The end comes right at the beginning: swift, expected, crushing. King T’Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, is grievously ill, and his brilliant scientist sister, Shuri (a forceful Letitia Wright), is working desperately to engineer a cure. The clock ticks and the camera races, but for all the tension there’s predictably zero suspense: T’Challa is soon dead, leaving the princess and the queen mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), to grieve with their subjects. That we never see even a flashback to T’Challa’s face — the face of the late Chadwick Boseman — in these opening moments adds to the sense of finality, of an absence that reverberates beyond the parameters of fiction. We share the characters’ devastation but not their shock; unlike them, we’ve had some time to prepare.
So, of course, have the filmmakers. And from the opening scenes of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” director Ryan Coogler’s tact, intelligence and discernment are more than apparent. He wants to honor — without exploiting — Boseman’s memory, and he knows that he doesn’t have to push hard to earn our tears. He also knows that, as a matter of narrative opportunity as well as philosophical principle, every end really isa beginning. And so even as he guides us on a hushed procession through the streets of Wakanda and through a series of eerily beautiful funeral rites, Coogler maintains unflagging forward momentum and quickly puts a grief-stricken empire on high alert. There are already new adventures — and yes, fresh occasions for grief — on the horizon.
Marvel wisely decided against recasting Boseman’s role as Wakandan King T’Challa/Black Panther. Instead, returning director Ryan Coogler (who co-wrote the movie with Joe Robert Cole) weaves the character’s death into the narrative as the technologically advanced African nation mourns its lost leader and his heroic alter ego.
A sense of grief is threaded through the movie, as the late king’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) struggle with their loss. These two are Wakanda Forever’s beating heart, with Bassett capturing the pain and resignation of someone whose sense of responsibility outweighs their pain. The science-minded Shuri, by contrast, tries to bury her trauma in logic, and Wright’s performance ripples with suppressed suffering.
Coogler’s patient direction allows us to feel the family’s anguish resonating throughout, but leans into Marvel’s traditional easy sense of adventure and light tone as the action kicks off, to stop the movie from feeling too heavy.
The story he tells is unwieldy and strange, sometimes thrilling yet inescapably somber. As diplomacy fails, secrets exchange hands and forces clash on land and at sea, you never quite forget that you’re witnessing not just a busy narrative juggling act, but also an imperfect solution to an impossible problem. Not long after Boseman’s death in 2020, speculation ran rampant as to how the much-anticipated sequel to 2018’s “Black Panther,” one of the most commercially and culturally significant blockbusters of all time, would shoulder such a blow. Would T’Challa be recast? Would some ghoulish digitally confected version of Boseman’s character live to fight another day? Those options were rejected, and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is now something entirely different from what its makers must have once envisioned: an entertainment and an elegy, a blurring of tragedies on- and off-screen, a story both misshapen and ennobled by once-unthinkable loss.
And why not? The power of Coogler’s first “Black Panther” movie — what made it such a singular oasis of emotion, meaning and political imagination in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — lay precisely in its real-world friction, its refusal to shy away from grief and pain. Here was a comic-book fantasy both despairing and utopian, rooted in an extravagant superhero mythology (first concocted in the ’60s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) that served to deepen, rather than depart from, the audience’s consciousness. Technologically advanced and vibranium-fortified, the kingdom of Wakanda emerged fully formed as what the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb called “a redemptive counter-mythology” — a powerfully imagined corrective to the white colonization of the African continent, if also a kingdom situated at a strategic remove from the ongoing struggle for Black liberation worldwide.
“Black Panther” ended with Wakanda agreeing to lower its isolationist shield and join the international community. As the new movie opens, the kingdom is witnessing the costs of that concession, thanks to the global hunger for vibranium, the all-powerful metal that fuels Wakanda’s techno-supremacy. There’s something unmistakably resonant about the idea of a nation that has never known the threat of colonization or conquest suddenly finding itself beset on all sides, its position even more compromised by the untimely loss of its most cherished son. More resonant still is the image of Ramonda, played by Bassett with sublimated anguish and stunning fury, bearing the full weight of her moral authority as she steps fearlessly into the breach.
The narrative thrust comes after world superpowers fail to respect Wakanda’s grief, seeing T’Challa’s death as an opportunity to plunder some of Wakanda’s vibranium — a metal so rare and versatile it could shift the global balance of power. The hunt for this resource leads the US to the secret underwater empire of Talokan and incurs the wrath of its king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who rises as a threat to Wakanda after seeking the country’s aid in fending off invasion.
While Riri’s whip-smart energy gives the proceedings a welcome early jolt, the character feels increasingly like an afterthought, especially once Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, usher in a few paradigm-rattling twists. Enter Namor (the charismatic Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of an Atlantis-like undersea kingdom called Talokan that, like Wakanda, runs on vibranium and was until recently a very well-kept secret. A seductive bronze-chested demigod, Namor has pointy elfin ears and winged feet reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes, but this lesser-known forerunner of DC Comics’ Aquaman is actually descended — quite literally descended, given his watery home — from an ancient Maya community. There are traces of that heritage in the hieroglyphics carved into Talokan’s stony grottos, and also in Namor’s feathered headdress and intricate jewelry. (It’s less apparent in his subjects, whose bluish skin and fish-like gills suggest a more rubbery-looking variant of the Na’vi characters in James Cameron’s forthcoming “Avatar: The Way of Water.”)
Outside Wakanda and Talokan, we’re introduced to genius MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). She’s crafted a suit of superpowered armor inspired by the late Tony Stark (we also get some delightful visual mirrors to the original Iron Man) — her youthful exuberance and sense of wonder offer a fun contrast to everyone else’s intensity.
Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s kinetic cinematography shines in the car chase and battle that follow Riri’s introduction, too, making the side quest to Massachusetts one of the most memorable parts of this adventure.
There’s no mystery about the identity of the new Black Panther or any real doubt of who’ll take up the mantle, but Wakanda Forever builds cleverly to their introduction. This isn’t a straightforward moment of triumph, making the climatic battles feel emotionally fraught and morally uncertain in a way Marvel finales rarely are (though it’s possibly a few minutes too long, given the movie’s 2 hour and 41 minute running time).
The clash between the forces of Wakanda and Talokan — a mighty African kingdom and its Mesoamerican counterpart — introduces an intriguing new cultural-mythological dynamic and raises all manner of thorny questions about race and allyship among characters of Black, Indigenous and Latin American descent. (It also opens up new worlds of aesthetic possibility for costume designer Ruth E. Carter, production designer Hannah Beachler and composer Ludwig Göransson, all expanding beautifully on their Oscar-winning contributions to the first “Black Panther.”) Less interestingly, that clash also drives most of the action, and as with nearly every Marvel blockbuster, the many scenes of choreographed combat are by far the movie’s most workmanlike, absent any real visceral oomph and bogged down, especially at the climax, by too much frenzied cross-cutting.
6 thoughts on “‘Black Panther 2’ review: A touching T’Challa tribute with a messy but valiant effort”
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