‘Black Panther’ Sequel Is Overstuffed & Yet Still Succeeds With Heart, Soul, Grief & Great Stakes￼
Jan 15, 2023
There’s no line in ‘Wakanda Forever,’ the sequel to Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” (2018), as bruising and seething as “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” But emotionally, this somber ‘Black Panther’ sequel is just as visceral and lacerating and perhaps just as absolutist. And spiritually, there is great lineage to this bitter resignation about demise, pride, ancestries, the great depths below us, and the refusal to accept enslavement. Directed once again by Ryan Coogler, with his same co-screenwriter Joe Roberts Cole in tow, ‘Wakanda Forever’ was dealt a tremendous blow with the shocking passing of Chadwick Boseman. It handicaps the plot in many ways, but not the story that pushes forward the original film’s ideas of identity, the dangers of political isolationism, birthright legacies, and more.
READ MORE: Ryan Coogler Says Chadwick Boseman Passed Away Before Reading The Completed Original ‘Wakanda Forever’ Script
Yet, by leaning into the complicated notions of grief, loss, and suffering— the hole left in everyone’s heart over T’Challa’s absence — ‘Wakanda Forever’ overcomes its soul-shattering wound and transforms a baggy and sprawling film into a hard-fought victory. It’s not a flawless movie, to be sure, and arguably not as well told as its predecessor, but it features another tremendous morally dubious antagonist and is ultimately cathartic and deeply moving — Marvel’s best Phase 4 film, in a phase that unquestionably has not been its best.
2018’s “Black Panther” introduced a great hero, a majestic, technologically advanced kingdom, and an incredible, previously undiscovered world to the Marvel universe. But at its best, “Black Panther” strengths were ideological, sociocultural, and geopolitical, and wisely, ‘Wakanda Forever’ continues these threads while never afraid to challenge the legacy of T’Challa and the lies his father’s original reign was built upon. It’s also a war movie, a film about the costs of conflict, the deep price of unchecked escalation, and the bloodlust that can build in the need for furious vengeance. It’s also a film about grief interrupted and the painful, protracted path to healing.
So yes, it’s a lot of movie; a sprawling and extended two-hours-and-45-minutes with pacing issues, a lot of subplots, and arguably too many MCU characters to bear. While much of its individual elements still intrigue, it takes a long while before the movie really starts coalescing and the true heart of the movie—the ideological dispute between Wakanda and Talokan—begins in earnest.
‘Wakanda Forever’ begins with a funeral prologue—the King has fallen to an unnamed illness—and then cuts to one year later. The world has grown impatient with Wakanda, King T’Challa’s promise to open up his nation and his vibranium resources at the end of the first “Black Panther,” disrupted by Thanos’ five-year snap and the loss of their leader. Believing Wakanda is defenseless, various nations attempt incursions on their resources, but Queen Ramonda (a fierce Angela Bassett) is quick to demonstrate to invaders that the Black Panther was not Wakanda’s only line of extremely capable defense.
However, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is still grappling with the loss of her big brother, her guardian, her idol, her everything, and hasn’t been able to let go, burying herself in technology instead and eschewing tradition. In the midst of her denial, her inability to embrace grief, the mysterious Namor (a terrific Tenoch Huerta who imbues a quiet menace), the king of Talokan—an ancient civilization of underwater dwelling people, not unlike Atlantean myths—reveals himself and appears on Wakanda’s doorstep, unannounced, uninvited with a threat masquerading as a proposition.
Echoing the dilemmas of the original film, the United States is encroaching on its borders. An American scientist has developed the technology to detect vibranium—previously thought to be an impossibility—and has located some of the precious ore at the bottom of the ocean. In doing so, the Americans have inadvertently disturbed the hidden world of Talokan—also built around vibranium alloys and minerals—and threatened its secrecy. Fearful of the same imperialist exploitation that still concerns Wakanda— Talokan vibranium resources could be exposed to the world and seen as a global threat— and given King T’Challa revealed the power of this technology to the world, Namor considers this dilemma to be Wakanda’s obligation. He issues an ultimatum: hand over the American scientist to Talokan, or else there will be reprisals. Namor believes Talokan must be protected at all costs, even if it means aggressive preemptive measures.
Empathetic to Namor’s worries—Wakanda used to be a private, isolationist nation for decades, as seen in the original film—but disturbed by his irrational and black-and-white methods, the Wakandans, Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira), through the help of CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), try and locate the scientist before any harm comes to them.
But their mission quickly goes south when both the American law enforcement and the Talokans become involved. Soon, the schism between the two empires intensifies, deteriorates, and then escalates into a full-blown war with heartbreaking tragedies and casualties on both sides. We’re barely at the midway point of ‘Wakanda Forever,’ and suddenly, the movie grows desperate with huge stakes, emotionally and psychically, with the threat of even greater violence and smoldering retribution in the air.
There’s really no stopping ‘Wakanda Forever’ from this point as it lurches ferociously into an unpredictable third act where the possibility of any flawed, bitter leader making terrible, rash decisions rooted in anger with great, irreparable costs is everywhere.
While its geopolitical machinations are appreciated, ‘Wakanda Forever’ is overstuffed with much plot and baggage, having to weigh and honor the loss of T’Challa and its heart-aching effect on all its characters against the vibranium MacGuffin device and those personally involved. While she has more agency, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), unfortunately, becomes something of an American Chavez in the ‘Multiverse of Madness’ plot device, Everett Ross takes up precious narrative time, and even another MCU world-building character sucks up oxygen. While these supporting characters’ appearances make sense in the big picture, in a movie that has to spend a hefty ten minutes explaining why Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) left Wakanda and hasn’t appeared in an MCU film in four years, these detours—which are admittedly well-intentioned and try to honor characters— add up and act like a tax on the film’s brimming running time.
And yet, potent with ideas and feelings, ‘Wakanda Forever’ ultimately triumphs nonetheless through heart, soul, grit, and a great sense of visceral urgency. Every fight scene is terrifying; Coogler shrewdly uses the unfathomable great dark depths of the sea and its various unknowns as a counterpart for how scary and powerful the Talokans warriors are. If you’ve ever shuddered at the thought of drowning or the frightening power of water in a Tsunami, ‘Wakanda Forever’ exploits those anxieties, creating an adversary that is menacing on multiple levels.
As a man with a binary, borderline monocratic worldview, Namor is equally alarming; a ruler with too much power and a dangerous worldview. At the same time, remarkable parallels are made to the original film and an antagonist whose perspective you can understand and potentially even sympathize with if you understand the history of colonizers and oppression. Coogler makes societal equivalents too. Talokan, like Wakanda, is majestic, awe-inspiring, and a place of great beauty, love, and exceptionalism. Shuri and Namor have great mutual admiration for each other’s empires and what they have built, but even her senseless anger at the world for robbing her of her beloved brother has its limits (though the way the film uncomfortably pushes her fury to a manner wherein she loses herself is commendable).
In a fearsome, tense, and fierce final act, filled with notions of rage, resentment, revenge, and more, ‘Wakanda Forever’ teeters on the edge of moral self-destructiveness but eventually lands on a fragile amnesty while hinting at greater consequences to come. “Show them who we are!” Queen Ramonda bellows in wrath several times in the film. It’s part “f*ck around, and you will find out” warning, but in Coogler’s hands, this layered and thoughtful maxim eventually lands on forgiveness, love, and finding a way forward beyond despair. [B+]
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” arrives in theaters on November 11.
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