(Spoiler alert: I did my best here to not give anything away, but I eventually make vague references to a few significant story developments I found hard to avoid mentioning in order to still provide a coherent, thought-out review of this movie.)
After a four month wait for BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER to become available to rent on a streaming platform (Disney), I watched it yesterday (Saturday) morning and was pleasantly impressed. First of all, this sequel to 2018’s BLACK PANTHER served as a means for me to properly grieve the passing of Chadwick Boseman, who died in late August of 2020 from colon cancer. This movie opens with his character, King T’Challa, the Black Panther, dying off screen from some unspecified illness from which his scientist sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is unable to save him. Shortly after this, Shuri stands by her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who leads the fictional African nation of Wakanda in a beautiful burial and memorial ceremony of their beloved monarch. I wept, partly over the loss of this elegantly regal, dignified character but mostly over the death of such a fine and beautiful actor. I imagine other viewers had a similar cathartic experience. Sometimes, a movie character and the actor playing them uncannily seem to harmoniously intertwine on screen and in real life. T’Challa/Boseman is one such example I will always remember with warmth and a deep respect.
Queen Ramonda is soon beset with challenges, initially concerning the protection of her country’s vibranium from other nations and parties wanting to obtain it for power and profit. However, another problem arises: the threat from Talokan, a mysterious underwater kingdom originating from the ancient Mayan civilization. The Talokanil also have plentiful access to vibranium. Their sovereign state is led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia, full name Jose Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a half human, half ocean deity and anti-hero. Viewing Wakanda as responsible for publicizing to the world the existence of precious virbranium, Namor seeks out Queen Ramonda through a clandestine night-time visit to her homeland. During this unwelcome encounter, he demands her kingdom’s cooperation in delivering to him a young female scientist at MIT, who has invented and built a machine that detects vibranium. The already action-filled narrative picks up pace from there.
I was thrilled to see Angela Bassett in her role as Ramonda carrying the mantel of monarch and enjoying a more central role in this sequel. I so wanted to see more of her in BLACK PANTHER, and this follow-up delivered. Like the late Mr. Boseman’s, her screen presence is poised, regal, and elegant, harkening back to beautiful, larger than life movie stars of decades past. With a natural charisma, she wears her character’s grand and exquisite dresses and hats, adding much to the already lush-filled imagery throughout this fun work of cinema. Ms. Bassett spends all of her scenes gracefully portraying a leader with deep intelligence, strength, and compassion. Her 2022 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well-deserved here.
The rest of the cast ranges from good to excellent, with Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira standing out alongside Bassett (well, almost alongside her). I was glad to see the old Marvel character Namor portrayed here as a Mayan instead of a black-haired white male like he originally was shown in the comics, starting in 1939. His grievances stem from his ancestors’ oppression at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, adding nuance and complexity to him. Handsome Mexican actor Huerta Mejia’s screen presence is sincere and passionate. Ms. Nyong’o as Nakia, the Wakandan spy and former love interest of King T’Challa, shows up a ways into the movie but, when she does, her familiar, serious persona quickly drew me in, as if I’d just seen her on screen the other day, not almost five years ago. She is a woman with gravitas and a sense of purpose in her face and movements. The same can be said of Gurira’s Okoye, General of the Dora, an elite group of Wakandan women warriors. These powerful women are forces to be reckoned with, matched well in strength and charisma by Namor.
Letitia Wright and Dominique Thorne are the two somewhat weak links in the cast. They are good, not quite excellent. I may be seeming unfair here, but hear me out for a moment. In her role as Princess Shura, younger sister of King T’Challa, Wright is lovely and fun as the geeky, super competent scientist in BLACK PANTHER. She is this again in WAKANDA FOREVER, only her role eventually has additional shoes to fill, a transition which I found hard for her to believably complete. Even though the actress is in her late twenties, Wright is rather girlish in her voice, emotional energy, and physicality, hence not quite grounded in fully mature adulthood and the deeper relaying of confidence that goes with that, particularly for someone in a position of power and authority. Perhaps, however, Ms. Wright will mature more in the next installment of this series. I will say, though, that she acts as a believable older sister type of friend to Thorne’s Riri Williams, a young genius MIT student. Their combined moments on screen are sweet and endearing. I did find myself having to effort a little bit around suspending my disbelief over Thorne’s portrayal of someone so scientifically brilliant. I imagined her spending most of her time and energy doing daredevil things like racing cars, a hobby of Riri’s in the movie, rather than frequently studying advanced mathematics and science and inventing high tech. machinery. This could just be me, however, given that I’ve hardly ever spent any time with young geniuses, it having been decades since I last did so in college. The few I met and can most readily recall were subdued and noticeably book smart. In any case, Ms. Thorne, who is now twenty-five, is believably youthful as nineteen-year-old Riri, amazed in the face of so much wonder around her. She is probably a significant, relatable vehicle for much of the youth watching this movie, so there is that, while I’m a middle aged man more readily relating to the characters who are over thirty. To other viewers, perhaps Thorne’s Riri is excellent too.
Like BLACK PANTHER, WAKANDA FOREVER is a sweeping screen epic. All the lovely, cleanly done CGI of the colorful Talokanil is a beautiful addition to the mix of familiar Wakandan images. The focus on women as leaders and heroines in this sequel is a natural transition and evolution from the first movie. A proper honoring of King T’Challa’s memory and the male line of rulers before him is presented in a balanced, graceful way. And it is noteworthy that the large majority of the cast in this high budget blockbuster is Black and Latino. Far more high and lower budget productions with such casting of great, non-white talent need to be made, of course. This is so long, long overdue.
I’m skeptical of the power that will come through in the third installment of the BLACK PANTHER franchise. It is slated to be made, per the statement at the end of the movie’s credits that this entity will return. With King T’Challa (and Boseman himself) dead and buried and how BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER concludes, I can’t help but wonder how certain vacuums of presence that arose will be effectively, substantively filled. Will Letitia Wright be able to carry the third production? How much will Nyong’o and Gurira be able to help her along? It seems likely that these first two completed films will be very hard acts to follow, as is so often the case with sequels, especially second ones and beyond. Well, I guess we shall see.