Review: ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ is not your typical Marvel film

The hatching of Black Panther was like nothing before. The impact, immediate and lasting, was cosmic. The fact that the film premiered during the Trump years, a dystopian period in 2018 when black life felt more uncertain than usual and the call for black superheroes more urgent, gave his message a special charge. It was a phenomenon three times: a commercial, critical and cultural triumph.

King T’Challa was a new-age hero for a new, uncertain time. Chadwick Boseman is no stranger to larger-than-life roles, bringing poise and charisma to the performance alongside an all-star ensemble that includes Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan. Black Panther had teeth, and it was smart enough to avoid the easy trap of representation in an industry hungry for color and meaning. An asset to director Ryan Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, the film was about more than the miracle of recognition; it was a measure of real progress. It spoke to us and we replied back. New black futures – intricate and lavish and free – opened.

Unforeseen in one of those futures was Boseman’s death, in 2020, from colon cancer. Franchises are based on star power, and without Boseman, one of Marvel’s brightest and most promising, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is haunted by his absence, shrouded in the kind of sadness that cannot be ignored. MCU movies and series rarely channel the turbulence of grief with such unshakable focus (WandaVision came close in his unconventional portrayal of marital heartache and its psychological aftershocks). The positioning is curious but effective. I hesitate to call Wakanda forever a new kind of superhero blockbuster – it hasn’t completely reinvented the wheel – but it’s close. Coogler has provided his sequel with a different vocabulary: it speaks from a place of loss as well as from triumph. Sadness is his native language.

The king is dead and the eyes of the world are on Wakanda again. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has taken the throne and has done her best in the year since her son’s death to maintain the African nation’s status as a sovereign power. Wakanda, the only known nation to have it, remains rich in vibranium – the mystical ore used to make advanced weapons and technology – and refuses to share its resources with allies (in an early scene, French soldiers try to steal some and get they were quickly kicked in the ass by Dora Milaje’s undercover agents). Since greed is the spark for conflicts of all kinds throughout history, Cooler and Cole like to get the story started in such a way. The US government begins a vibranium-tracking operation in the Atlantic, but it is mysteriously thwarted by an unknown power: the people of Talokan, an underwater empire that houses the only other source of vibranium on Earth.

Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is their wounded leader and he is determined to keep Talokan’s existence a secret. He has mutated superpowers—increased strength, water regeneration, and flight (thanks to the wings on his ankles)—and commands his lands with a meticulous, albeit powerful, hand. (In the comics, Namor is known as the Sub-Mariner and hails from Atlantis.) The mining operation threatens to expose his oceanic utopia, so he devises a plan to stop it: kill the genius scientist who built the vibranium tracking device ( Riri Williams, Ironheart introduces to the MCU) and joins Wakanda against the surface world. But Wakanda refuses. And the two nations are almost certainly staring at war.

A war, it turns out, is not as convincing as the inspiring principles behind it. Like the US government’s relentless hunger for global influence. Or the all-consuming anger Shuri (Letitia Wright) feels at the loss of her brother, and the very real way it drives her to action. Or how Namor’s villainy, if it may be called that, is rooted somewhere deeper, somewhere more humane. He’s cut from the fabric of classic MCU anti-heroes. Like Wanda. Like Kang. Namor is spoiled in paradox and not entirely unjustified in his wrath. It’s all in how nicely his backstory is propped up: he’s the descendant of a 16th-century Mesoamerican tribe who fled slavery and were forced to take shelter underwater. His morals carry weight.

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