Ryan Coogler sets the tone of his sequel instantly in the opening of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Within seconds, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett prepare the audience for a somber, heartfelt journey. Many of us are still grieving the sudden departure of Chadwick Boseman, and with that in mind, Marvel Studios offers a chance to press on and heal from such a loss.
Weaving historical tragedies into Wakanda’s lore was one of many components that made the first Black Panther a profound story about globalism vs. isolationism, Africans vs. African-Americans, and how mistakes from past generations affect the people currently living today. In the case of Wakanda Forever, these ideas are all explored once again, in some way, shape, or form.
With the nation grieving over the death of King T’Challa, the people of Wakanda are without their protector and are left to fend for themselves, all while maintaining a complicated relationship with the United Nations – now that the world knows about vibranium, countries left and right are trying all kinds of ways to access it. In the middle of all this, an emerging power rises in the form of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), ruler of the undersea nation of Talokan.
Here is where Wakanda Forever walks a tricky delicate tightrope. We need to understand where Wakanda and its people stand on the world stage and how that could come to a head with Namor’s goals. Thematically, the story offers an incredible amount of space for growth and internal struggle for our cast of characters. Shuri (Wright) and Queen Ramonda (Bassett) grieve differently from T’Challa’s death, while Okoye (Danai Gurira) undergoes an impressive journey of self that highlights why she’s one of the best supporting characters in the MCU.
But when character work and thematic depth is put to the side, that’s when the tightrope occasionally wobbles. On a plot and scene-by-scene basis, the film struggles to find one singular thread to connect everything.
In addition to Namor, the film introduces a few more ideas and characters to set the stakes. One of these new characters is Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a young genius student who rivals Tony Stark in her technological prowess. Though Thorne gives a charismatic performance and brings a ton of personality to the character, she is written too thinly as a MacGuffin plot device that drives the first half of the film. Yes, it is very much similar to how America Chavez was written in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. With that plotline being intertwined with Wakanda’s ongoing relationship with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), the United States’ on-and-off appearance, and our characters grieving, the narrative can feel tonally off-balance, constantly trying to keep everything together in place.
The further the script dives into plot technicalities, the less time it has to explore backstory and motivations. Every time the film focuses on Namor, the importance of protecting his people, and his interactions with Shuri, the film excels. They’re written as foils of each other, hinting at how similar they are had they come from the same background. Though the performances are excellent, especially from Huerta, the script would occasionally cut corners and breeze past important beats, making later consequences seem too straightforward and nowhere near as nuanced and sophisticated as they could be. There is so much room for misunderstandings and misinterpretations, but the script doesn’t take enough time to fully revel in those complexities (even with a 2h 40m runtime). The best kind of conflict is dramatic irony, when we can see where both sides are coming from, and though we can understand why they are fighting, we feel deep down that they shouldn’t.
These fumbles aside, Coogler and his team are more than up to the task of keeping Wakanda Forever a riveting, emotional experience. By the time the film approaches its third act, with some thoughtful surprises along the way, the scope of the battles get larger and larger, yet the stakes become more and more personal. Such a level of storytelling must be celebrated in a major blockbuster like this, because not every filmmaker can nail that balance. But Wakanda Forever manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time.
The film is shot beautifully – Autumn Durald Arkapaw takes over for Rachel Morrison – with its gorgeous cinematography and color palette being far more noticeable than most other Marvel projects. Furthermore, the visual effects are wonderful to take in, especially in the underwater sequences where we get to explore a bit of Talokan. Once again, the production design and costume work from Ruth E. Carter is top notch, expanding the world of Wakanda and creating a whole new aesthetic that blends Aztec and Mayan culture for Namor and his Talokan warriors. Meanwhile, Ludwig Göransson once again turns in a stunning score, this time blending African and Spanish instruments together to form new compositions of familiar melodies from the previous film. It is all incredibly stunning and glorious on a technical level.
Most of all, this feels like Ryan Coogler’s film. From how the film opens to how it chooses to end (even the way the end credits are presented), a lot of respect needs to be given to Marvel Studios for allowing Coogler to just let the drama and emotional power speak for itself. He is a filmmaker who is at his best when he lets the audience to just be present with the characters, and here, he lets every actor shine.
Make no mistake, the entire cast turns in phenomenal performances across the board. Wright, Bassett, Huerta, and Gurira lead the group, but following close behind are Winston Duke as the powerful and loyal M’Baku and Lupita Nyong’o as the War Dog Nakia. Every actor, every character gets a chance to grieve, to find space to heal, and to press on stronger than ever to defend the nation and people they love. At times, it can seem surreal to see these fictional characters experience something we’ve experienced in our own lives, but it is clear that for this cast, they all went through their own journeys, and it’s all captured truthfully in front of the camera.
Which brings me back to why we are all here. The world was shocked by Chadwick Boseman’s sudden passing in 2020. I still remember how paralyzed I was when I first read the news. It casts a looming shadow over this entire film. You can feel his absence, and frankly, so do the filmmakers. Which is why despite its occasional shortcomings in the writing department, every emotional beat in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever still lands. They hit hard because they have been real for us. As a story of loss, legacy, and healing, Wakanda Forever is a beautiful sequel. What it lacks in sophistication and narrative complexity, it makes up for in heart and compassion.
Walt Disney and Marvel Studios will release Black Panther: Wakanda Forever only in theaters on November 11.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios