Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pays tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman right at the top, even before the Marvel Studios logo comes on. We see the funeral of his character, T'Challa. It's a smart opening that allows the filmmakers and the audience to grieve together for a few moments before the proper movie kicks in. Boseman's spirit lingers throughout, as the story is part superhero adventure, part reflection on loss. The actor's death creates a couple problems the picture can't quite get around, but it's overall an ambitious, entertaining chapter in the MCU, one blessedly free of the awkwardly forced-in fan service that has marred several of the company's other recent releases.

Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) continues to mourn T'Challa, yet has worked through his passing enough to carry on. The same cannot be said of his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who carries both sadness and anger over his demise. Not having him around creates an issue when Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the leader of an undersea nation called Talokan, shows up in Wakanda with startling news. Vibranium, the substance via which Wakandan technology is based, has been found deep in the ocean, and the CIA has begun mining it, putting his kingdom in danger. He wants Ramonda to send someone after Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), the brilliant college student who invented the machine that detects it. If she doesn't bring the girl to him, he fully intends to have his armies rise up and destroy Wakanda.

With that premise established, Wakanda Forever goes on to explore the tenuousness of the situation. Ramonda and Shuri are in a tough spot. Namor is clearly a formidable leader with a massive army, so ignoring his request could cause war to break out. Handing him Riri, on the other hand, almost certainly means her demise. The story handles the politics of this dilemma well, showing the characters weighing pros and cons, while simultaneously trying to figure out a way to potentially placate Namor. Most Marvel pictures have a direct hero-versus-villain set-up. The pleasure here comes from the fact that we recognize Namor's motives are in the interest of his people. He isn't a typical megalomaniacal bad guy, he's a man trying to protect his nation from what, to them, is a very real threat.

Interspersed among those dramatic scenes are a handful of excellent action sequences, many involving Wakandan warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira). There's a tense car chase, a melee on a bridge, and a fantastic climactic battle over (and in) the ocean. As he did with the original Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler makes sure these scenes fit naturally into the plot, as opposed to being haphazardly shoved in. Across the board, they compliment the central Wakanda/Talokan conflict.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as you can perhaps tell, has a noticeable lack of Black Panther. The plot has to work around Boseman's absence, spending a not-insignificant amount of time putting the pieces in place for another character to assume the role. That makes this a talkier, more character-driven movie than the previous one, or all the previous MCU features, for that matter. Only in the final half-hour does somebody finally put on the outfit. This requirement additionally pads the running time to 161 minutes. The story drags in a couple spots because of the need to lay groundwork for the new Black Panther. None of this is fatal, it simply means the sequel intermittently lacks the fast pace that the original had.

The flip side is that the actors get to dive deeper into the people they're playing. Bassett and Wright skillfully bring across the grief their characters experience from T'Challa's death, as does Lupita Nyong'o, returning as his former romantic partner, Nakia. The actresses are fantastic, as is Tenoch Huerta Mejía as Namor. He shrewdly doesn't play the guy as all good or all bad, but rather as a pragmatist willing to do whatever it takes for his people.

Thanks to the mixture of high-quality performances, an intriguing conflict between the two nations, and a thoughtful portrayal of loss, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is an intelligent, emotional MCU installment. Considering it had the tough task of working around the tragic loss of its charismatic star, the film came out pretty good.

out of four

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, action, and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 41 minutes.