Marvel Studios has been in a bit of a funk, in this reviewer’s eyes, as of late. The films are great (especially if you ignore Eternals), but those Disney+ shows are falling into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. grades of campy. Unfortunately, the newest film doesn’t save the
orphanage shows, but ohh-ho-ho, what a film it is! The impossible task of re-imagining a sequel to Black Panther sans the late, great Chadwick Boseman has been realized, and it’s every bit as worthy as the eponymous mantle and the man who wore it!
Director Ryan Coogler returns to the world he helped realize and brings to it tougher stakes than its predecessor. With the death of King T’Challa comes threats to Wakanda from the outside world, above and below. Against this, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright, Death on the Nile) is drowning herself in technological innovations to surpress the pain of losing her brother. However, the struggle comes swimming up to her doorstep in the form of Prince Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía, The Forever Purge), leader of the underwater kingdom of Talokan, and he brings with him an ultimatum that will decide the fate of all who reside in a nation in mourning.
Let’s not hold back or mince words — this movie was a success on arrival. People at my local cinema were sobbing en masse within the first five minutes, if not less. This is, if nothing more to the layperson, why we go to the cinema; we love a communal sense of emotion. The loss of Chadwick Boseman still stings hard in the heartstrings of America, to say nothing of the entire African-descended population of the world, and his loss is reflected exceptionally well. That being said, his triumph is also reflected as well — this is as much his film as it is anyone else’s, be they filmmaker or filmgoer.
The cast of this film are at the top of their game — many reviewers have said that the film functions, at least in part, as an outlet for the actors’ grief, and they’re quite right, but this is more than just forcing emotion out to the camera. Miss Wright, undoubtedly the MVP of the first film, acts with nuance and grace as Shuri, and is never hamming it up for the camera. She is in this to honor her predecessor and, in doing so, inspire a whole new generation of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses. The same can be said of Angela Bassett (Waiting to Exhale), returning as Queen Ramonda, and it is she who is the MVP of this film. She portrays a mother in grief in all the right ways — silent strength, raging anger only when appropriate, and the anchor on which the stars stand, both literally and metaphorically. Relative newcomer Tenoch Huerta Mejía is captivating as Namor, doubtless Marvel’s most complicated villain-cum-antihero. He’s something of a tragic villain, in that his struggle to maintain his kingdom’s sovereignty is felt by the audience, particularly in his given backstory, but the means by which he intends to do it are abhorrent. He is truly complex, and that is something brilliant that Marvel has brought to their superhero films. Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker), makes a surprising (at least to me) return as Nakia, the intended of the late T’Challa, and she is a welcome support to Sburi at a pivotal time, as is Winston Duke (Us), as the ultra-traditional M’Baku. Lastly, Dominique Thorne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is given her first showing as Riri Williams, soon to be known as Ironheart, and is brilliantly showcased without being insufferable and detracting from the story at hand. The writers of her upcoming Disney+ show should take note of this film.
Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole succeed in this new film, introducing new characters and reestablishing old favorites without feeling clunky or desperate for recognition. Admittedly, the film is at its weakest when it focuses on establishing pre-exisiting, non-Wakandan MCU characters like Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, Sherlock) or future villain-in-chief Valentina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep), both of whom have a future outside this film, but if that’s the only thing holding the story back — and it is — it’s not affecting my enjoyment of it.
Speaking bluntly, 2018’s Black Panther, while justly nominated for Best Picture of the Year at the following year’s Academy Awards, was nominated out of pity — remember, that same year, they were going to create a Best Achievement in Popular Film Award, doubtless made to award the film something. Well, this film is also a just and, in my view, better contender to win the coveted, legitimate award, but in the end, it’s not awards that will sell tickets for this movie. Rather, it’s honoring the legacy of a pioneer of film and culture, and seeing what our future can become, if we work toward it together.