2018’s blockbuster Black Panther marked several milestones for Marvel and the whole MCU in ways they would be hard to follow, not least being its wide-ranging impact culturally, its groundbreaking game-changing opening for Black filmmakers in front of and behind the camera, its imprint on social issues, and certainly the fact that it became the first so-called comic book movie adaptation to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. That is some legacy, and add its three quarters of a billion dollar worldwide gross and you have an obvious candidate for a blockbuster sequel. However the tragic, completely unexpected death of its star, Chadwick Boseman at just age 43, and the whole idea of carrying the story forward without its key driving on screen force of King T’Challa would be a tall order for anyone. Fortunately for us it is one that has been largely met with dignity, grief over unthinable loss, and a determination to do the right thing by director Ryan Coogler.
In literally no time the death (from Cancer) of the star is met in an emotionally powerful pre-credits sequence in which Boseman’s iconic character has also died, not replaced, but lionized in the hearts of Wakandans as well as artfully incorporated in the famous logo that always starts a new Marvel adventure. The action now takes place a year since his passing with Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) fully in charge, yet not fully in control of daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) who has not been able to move ahead, her grief holding her back in unhealthy ways. Into this dynamic of a mother and daughter attempting some sort of path ahead, enter Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a new force who believes he can convince Ramonda and Shuri he and his Talokan people who live in a previously unknown and undetected Underwater City ala Atlantis can forge an alliance. The Talokan Kingdom is a society forced to become essentially invisible due to events on the surface of the world. Could this be a match made in heaven – or hell – as Namor tries to convince the Wakandan brain trust they have much in common, and he has all the answers.
The character is an intriguing one that doesn’t fill the void left by the death of T’Challa, but still adds a bit of mystery as fans will recognize him as one of the oldest in the MCU, first appearing as the Sub-Mariner in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, and subsequently turning up either as a force for evil or good, which makes his tricky entrance into the Black Panther canon such a wierdly appropriate idea to move this franchise along without alienating the fanbase. It mostly works as it puts Shuri and her technical prowess into a new position, and gives Romonda a newly enhanced importance that also gives Bassett a much more delicious role in the proceedings. First and foremost it sets up a powerful mother/daughter, queen/princess dynamic that opens new opportunities for Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole to carve a way to move past the death of their son and brother, but not for so long that T’Challa’s presence isn’t strongly felt in key moments. But the emphasis has, in other words, moved on to the ladies.
That fortunately also includes primo Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who had moved on but now is needed more than ever, as well as the leader of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (played by the irresistible Danai Gurira), another leader of Dora Milaje, Aneka (played again with style by Michaela Coel), and also the returning Florence Kasumba as Ayo. This is not to say all the male characters, other than menacing newbie Namor, take a back seat to the proceedings . There is the lively and welcome presence throughout of Winston Duke’s M’Baku, as well as Martin Freeman’s returning American CIA agent, Everett Ross. They add flavor, but without giving a whole lot away it is the women who provide the real sauce here, which is particularly notable in a Fall that also has delivered another important female-driven warrior tale in The Woman King, one in its own way exploring that mother/daughter dynamic.
As you watch this epic take its time to get to the main event ( at two hours and forty minutes it joins the parade of overly long movies crowding multiplexes this season) , the real suspense is who , if anyone, is going to emerge as the rightful new Black Panther. Without giving anything away the answer is satisfying to a degree, but clearly not one that will end with this installment (stay of course through the end credits). New characters are introduced thoughout and there can be no doubt Coogler has meticulously thought all of this out, while still delivering the rip roaring action sequences and uncredited surprise appearances we expect from any Marvel movie, but especially its crown jewel .
The production values are again extraordinary with original Black Panther Oscar winning artisans such as Costume Designer Ruth Carter, Production Designer Hannah Beachler, and composer Ludwig Goransson turning it up another notch . Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s above and below the surface images are pretty breathtaking here (Talokan is dazzling). The Visual Effects team again delivers work certain to be recognized at the Oscars, at least until we see what James Cameron’s revisit to Avatar gives us next month. There are even characters here that might make you think you wandered into that movie for some brief moments. Rhianna’s end title song, “Lift Me Up” sounds all the right notes to walk out of this on a high. Producers are Kevin Feige and Nate Moore.
So is this much anticipated sequel going to help keep Wakanda on a ‘Forever’ path. It isn’t on the see-level of the first (but what could be) but it certainly whets my appetite for what comes next. In the meantime it proudly remembers with love and honor both Chadwick Boseman and T’Challa.