Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, 2022.
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Starring Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Mabel Cadena, Alex Livinalli, Danny Sapani, and Lake Bell.
The people of Wakanda fight to protect their home from intervening world powers as they mourn the death of King T’Challa.
With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, director Ryan Coogler (also writing the screenplay alongside Joe Robert Cole) has not only decently replicated much of what worked about the first film (arguably the best entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) but overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of reworking the sequel in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s tragic death. And, considering the Marvel media machine spans 20+ movies and now several TV shows, there were questions and reservations about this creative team going forward without King T’Challa, but while watching this, it often feels like a seamless and logical next step forward thematically.
The first order of business is still addressing King T’Challa’s absence, with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opening cold into a frantic and stressed Shuri (Letitia Wright) desperately trying to use her gifted intelligence and scientific mind to concoct a medicine that will save his life. It’s also safe to assume that the character dies from colon cancer much like the real Chadwick Boseman, especially since there are telling lines of dialogue throughout where characters acknowledge a hidden pain King T’Challa was suffering through, similar to the actor toughing it out through the making of Black Panther.
There’s a beautiful blurring between actor and character that not only benefits this narrative in multiple ways (for how incredibly smart Shuri is, not even she was able to cure this illness) but falls in line with what the Black Panther meant to the world regarding cultural significance and shared ideals. Even though the film doesn’t waste any time catching fiction up to reality, perhaps moving a bit too fast through the death itself (Letitia Wright is astonishing during the sequence, which makes it all the more surprising it is cut short) and subsequent funeral (with delicately authentic production design), King T’Challa’s presence is felt as characters consistently search for themselves through his actions and what he would have done. The soul of Chadwick Boseman and what he stood for is very much alive in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
From there, the script slowly but surely eases its way into a new antihero threat (a needle that Ryan Coogler once again threads with complexity), an ancient Aztec civilization worried that their underwater kingdom will soon be discovered in the wake of Wakanda joining the United Nations and establishing outreach centers to share data analysis of vibranium (the power source for their advanced technology). They would prefer to remain under the radar for various compelling reasons (the most fascinating of which comes in a somewhat rushed flashback that opens a window into something worth making an entire movie about, further fleshing out the villain here).
Wakanda isn’t exactly getting much respect from the United Nations, anyway. Without King T’Challa, they are perceived as weakened and worth attacking, especially since they have no desire to share vibranium. Queen Ramonda (a vulnerable and emotionally raw Angela Bassett) exposes those responsible for breaking an outreach center, but not before delivering the stinging declaration that she and Wakanda are not scared of what the resources are capable of, but rather what they would be used for in the hands of other nations on power trips.
Elsewhere, a scientist seems to be responsible for a breakthrough in detecting vibranium, which inadvertently draws out the Talokan people from underwater, discreetly utilizing sonic hypnosis to have soldiers plunge themselves to their deaths. Unaware of this powerful civilization, the blame gets pinned on Wakanda, with Shuri (and it needs to be noted that Letitia Wright is impressive, terrifically navigating both the character’s grief and action spectacle) going against her mother’s wishes to journey to the US alongside Dora Milaje leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) in search of the scientist. This leads to some welcome surprises and some not-so-welcome cringe attempts at humor, all while the film more or less searches for its footing.
Like most Marvel stories, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever suffers from a bit too much going on; Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett Ross gets roped into offering information and is revealed to be connected to another character in the bigger MCU picture, and new heroes are introduced, much of this coming at the expense of Talokan. It’s not just a richly realized underwater civilization but led by Namor (a quietly strong-arming Tenoch Huerta, who, for some reason, this film gives an introductory credit despite not only a presence in Mexico but having appeared in The Purge series), a feathered serpent god with complicated motives similar to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger.
Setting aside the questionable decision to animate the Talokan people in blue aside from Namor (so much of what’s here is a deeply personal narrative rooted in practical effects that CGI enemies are jarring), Ryan Coogler finds the humanity in their actions and what they are pushing back against. More so, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever inevitably sees the two factions of people of color going to war, which, aside from being thrillingly crafted along with an adrenaline-pumping battle-cry score from Ludwig Göransson, sadly plays out with only white civilizations standing to gain something (although it’s an observation the film never, unfortunately, presses too hard). There’s a line where Namor exclaims that any other powerful civilization would level them for resources, which is disappointingly the extent of it but nonetheless a harshly realistic line.
Even without the death of Chadwick Boseman, this devastating juxtaposition was likely always the plan. Ryan Coogler took that shell and adapted, transforming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever into a closer examination of those themes. Sure, the end result is somewhat messy (most Marvel movies nowadays are), and it takes a while for the stakes to crystallize with urgency, but Ryan Coogler’s artistic vision stands tall. It would be nice if Kevin Feige could get more out of his way, as the pacing here is entirely off. Fortunately, Coogler knows how to cut to the core of humanizing these larger-than-life characters and illuminate what they are fighting for with real-world relevancy. He’s two for two in creating layered heroes and antiheroes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com