Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Marvel Studios)

“Imperius Rex!” Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a 2022 Marvel Studios picture directed by Ryan Coogler. Based on his story, the screenplay is co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. […]

Imperius Rex!”

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a 2022 Marvel Studios picture directed by Ryan Coogler. Based on his story, the screenplay is co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. Wakanda Forever is a sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, and as such, the production was thrown into turmoil by the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman from cancer.  Starring Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Winston Duke, and Danai Gurira with appearances by Boseman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael B. Jordan, Wakanda Forever introduces to the MCU Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams along with Tenoch Huerta Mejía as the formidable and enigmatic Namor.

Namor the Sub-Mariner first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, two full years before the debut of Aquaman. He also rules the seven seas, but is famous for not wearing pants. Wearing in swimmer’s briefs, created by Bill Everett, Namor is the first mutant published by Marvel Comics. Nimble in the sky, a tank on the ground, and a terror beneath the waves, Namor is a tough cookie. The first Human Torch and Captain America along with Namor are the most popular characters featured for Timely Comics, Marvel’s predecessor. Namor is also the first anti-hero in comics, as liable to feud with a character as he is to fight alongside them. 

There is something terribly wrong with T’Challa (Boseman). Shuri (Wright) works frantically in her lab, trying to reconstitute the heart-shaped herb using cutting-edge Wakandan organic 3D printers. She’s certain imbibing the herb solution will save her brother, but she is too late. The disease devours him before Shuri can successfully remake the plant. Her brother T’Challa is dead. The Black Panther is dead. The King is dead, and what will become of Wakanda now?

T’Challa’s state funeral is brilliant and bittersweet, a cathartic celebration of the departed and a solemn recognition of his sad passage simultaneously. Queen Ramonda (Bassett) is left to take up the tiller and command the ship of state yet again, which she does, though she and Shuri are wracked with grief.

Since exposing their existence to the outside world, Wakanda continues to maintain a monopoly over the mysterious metal vibranium, which is the means with which the Wakandans maintain their technological superiority. The nations of the world chafe at these restrictions and scour the globe for alternate deposits or impact sites. Their efforts are greatly assisted by a new device capable of detecting vibranium ore, which has been found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, well outside the impenetrable borders of Wakanda. A team of scientists and soldiers are sent by ship to exploit this discovery, but when they arrive on-site, they find the machine disabled and their undersea auger’s drill bit destroyed. Their vessel comes under attack from a group of blue-skinned sea dwellers. They are led by the supremely powerful Namor, known as the Feathered Serpent God K’uk’ulkan, who easily smashes the escape chopper from the sky. None on the team survive.

Time passes. Shuri mourns her brother. One year after a Wakandan’s death, custom calls for the mourners to burn their funeral garments as a physical manifestation of the relinquishing of grief. Out in the wild, by the broad brown bank of a river, sitting by a fire, Ramonda pleads with Shuri to set her ceremonial garb alight. Shuri refuses; she’s not finished with her grief. She’s hip-deep in the anger phase. She doesn’t want to burn her funeral clothes, Shuri wants to set the world on fire. Their spirited discussion is interrupted by Namor, who emerges from the water and glides through the air, propelled by his uncanny ankle wings.

Joining them on the shore, he tells them that Wakanda’s emergence has endangered his people, the citizens of the undersea civilization, Tālocān. Wakandan science prevents the outside world from descending on their mine and mound, but the insatiable external desire for vibranium remains, and the world will stop at nothing to access any alternate supply. At the bottom of the ocean, Tālocān sits atop such an alternate supply, and Wakanda has put a bullseye on its back. He informs them of the vibranium detector that threatens his city. Namor demands that the Wakandans kill the scientist who created the device lest he returns with his army, drown the capital Birnin Zana and lay waste to Wakanda. Shuri realizes in an instant that Namor is swathed in vibranium; his armor, weapon, and even jewelry are made of the stuff and he was able to elude the vaunted vibranium-based Wakandan defenses, making his way deep down river without eliciting a single sentry response or triggering any alarms and recognizes the gravity of his disquieting threats.

With the help of former CIA agent Everett Ross (Freeman), the scientist is located and identified: Riri Williams (Thorne), a young MIT student with a stupendous intellect. In defiance of Namor, Ramonda decides not to kill Williams, but to get to her, put the bag on her and squeeze her for information. Shuri wants to go on the contact mission along with agents of the Dora Milaje, and Okoye (Gurira) convinces a reluctant Romanda to allow her to tag along, promising to keep Shuri safe.

The pair meets with Williams and escorts her to her workshop. There they discover Riri is working on a rudimentary suit of flight-capable powered armor and also that unbeknownst to her, her academic work on a professor’s project was perverted into the deep-sea vibranium detector. It is at that moment that they are set upon by teams of armed agents aggressively seeking to arrest them, as the CIA thinks Wakanda was behind the drilling-support ship attack.

Can Shuri and Okoye escape the agents along with Riri? Can Ramonda, M’Baku (Duke), and the other clan leaders keep the country safe from Namor and his mer-forces? Will Namor’s lust for revenge cloud his judgment and goad him into rash acts? Can Riri discover her full potential while trying to stay alive? Where is Nakia (Nyong’o) and why didn’t she come to T’Challa’s funeral? Will Shuri take her proper place as her ancestors intend? In the hour of Wakanda’s greatest need, who will don the ancient mantle of the Black Panther? Have a look, have a listen, take a dive into the deep blue, watch Wakanda Forever, and you’ll see.

Letitia Wright has huge shoes to fill as her character, Shuri steps into the lead role. The smoldering rage she feels for her brother’s death flashes out of her loss-lidded eyes, but she carries herself like she’s really furious at herself as Shuri feels she failed T’Challa in his most dire moment. She then takes even more weight on her shoulders in an unbelievable and unexpected moment in the middle of the film. Shuri feel she needs to be hard and cruel, and Wright makes the character’s inward turn into inflexible rigidity clear to see. When she reaches a cathartic moment towards the ending, her face breaks into her first true smile in the film, illuminating her face like the sun emerging from behind a cloud.

Angela Bassett is beyond regal as Ramonda, a woman who finds herself in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. As the situation turns dour, as her son is lost before her and her nation is threatened, she stands tall and proud. Unflinching and indomitable, her wrath is terrible like a storm, but she never loses sight of her responsibility to her people and what remains of her family. She momentarily drops the veil and reveals her encompassing pain and loss in a knee-trembling scene of great sympathy, leading to one of the movie’s few tissue-requiring moments.

Every time the warm and witty Winston Duke chomps on one of his carrots, the big lug just reminds this reviewer that his sly M’Baku has many elements of a certain bunny from Brooklyn. Whereas he spent much of the first film as an anti-hero before his face-turn to become one of T’Challa’s more faithful allies, here his job is as more of a father figure and advisor for Shuri, a role he adopts with surprising ease.

Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross is slightly less dorky than in his previous appearances. It’s clear his previous experiences in Wakanda have changed him. He’s now less arrogant, less likely to puff out his chest. Instead, he jumps at any opportunity make good on his debt. Shuri saved his life, he knows he owes her, and there’s nothing he won’t do if asked.

Danai Gurira plays Okoye with a winking sense of humor that belies her physical explosiveness. She bursts into graceful, lethal movement when any threat arises, but in an incredible display, her emotions splash across her face in shocking waves when she faces a particular situation she can’t overcome by force alone.

Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is like a ray of sunshine lighting up every scene she’s in. She’s lithe and dangerous with the quick-thinking moves of an experienced spy. She’s very convincing and committed to the part; she’s so comfortable around Ramonda and Shuri that it feels like she’s known them for decades.

Dominique Thorne brings tremendous enthusiasm to her role as Riri Williams/Ironheart. She’s able to easily transition from awe at encountering Wakandans to anger at having her work misappropriated, horror of the agents’ attack, and then unbridled joy as she launches into the sky in her Ironheart prototype, all within moments of each other and all with just the right amount of expressiveness and eagerness the part requires.

Tenoch Huerta Mejía’s Namor is truly a dread sovereign. Dark, sexy, and charming, with a sense of menace he doesn’t bother to conceal, K’ukl’ulkan, the Feathered Serpent God is a ruler who is used to getting exactly what he wants, but has no compunctions about taking what he needs.  Huerta Mejía is also a magnificently physical actor with incredible body control. The way he stalks, leaps and darts through the sky, propelled on those perfect, fluttering, ankle-wings is excellent and elegantly portrayed. It’s an absurd visual image, and yet it’s extremely effective. The moment he called out his comics-accurate catchphrase, the review audience erupted in applause.

Ryan Coogler is trying to accomplish many things with his multilayered memento mori of a movie. Coogler has made an auspicious memorial to Chadwick Boseman, both for the characters in the film and the audience of the film. Most of it works magnificently. Some does not. It’s very ambitious but a bit overstuffed, trying to make peace with Boseman’s loss and establish what’s next for Wakanda as well as introducing two and half new characters who will be integral to the future of the MCU. In that regard, it shares a bit with Iron Man 2. Like the second Iron Man, with its multitude of characters, some in this film, like Attuma and Namora are underdeveloped and barely articulated.

It’s also not short. The film clocks in at over two hours and forty minutes. It doesn’t feel overlong, but even with all of that run-time, this reviewer doesn’t think enough is done to fully flesh out the character of Riri Williams. Why does she do what she does? Why is she committing petty crimes and abetting academic cheaters when she could be making legitimate money with her mechanical skills and giant brain? How does she power her suit? Stark technology isn’t open-source, the Arc Reactor design certainly isn’t common knowledge, and from what was shown in Spider-Man: No Way Home, any Stark tech loose in the wild is swiftly tracked down.

The way Mayan culture, clothing, language, and art style is integrated into the film works very well in context. The costumes are just beautiful.   Namor is covered in jade piercings, clad in gold cuffs, and a shining collar. When he addresses the gathered citizens of Tālocān, dressed in flowing robes and wearing an exquisite, golden serpent crown on his head, it is easy to believe he is the unchallenged ruler of the seven seas. However, all of the Tālocān elements have been added for the MCU and are not present in the print version of the character, who is the ruler of Atlantis. It appears an attempt was made to differentiate Namor and his city from the Atlantis of Arthur Curry that appears in the DCU’s 2018 film, Aquaman

The score and music by Ludwig Göransson is grand, rhythmic and follows in the footsteps of the first film, deftly mixing contemporary beats in Boston with Wakandan cadences and eerie silences in the depths of Tālocān.

Spatially, several sequences didn’t work for this reviewer, and I lost track of where the ground was relative to the throne room and where all of that water was coming from in the flooding scene. Temporally, things also didn’t make much sense in one sequence: Namor tells Shuri that he will return in a week with the full might of Tālocān to finish off Wakanda (forever?). The resulting montage of refugee movements, preparations for battle, scientific discoveries and the hand-crafting of a new power suit doesn’t feel like it fits comfortably in that time frame.

The film also suffered from some internal inconsistencies.  For example, the supremely powerful Sub-Mariner, armed with a vibranium-tipped spear, can’t shatter a window at one point but later, as seen in the trailers, using the same spear, he slices through Wakandan flyers like they were works of wax. If the Tālocān army is so foreboding and fearsome, able to overwhelm the Wakandan defenses with ease, why does Namor need or want Wakanda as an ally? The first Black Panther film shows Wakandans coexisting with the vibranium mound for thousands of years, it details the ridiculous lengths needed to keep vibranium stable, the specialized means needed to work it. It’s a bit hard to believe that a bunch of blue, bottom-of-the-ocean dwellers are able to forge tools from the metal after only having a working knowledge of the substance a fraction of that time. (And yeah, exactly where ARE the vibranium foundries in the submerged city of Tālocān?)

Shuri may be book-smart, but she doesn’t know shit about battle. Her strategy and tactics in the final conflict were rather absurd. She doesn’t know anything about Combined Arms, and that ignorance gets a lot of her people killed. The Wakandans also didn’t take advantage of the fact that most of their weapons are sonic based and the armies of Tālocān fight in the water. However, the sequences of the sea soldiers riding humpback and killer whales into war were breathtakingly beautiful, as was much of the movie. Coogler is a great director. He and his cinematographer, Autumn Arkapaw really know how to frame each shot for maximal emotional effect.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a grand, sprawling, slightly unfocused film that doesn’t quite reach the level of excellence of the first. There are a few hard emotional punches and one moment of just unbridled joy in discovery. A visual spectacle and a well-crafted coming-of-age tale, It is a welcome addition to the MCU and a fitting farewell to a great actor. This reviewer just wishes there were more battle rhinos.

Black Panther: Wakanda
Forever is in theatres now.

The Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Shuri was created by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita, Jr.
Namor, the Sub-Mariner was created by Bill Everett.

About Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.