Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Does the Near Impossible

Making a sequel to a cultural sensation is a challenge to begin with. But the task facing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ryan Coogler’s much-anticipated follow-up to the 2018 hit Black Panther, is many leagues more daunting. It has to build upon its fantastic forebear and fit into the unwieldy Marvel Cinematic Universe, all without the commanding presence of Black Panther’s star, Chadwick Boseman, who died in 2020. On top of that, it has to function as a worthy memorial, letting characters grieve the passing of the character T’Challa and giving viewers the space to grapple with Boseman’s absence.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also has to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, which I’m happy to report it is. Although the sequel’s running time is more sprawling and its narrative goals more diffuse than its predecessor’s, it shares the same strengths. Wakanda Forever is fueled by intricate world-building, stunningly designed sets and costumes, and an interest in the geopolitical implications of superheroism that’s far more nuanced than most Marvel movies allow.

The first Black Panther delves into the nation of Wakanda, a mythical, high-tech African utopia powered by the magic metal vibranium, which is mined only within its closed borders. Wakanda’s king, T’Challa, is simultaneously the country’s ruler and prime defender, granted magical powers by a mysterious herb and decked out in a spiffy armored suit. His main adversary is his cousin Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), an exile who wants to use Wakanda’s technology to battle the world’s colonizers and enslavers. T’Challa resists his methods but acknowledges the limitations of an isolated Wakanda; he takes the country public, as it were.

Wakanda Forever is set several years later (and after many Marvel shenanigans). T’Challa has died of an unspecified illness, and Wakanda is ruled by his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who is struggling to motivate her grieving daughter, Shuri (Letitia Wright). An inevitable pall hangs over much of the film’s early action, as Coogler stages T’Challa’s funeral with appropriate Wakandan showmanship, balanced by the grief of the movie’s rich ensemble. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that nobody has stepped into the Black Panther suit when the sequel begins, and for much of the running time, it’s unclear if anyone will try to.

[Read: The provocation and power of ‘Black Panther’]

The movie’s more exhilarating material is handed to its villain, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a warrior-king who rules Talokan, a nation of water-dwelling people. Namor is one of the earliest characters from the Marvel comics, and he has long been one of my favorites—a tetchy but striking anti-hero who sometimes wages war on humankind from the ocean deep. Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, have massaged Namor’s origins in interesting directions, casting the Talokanil people as Mayans who fled Spanish colonization by literally going under the sea.

The first Black Panther is compelling in part because Killmonger is a fully fleshed-out antagonist with an understandable motivation. Namor, similarly, is Wakanda Forever’s ace in the hole, alternately charming and intimidating, and fueled by righteous indignation. He fears that Wakanda’s newly public status will put his hidden nation in the crosshairs of the modern world. His concerns aren’t easily dismissed: So many Marvel plots are rooted in justified fear of shadowy geopolitics, represented here by the twitchy CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).

Whenever Namor is on-screen, Wakanda Forever crackles with tension and charm; Huerta somehow manages to invest great dignity in a character who flies around using little feathered wings that sprout from his feet. The rest of the film varies in energy. Shuri is no longer the wiseass little sister who lit up the first movie, but a budding leader mired in her own anger and sorrow. A similar gloom hangs over the fierce warriors Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Winston Duke, my favorite big galoot, gets to have a little fun as the garrulous tribal leader M’Baku, but the new character Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who is intended for a Disney+ TV spin-off, feels a bit lost in the shuffle.

Riri, also known as Ironheart, functions as a story engine for much of the film—she’s an inventor whose technology is sought by Western governments and Namor alike. But that means she’s mostly just a plot device, and although Thorne is perfectly capable in the role, Riri reminded me of another Marvel character: America Chavez in the latest Doctor Strange movie, another plucky superhero plopped into the action mostly to drive the narrative and have spin-off potential. Given that Wakanda Forever’s screenplay is already heaving with detail, she feels underserved.

Coogler is clearly most energized when he’s digging into the arcane royalty of Wakanda and questioning how it can function in a fraught contemporary context. Wakanda is a beautiful fantasy—a secret, unconquerable African kingdom that inspires awe and terror in even the world’s superpowers. But Coogler’s brilliance lies in his recognition of the boundaries of that fantasy, the jealousy and rage it could invite from those same superpowers, and the pressures that could be imposed on Wakanda’s rulers. Wakanda Forever throws many emotional challenges at its heroes—self-doubt, anguish, ennui—and in Namor, it gives them an adversary brimming with assuredness. The result is a face-off that’s as entertaining as it is unpredictable.

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