All the Stars

It’s Wakanda versus underseas Yucatan in Marvel’s female-led, grandiose, intensely emotional sequel to ‘Black Panther’

The king is dead. Long live the king! Mourning becomes electric, in Marvel’s grandiose goodbye to Chadwick Boseman and exhaustingly elaborate welcome to the series’ new incarnation of Wakanda’s legendary protector. T’Challa gets a mighty send-off—no easy emotional dodges, deepfake vfx fixes or movie-magic eliding over his absence. He died just as Boseman died. And from the quiet animated Marvel Studios logo brimming with his images to a Boseman-filled montage at the end, his presence is palpable. It’s dignified. Stirring. He doesn’t haunt the film so much as infuses it with a moral purpose.

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
Running time: 161 min

Settle in, though. It takes two full hours before Black Panther: Wakanda Forever reveals a successor sporting that form-fitting catsuit and sipping superpower-charged heart-shaped herb elixir. What precedes that moment is an all-consuming sadness, not only for the loss of King T’Challa but also for the hidden Edenic society’s unsteady debutant role in a corrupted world aching to plunder its resources. Impressively, Wakanda Forever is more dramatic than action-packed, more concerned with character’s feelings than their fighting skills, more committed to showing adversaries as tragic heroes instead of as cartoonish villains.

Filling out the movie’s bloated-belly running time is all its world-building for a brand-new ancient Mayan civilization called Talokan. The only thing better than a secret Afrofuturistic

city humming on vibranium? A secret Chicanofuturistic city humming on vibranium. Think El Dorado crossed with Atlantis. Seems that another meteorite must have slammed into earth millions of years ago—but instead of hitting East Africa, it landed in the Atlantic Ocean. And, in 1571, when Spanish Conquistadors were busy pillaging and infecting the Yucatán peninsula, a few lucky Mayans discovered a miraculous vibranium-infused underwater plant. Ingesting it gave them gills, turned them blue, and allowed them to escape into the sea and build their aquatic kingdom.

Their leader is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a 500-year-old demigod/quasi-alien whose mother ate that intergalactic vegetation when she was pregnant. So Namor has prolonged life, incredible strength, and the ability to absorb oxygen from water through his skin jellyfish-style. He also has nifty little wings on his ankles that allow him to fly—so he’s basically a cross between Mercury and Aquaman. The Talokans revere Namor as K’uk’ulkan, their mythical feathered serpent God. Seems random, since they’re underwater and he doesn’t have scales, but whatever. Point is, he hates the surface world and wants to keep Talokan unknown.

A small special-ops team of CIA agents and Navy SEALS accidentally—and fatally—stumbles upon the Talokans while using a cutting-edge machine designed to detect the alien mineral. And now that the angry sea denizens have emerged, they want to find and kill the person who designed the equipment that discovered them. The culprit? A 19-year-old African American woman at M.I.T. named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). She’s like Tony Stark, if he were poor and raised on the south side of Chicago. “To be young, gifted, and black, right?” she snorts at Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and General Okoye (Danai Gurira) when they arrive in Cambridge to protect her. Too late: soon enough Talokan warriors are riding humpback whales into the Charles River and causing water-based mayhem that somehow eludes the detection of the mouth-breathing normies above ground.

Tenoch Huerta as Namor in ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.’

Brinkmanship diplomacy simmers, then eventually explodes into brown-on-black violence, as Wakanda and Talokan threaten each other’s sovereignty. Namor kidnaps Shuri and Riri, and tries to convince them to go to war against the white-dominated surface world. “They conquered and enslaved people like us for resources,” he snarls at Shuri, who, in her darkest, most grief-stricken moments, also wants to let it all burn.

Vengeance pulsates through Wakanda Forever, in all its despair, just as it did in the original Black Panther. The racially radicalized liberation energy propelling that 2018 blockbuster into a cultural phenomenon is doubled here, in a twinning anticolonialism message that remains breathtaking to see in a major studio popcorn picture. Even more impressive is the palpable absence of Big Dick Energy. Wakandan men are mostly sidelined, watching as their women take center stage in conflicts both verbal and hand-to-hand.

It’s Angela Bassett’s movie for an impressive chunk of the film, as her Queen Ramanda cajoles, commands, and otherwise navigates through her country’s choppy conflicts. Okoye again shines as the ever-intimidating head of warrior-women extraordinaire the Dora Milaje—who, this time around, add the beguiling badass Michaela Coel to their formidable ranks. Lupita Nyong’o returns as T’Challa’s true love Nakia, who in this movie seems to get upgraded from secret agent duty to full-fledged polylingual, gadget-laden superspy status. And Williams is a regular mini Iron Man, with her DIY jetpack armor and incredulously preternatural fighting abilities. Who knew M.I.T. students were so combat-ready?

The film’s emotional core, though, is Letitia Wright’s Shuri, constantly wrestling with her transformation from sassy tech-genius baby sister to world-weary statesman. Wakanda Forever feels like an apt name for such an expansive, arguably indulgent epic-length story. But, like the vibranium that powers and protects its characters, the film hums and shimmers with a steely, satisfying, otherworldly resonance.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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