As one would expect following the 2020 death of actor Chadwick Boseman, Marvel’s Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever, opens (rather jarringly) with the death of King T’Challa. Lest you think director/co-writer Ryan Coogler tries to pull something shifty, we don’t ever see the late Boseman during this sequence; it’s all experienced through the frantic eyes and actions of T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), whose technological might is no match for the unnamed illness that ultimately kills her closest friend and Wakanda’s protector. She is rattled, devastated and ultimately enraged at herself for not being able to save him, and in the immediate aftermath of his death, she is angry, an issue that serves as one of the building blocks of Wakanda Forever. The film begs the question, will this formerly hidden, most powerful nation on Earth be ruled by a person fueled by anger and resentment (as it almost was in the previous film), or by a thoughtful, tempered, kind-hearted Black Panther once again?
The path to answering these questions is a long one and it brings together many familiar and new characters occupying several storylines. With T’Challa gone, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, in a much expanded role) and her advisors feel the world breathing down their necks, as every nation in the world wants vibranium. With no protector, Wakanda fears an invasion or undo pressure to sell or trade vibranium, something they have no desire to do.
But when a vibranium detector discovers a deposit of the mineral under the ocean floor, a team of Navy SEALS goes looking for it and instead finds a society of underwater dwellers from a kingdom called Talokan, led by a god-king named Namor (Tenoch Huerta). He stands apart from the people he reigns over, who are blue and can only breathe underwater. Namor can fly thanks to wings on his ankles and can breathe for long stretches without the need to return to the water. The SEALS are wiped out, but Namor is determined to find the person responsible for the vibranium detector and have them killed, which brings us to the introduction of mad-genius MIT student (and Chicago native) Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who seems more occupied with running a homework-for-cash side hustle than worrying about being murdered.
Fortunately, the Wakandans get wind of Williams being a target and head to Boston to save her. They enlist the help of their old CIA friend Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who has a new boss that may be familiar to many MCU fans. Led by Dora Milaje leader Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri finds Riri right as both the CIA and the Talokans arrive to grab her up as well. As a result, Shuri gets taken as well, and she and Namor begin a conversation that allows both to realize that the world outside of their respective kingdoms can’t be trusted while vibranium is so rare and valuable.
The fact that Talokan takes its iconography from the Aztec culture, and the kingdom’s origins date back to Spanish colonizers circa the 1500s, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have made Wakanda Forever something of a cautionary tale, and a familiar one at that. Colonizers moving in under cover of night to steal natural resources is a tale as old as civilization, and the idea that these two powerful nations combine their forces to not only defend themselves against such thievery but strike first against would-be oppressors is a spectacular story idea. But as Shuri and Namor trade ideas and she gets a tour of Talokan, she’s unsure of such a burn-it-all approach. Meanwhile, the Queen has brought former War Dog Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) back into the fold (she’s been doing humanitarian work in Haiti since the events of the 2018 film) to infiltrate Talokan and save Shuri and Riri. It’s perhaps an unnecessarily dense story, done for no other reason that to bring Nakia back, but Nyong’o is such a powerful actor, it’s tough to argue the decision to twist events to get her back into the fold.
Also returning in a more expanded capacity is Winston Duke’s M’Baku, whose tribe doesn’t fall under Wakandan rule exactly. But since Black Panther and the last two Avengers films, the character has taken a bigger role in protecting the nation and the world from outside invaders. Once again, Duke’s presence is almost larger than life, and including more of him in this film can’t do anything but improve it.
Battles occur underwater and on land, culminating in two major sequences that see Talokan nearly drown the entirety of Wakanda, following by a sequence in which Wakandan ships head out to sea to hit Talokan warriors before they can finish the job of destroying their kingdom. Yes, someone is made into a new Black Panther, and this is a better option than recasting T’Challa. Lives are lost, the power balance shifts and then shifts again, and the world of Marvel is introduced to a new superpower that could easily impact future storylines. Huerta’s performance is intense, focused and moves between a thoughtful Namor and and a power-mad conqueror.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has its moments—quite a few of them, actually—but I was never allowed to get fully invested in the plight or lives of the Talokan. The characters of Namora and Attuma, both fully formed faces from the comics, are featured in this film, but they are barely name checked and we know absolutely nothing about them by the end of the very long movie. Also, by juggling so much plot, the emotional weight of the loss that the Wakandans must cope with is somewhat lost. I wasn’t expecting a 2.5-hour-plus film to be nothing but a story of mourning, but the loss doesn’t permeate the film in an impactful way. That being said, there are moments, such as when Queen Ramonda screams about having lost her entire family while still be asked to sacrifice more. In addition, Nyong’o’s heartfelt remembrance of what T’Challa meant to her is truly moving, especially when we reach the film’s sole mid-credits scene, which might be the best Marvel has ever included.
There’s no possible way director Coogler believed he could make a better or more impactful movie than Black Panther, so he strove to do something else by aiming to create a full-bore comic book movie. There’s more action, more surprise cameos, and more of the characters we loved from the first film, getting to grow their roles in mostly satisfying ways. The film certainly feels more epic, but what we also needed were more moments of intimacy to infuse into this global story. The film dances clumsily around greatness, instead giving us something good enough. Hey, Oscar-winner Ruth Carter’s costumes are still among the greatest ever created, and that matters a great deal to me.
The film is now playing in theaters.