A still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (courtesy: imdb.com)
Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Dominique Thorne, Martin Freeman
Director: Ryan Coogler
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Almost as enjoyable as its precursor but markedly less layered in terms of allegorical resonances, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a proficiently executed follow-up to the first-ever MCU movie with a Black superhero. It, however, encompasses so wide a range of concerns that even its nearly three-hour runtime seems unable to accommodate it all.
Inevitably a touch rushed at times, Wakanda Forever falls short of the dizzying leap of Black Panther. It does, however, pack enough rousing and riveting moments into its 161 minutes to be never less than watchable.
There is deep grief at the heart of Wakanda Forever - the huge void left by Chadwick Boseman is obviously impossible to fill - and it imparts to the Wakanda story a touching, transcendental quality that separates it from its predecessor as well as most other superhero films.
The title of the film suggests unequivocally that the developing franchise aspires to be around forever. That sustaining the highs of Black Panther (2018) and the power of Boseman's phenomenal star turn as the superhero king leading his people out of a crisis will be no mean challenge is frequently evident in Wakanda Forever.
That is not to say that the ambition of longevity is not grounded in the realms of possibility. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has the makings of a blockbuster that will definitely spawn more Wakanda movies with the potential to seduce MCU fans. There is nothing that is without an end. But that finale is clearly not round the corner yet for Black Panther.
Memories of Boseman - King T'Challa's (off-screen) death is very niftily incorporated into the opening moments - bookend the film and lend it a palpable air of pathos. The poignance is accentuated by the fact that the superhero's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is trying to create a synthetic version of the herb that could rid him of the disease that kills him. Fictional and real-life tragedy finds its way seamlessly into the superhero saga.
The death and its repercussions on the royal family and people of Wakanda gives the film a sturdy elegiac underwiring that occasionally pierces through (but does not in any way undermine) the thrills and exhilarations provided by the competently mounted action set-pieces and the emotional charge that courses through the exchanges among the characters in mourning.
Moreover, owing to the skilled blend of solid storytelling and visual spectacle, and of the sorrowful and the seductive, that director Ryan Coogler achieves, the movie assumes the shape of an examination of loss and grief while being, in essence, a tale of heroism and courage.
From the early funeral procession, marked by striking stylistic flair and slow-motion add-ons, to a reveal in a mid-credits scene that points the way towards what is to come, the dead T'Challa stamps his presence on the entire film.
Wakanda is engaged in a bitter fight against ill-disposed forces that are looking to take control of its reserves of vibranium, the rare metal that gives the nation its shield of invincibility. The coveted resource also triggers a conflict between Wakanda and Talocan, a nation of blue-complexioned, water-breathing warriors.
Talocan, which sits on its own heap of vibranium, is itself a target of invaders who desire to be as powerful as Wakanda. The tussle for the priceless mineral resource drives a wedge between Wakanda and Talocan, led by the truculent Namor (Tenoch Huerta), a mutant blessed with abilities that make him well-nigh invincible.
T'Chala's mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), herself understandably no less distraught, has reason to worry about the impact that the loss of her son has had on her grieving daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright). She enlists the services of the undercover spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and the fierce warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda's all-women special forces.
The attention of the nations that are eyeing the vibranium pile provokes the Talocans who believe that Wakanda is responsible for the scramble for the mineral and demand that the latter play their part in putting an end to the repercussions of the race.
In the absence of the male superhero, it is the women of Wakanda who take charge. One of them assumes the mantle of superhero. Who that turns out to be isn't much of a surprise. The actors playing these women are in their elements and serve to lift parts of the film to a level that is out of the ordinary.
Yet, the massive thematic sweep and contemporary relevance of Black Panther eludes Wakanda Forever. It adopts tangential methods to dwell upon the plight of historically oppressed, colonised people as they ward off enemies seeking to rob them of their resources. But Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole do not lose sight of the spirit of the age and the centrality of the concerns of a nation and its people asserting their uniqueness and rallying to safeguard it.
The inevitable genre touchstones apart, Wakanda Forever is somewhat hindered by the need for it to not to shrug off its linkages with the larger MCU scheme of things. But due to its vivid colour palette, a range of emotions that strike a chord and the presence of a villain who is anything but a conventional antagonist, the movie isn't blown out of the water.
Wakanda Forever devotes enough time for Namor to develop into a rounded character who embodies menace and mystery in equal parts and is driven by intent and intelligence as he battles for his underwater civilisation. The screenplay delves deeper into the world of the Talocans than superhero movies usually do into the motivations and impulses of an adversarial group set up against the protagonist.
While Tenoch Huerta is extremely impressive as Namor, the entire ensemble is in top form. Especially noteworthy is Letitia Wright. She articulates both pain and resolve with great felicity. Danai Gurira, playing the most fearsome of the Wakanda women, is on song.
Angela Bassett makes a strong impression as the matriarch. Lupita Nyong'o, in a small role, is a consummate scene-stealer. Dominique Thorne, debuting as Riri Williams/Ironheart, a young inventor who occupies a key place in the plot, is somebody to watch. Wakanda Forever is at its best when it follows its own internal dynamics instead of serving the purpose of furthering a unified MCU vision. Like most of Marvel's Phase Four films, it is a film that is consciously constructed, and not always convincingly, as a piece of a larger cinematic chunk.
If Wakanda Forever still works, it is because of the breadth of its spectrum of ideas, its contemporaneous concerns and the way it reemphasises the racial issues and geopolitical themes that formed the foundation of the first film. It may not send the audience into raptures, but it does nearly everything that a sequel is expected to.
Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Dominique Thorne, Martin Freeman