With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ryan Coogler helms a triumphant sequel that’s a meditation on grief as well as a thrilling blockbuster.
You don’t need me to tell you that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has had a more difficult path to the big screen than your average Marvel blockbuster. In 2020, leading man Chadwick Boseman passed away at the tragically young age of 44 after fighting a secret battle with colon cancer.
The outpouring of grief was immediate and passionate, but director Ryan Coogler and his team still had a movie to make – a film that had to be a blockbuster superhero adventure, while also reckoning with the passing of such a beloved character and human being.
The fact Wakanda Forever works at all is impressive. The fact it almost matches its exceptional predecessor is nothing short of a triumph.
Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole begin the story with the people of Wakanda fighting to save their king as he is bed-ridden due to an illness that ultimately claims his life. His mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) takes the throne and is immediately tasked with something complex – the rest of the world wants to know why the supposedly more outward-looking nation isn’t sharing its vibranium. Unbeknownst to the new queen, other world powers are searching the oceans for the valuable element and they’ve disturbed the underwater kingdom of the powerful Namor (Tenoch Huerta).
This movie is a pretty titanic juggling act, working as a bombastic epic above and below sea level while also serving as a meditation on grief – both fictional and real. It runs to a mammoth two hours and 40 minutes, but never feels like it’s dragging its feet or wading through mud. It’s nimble, exciting and manages to maintain quite remarkable energy levels throughout as it keeps all of the plates spinning.
Thankfully, those plates are largely independent of the broader landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is the final film of the muddled Phase Four, but it serves as a standalone adventure rather than feeling weighed down by cameos, Easter eggs and nonsensical detours into the sort of labyrinthine lore you only understand if you’ve spent the last 15 years sleeping under an Avengers duvet.
There are moments that will thrill and please dedicated fans, but they feel organic and don’t stop the film in its tracks as they did in the deeply frustrating Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness earlier this year. Fan casting is for Reddit, not for $200m blockbuster movies.
The Black Panther franchise has an enviable ensemble, which Coogler really allows to shine in the absence of his leading man. Letitia Wright is given some meaty material to work with, as Shuri tries to find a middle ground between her devotion to technology and the Wakandan traditions she believes to be outdated relics of a pre-tech era.
It’s a complex arc for the character and Wright rises to the occasion as a young woman thrust out of her comfort zone and into the corridors of power. Angela Bassett provides a heavyweight counterpoint to her as the naturally regal and steadfastly traditional Ramonda, with the dynamic between mother and daughter offering real emotional heft amid the superhero activity.
And that superhero activity comes courtesy of the formidable Namor, who’s every bit as intriguing and multi-layered an antagonist as Michael B. Jordan’s exiled Killmonger was in the previous movie. He and Shuri are both trying to work out the best way forward for their nations as they deal with threats from the outside world, but Namor’s years of underwater secrecy leave him lacking in the sense of diplomatic nuance that Wakanda has been forced to learn in recent years. He’s more of a spear-first-question-later sort of guy.
Huerta brings an undeniable charisma and magnetism to Namor, as well as exceptional physicality in the action scenes, which show him and his fellow ocean-dwellers as a formidable threat to just about anybody.
Inevitably when there are so many cogs turning, not everyone comes out unscathed. The likes of Winston Duke and Martin Freeman feel like seldom-used afterthoughts and the introduction of I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel as warrior Aneka has all of the hallmarks of being severely cut down during the editing process.
The biggest victim of this, though, is Danai Gurira’s hugely entertaining Okoye – leader of the Dora Milaje warrior force – whose story is left disappointingly unfinished and undercooked after an interesting start.
But given the challenges at play in making Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, it’s a hugely impressive piece of work that avoids the directionless, meandering feel of many other Phase Four outings. This is a movie that knows what it wants to say, and Coogler has all of the directorial flair to say it in a way that can conjure heavy emotion and provide popcorn-guzzling thrills in equal measure.
It’s a film that, much like its characters, doesn’t shy away from the weight of grief and instead harnesses it into a strength. T’Challa will never be forgotten. Chadwick Boseman will never be forgotten. They’ll be remembered every time we hear the two words that give this film its title, its cry of remembrance and its mission statement for the future: Wakanda Forever.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is released in cinemas on 11th November.
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