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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Considering the unforeseen tragedy that plagued the eagerly awaited Black Panther: Wakanda Forever before the film even went into production, co-writer Ryan Coogler should be commended for actually producing a thrilling and awestruck follow-up without the use of its star, the late and beloved Chadwick Boseman.
A lot of franchises crash and burn spectacularly when they attempt to continue after the death of their star (Just look at the Pink Panther movies after Peter Sellers died), so the direct sequel to 2018's massive hit might not be as memorable or even as successful as its predecessor. But just the mere fact that it's a spectacular technical achievement while it also manages to provide a touchingly taut and intimate exploration of grief and the journey to recovery is a miracle on its own.
The story begins with the inevitable: T'Challah, The Black Panther, the ruler and protector of the African nation of Wakanda, dies from a mysterious illness that he kept to himself for a long time, mirroring Boseman's own decision to keep the news of his cancer a personal matter.
His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), blames herself for his brother's death since she believes that she couldn't synthesize a cure in time after Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the villain from the first film, burned down the plants that gave T'Challah his Black Panther powers.
Meanwhile, the various tribes of Wakanda are barely holding together after the death of their leader, as Coogler deftly uses this political strife as a metaphor for how humans break down after a major loss and have to give themselves time to pick the pieces back up again.
But Wakanda might not have the luxury of taking that much time for itself, after an army of ocean-dwelling humanoid creatures led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), their overtly protective and secretive leader, reveals that they also have vibranium (The alien metal that helped Wakanda advance over all other nations) and are ready to attack the surface world in order to protect themselves. You see, the Americans of course once again stuck their noses into where they don't belong and dug for the precious metal in the ocean floor. Namor wants Wakanda to join them in the war, or they will be the first ones on the chopping block.
Even since Aquaman, capturing underwater worlds through special effects have progressed significantly, as the most awe-inspiring sequence in Wakanda Forever comes in the form of Shuri discovering Namor's underwater city, whose impeccable design and wondrous colors present yet another marvel (No pun intended) of a setting after the first film inspired similar emotions as the audience got their first glimpses of Wakanda.
Coogler creates some of the most thrilling and kinetic action set-pieces that the MCU has seen in a while, including a car chase that harkens back to the insanity of a similar sequence from the first film and a climactic battle that takes full advantage of the thin line between ocean and land. The two-hour-and-forty-minute runtime works but does feel a bit bloated at times, especially when it comes to the script spending a bit too much time with the American characters.
Boseman's effortlessly charismatic and inspiring presence is certainly being missed here, as Coogler attempts to fill this massive hole by dividing his aura into multiple different characters. Angela Basset's queen captures T'Challah's intensity and his dedication to his people through a captivating and dedicated performance. Danai Gurira's badass General Okoye gets more of a boost this time as the personification of Wakanda's warrior and patriotic spirit.
But Shuri is the character who comes closest to a protagonist here and her arc through a need for revenge versus doing what's right for her people, although predictably structured, is engaging. Even with all of that commendable effort, it's hard not to concede that Wakanda Forever is a step down from the pitch-perfect Black Panther. Maybe it needed to be. Maybe it didn't even have a choice in that matter. But the ship that suddenly went astray was righted through determination and vision, and that's as much as we can ask at this point.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com