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Shuri in her gold-streaked Black Panther suit, standing in a dark throne room, in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Image: Marvel Studios

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a thunderous ode to love conquering death

Tremendous performances and Ryan Coogler’s bold storytelling find the triumph in tragedy

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a film of many contrasts. At its heart, it’s a story about grief: the ways people grieve, the love born out of grief, and the anger that emerges from having lost something worth grieving. It’s a film about the ebb and flow between science and faith, the struggle between technology and tradition in the frantic search for answers to unanswerable questions. Ultimately, it’s a story about the resiliency of those who fight and live on in the face of insurmountable odds, and in honor of those who left us far too soon, yet still live on in our hearts.

[Ed. note: This is a spoiler-free review. Further in-depth coverage of the film’s plot points to come, marked with spoiler warnings.]

The premise of Ryan Coogler’s follow-up to his 2018 film Black Panther arises so organically from its predecessor that most of the turbulence around the film’s production is left invisible. In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) destroys Wakanda’s entire supply of the heart-shaped herb — the bioluminescent flower responsible for endowing Wakanda’s hero-protector, the Black Panther, with regenerative vitality and superhuman strength. And T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) chooses to reveal Wakanda’s true power on the global stage.

Both elements are just as significant to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as Boseman’s death in 2020, a loss so monumental that proceeding without acknowledging it — via the “I’m a different person now; let’s move on” method that the Marvel Cinematic Universe used to recast Edward Norton’s version of Bruce Banner, or Terrence Howard’s take on Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes — would be an unconscionable disservice. And not only to his memory, but to the impact Boseman had on developing Black Panther’s character, and the impact that Black Panther had on its audience.

Shuri (Letitia Wright) adorned in a white funeral shawl with wearing long ivory earrings in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Image: Marvel Studios

King T’Challa is dead. Nearly a year after his sudden passing, his friends and loved ones continue to mourn, retreating into the shelter of their respective habits and obligations to shield themselves from the emotional brunt of their loss. Meanwhile, the outside world trains its sights on Wakanda, vying to claim its invaluable resources. An even greater threat emerges in the form of the mythical underwater city of Talokan and its leader: the wing-footed mutant Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who’s worshiped by his people as a living god.

As a consequence of T’Challa deciding to share the truth about Wakanda’s technological advances with the rest of the world at the end of Black Panther, Namor has reason to believe Earth will soon discover Talokan’s existence. That threat inspires him to rise from the depths of the ocean and declare preemptive war against the surface world. His actions quickly make him an enemy of Wakanda and its ruler, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Namor is undeterred by this, however. If Wakanda will not back his war, then as far as he’s concerned, they can catch these hands too.

Like Black Panther before it, Wakanda Forever arrives in American theaters at a time of great significance and political uncertainty, both within its own universe and in our real-world culture. The original film — which brought to life the dream of the African diaspora in the form of Wakanda, an African nation that was never conquered or despoiled of its resources by Western powers — was released just a month after Donald Trump derided African nations, Haiti, and El Salvador as “shithole countries.” The timing was so apt and poetic that it defied coincidence.

A man in an elaborate feather headdress (played by Tenoch Huerta) and cape swims in front of a gigantic glowing sphere in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Image: Marvel Studios

Wakanda Forever somehow feels even more intimately woven into the tapestry of its own moment, which is both extraordinary and fitting. With T’Challa’s death (and Boseman’s) at its crux, Wakanda Forever is an altogether darker, more complicated film than its predecessor. Coogler’s script, co-credited to Joe Robert Cole, focuses on the ways in which grief can morph into something awful and hateful under duress, and if left unresolved for too long. In their respective mourning, Shuri and Namor are foils, accentuating by example the self-destructive ways in which denying grief only serves to prolong it.

The resemblances extend to their respective cultures, with Wakanda and Talokan — though continents and oceans apart — sharing a common spirit of defensive isolationism born out of fear of the destructive abuses of colonialism. Both nations revere their anointed leaders as gods, whose powers may or may not be derived from the same otherworldly force, which adds to the emotional heft of their inevitable conflict.

Coogler’s sequel is a more somber affair than 2018’s Black Panther, but it has its moments of levity, which arguably shine brighter here because of that darkness. In the absence of T’Challa, Shuri finds camaraderie in the company of Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of the Dora Milaje honor guard, and T’Challa’s former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), an older-sister figure who offers consolation and commiseration. Shuri’s rapid bond with Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), an MIT student and fellow child prodigy, offers her something she’s never had before: a friend who understands what it’s like to be young, Black, and exceptional in a world that casually resents people who are any of those things, let alone all three.

A group of blue-skinned Talokan warriors stand in the middle of a bridge at night, one of them wearing an elaborate orange feathered helmet, in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Image: Marvel Studios

But of all the relationships in the film, perhaps none are more significant than the evolving bond between Shuri and M’Baku (Winston Duke). Where years before, the leader of the Jabari Tribe challenged T’Challa in ritual combat for the throne and dismissed Shuri as nothing more than a child scoffing at tradition, M’Baku cares for and now has great respect for her, at one point telling her, “You have lost too much to still be considered a child.”

The cast, on the whole, is spectacular. Huerta radiates power, charisma, and haughty self-assurance in his turn as Namor, darting across the sky with agility and ease, like Hermes out of Greek myth. Angela Bassett’s performance as Ramonda goes right for the heartstrings, conjuring the unmistakable poise and regality of a queen in mourning, forced to shoulder both the grief of her loss and the fate of a nation. Michaela Coel of I May Destroy You fame shows up in a brief yet significant supporting role as the Dora Milaje warrior Aneka, whose exosuit was inspired by Brian Stelfreeze’s artistic work on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther comics.

And then, of course, there’s Letitia Wright, whose lead performance as Shuri serves as the entire film’s emotional anchor. Wright delivers a powerful depiction of a young woman who, having lost both her father and her brother in such a short period of time, is forced to question everything she’s ever known about herself, her people, and her role in the world, both as a scientist and as a member of the Wakandan royal family.

Shuri (Letitia Wright) stands in a throne room surrounded by pillars of fire reflected against pools of water in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Image: Marvel Studios/Disney

The action on the whole, including the inevitable CG set-pieces, shows a marked improvement over Black Panther. In what feels like a reprise of the chase scene between T’Challa and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) through the streets of Busan, an action sequence set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, builds to similarly explosive effect. That scene is only a taste of what the film offers in its latter half, with elaborate choreography and dizzying cinematography that represents some of the best seen in a Marvel film to date. That said, the lighting during the nighttime sequences is atrocious, obscuring the characters and their actions to a point that defies even the most charitable reading of deliberate artistic intent.

As was the case with the first film, Wakanda Forever’s soundtrack and score remain one of the film’s central draws. Ludwig Göransson returns to compose the score for Wakanda Forever, and once again, he knocks it out of the park, bringing in the African-inspired sound of the first film, then expanding its palette with touches of Mesoamerican instruments and chants.

While the film clocks in at just around 160 minutes, Wakanda Forever is paced in such a way that its action sequences move at a brisk clip, while its more serious moments never overstay a beat. Its economical, well-crafted storytelling is a feat unto itself, to say nothing of the film as a whole.

There are moments in Wakanda Forever where it feels as though the film itself might buckle under the weight of not only the expectations heaped onto it, but of the loss that animates its core premise. When it manages not only to meet the verve and creativity of 2018’s Black Panther, but ultimately to tell its own successful story, it feels no less astonishing than a man with wings on his ankles soaring through the air. As surely as love can blossom out of heartache, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has transformed tragedy into triumph.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever premieres in theaters on Nov. 11.

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