Ryan Coogler | 2hr 41min
Upon the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman in 2020, a Black Panther-shaped hole opened up in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Hollywood’s wider film culture. How a studio so reliant on its storytelling formulas could pivot one of its most lucrative pieces of intellectual property in such a sombre direction would seem to be a tricky task for any of the usual directors-for-hire, though there was little concern going in that Ryan Coogler would pull off anything less than a sincere eulogy for his late friend. As a result, the outpouring of grief felt in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever feels refreshingly untethered from Marvel’s common wisdom that solemnity must either be undercut by a quip or justified as a climactic, heroic sacrifice. Life can be cruel, and in purposefully reflecting the messiness that comes of its adversities, Coogler composes one of the most heartfelt comic book movies we have seen in years.
It is apparent that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever belongs among the greatest artistic efforts to emerge from Marvel Studios, but it is still a little disappointing to consider its flaws that place it a tier below the first film, especially considering the potential of the hugely talented filmmaker at the helm. In place of tight, propulsive story, we get a few extraneous subplots that serve nothing but the setup of future movies, dragging the film out to an overlong 160-minute runtime. The setting of some of these far outside the realms of Wakanda and Talokan, the newly-introduced underwater empire, means that they don’t even have the benefit of Coogler’s richly curated production design to back them up, leading to set pieces like one particular car chase that is so generic it could have come from any modern action movie.
Where this sequel ends up flourishing is in its extension of the accomplishments from the first Black Panther film. The sophisticated world-building Coogler carries out here in introducing new parts of Wakandan culture and the hidden kingdom of Talokan is rife with a visual majesty unparalleled by virtually every other Marvel director. The white textiles worn by the mourners at T’Challa’s funeral distinguish their grieving rituals as a celebration of the life that was lived, gently catching the sunlight beneath delicate veils and swaying loose garments to tribal dances in soulful slow-motion, though Coogler’s vision takes an even greater step up with the introduction of Talokan. Where Wakanda’s costume design is explicitly inspired by African tribes, this oceanic civilisation draws on a Meso-American influence of Aztecs and Mayans, mixing their elaborate designs of precious metals and gemstones with hammerhead shark skulls, lionfish fins, and marine plants.
Those scenes that submerge us underwater entirely easily stand as some of the strongest set pieces of the film as well, basking in the blue glow of the sunken city’s phosphorescent sea creatures and architecture, or otherwise peering up at the refraction of sunlight through the ocean’s rippling surface. In effect, Talokan is visually established as an aquatic cousin of sorts to Wakanda’s vibrant earthiness, united by the resource upon which both advanced societies build their prosperity – vibranium.
Once again, it is the ownership and control of this powerful metal which sets up the primary conflict of the film. Though T’Challa had previously promised to share it with the world, his mother and royal successor, Queen Ramonda, has cautiously backpedalled, wary of exposing Wakanda’s weaknesses. As such, foreign nations have sent out their own scientists and explorers to mine it for themselves, which puts them on the doorstep of Talokan, much to the dismay of its king, Namor. An ultimatum is thus put forward: unite both nations against the rest of the world, or go to war with each other.
As the antagonists of the piece, Namor and his fellow Talokanils make for formidable enemies, wielding impressive powers that call back to the winged sandals and hypnotic sirens of Ancient Greek mythology. Just like Killmonger, they are also entirely sympathetic in their misguided endeavours, wishing to protect their culture from the colonising nations who stripped thriving civilisations of their valuables and left them struggling as third world countries. With T’Challa gone, Wakanda is particularly vulnerable, leaving Shuri, Ramonda, and Okoye to pick up the reigns while still grieving their lost loved one, and to navigate a way forward without a Black Panther.
Within this small ensemble, it is Angela Bassett as the utterly broken and heartachingly furious Ramonda who asserts herself as the most powerful screen presence, revealing in moments of helplessness how much this anguish has aged her into a weary widow of a dwindling family. There may not be as many character arcs as there were in Black Panther, but beyond Ramonda’s exasperation, Wakanda Forever additionally spends time examining Okoye’s identity outside her loyalty to the Dora Milaje, and the restless, burning anger that stands in Shuri’s way of stepping into her brother’s shoes.
The brief appearance of a specific character towards the end of the film may be one of Marvel’s most well-earned cameos in this aspect, edging away from gratuitous fan service to instead underscore Shuri’s desire for vengeance and drive her towards bitter retaliation. She does not possess the kind of nobility which T’Challa embodied and that the mantle of Black Panther necessitates, though this consideration of what makes a leader is at the aching heart of Wakanda Forever, recalling what was lost with Boseman’s passing. Shuri and the sequel that she leads may live in the shadow of their remarkable predecessors, but in realising the difficulty of following up such brilliance, both still manage to recapture pieces of that greatness with sincere, touching reverence.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently playing in theatres.