Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (aka Black Panther 2 / Black Panther II) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Chadwick Boseman’s loss can be felt deeply within Wakanda Forever. His tragic death left a hole that needed to be filled. After all, Black Panther was such a trailblazer in film, presenting a blockbuster superhero movie with a primarily black cast. That was too big of a cultural milestone to simply chuck the sequel out the window or even just recast Boseman as if nothing happened. But Boseman’s role was too important to be glazed over so easily. Thus, his departure frames the strong narrative of Wakanda Forever, the Black Panther sequel that continues the legacy of the secret African culture.
The film takes place one year after the death of T’Challa (Boseman). Wakanda, now under the rule of T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has become more defensive. As nations attempt to barter for Wakanda’s ultimate element of Vibranium, Wakanda defends itself from attempts to invade and swipe resources. They seem to be doing fine politically. Emotionally, however, the wounds have not healed. Shuri (Letitia Wright), the sister of T’Challa, hasn’t let go of her brother and hasn’t forgiven herself for not finding a proper cure before a disease claimed his body. There’s also no Black Panther currently to take on the mantle of Wakanda’s hero, placing a lot of responsibility on Shuri’s shoulders to both develop the Black Panther tech and use it as well.
Her grief becomes something she’ll have to deal with on the fly as there’s a new international incident threatening her kingdom. The underwater empire of Talokan has been threatened by invaders and is seeking an alliance with Wakanda to better combat the surface world. The empire is led by the conflicted Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a mutant that is the only one of his people that can breathe on land (and has wings on his feet to fly). He wants his people to remain a secret from surface-dwellers and protected from a history of slavery that has threatened their culture. They have much in common with Wakanda.
Some Wakandan familiars are back and still a lot of fun. Danai Gurira still has a way with dry humor when playing the stern and short-fused Okoye. Winston Duke still knows how to steal a scene as the brash and boisterous M’Baku, eager to charge into battle and howl alongside his warrior brethren. Lupita Nyong'o also has an interesting role as Nakia, reluctant to get involved with Wakanda after the death of her husband.
There are so many players on the board for this mixture of fantasy-war epic and international spy thriller. Consider how Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) is woven into the story. She becomes unwittingly a target for her genius in Vibranium and this ultimately makes her a crucial pawn in the war between Wakanda and Talokan. She could be the great everyman for this type of film but sadly doesn’t get as many great scenes to comment on the nature of Wakanda and battling enemies from the sea. Her role seems so reduced that her eventual appearance as the Iron Man successor Ironheart feels nearly inexplicable.
Speaking of everyman characters, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) returns but with a wildly reduced presence. He acts as a contact within the CIA for the inciting incident that brought Talokan into this plot. Sadly, though, his scenes are as minimal as his involvement, where he spends far more time interacting with the Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the operative leader you might recall from the endings of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow. If you’re still wondering what her grander motivations are, you won’t get much of that divulged in this film either, considering how focused it is on its own narrative of grief and revenge completely divorced from the rest of the MCU.
And, yet, that’s a good thing. This is a film that doesn’t feel as bound by sticking all the MCU parts together, considering how little Phase IV has done any of that. Instead, the film narrows its vision to Shuri’s ascension to the throne and tests her bitterness of eye-for-eye mentality. There are plenty of shades in this story that reflect the familiar patterns of T’Challa and how he came to better question his kingdom. While that similarity may present an angle of repetitiveness, they’re explored in a meaningful way. Grief can lead to revenge and revenge can be messy, giving Shuri a tough lesson to learn as she is thrown into leadership at an accelerated rate. This leads to some stellar fight sequences that carry greater weight than just who is the stronger kingdom, showcasing how parallels of loss can still breed conflict from concerned people in power.
Wakanda Forever has its messy elements and is even a bit long at nearly three hours. Despite its shortcomings, the greater elements hit hard, especially when paying tribute to Boseman in the best way possible. It also doesn’t feel like an MCU movie masquerading as a particular genre, as though it’s going through the same beats while throwing on a coat of Afrofuturism. The style is it's own as is the story, where the Easter egg isn’t about who will show up next but how there’s hope for the future. Final scenes like that make this Black Panther sequel stand strong among the other ho-hum Marvel Studios movies.