With Wakanda Forever, Marvel Studios Raises the Stakes

Wakanda Forever is at once an ensemble movie and an origin story for several characters, including, whose kingdom, costumes and language are influenced by a variety of indigenous cultures in Mexico

Tenoch Huerta as Namor in Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
By Ella Ceron
November 12, 2022 | 02:00 PM

Bloomberg — When the Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer in 2020, the future of the franchise was thrown into uncertainty.

The first Black Panther film was released in 2018 and grossed more than $1.3 billion. At the time of Boseman’s death, a sequel was already in the works. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was put in the delicate position of acknowledging its hero’s death while keeping the Black Panther flame—not to mention its multibillion-dollar revenue stream—alive.

Again directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (coming to theaters on Friday, Nov. 11) achieves this balancing act by continuously referencing Boseman’s character T’Challa, king of the Wakandans, who possessed a high-tech suit that helped transform him from royalty into superhero. “What,” characters in the new film keep asking, “would T’Challa do?”

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As the movie opens, the question is elegiac. T’Challa has just died, leaving a leadership vacuum that’s filled by his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), queen of the Wakandans. There is no obvious successor for the role of Black Panther. The herb that provides the strength and speed necessary for the hero has been destroyed, and T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is bitterly convinced that no one can take her brother’s place. She throws herself into her work, avoiding any kind of closure or healing.

Soon though, the question as to what the deceased king would do becomes more pressing: Wakanda, whose wealth and technology is predicated on a monopoly of the metal vibranium, suddenly has competition.

An expedition ship manned by US operatives discovers vibranium at the bottom of the ocean. This poses a problem for both Wakanda and (this being a superhero movie) the world: The residents of the hitherto unknown underground kingdom of Talokan, who consider the vibranium theirs, are hellbent on ensuring that no one else source the metal, either.

What ensues is a push-pull between two equally matched nations. The leader of Talokan (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is a centuries-old mutant who calls himself Namor. He rules over the descendants of a Maya tribe that fled into the Atlantic ocean to save themselves from the Spanish conquistadors who landed in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1500s. (The Talokan achieved this aquatic transition by becoming mer-people.) The intrusion by Americans, and their machine that can detect vibranium, puts Talokan on the offensive, and Wakanda is thrown into the middle of Namor’s fight with the “surface world.” Namor’s goal quickly becomes total annihilation of both Wakanda and the broader human race.

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Wakanda Forever is at once an ensemble movie and an origin story for several characters. There’s Namor, whose kingdom, costumes and language are influenced by a variety of Indigenous cultures in Mexico. There’s also Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), the brilliant MIT student and mechanical engineer who built the Americans’ vibranium machine and is known to comic book fans as Ironheart. Finally, Aneka (Michaela Coel) grows into her role as a member of the Wakandan troop of female bodyguards known as the Dora Milaje; in a small aside, Aneka develops a relationship with an another warrior named Ayo (Florence Kasumba) in a rare LGBTQ romance from the Marvel franchise.

The movie also welcomes back into the fold Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who left Wakanda after T’Challa died; in the first movie, the two were paired romantically, and his loss has hit her hard.

Of course, the show must go on, and another Black Panther character must step into the role. But it’s not until about two-thirds into the movie that we meet Boseman’s replacement, who was teased in trailers but whose identity has been kept top-secret.

At its best, Wakanda Forever pulls from a variety of genres to tell its story. It introduces the people of Talokan with the inflections and jump-cuts of a horror movie. And Riri’s penchant for fixing-up automobiles leads to a bracing car chase in Boston that rivals the first film’s tear through Busan.

Wakanda Forever is also about something less tangible than its predecessor: It is about grief and the myriad ways people can express it.

If the movie has any stumbles, it’s the marathon-length, 2 hour, 41 minute run time that is now par for the course in the Marvel universe. Even that, however, is something of a welcome escape. By spending so much time with the people that T’Challa loved and fought for, the audience can perhaps find closure and say goodbye.

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