconic roles.
‘Wakanda Forever’ is not a perfect film, as it does suffer from some over-stuffing, cramming in multiple character introductions while also trying to advance the stories of its original players. Mostly it does so effectively, particularly in its handling of the inevitable passage of the Black Panther mantle itself. By this point in the story, the various threads of loss, protection, rage, revenge, and acceptance of grief all come together to forge the hero in some surprising ways. It’s both exciting and moving. By the end, into the credits, with the strains of Rihanna’s stripped down comeback ballad, “Lift Me Up” piercing the heart, the power of Marvel’s most relevant and sobering franchise is undeniable . . .
Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Written By: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
Running Time: 161 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-