“When the music changes, then the rhythm of the dance must change also.” – Tuareg proverb
Five years ago, Black Panther was a rousing success the likes of which the world had never seen. The often overlooked Marvel comics character was now in the stratosphere of the company’s biggest creations. Naturally, a sequel was called for and audiences were excited to see what T’Challa would face next. But the cruel whims of fate had other plans.
With the tragic loss of the star and no clear direction on how to move forward, it would have been more than understandable to cease production. However, Ryan Coogler rose to the occasion and soldiered on, crafting Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. This is a picture that is more than just what could best be made under the circumstances.
Though it has become a major player in global politics, the African nation of Wakanda is reeling from the death of its king (Chadwick Boseman, seen in flashback footage and a touching opening logo sequence). His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has assumed rule while Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) steps out of the lab to take a more active role. And rule the Queen does, making it crystal clear that her country is not to be messed with.
Meanwhile, searches for vibranium in the Atlantic Ocean have disturbed Talokan, an underwater kingdom that had also been living in isolation. After leading an attack on invasive American forces, their leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta) reveals himself to Ramonda and Shuri. The Sub-Mariner requests Wakana’s assistance in tracking down the party responsible for the detection device. Understanding that their nation will very likely be blamed by the world for the aggression, the Wakandans are put in a difficult position.
The themes of the prior film dealt with loyalty and tradition, and while those may crop up here and there, Wakanda Forever has its own points of focus. Chiefly, these are leadership, family, faith, and, of course, grief. The handling of T’Challa’s death was dignified, reflecting every bit the love those involved in the production had for the character and his actor.
Talokan is developed as a strong parallel to Wakanda, complete with its own cultural touches such as catchphrases and gestures. The color coding of the subtitles to correspond with the languages being spoken (e.g. the Wakandan translations are in yellow while Spanish are in white, etc.) is pure brilliance. With this script, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole are even bolder than before. Put it this way: the first film alluded to past atrocities, but the second outright shows them. Other key creatives – namely costume designer Ruth Carter and composer Ludwig Göransson, both of whom earned Academy Awards for their work on the predecessor – return to provide equally proficient work.
And also like the first, the actors and characters shine. Shuri makes for a compelling protagonist and Wright rises admirably to the occasion. Bassett is Oscar-worthy, digging into her character’s deepest pathos and emerging as an absolute tour de force. Also back are Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, looking better than ever and with a solid grasp on their roles. Michaela Coel, while not given as much to do, makes for a superb addition to the Dora Milaje. Though he does still seem a bit miscast (or maybe it’s the facial hair and lack of a ponytail throwing me off), Huerta has what should be a star-making turn.
And then there’s Riri “Ironheart” Williams (Dominique Thorne). As her alias suggests, she was developed in the comics as an heir apparent to Tony Stark. However, since the movies have already used Spider-Man to fill that purpose, she is stripped of that connection here. And really, having Shuri as a mentor is a much better fit anyway. Shuri sees in Riri a younger version of herself and the audience sees that Shuri has grown from the kid sidekick to the main hero.
The flaws are primarily Namor-related. His origin is vastly different from that of the comic character. While this may have been done because Aquaman beat them to it, surely Marvel could have found a unique angle for an Atlantis of their own. In addition, the secondary villains are not very well-defined, so scenes where the audience is supposed to recognize them don’t land.
Proving that lemonade can be made from life’s lemons, Wakanda Forever is a strong and emotionally resonant continuation. It is unknown where the series will go from here, but the bar remains high. I have no doubt, however, that should the same team of talent remain on this property, they will meet the challenge admirably.