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‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ review: After T’Challa, a new protector, in an ungainly but engaging sequel

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/8/2022 Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
A scene from Marvel Studios' "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." © Marvel Studios/Marvel/TNS A scene from Marvel Studios' "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."

A big, rangy Marvel follow-up — made without the grand presence of Chadwick Boseman, who died two years after “Black Panther” came out in 2018 — “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” acknowledges the loss of both King T’Challa and the actor who played him with a grave and moving extended prologue. It’s exactly right, down to the last flip-flip-flip of the Marvel Studios logo dedicated this time to images of the star no longer with us.

Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Marvel Studios' "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." © Marvel Studios/Marvel Studios/TNS Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Marvel Studios' "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."

This is followed by an hour or so of scene-setting, reintroductions and introductions deft and engaging enough to make you think: Can all this really be sustained in the back half? (The full running time is 2 hours, 41 minutes, or 26 minutes longer than the first “Black Panther.”)

If the answer is no, well, welcome to the majority of Marvel sequels, and sequels in general.

“Wakanda Forever” is not special like the first movie was. The quality of the storytelling and especially the action sequences grows less effective as the film proceeds. By the time Princess Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, squares off in grisly combat with the undersea mutant god Namor (Tenoch Huerta), it’s enough, already, whatever your personal degree of investment in this world and these characters.

Danai Gurira, left, as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri in Marvel Studios' "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." © Eli Adé/Marvel/TNS Danai Gurira, left, as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri in Marvel Studios' "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."

That said: It’s still juicier than most Marvels. Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler’s fourth feature — mapped out initially with Boseman in mind and then revised, heavily, after his death at age 43 — has many strengths in the ensemble spirit of the first “Black Panther.”

Here’s the most important one: Practically every actor on screen here is marvelous, even when the script and effects-driven spectacle settles for the wrong kind of “more.” Also, the soundtrack is fantastic, spanning the globe to bring us a constant variety of sounds, from Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” to Mexican vocalist Foudeqush (”Con La Brisa”) to Nigerian artist Bloody Civilian, heard on “Wake Up.”

The screenplay by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole gathers up tales of colonial ravagements the world over. With T’Challa gone, Shuri buries her grief and rage in Wakandan science and new discoveries. Wakandan Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, reaching some wonderful rhetorical heights in an expanded role) steels herself for the world’s suspicions and attacks in the wake of the king’s death.

An early scene in “Wakanda Forever” depicts an assault on an American deep sea mining crew, on the hunt for the precious meteor-borne vibranium detected far below the ocean’s surface. The world’s superpowers suspect Wakandan foul play. But Marvel’s got the brand new kingdom of Talocan (though dating back decades in the pages of the Marvel comics), with its own stash of glowing blue and all-powerful vibranium. These creatures are blue like “Avatar” in a hilariously conspicuous way that practically screams: I’ll show you the way of water, bub!

In actuality, which is to say in the story’s fantasy world, the undersea citizens of Talocan come from the Mayan culture; they’re refugees and mutant beings that fled the surface world in the time of genocidal 16th-century Spanish colonizers. Undersea mutant god Namor (the “fish man,” according to Winston Duke’s newly prominent M’Baku) sizes up Wakanda as a natural ally against the rest of the world. Wakanda isn’t so sure.

Another storyline involves a brilliant young MIT student (Dominique Thorne) whose vibranium detection invention has mobbed her up with the U.S. military and rendered her a target of Namor’s vengeance. Meantime there’s the question of succession back in Wakanda and of who will assume the next iteration of the Black Panther.

The Wakandan fighting forces remain in excellent hands in “Wakanda Forever.” Danai Gurira’s Okoye; Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia; and, new to the “Black Panther” franchise, the terrific Michaela Coel as Aneka make for a formidable leadership team when taking on humans and mutants alike. Some of the sequel’s design work, notably the royal dazzle of Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter, equals the splendors of the first movie, though the new cinematographer, Autumn Durald Arkapaw, delivers light and shadow and color a little less lustrous than the first film’s images.

Partly it’s a story issue: When the action relocates to Namor’s kingdom, the movie stalls a bit, and the designs of the grandiose underwater cavern lack magic. It’s a shame, because the winged-ankle Namor and his leaping, flying, spear-throwing warriors are introduced into the story by clever and enticing degrees.

So it’s a mixed-to-positive verdict this time, which wouldn’t work in a court of law, but this is a review, not a legal ruling. I do think “Wakanda Forever” has plenty of what the enormous “Black Panther” fan base wants in a “Black Panther” sequel. There’s real emotion in the best material here. The loss of Boseman was enormous. So is the skill level of the actors, returning and new, who make the most of a pretty good sequel.

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'BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER'

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, action and some language)

Running time: 2:41

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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