In a lot of ways, the first Black Panther was lightning in a bottle. Capturing the zeitgeist like it did is a rare achievement, made even more so by how it brought together mass entertainment and prestige Oscar attention. It felt like a once in a generation achievement for Marvel Studios, which has never matched that kind of Academy Award recognition. So, you’d be forgiven for going into Black Panther: Wakanda Forever with a certain amount of checked expectations. After all, it was made in the shadow of the unexpected death of lead Chadwick Boseman, requiring a major re-write. Well, I’m happy to report that all of your fears are for naught. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may not get as many nominations at the Oscars, but in many ways, the film is an improvement over the first one. Wakanda Forever, indeed.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever manages to be more than just a new Marvel movie. It’s also a consistently moving tribute to Boseman, making the actor’s passing a narratively pivotal point as well. This easily could have backfired, but everyone involved is taking such care, it’s actually hard to imagine this sequel with any other storyline than the one we’re presented with.
We’re dropped in right as Wakanda’s King T’Challa (Boseman) is about to pass. In a heartbeat, the nation is without their leader, the Black Panther is no more, while Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) have lost their son/brother. Ramonda is thrust upon the world stage, having to assure the United Nations that Wakanda is not suddenly a country ripe for the picking. Shuri, on the other hand, retreats back into science, blaming herself for not being about to save her brother. Those issues, while always at the forefront of their minds, will soon have to make room for a new adversary, one from under the sea.
Enter Namor (Tenoch Huerta), ruler of the undersea nation of Talocan. Incredibly powerful, with his own access to Vibranium, he seeks an alliance with Wakanda. Well, he essentially gives them a choice of allying with him or facing destruction. Ramonda is resolute, but also willing to consider his offer, which centers around finding young scientist Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who has managed to create a machine that locates the precious resource. Faced with pressure on all sides, it will be up to not just Queen Ramonda and Shuri, but M’Baku (Winston Duke), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the Dora Milaje, as well as old friend Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) to protect Wakanda if/when Namor comes calling, all without the Black Panther…at least for now.
The cast once again shines. Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright especially are best in show, but Winston Duke, Danai Gurira, and Lupita Nyong’o also raise their game from last time. Bassett especially is excellent, going to places Marvel rarely asks their cast members to go to. Tenoch Huerta quickly establishes Namor as not just one of the most compelling antagonists in the MCU, but one of the most sympathetic as well. Returning players like Martin Freeman are solid, while newcomer Dominique Thorne is very fun, while hinting at what’s to come for her character. Supporting parts here include Lake Bell, Michaela Coel, Isaach De Bankolé, Florence Kasumba, Richard Schiff, and many more.
Filmmaker Ryan Coogler, directing a screenplay he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, does yeoman’s work here. While the below the line talent, including composer Ludwig Göransson, raises their game (Autumn Durald Arkapaw steps in as cinematographer and does excellent work as well) from the already impressive work on Black Panther, Coogler had a nearly impossible task. How could he and Cole find a new tale to tell, while honoring Boseman and T’Challa, but still delivering an epic blockbuster for Marvel? By leaning in and embracing the pain, but never letting it be the sole focus, he threads a very thin needle quite deftly. The pacing is a bit slack in the middle of this over two and a half hour movie, but the first and third acts are absolute bangers, filled with emotion and excitement. Everyone in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever obviously treated it like a special movie, but extra kudos has to go to Coogler.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is how it avoids easy emotional manipulation. Whether in how it chooses to handle the death we know starts us off, how the characters react, or our ultimate ending point, Coogler and company choose to earn your tears, instead of begging for them. It’s a small point, one you really only notice of how well it’s done, but it was very notable to yours truly.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a worthy Black Panther sequel, as well as a worthy tribute to Chadwick Boseman. Few MCU efforts are as all-around satisfying as this film, which may well lead to Oscar attention once again. I wrote about that here, but regardless of what the Academy thinks of it, fans will be overjoyed at how well done it is. Wakanda Forever!