Made in the aftermath of the tragedy, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” reverberates with the agony of loss, sharpening the generally less consequential terrain of superhero movies. Like someone going through different stages of grief, Ryan Coogler’s film is by turns aching and uprooted, full of fury and blessed with clarity.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where mortality is almost always something of a toy, facing the real fact, with the death of its star Chadwick Boseman, creates an unusual introspective scale of blockbuster entertainment.
There is a fine line, of course, between paying homage and taking advantage of it. I was a bit taken aback when the Marvel logo was shown with images of Boseman within its lettering, the eulogy-turned-brand. Whether “Black Panther,” a cultural phenomenon and blockbuster, would have a sequel was momentarily in doubt after Boseman’s unexpected death from colon cancer in 2020. The radically reworked script by Coogler and “Wakanda” co-writer Joe Robert Cole Forever” tried to move forward in hopes of honoring Boseman and the rich, Afrocentric world of the original film. In its admirably convoluted form, it accomplishes both purposes.
Part of the profound appeal of Coogler’s first “Black Panther” lay in its deft projection of the real world into mythology. It turned centuries of colonialism and exploitation into a big screen spectacle about identity and resistance. In a made-up African nation, Coogler conjured up a fanciful story of what could have been and a current emotional reality.
“Wakanda Forever,” opening this weekend, expands on this sentiment, weaving a Latin American perspective with a similar degree of cultural specificity with the introduction of a pre-Hispanic-inspired antagonist, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of the ancient world. Talocan submarine. At the same time, Boseman’s death is sharply incorporated into the story from the start, from the agony offscreen.
“Time is running out”, we hear them whisper while the screen remains black. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s tech-savvy sister, frantically tries to create something in her AI lab to save her brother. But at one point her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), informs her: “Your brother is with the ancestors.” T’Challa is seen off in a glorious procession with a crowd of white-clad Wakandans, who sing and dance in his honor. The funeral is one of the most impressive things Coogler has filmed.
Following this prologue, “Wakanda Forever” fast-forwards one year later. “Black Panther” took the form of a Bond-esque spy thriller, and the sequel takes this into a new geopolitical context. At the United Nations, the United States and France are lobbying for access to vibranium, the rare metal through which Wakanda has built its empire. Shortly thereafter, a US military expedition discovers vibranium at the bottom of the ocean. But just as they begin to celebrate, a mysterious tribe of blue underwater beings, led by Namor, a monarch in green shorts with wings on his heels, slaughter the explorers mercilessly.
It can be felt that “Wakanda Forever” seeks to move forward in those first scenes. But how much can we care about the search for that metal? What about the town with blue inhabitants? “Avatar”, you might think, has already appropriated that. Who stabilizes the film is Bassett. His awesome presence drives “Wakanda Forever” through grief, as he defends Wakanda at a time when the kingdom resettles without a king. She stays.
A global plot is then unleashed, taking the film away from what is perhaps its biggest draw, Wakanda, but discovering new places of latent power. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira), General Dora Milaje, travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts to search for a student (Dominique Thorne) who created a vibranium detector. In the Washington area, the CIA officer friend from Wakandan played by Martin Freeman faces scrutiny from his boss, played by a comedic actress used to politics.
But more importantly, a series of exchanges bring Wakanda and Talokan closer together. Are they friends or enemies? The town of Tlalokan is a captivating twist on the mythology of Atlantis. But their dark, watery world isn’t Wakanda, and it gives hints of a smaller society. Despite this, Huerta manages to give Namor magnetism. In many ways he resembles Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, he is not a villain and his fury can be justified. But his anger serves as a magnet for Shuri, who is still in mourning and ready, after T’Challa’s death, to “burn the world down.”
As in the first “Black Panther”, the question is to find balance in a world driven by pain and prejudice. This time it applies to another powerful civilization. “Wakanda Forever”, where the role of Black Panther is inherited, is also about the transfer of power.
Wakanda and the Talokan find themselves at odds in awkward fashion, as Namor pressures the African nation to support him in his war against the surface. “Wakanda Forever” plays out as a murky mid-trilogy movie that will ultimately serve as a bridge to future “Black Panther” chapters. But at the same time there are numerous wonders that Coogler pulls off with recurring collaborators of his like production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. For example, we see how Talokan rises in the air with whales. Gurira’s iron interpretation also stands out. Unfortunately, Lupita Nyong’o has a less prominent role this time around, but whenever her Nakia (who has lived quietly in Haiti) is around, she elevates the film.
“Wakanda Forever” is overly long, a bit unwieldy, and inexplicably nearing its climax on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. But Coogler’s fluid command, which manages to mix intimacy with spectacle, remains fascinating. He expands on the rich detail and non-binary complexity that distinguished “Black Panther” in sometimes bizarre but often exciting ways. In dealing with loss, “Wakanda Forever” ultimately seeks something rare in the belligerent landscape of superheroes: peace.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” a Walt Disney Co. release, has a PG-13 rating (Which warns parents that it may be inappropriate for children under 13) from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for scenes of strong violence, action and some dialogue.
Duration: 161 minutes.
Qualification: Three stars out of four.
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Review: In ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ an empire is rebuilt
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