‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Honors Chadwick Boseman While Delivering a Thrilling Sequel
Few creative pressures can compare to making the sequel to a pop cultural milestone. Only a few follow-ups have ever matched their predecessor. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” needs little introduction as the sequel to 2018’s “Black Panther,” one of Marvel’s prized achievements that became a box office sensation, an Oscar-winning film and a key movie in the ongoing renaissance of Black American film representation. There was little doubt there would be a sequel but what was difficult to imagine was the obstacles that would come its way. Lead actor Chadwick Boseman suddenly passed away due to cancer, forcing director Ryan Coogler to restructure the screenplay. Star Letitia Wright suffered a serious accident on set as well. But Coogler has delivered yet again an excellent entertainment. The script may be quite bulky, attempting to bid a worthy farewell to Boseman while introducing new characters, and packing in subtext about developing nations at war and pre-Columbian indigenous cultures. What binds it together into a convincing whole is the energy, style and skill with which Coogler turns it into a dynamic action spectacle.
First the narrative needs to grapple with the departure of Boseman’s character, T’Challa, king of Wakanda. In an emotive opening, we see his sister, Shuri (Wright) rushing to try and save him from an unknown crisis. The film then cuts to a visually grand and stirring funeral sequence where Wakanda (and we the audience) buries its royal hero. Cut to a year later and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is representing her powerful nation before a world eager to tap into its key natural resource, vibranium. Then, mysterious warriors from under the ocean attack a CIA ship, and the blame is laid on Wakanda. In trying to figure out what is going on, Shuri and Wakandan general Okoye (Danai Gurira) embark on a mission to protect an MIT student named Riri (Dominique Thorne), who has developed a vibranium detector the CIA would love to get. She’s also being sought by a new force, the people of Talokan, an underwater Mayan civilization descended from those who fled the Spanish conquest in the Yucatan peninsula. They are led by the fierce Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who believes they must assassinate Riri in order to keep greedy imperialist surface powers from finding vibranium. Talokan also has the substance, which can also mean they are an equal match for Wakanda.
What “Wakanda Forever” has most in common with its predecessor is that it is, above all, a skillful popcorn ride. Coogler brings more of a patient tone to some sections, mostly because there is too much plot and metaphor to handle, yet his pacing and eye for appealing images make this one of the year’s better Marvel movies. The MCU has felt through most of 2022 as if it is in a state of realignment as it attempts to maintain its famously interlocking storylines while introducing new characters, but to enjoy “Wakanda Forever” you don’t need to be versed in the pile of Disney’s Marvel shows or the last few movies. This one stands on its own as a continuation of the 2018 blockbuster. As expected, hovering over the entire production is the loss of Boseman. By giving the actor and his character a grand farewell in the beginning, as well as a very moving tribute in the required end credits bonus scene (with a soaring “Lift Me Up” by Rihanna), the movie maintains a unique cohesiveness. When Angela Bassett brings righteous fury to her scenes, we can feel her channeling a genuine feeling of loss. Sorrow is a dominant theme throughout the plot. It drives the characters, including Namor, who is haunted by memories of watching his people be enslaved and killed by the invading Spaniards.
The introduction of a new major character inspired by Mayan culture, which first appeared as a comic book character in 1939, is also testament to how it takes major companies like Disney to make certain forms of representation mainstream. Namor may have some similarities to Aquaman in that they both live underwater and rule kingdoms, but he and his character speak in indigenous dialogue, sporting costumes and jewelry inspired by pre-Columbian societies. It is true other movies like “Apocalypto” have been hits with indigenous themes, but this is a major release backed by powerhouse studios. The soundtrack also features music flowing with the sounds of the Mayan world, as when Namor tells of his origins to the tribal, atmospheric “Árboles Bajo el Mar (Trees Beneath the Sea)” by Vivir Quintana and Mare Advertencia Lirika. When the warriors of Talokan emerge to fight they look like sci-fi Mayan apparitions, in feathered uniform and aquatic masks. It’s an achievement similar to how the first “Black Panther” channeled African iconography. The screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole also does us the service of bringing some richer metaphors than the average popcorn distraction. Wakanda and Talokan have a vital natural resource which other global powers, like the U.S. and France, covet and yet these two nations start fighting each other when they should band together against the true invaders.
By now Marvel has its established formulas, which can feel like a crutch with every new entry. “Wakanda Forever” gets distracted from the bigger story involving Namor and Wakanda because it also needs to give some screen time to characters like good-hearted CIA man Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). The best use for this character is that he also becomes our prime introduction to his ex-wife, current CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a ruthless operator with an intimidating way of making suggestive comments to Ross. Like many established stars who get pulled into the MCU orbit, Dreyfus looks like she’s having a great time with the role. At least Coogler never lets the story become one big prologue to whatever the next Marvel entry is. He finds plenty of space for massive action sequences that have a sense of dramatic grandeur. An attack on Wakanda features crashing floods and an operatic death. There are almost too many good things that deserved more space, like Lupita Nyong’o as the spy Nakia, who once loved T’Challa and has dealt with her pain by staying in Haiti. Massive warrior M’Baku (Winston Duke) is mostly around to provide straight-faced comic relief, yet the movie can’t do without him and his own moments of crunching action. Tenoch Huerta is so good as Namor, bringing to the character charisma and controlled anger, that it’s a pity the movie doesn’t have more of him because of everything else that fights for space.
To complain about some of these factors in “Wakanda Forever” is to acknowledge the movie has so many good elements, they struggle for adequate room. Lesser movies simply have too little to offer. Topping a groundbreaking work of pop art like “Black Panther” is already a challenge and to make a worthy follow-up is an achievement in itself. Coogler drives the story to the prerequisite big battle that ends all Marvel movies, giving the final epic clash a distinctive touch as Talokan and Wakanda engage in a riveting sea battle that must be seen on IMAX. Yes, there is a new Black Panther, introduced with wonderful poise and emotional complexity. More importantly, Coogler finds an adequate way to remember Chadwick Boseman while honoring what the character he defined means for this franchise and popular culture. The legacy is further strengthened by introducing new characters that expand the possibilities of representation in big franchises. “Wakanda Forever” is thrilling as it carries out the important task of contributing more to audiences than just mere escapism.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” releases Nov. 11 in theaters nationwide.