‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ works as thrilling adventure, visual wonder and worthy tribute
Marvel sequel mourns T’Challa with dignity, introduces new world with breathtaking beauty to rival Wakanda’s.
The “Black Panther” franchise lives. Long may she thrive.
After the phenomenal success of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” in 2018 — the seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture; the worldwide gross of some $1.346 billion; the nearly universal critical acclaim — there was great anticipation and huge pressure for the sequel to match or even top the original. But with Coogler again telling the story and the magnetic Chadwick Boseman carrying the day as the title character, it certainly seemed possible.
Boseman’s death at age 43 in 2020 came as a shock to the world, including even those involved with the “Black Panther” franchise. And while there was talk of recasting the role, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” wisely chooses a different path that celebrates and pays tribute to the character of King T’Challa and to Boseman in a beautiful and dignified and moving manner, while also setting the stage for a new Wakandan adventure, and surely many more to come.
With Letitia Wright taking center stage as T’Challa’s sister Shuri, and strong, life-affirming and powerful performances from returning players Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke (among others), plus the addition of Dominique Thorne in a pivotal role, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a solidly constructed, emotionally involving and soaring triumph. It doesn’t break any new ground, and I’m not convinced it required a 2 hour and 41 minute running time, but despite a few overlong interludes midway through the story and a couple of battle sequences that pretty much look like the fight scenes in a dozen or two previous Marvel cinematic universe movies, this is a rousing adventure and a most welcome return to one of the most visually arresting and culturally rich settings in the superhero universe: the kingdom of Wakanda.
Marvel Studios presents a film directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, action and some language). Running time: 161 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
Our story takes place in Phase 4 of the Marvel cinematic universe, in the time period — you know what, I’m going to defer to a CinemaBlend article in which producer Nate Moore explains, “This movie clearly happens after ‘[Spider-Man] No Way Home’ and ‘Eternals.’ I think it probably happens potentially concurrent with ‘Thor [Love and Thunder].’ ” OK? There are charts and graphs and 20,000-word articles out there for those who want to dive deeper.
We learn that despite the best efforts of the scientific genius Shuri, she was unable to find a cure for the illness that consumed her brother T’Challa. On the first anniversary of T’Challa’s death, Shuri and her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), are on the beach, mourning T’Challa, when a mysterious and imposing being with blue skin, pointed ears and wings on his ankles rises from the water, having somehow broken through Wakanda’s thought-to-be-impenetrable barrier.
This is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who was born in the 16th century and has superhuman strength and other abilities (including slowed aging) and can breathe underwater. He shocks Shuri and Ramonda by revealing theirs is not the only kingdom that has discovered vibranium; in fact, Namor rules over a thriving underwater civilization known as Talocan, which is powered by that rare metallic ore with energy-manipulating properties. Namor explains that an American scientist has invented a device that can detect vibranium — and given that the “Surface World” knows nothing of Talocan and they’d like to keep it that way, he enlists the help of Wakanda to track down this scientist and kill her.
Turns out the brilliant inventor of the Vibranium Tracking Thingee Device is actually a 19-year-old MIT student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who is equal parts thrilled and terrified when Shuri and Gen. Okoye (Danai Gurira) show up on campus and tell her they gotta go, like NOW, because the feds are on their way, and that might be the least of their problems. This sets off a chain of events that leads to Shuri discovering the wonders of Talocan while Namor explains the back story of his people and their domain; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) returning to action after spending six years in Haiti, as she tries to rescue Shuri and Riri from Namor, and Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross trying to aid Wakanda even as his ex-wife, CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), does the usual stupid government things that will only escalate tensions and create a possible world war.
Director Coogler, cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, the production design and special effects teams, the costumers and makeup departments, et al., deliver some jaw-dropping visuals, from the breathtakingly beautiful memorial procession for T’Challa to our introduction to the expansive and idyllic and isolated underwater kingdom of Talocan. We get a traditional, almost old-fashioned chase sequence involving a muscle car and a motorcycle, and of course some massive battle scenes, with the blue-skinned and seemingly invincible Talocan warriors taking on the equally formidable Wakandan army.
Letitia Wright proves more than capable of shifting from spunky supporting character to a leader who is raging from grief and must decide which is the better path: revenge, or negotiated peace? She knows what her beloved brother T’Challa would do, but she’s not sure that’s the best path for Wakanda’s survival. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” succeeds as a new adventure, and as a tribute to a wonderful actor who was taken from this world decades too soon.