Combustible Celluloid Review - Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, Ryan Coogler, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
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With: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, action and some language
Running Time: 161
Date: 11/11/2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

There Goes My Hero

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — the 30th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — inarguably had a more difficult genesis than did the other 29 films combined.

Indeed, one cannot understate just how much of an impact star Chadwick Boseman had on this crazy world.

In an all-too short career comprising just a dozen or so films, he embodied heroism at its finest, not only in the form of comic book superhero T'Challa, but also Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. He played heroism with nobility, yes, but also humanity. There was often a smile among the seriousness.

But it was T'Challa, whom he played in four Marvel films, that resonated the deepest.

His solo film, Black Panther (2018), was a pinnacle of the franchise, even earning seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (a rarity for a superhero movie), and winning three, for Production Design, Costume Design, and Score.

When Halloween costumes appeared on the shelves of stores in 2018, Black kids everywhere had their first chance to truly identify with a superhero. With his note-perfect portrayal of the character, Boseman had touched more lives than was previously possible.

When he died suddenly in August of 2020 — his illness had been a well-protected secret — it was a massive shock, as if our own much-admired loved one had passed.

After the shock wore off, the question loomed. What will become of Black Panther 2?

Oakland-based director Ryan Coogler, who shot some of the original Black Panther in his hometown, and Oakland-born co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, had already begun writing. They had to decide whether to re-cast the part, use visual FX to create a double, cancel the production, or, perhaps even more difficult, continue without Boseman.

Continue they did, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever became a film about loss and grief. It has a great hole at its center, but the filmmakers have embraced that emptiness, and let it become part of the film's fabric.

Other recent Marvel films, including Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, dealt with grief as well, but Wakanda Forever obviously goes one deeper, as evidenced by its silent "Marvel" logo, adorned only with pictures of the fallen star.

The new film opens as T'Challa, unseen, lies at death's door, while his sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) tries in vain to save him.

Following the funeral and after a year's time, Shuri has taken to working herself into a fury in her science lab. She is now the main character in a cast led by strong Black women. (Winston Duke's hilarious, chest-thumping M'Baku is the only male Wakandan with a sizable part.)

Her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), tries to get her to take a moment to come to terms with the death. But before that can happen, life interrupts, as it sometimes does, in the form of an intruder.

He is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the king of an underwater people, the Talokans, who is so powerful that he easily slipped through Wakanda's security.

Earlier there was an attack at sea. A mining ship discovered an underwater deposit of vibranium, that invaluable Wakandan metal with powerful properties, and the entire crew was murdered by Talokans before it could be extracted.

The attack is blamed on Wakandans, since the existence of the Talokans is secret. Threatening war, and blaming Wakandans for all the trouble, Namor demands that the Queen capture a scientist who was responsible for building a vibranium detecting machine.

The scientist, it turns out, is nineteen-year-old MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who built the machine for a class project. Shuri and warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) are sent to retrieve her, as peacefully as possible.

After an exhilarating chase and fight, Shuri and Riri are kidnapped and taken to Talokan. What follows is a series of tense negotiations over what to do with Riri and how to protect the vibranium.

Negotiations break down, which leads to our semi-final battle scene, and then the big, final battle scene, executed with Coogler's typical expertise. The conflict and its ever-shifting nuances handily mirror real-world occurrences, from the war in Ukraine to the Red/Blue split here in the U.S.

Storywise, the machine that kicks everything off is a silly device, more or less a "MacGuffin," that couldn't possibly exist. (How could Riri even build it without a sample of vibranium?) But the way the movie uses it to flow from grief into action is heartbreakingly logical nonetheless.

Life goes on, and even though we might want to hide our heads in the sand, things must be dealt with. In the last film, the Killmonger character destroyed all the magic herbs that give the Black Panther his power, so Wakanda has no more protector.

And the vibranium remains a problem. Other nations are beginning to demand access to it, even though it's fairly clear that Americans, at least, hope to weaponize it.

The movie beautifully captures the grim nature of these responsibilities, and the courage it takes to rouse ourselves from our sorrow to face them.

Indeed, the Nakia character, T'Challa's lover, played by Lupita Nyong'o, doesn't even appear until a good chunk into the film. She apparently left Wakanda for Haiti, saying "I had to step away and let myself break."

That's a great line, and it's a luxury Coogler and Cole did not have, as they re-worked their tale to accommodate a grim new Chadwick-less reality.

In the end, it's difficult to recommend Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in terms of a pure popcorn entertainment, or even a film that compares to Black Panther. It doesn't. It can't. But taken by itself, it's a beautiful film, a Hollywood rarity that acknowledges how death is a part of life.

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