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‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ a reverent work marrying past and present

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One of the longstanding truths about the realm of comic books is that death isn’t really death. With vanishingly few exceptions, the death of a Marvel or DC character tends to be more of a temporary setback than any kind of permanent loss.

Of course, that isn’t how the real world works.

When Chadwick Boseman passed away, we lost a truly gifted artist. We lost someone whose immense talents were evident in everything he did, from Jackie Robinson to James Brown to Thurgood Marshall to, yes, T’Challa, the Black Panther. An irreplaceable star in the cinematic firmament was extinguished too soon.

And yet … the show must go on.

The massive critical, commercial and cultural success of 2018’s “Black Panther” – as well as its prominent placement in the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe write large – meant that there was always going to a sequel, but what shape could that now take? Was it possible to make a film that both respected the memory of its fallen star and carried forward the singular and general narratives? Could even a filmmaker as talented as Ryan Coogler pull this off?

The answer to those final two questions … is yes.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a fascinating work of popular culture. Somehow, the parties involved have crafted a superhero film that is good in all the ways that these films need to be good – big action set pieces, memorable characters, some decent laugh lines, a story that works in micro and macro contexts – yet still maintains the more sophisticated effort to explore thornier societal ideas. All that, while also being immensely respectful and reverent of Chadwick Boseman’s memory. Threading that needle would seem nigh-impossible – but Coogler does it.

As we enter the story, we learn that T’Challa is dying of an unknown illness. His genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is convinced that if she can recreate the heart-shaped herb that gave T’Challa the power of the Black Panther, he could be saved. Alas, her efforts are unsuccessful – the King is no more.

One year later, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is dealing with the suspicions of the world following the introduction of Wakanda as a prime player on the global stage, thanks to its Vibranium-fueled advanced technology. To many, the Wakandans are seen as a target and a threat, leading them to seek their own access to Vibranium, whether by discovering it outside Wakanda’s borders or else finding a way to take it from within them.

Those efforts at detection pay off when a newly-developed machine detects Vibranium on the ocean floor. Only as it turns out, there are those who would prefer that said Vibranium stay where it is.

Specifically, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), ruler of the undersea kingdom of Talokan, a nation built by Aztecs who escaped the conquistadors by ingesting their own version of the heart-shaped herb – one that granted them the ability to live underwater. Namor views these incursions as a threat and demands that the Wakandans put an end to them while also maintaining his people’s secrecy.

Of course, when it turns out that the CIA is involved, including Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and Director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), it gets complicated. And it gets even MORE complicated when they discover that the genius behind the Vibranium detector is a teenaged girl by the name of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).

Unsurprisingly, negotiations and diplomacy don’t do the trick, leading to an escalating conflict. The Wakandans are still warriors – the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), are still at it, as are the mountain tribesmen led by M’Baku (Winston Duke), not to mention once-departed allies like Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) – and ready to fight, but Namor’s soldiers are immensely strong and skilled and massive in number … and Wakanda’s great protector is no more.

Two nations, each possessed of great wealth and power, at odds over their respective futures. The fate of the world hangs in the balance – one seeks to save the world, the other to punish it. Creation or destruction – which will triumph?

I wasn’t sure how I felt about “Wakanda Forever” going into it. While I didn’t doubt that Coogler and company would make a good faith effort to treat Boseman’s memory with respect, I just didn’t know if they could do it without it feeling gratuitous or exploitative. Instead, we got a movie that practically radiates love for Boseman; his presence is felt in almost every frame of this film, even as the narrative by necessity pushes forward. There’s real grief here, expressed by character and actor at the same time. Heartfelt and – at times – heartbreaking.

However, while Boseman’s shadow is cast over the proceedings, at no point are they overshadowed. Instead, we get reintroduced to some of what made the first film such a success – relatively nuanced sociopolitical commentary and magnificent Afrofuturist (and Aztecfuturist?) production design and engaging characters and, of course, some pretty massive set pieces. While it doesn’t quite scale the same heights as its predecessor (due in large part to a somewhat overstuffed 160 minute-plus runtime), it gets a heck of a lot closer than most sequels ever do.

That’s the thing about this movie – it is stunning to look at. Yes, there is some of the at-this-point-unavoidable flatness that comes with MCU’s CGI house style, but we’re not dealing with standard American or generic Eastern European architecture here. Wakanda is rendered as a rich and vibrant place, one with cultural depth. Talokan too is very much its own entity, a sovereign nation shimmering beneath the waves.

And then there’s the cast. Wright has huge shoes to fill and does so with wit and grace; it will be interesting to see what her place in the greater MCU winds up being. Bassett is garnering whispers of Oscar buzz; it would be a first for a Marvel movie, but damned if she doesn’t warrant a look – just a lovely turn. Thorne is just getting warmed up – she’s leading an upcoming MCU series as Riri – but she’s quite good here. Nyong’o is awesome as always, while Gurira and Duke continue to be low-key MVPs of the franchise. Oh, and Huerta is great as Namor, a classic grey-area Marvel character whose good guy/bad guy shifts could make for some fun times going forward; he does good work in bringing forward the ruthless regality while also maintaining a modicum of morality. Honestly, everybody does great work here – it’s an outstanding group from top to bottom.

In a lot of ways, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” was born of necessity. The tragic circumstances surrounding it could have completely undermined the entire thing. Instead, Coogler and the rest of the cast and crew found a way to embrace the hard truths of the situation, producing a film that might well be the most emotionally impactful entry in the entire MCU. As a movie – and as a memorial – it is a success.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 November 2022 11:13

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