Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Dominique Thorne, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Angela Bassett
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 161 mins

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the long-awaited sequel to the superhero’s 2018 standalone outing and is once again directed by Ryan Coogler. Black Panther electrified the superhero film genre, earning seven Oscar nominations and winning three.

I had many problems with the film and found its narrative to be very unfocussed, crumbling in its third act under the weight of a big, mindless CGI battle. Coogler also failed to fully explore the interesting ideas of Afrofuturism, world aid and family that he poses.

This sequel is anything but conventional in its development, following the death of its titular star, Chadwick Boseman, who sadly succumbed to colon cancer in 2020. With Marvel choosing not to recast the character out of respect, this resulted in a rewrite of the film without the superhero. Wakanda Forever opens on the fictional nation mourning the loss of its leader, who dyed from an undisclosed illness. T’Challa’s technologically-minded sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) is visibly struggling with his loss, with her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) urging her to continue research on a ‘heart-shaped herb’ in order to create a new Black Panther that can defend Wakanda.

When a vibranium-detecting machine (vibranium being the material Wakanda is rich in and supposedly isn’t found anywhere else on the planet) detects a potential deposit underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the CIA and Navy SEALS on-board a vessel are attacked by a group of blue-skinned creatures. They are led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), King of the underwater kingdom of Talokan which is also rich in vibranium. Following the attack, Namor confronts Ramonda and Shuri and delivers them an ultimatum – deliver him the scientist responsibile for the machine or he will lay siege to Wakanda.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a significant improvement over its predecessor and Coogler has delivered an intelligent, sombre and politically charged sequel. Coogler makes a strong choice to fully explore the characters and how they react to T’Challa’s death, very much mirroring how audiences have mourned Boseman in reality, recreating a scenario we all understand. In a refreshing change of pace for Marvel and a trait that has plagued many of its films, Coogler retains the sombre tone throughout and doesn’t resort to cheap and disposable quips.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Letitia Wright carries the film well, with Shuri experiencing a complicated emotional arc. There is always the risk of upgrading what is a side character to centre stage and it not work out. Angela Bassett is terrific as Queen Ramonda, a monarch trying her utmost to carry the country together who has to make some gut-wrenching decisions in the process. Danai Gurira’s fiersome Okoye receives some strong character development and Coogler explores her humanity behind the tight-lipped army general image her character maintains. Although Lupita Nyong’o is absent in the first half of the film, she injects energy in every scene she’s in once she turns up.

After making a strong impression in The Forever Purge, Tenoch Huerta makes for a brilliant villain as Namor, one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best. Namor is a ruler with a tumultous past who has successfully tried to protect his kingdom from the world from discovery. You can really empathise with his position and motivation. I found Namor a significantly more interesting villain than Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in the original, who despite universal acclaim I had many issues with.

The action sequences are much better this time around and the third act doesn’t succumb to the usual mindless CGI-fest many comic-book films descend into. Although the underwater Talokan army bear similarities to James Cameron’s Avatar, the character designs are striking and the contrast of the aqua attacks against the African landscape of Wakanda is visually arresting. On that note, Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s cinematography tops Rachel Morrison’s of the original film. Morrison resorted to an inordinate amount of quick cuts in the action sequences and it was often hard to make out what was going on. Arkapaw revels in the colour-rich world Coogler creates and knows when to hold onto a shot.

After winning an Oscar for his efforts on the original, Ludwig Göransson’s score is once again excellent. He interestingly rarely refers to his original themes in the first film, opting to craft new ones and it really works. He deftly fuses the African-rich instrumentation for the Wakandan themes with the more mysterious yet forebodic Mayan-inspired tracks.

Ultimately, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a successful sequel that improves upon the flawed original. With an elegiac quality sustained throughout, Coogler’s sequel balances both a grim tone with the idea of future hope and prosperity for the fictional nation. The extended 161 minute run time wasn’t an issue for me and the film kept me engaged throughout. This is much more of a slow-burn, which I appreciated, and the decision to introduce Namor and the Kingdom of Talokan is a wise one. It’s streets ahead of both Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder that Marvel released this year. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a satisfying and exciting end to Marvel’s Phase Four, although I’m not sure future sequels will be able to live up to this, especially as the spectre of Boseman’s death won’t hang over the production to the extent it has on this film.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

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