No one really dies in comic books; resurrection is the medium’s stock and trade.
Nonetheless, faced with the untimely passing of star Chadwick Boseman in August 2020 (of colon cancer at age 43), Marvel embraces finality—and evolution— in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a sequel to its 2018 blockbuster that integrates its leading man’s death into its narrative. That makes Ryan Coogler’s follow-up a rather unique entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), although there’s still plenty of rebirth to be found in the franchise’s latest go-round. It’s a gargantuan and generally successful super-endeavor whose highs outweigh—if don’t wholly overshadow—its lows.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which hits theaters November 11, begins with King T’Challa’s (Boseman) end. His death was brought about by a vague disease that leaves his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), in ruins and his forlorn mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), in command of the Wakandan kingdom.
At a U.N. hearing, Ramonda vigorously speaks out against the notion that her African nation is now vulnerable, and backs it up by handing over French mercenaries who had tried to steal some of its precious vibranium. Ramonda asserts that it’s not the magical metal that’s dangerous but, instead, the foreign powers who covet it, an argument that’s in line with the film’s anti-colonial attitude (if also, strangely, the sort of reasoning that pro-Second Amendment advocates make when it comes to guns). Her declaration, however, doesn’t stop Americans from trying to mine for vibranium, and they soon strike paydirt in the Atlantic Ocean—a discovery that not only jeopardizes Wakanda’s monopoly on the valuable resource, but enrages a heretofore unknown enemy.
That would be Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the fearsome king of Talokan, an ancient Mezzo-American underwater civilization that’s similarly rich in vibranium. Namor destroys the U.S. mining operation, which is pinned on Wakanda. He then gives Ramonda an ultimatum: find the scientist who created the Americans’ vibranium detection machine or suffer Talokan’s wrath. As Shuri and Dora Milaje leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) soon learn, the individual Namor seeks is 19-year-old MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a budding genius whose contraption—an idea stolen by the CIA—now threatens to spark an all-out superhero war.
Much fighting ensues between Wakanda’s badass warriors and Namor’s aquatic soldiers, who boast blue skin and are equally formidable on land and sea. That goes triple for Namor, whose ankles boast fluttering wings that afford him the ability to fly.
While Ramonda carries herself with a stateliness that barely masks her misery, Shuri is practically consumed by grief. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever honors Boseman via both characters’ mourning over his fictional proxy’s passing.
Simultaneously, a kidnapped Shuri attempts to broker peace with Namor, marveling at his sunken empire and empathizing with his determination to repel invading outside forces—a desire born from his own tragic Spanish conquistador-centric backstory. Frustrating any possible friendship between the two, though, is Namor’s dream of taking up arms against the entire surface world. He informs Shuri that, should Wakanda refuse to join him in his campaign, he’ll conquer them as well.
Whereas Black Panther’s Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) castigated Wakanda for staying hidden and, therefore, refusing to use its riches to aid Black people around the planet, Namor blames Talokan’s predicament on Wakanda’s recent decision to integrate itself into the global community. The tension between insularity and openness remains central to the series, as do issues of legacy, sacrifice, and the relationship between reason and faith.
Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script weaves such ideas throughout a saga that again revolves around a villain who wants to protect his race through violent means, and which routinely alternates between intense conversations and cacophonous CGI set pieces. Per Marvel tradition, that mayhem is staged with plenty of rapid cuts and whiplash cinematography that sabotages any sense of spatial logic or basic coherence. Especially during the first appearance of Williams’ proto-Iron Man suit (known as Ironheart, next to be seen in a Disney+ series!), the visuals devolve into a murky mess, and stand in stark contrast to the proceedings’ superior one-on-one showdowns.
At 161 minutes, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever sags during a middle section that indulges in multiple earnest reunions and heart-to-hearts (involving, among others, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, who’s living in Haiti, and Winston Duke’s bellowing M’Baku). That’s not to mention peripheral cutaways to CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), whose main purpose is to reveal his surprising past relationship to another character.
Coogler handles each of his many diversions with reasonable aplomb, conjuring up a few striking images along the way. A standout is the sight of Namor’s aquapeople riding into battle on enormous whales and cooing siren songs that compel innocent victims to leap to their watery doom. Even so, the film’s Afrofuturistic visions are more familiar this second time around, and the story’s momentum is too bumpy for its own good, a consequence of it having to serve so many masters.
To wit: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever not only delivers enormous skirmishes; grants each of its many protagonists an opportunity to rage, weep, fume and reconcile; and pays tribute to the late Boseman, but it also introduces new characters that set up future MCU installments. Like so many Phase IV Marvel efforts, those demands are somewhat burdensome, and the fact that not every new face is equally captivating—Huerta is magnetically menacing; Williams is an unconvincing afterthought—doesn’t help.
Fortunately, every returning cast member is in fine form, led by the regal Bassett and the nuanced Wright. As a woman whose rage is the byproduct of her sorrow, and whose belief in technology ultimately clashes with a need to reconnect with her spiritual heritage, Wright rises to the challenge of her role, proving a charismatic hero capable of potentially assuming Boseman’s mantle.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever never quite matches the inspiring peaks of its predecessor, but it benefits immensely from its compassion. That’s felt in its early funereal sequences, ensuing tragedies that cast a further pall over the action, and one individual’s climactic recognition that anger is the enemy of healing. Led by the commanding Wright and the charmingly cutthroat Huerta, it’s a sequel whose greatest superpower turns out to be its sensitivity.