February 3, 2023

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Review: “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is not a typical Marvel movie

Black Panther’s release was like nothing before. The effect, immediate and lasting, was cosmic. That the film premiered during the Trump years, a dystopian time in 2018 when black lives felt more precarious than usual and the call for black superheroes became more urgent, gave its message a special boost. It was a triple phenomenon – a commercial, critical and cultural triumph.

King T’Challa was a New Age hero for a new, uncertain time. No stranger to larger-than-life roles, Chadwick Boseman brought poise and charisma to the performance alongside an all-star cast that included Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan. Black Panther had teeth, and he was smart enough to sidestep the simple representation trap in an industry starved of color and meaning. To the credit of director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, the film was about more than the miracle of acclaim; it was a measure of real progress. It spoke to us and we answered back. New black futures – intricate and lush and free – were opening up.

Unforeseen in one of those futures was Boseman’s death in 2020 from colon cancer. Franchises are built on star power, and without Boseman, one of Marvel’s brightest and brightest, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is haunted by his absence, shrouded in a kind of sadness that can’t be ignored. MCU films and series rarely channel the turmoil of grief with such unabashed focus (WandaVision came close in its unconventional portrayal of marital heartache and its psychological aftershocks). The positioning is odd but effective. I’m hesitant to call Wakanda Forever a new breed of superhero blockbuster – it didn’t completely reinvent the wheel – but it’s close. Coogler has equipped his sequel with a different vocabulary: it speaks equally of a place of defeat and triumph. Grief is his mother tongue.

The king is dead and the eyes of the world are once again on Wakanda. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has ascended the throne and, in the year since her son’s death, has done her best to maintain the African nation’s position as a sovereign power. As the only known nation to possess it, Wakanda remains rich in vibranium — the mystical ore used to craft cutting-edge weaponry and technology — and refuses to share its resources with allies (in an early scene, French soldiers try to steal some of it and quickly get her ass kicked by undercover agents of Dora Milaje). Since greed has been the spark for all sorts of conflicts throughout the story, Cooler and Cole are very keen on starting the story in this way. The US government embarks on a Vibranium detection operation in the Atlantic Ocean, but it is mysteriously thwarted by an unknown force – the people of Talokan, an underwater realm that is home to the only other source of Vibranium on Earth.

Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is their wounded leader and hell-bent on keeping Talokan’s existence a secret. A mutant with superpowers to match – increased strength, aquatic regeneration, and the ability to fly (thanks to the wings on his knuckles) – he commands his nation with a meticulous if powerful hand. (Namor is known as the Sub-Mariner in the comics and hails from Atlantis.) The mining company threatens to uncover his oceanic utopia, so he devises a plan to stop them: kill the genius scientist who found the vibranium tracking device built it (Riri Williams, introduces Ironheart to the MCU) and join forces with Wakanda against the surface world. Wakanda refuses. And the two nations face almost certain war.

A conflict, it turns out, that isn’t quite as compelling as the animating principles behind it. Like the US government’s relentless appetite for global influence. Or the all-consuming anger Shuri (Letitia Wright) feels at the loss of her brother and the very real way it prods her into action. Or how Namor’s villainy, if it should be called that at all, runs deeper somewhere, more human somewhere. He’s cut from the stuff of classic MCU anti-heroes. Like Wanda. like kan. Paradoxically, Namor is spoiled and not entirely unjustified in his anger. It all depends on how well his backstory is supported: he descends from a 16th-century Mesoamerican tribe who fled enslavement and were forced to seek refuge underwater. His morals matter.