Where can a superhero story that has lost its superhero go? Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (in theaters Friday) ultimately finds a new path forward, though director Ryan Coogler‘s grand, somber requiem makes it clear in nearly every scene that the late Chadwick Boseman is irreplaceable, both on and off screen.
This is a movie very much in mourning for the man it lost — as a star, a colleague, and a friend — which seems like strange if not uncharted territory for a comic-book universe in which death is a Snap, and resurrection rarely less than another sequel or end-credits sequence away. The result still pounds with busy CG spectacle and, at just under three hours, more mythology than any non-Marvel head may strictly need. But it’s also contemplative, character-driven, and frequently lovely: a faithful genre player imbued with a rare visual richness and real, painful poignancy.
King T’Challa’s death from an unspecified illness takes place before the title card, leaving his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and a kingdom bereft. Global villainy, though, allows little time for bereavement, and even less for story exposition; within minutes, an American recon mission for vibranium — the precious, indestructible metal for which Wakanda is the only known source — goes fatally awry somewhere deep in the Atlantic Ocean, confounding the U.S. government. The hordes that destroyed their ship and mesmerized the crew don’t seem like citizens of any country they’ve seen before: Their skin is tinged Avatar-blue, for one, and they appear to breathe easily underwater. Their leader, Namor (the brooding Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta), a formidable fighter with elfin ears and small, fluttering wings on his heels like a Greek god, turns out to have royal immortality in his blood, and intractable plans for Wakanda. As the ruler of an ancient deep-sea Mayan civilization called Talokan, he has his own people and resources to protect, and when he introduces himself to a still-grieving Ramonda and Shuri, he makes his terms clear: They can join him in defeating his land-bound foes, or be buried with them. There’s also a teenage girl, an Einstein-brained MIT student named Riri (Judas and the Black Messiah‘s Dominique Thorne), whose precocious inventions, among them an Iron Man-like suit, make her both a target and an asset (and inevitably, a place-marker for yet another lucrative fragment of IP; Thorne will star as Riri/Ironheart in a Disney+ series slated for 2023).
Fending off these new threats means bringing Riri on board and marshaling the forces of the Wakanda diaspora, including Danai Gurira ‘s ferociously loyal general Okoye, Winston Duke‘s towering warrior M’Baku, and Lupita Nyong’o ‘s retired spy Nakia, now living in self-imposed exile. Martin Freeman also returns as the Wakandans’ best American ally, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, with a vivid purple streak in her hair and an air of persistent Veep-y exasperation, drops in as the government honcho tasked with cleanup. (I May Destroy You‘s great Michaela Coel, alas, doesn’t get to do much with her own warrior bit.)
Coogler, who cowrote the script once again with Panther scribe Joe Robert Cole, sets up several anchoring set pieces, clangorous air-land-and-sea battles that travel from Boston bridges and Wakandan city centers to the ocean floor. Levity comes in a few brief but well-placed moments of release, little garnishes of comic relief — just watch Duke eat a carrot — that mitigate the heavy mantle of grief and the obligatory MCU business of saving the world, one franchise installment at a time. (The rules of engagement seem more arcane, or merely very flexible; it’s never completely clear what privileges various characters’ powers confer unless you knew them coming in.)
The most striking thing about the movie, though, may be what a matriarchy it is, both by nature and nurture: Without their king, Wakanda has become a queendom from the top down, overseen by Bassett’s regal, ageless Ramonda, the gorgeously daunting Gurira, and Wright, who rises to fill her dramatically expanded role with feline grace and vulnerability. Coogler also stacks his backline with talented women, including production designer Hannah Beachler and costumer Ruth E. Carter, who both won well-deserved Oscars for the first film.
Their shared vision of Afro-futurism feels lush and joyful and beautifully specific set against the usual white noise of Marvel fanfare, even (or almost especially) in darker moments, like the pristine rituals of a funeral scene. Wakanda is still clearly a Marvel property, with all the for-the-fans story beats and secondary characters its ever-expanding universe requires, but it also feels apart from any one that’s come before. And while a Black Panther without Boseman is undoubtedly nothing like the film’s creators or any of its cast wanted it to be, the movie they’ve made feels like something unusually elegant and profound at the multiplex; a little bit of forever carved out for the star who left too soon. Grade: B+
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