Perhaps inescapably, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — Ryan Coogler’s sequel to 2018’s game-changing hit Black Panther — opens on a somber note. There are heroics to be had here, for sure. This is another globe-spanning, pan-African, multifaceted story like its predecessor, with historical breadth ranging from the invasion of the Conquistadors to the hyper-present, tense machinations of the CIA; a story armed with a righteous villain whose arguments cannot be easily dismissed, a keen eye for ritual and tradition, a pure love for the possibilities that a belief in Wakanda can bring. But we cannot proceed without an acknowledgement of what has been lost. It wouldn’t feel right. Wakanda Forever knows this. The death of our own real-life T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman, from colon cancer, when he was only 43 years old, was a shock to most of us; his illness had been disclosed to only a few people. Coogler was so taken aback by the loss that he considered quitting filmmaking.
Instead, Coogler, working with many of the same collaborators from that first movie (including costumer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, who both continue to flex here) has returned with a sequel rooted in anger, grief, and confusion. Where does a kingdom go without its king? Wakanda Forever’s tentative proposition is that the people who can grieve will, and the people who cannot — who turn into themselves, angry at the shock of a world that does not make sense — have some soul-searching to do. It’s a perilous dilemma at the heart of many of a heroic tale. The choice between acceptance and a bloodthirst for vengeance, justice, and all-consuming fury.
But Black Panther has, from the start, gone out of its way to remind us that it isn’t quite like the other superhero franchises. The mighty struggles of its heroes and villains compel because they’re rooted in something far larger than a straightforward hero’s journey. T’Challa wasn’t merely a quirky outsider with a heroic destiny to grab hold of if only he believed in himself (or a destiny he could simply earn by not earning it at all, underwriting his future with a massive inheritance). Nor was he compelled to vengeance by loss. Vengeance wasn’t his game. He was a protector. A Black nation’s fate sat on his shoulders from the beginning — and a legion of ancestors, of whom he was all too aware, was guiding him, scrutinizing him, from the start.
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And so, when Wakanda Forever opens with T’Challa succumbing to “a sudden death from an undisclosed illness,” as a news report puts it, a question mark hangs over everything — to the extent that anyone has time to ponder it. Suffice to say that when a nation like Wakanda loses its king, other nations are apt to smell weakness. Everyone wants Vibranium; every powerful nation has bombs to build. But T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who now leads the country, also has grieving to do. So does T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). The Dora Milaje warriors, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), are as fearsome as ever — but grief is a harder enemy to fight. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who loved T’Challa, has left Wakanda. The good-humoredness of warrior M’Baku (Winston Duke), with his calm elocution and handsome furs, can only get you so far. They’re all a little lost.
But, again: Everyone wants Vibranium. If they can’t get it from Wakanda, they’ll look for it elsewhere. Every sequel of a franchise as major as this one has the difficult task of finding a novel way forward through familiar pleasures, reminding millions of us of what brought us here to begin with while delivering something new. Wakanda Forever is adventurous on that front. Its way forward is through a new player in this world conflict: a godlike man named Namor (Tenoch Huerta), king of the ancient civilization Talokan. In the comics, Namor hailed from Atlantis. That may be a clue to his domain in this movie, in which those Atlantic origins are replaced with a Mesoamerican backstory and a set of suspicions and ambitions that are in some ways right up Wakanda’s alley. Yet this where the familiar creeps in. Like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger from the first movie, whose name literally evokes the rage in his heart, Namor is not so taken with Wakanda’s pacifism. Even worse, he’s just as powerful. For the first time, this hyper-protected, Afrofuturistic land has something like a worthy adversary.
That’s in line with what came before. Both Black Panther and this sequel make good on the strange but rich set of contradictions in the way that Wakanda sees its place in the world. This nation is proudly, unabashedly the most powerful in the world, thanks in no small part to its singular access to Vibranium, and in even bigger part to the coterie of genius minds — which these movies proudly display — that know how to make use of the resource. But it’s also very much a land beholden to its suspicion of the rest of the world: a land with memories of being colonized. Part of what makes the Black Panther movies stand out from other superhero fare is their navigation of this tension, between the highest forms of world power and the most bone-deep fears of losing it. It’s what makes Namor’s argument so compelling, this deep and immediate knowledge of being pillaged, having seen early colonialism firsthand and learned, when he was only a child, what it means. Vibranium is a resource akin to oil: It isn’t a superpower so much as a target on a nation’s back. There’s no comfort in being a target.
Wakanda Forever is two hours and 40 minutes long and much of it is good. The movie makes even better use of its stars than it did the first time out, adding more personality to its scaffolding, more time for the greatness of Gurira and for the quirky attitude of Wright, with more wisdom from Duke and Bassett and enjoyable asides from newcomers to the franchise, like Dominique Thorne and the genius Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You). It is a grim movie, in many ways, with a darker visual range than its predecessor and an overall heaviness that makes some of its forays into Marvel ensemble banter hit a little strangely. (Still, the occasional comic relief is welcome.) The tactical side of things doesn’t always pan out. Some of its huge, militaristic battles risk striking an oddly impersonal note in the midst of a movie whose stakes are carved out in such personal terms. The talking is often sharper than the fighting, which can get muddled. Coogler — whose best movie might still be Creed — is good at everything, but Wakanda Forever finds him excelling most in scenes like our first encounter with Namor, in an attack on an underwater mining mission, a sequence that’s all about the setup, about dredging up a sense of mystery. The movie isn’t always on such sure footing. But that’s almost appropriate: a messier movie trying to reckon with a messier range of feelings.
In this world, the pure radicals, the most forward-looking revolutionaries, are characterized by a fearless attitude toward violence. They believe it to be necessary. They want to tear down the world and remake it — a difficult prospect for Wakanda, which does not want to use its might as a world power in quite that way. There come moments in Wakanda Forever when it feels fair to wonder who we’re really rooting for. Never is this more apparent than in scenes involving the CIA (embodied by a returning Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, as well as by a surprising, funny cameo that I won’t spoil). Here, Wakanda Forever stumbles; the relationship between Wakanda and its “favorite colonizer” veers a little too close to cute, a little too buddy-buddy, without anywhere near the same level of thoughtfulness that the movie brings to bear on the rest of its story. That’s another hallmark of this franchise, so far. There are the villains, and then there are the villains. There’s no question who we’re supposed to cheer on. But there’s still room to wonder whether we actually should.
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