Review: In ‘Wakanda Forever’, an empire cries, rebuilt

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Made in the aftermath of tragedy, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” resonates with the agony of loss, piercing the usually less consequential realm of superheroes. Like someone going through the stages of grief, Ryan Coogler’s film is by turns mournful and rootless, full of rage and blessed with clarity. In the fantastical Marvel Cinematic Universe where mortality is almost always a toy, the struggle with the genuine article, in the death of T’Challa star Chadwick Boseman, is an unusually uncertain and intriguing type of large-scale entertainment.

It’s a fine line, of course, between paying homage and trading on it. I cringed a bit when the Marvel logo rolled out with images of Boseman in the letters: Eulogy as branding. Whether cultural phenomenon and box office hit “Black Panther” would get a sequel was momentarily in doubt after Boseman’s unexpected death from colon cancer in 2020. Radically reworked by Coogler and co- author Joe Robert Cole, “Wakanda Forever” moved forward in hopes of honoring both Boseman and the rich Afrocentric world of the historic original. In his admirably messy way, he does both.

Part of the deep appeal of Coogler’s first “Black Panther” was its deft channeling of the real world into mythology. It fed centuries of colonialism and exploitation into a big-screen spectacle of identity and resistance. In An African Nation Made Up, Coogler evoked both a whimsical story that could have been and an emotional reality right now.

“Wakanda Forever,” which opened in theaters Thursday, expands on that, weaving in a Latin American perspective with a similar degree of cultural specificity in the introduction of Aztec-inspired antagonist Namor (Tenoch Huerta), King of the ancient underwater world of Talokan. At the same time, Boseman’s death is poignantly filtered through the story from the start, beginning with the off-screen agony.

“Time is running out,” we hear whispering while the screen is still black. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s tech-wiz sister, is frantically trying to make something in her AI lab to save her brother. But in an instant, their mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), informs her, “Your brother is with the ancestors.” He is buried in a glorious celebratory procession, carried through a tiered canal of white-clad, singing and dancing Wakandans. It’s as breathtaking as anything Coogler has shot.

After this prologue, “Wakanda Forever” rocks a year later. “Black Panther” took on some of the spy thriller form of a Bond movie, and the sequel continues that in a new geopolitical setting. At the United Nations, the United States and France are pushing for access to vibranium, the rare metal on which Wakanda has built its empire. Shortly after, an American military expedition discovers vibranium at the bottom of the ocean. But just as they celebrate, a mysterious tribe of blue undersea people, led by Namor, a pointy-eared monarch in green shorts with wings at his ankles, ruthlessly wipes out the entire expedition.

You can feel “Wakanda Forever” searching for a way forward in those early scenes. After such an anguished start, how much care can we summon to find out where the magic ores are? And more blue people? “Avatar”, one might think, has already claimed them. What stabilizes the film is Bassett. His impressive presence leads “Wakanda Forever” through heartbreak with a relentless defense of Wakanda that rebalances the new kingdom without a king. She keeps.

What follows is a cross-world plot that takes the film away from its greatest asset in Wakanda, but uncovers new places of latent power among the historically exploited. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira), General Dora Milaje, travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to search for the student (Dominique Thorne) who created a vibranium detector. In the Washington DC area, Wakanda’s sympathetic CIA officer (Martin Freeman) comes under renewed scrutiny from his boss, played by an unheralded comic actress familiar with Beltway politics.

But, above all, a series of exchanges brings Wakanda and Talokan closer together. Are they friends and enemies? They are, at least, a captivating modification of the mythology of Atlantis. Dark and watery Talokan is no Wakanda, however, and there’s less hint this time of a larger society. Still, Huerta brings a magnetism to Namor. In many ways, he’s a corollary to Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, a non-villain whose fury is in many ways justified. Her anger appeals to the still grieving Shuri, who finds herself ready, after T’Challa’s death, to “burn the world down”.

As in the first “Black Panther”, the question arises again whether, in a painful and prejudiced world, rage is the answer. This time it also applies to another powerful civilization. “Wakanda Forever,” where the role of Black Panther is passed down, is about the transfer of power in more ways than one.

Wakanda and Talokan are brought together somewhat haphazardly in conflict, as Namor pressures the African nation to join his brewing surface war. “Wakanda Forever” plays out like a murky mid-act film that could ultimately serve as a bridge to future chapters of “Black Panther.” But along the way, there are countless wonders that Coogler conjures up with returning magicians like production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. How the Talokan are tossed through the air by whales. The fierce friendliness of Gurira’s performance. Lupita Nyong’o is unfortunately less central here, but whenever her Nakia (who has kept a low profile in Haiti) is present, she graces the film.

“Wakanda Forever” is overly long, a little heavy, and somehow mystifyingly heads to a climax on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic. But Coogler’s fluid command to blend intimacy with spectacle remains captivating. It extends the richness of detail and non-binary complexity that set “Black Panther” apart in sometimes clumsy but often thrilling ways. Wakanda Forever, grappling with loss, ultimately seeks something rare in the battle-ready superhero landscape: peace.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violence, action and language sequences. Duration: 161 minutes. Three out of four stars.

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