Chadwick Boseman is dead, but Black Panther lives on. Loss has several meanings in the Black Panther sequel, which copes with Boseman’s untimely death from cancer in 2020 in ways that are both imaginative and moving.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever takes us back to the titular kingdom, a fictitious Afrofuturist haven of cutting-edge science, moral integrity and vibrant fashion. Wakanada zealously safeguards its stash of vibranium, the wonder element that gave Black Panther his powers and the kingdom its technological prowess.
It isn’t just Black Panther’s absence that is roiling Wakanda. Even as his mother Ramonda (Angela Basset), inventor sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and general Okoye (Danai Gurira) struggle to overcome their grief, the Americans hunt for an alternate source of vibranium. Teenage prodigy Riri (Dominique Thorne) plays a key role in aiding the American effort.
A new antagonist with winged feet and the power to pierce Wakanda’s defences rises out of the water and floats in the air like a god. Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who rules over an underwater kingdom of blue-skinned people, is this movie’s anarchist who will go to extreme lengths to protect his people.
If the first film foregrounded racial pride within a fantasy format, the sequel taps into climate change, the destruction of indigenous habitats, the exploitation of natural resources and neo-colonialism. The profusion of bold ideas and allegories makes the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe look even more reductive than usual (apart from pipping James Cameron and his blue-hued water warriors to thr post).
However, Ryan Coogler’s screenplay isn’t as clean as Black Panther (2018), what with having to balance a tribute to Chadwick Boseman with the commercial imperative of moving the franchise forward. It takes some getting used to the surfeit of information, the dark lighting in several sequences, and the use of native languages that necessitate English subtitles.
The 161-minute film draws its strength from its dual-edged exploration of disappearance – of a beloved actor beyond the screen, and of a way of life within it.
The emotional undertow to spectacular battles on land, air and the water is provided by the women who surrounded Black Panther and must now move on. There are copious tears alongside fears of a besieged Wakanda, which make the new film maudlin in some places and affecting in others.
The extra layer of sentimentality might have rung false if it wasn’t for the palpable sadness over Boseman’s death that runs through the entire narrative. Letitia Wright is in top-drawer form as Shuri, who must decide between vengeance and justice. Danai Gurira, one of the first film’s breakout stars, is immense fun as the hard-to-please general with the sharp tongue and the deadly spear.
Tenoch Huerta, who radiates ferocity and charisma as Namor, is an excellent addition to the family, but his anti-hero is still coming into view. Similarly, the optics of two endangered groups killing one another rather than uniting to face their common enemy needs at least one more film to be properly understood.