Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been varying levels of "fine." After wrapping up the Infinity Saga with the biggest movie of all time (Avengers: Endgame), the MCU has of course dominated the post-COVID box office, but with little creative success. After two years of stagnation, Ryan Coogler has once again delivered a rare thing: a superhero movie with soul.
We'll never know what this much-anticipated sequel would have looked like had Chadwick Boseman not tragically died two years ago. But the film is a tremendous tribute to an actor taken from us too young. That it works as well as it does without a generational talent at the center is something of a miracle. That it continues to grapple with the original's themes of what one culture owes another, and what one country owes the world, makes this one of the year's best films.
Letitia Wright reprises her role as Shuri, the brother of the T'Challa. His absence has left Wakanda grieving and vulnerable. His promise at the end of the first film to share his kingdom's knowledge and technology has been reversed by his steadfast mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who revels in dressing down greedy U.S. officials. A search for vibranium outside Africa turns deadly, causing an international crisis.
In the midst of this chaos, Namor appears. In a star-making turn from Tenoch Huerta, the leader of the Talokan people is neither a villain nor a hero. But he and his people mirror the Black Panther and the Wakandans. They are both protective of their culture, land and resources, and willing to defend them all with intensity and passion. Their arrival puts the country between a rock and a hard place: Defiance means death and destruction. Alliance means the target on their back from the Western world grows. Actions have consequences, and nothing is black-and-white.
While the film does suffer from the common issues of many recent MCU entries - inconsistent CGI, too many characters, a pathetic attempt at LGBTQ+ inclusion - its biggest problem is being overstuffed. While the moving tributes to Boseman that bookend the film and the exploration of the underwater world of the Talkoan are welcome, they push the running time to nearly three hours. It's too much of a good thing.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had so many setbacks that it could have been a disaster. But with deep respect for its characters and indigenous culture, as well as a refusal to reduce its world to a good-vs-evil binary, it's another step forward for superhero movies.