King T’Challa, leader of Wakanda, felt like family by the end of the first Black Panther film. For obvious reasons, the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, the man who played him, changed all the plans for this sequel. It could have derailed the Marvel/Disney franchise, but out of deep tragedy, 36-year-old director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, returning for Wakanda Forever, has woven yet another Oscar-worthy game-changer. This riotously poetic, serenely political and spectacularly cathartic yarn is the best blockbuster of the year. 2022 isn’t about Maverick anymore. It’s about mavericks.
At the start of the film, T’Challa’s witty little sister, the tech-genius Shuri (played peerlessly by Letitia Wright) is undone by the loss of her brother. Even a year after his funeral, she can barely think straight, unable to register a crucial statement made by her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett; lithe; radiant): there’s something Shuri doesn’t know about T’Challa.
Before she, or we, can start guessing what it might be, a pointy-eared, bare-chested and somewhat testy fellow, Namor (Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta; intense), erupts from a lake with a warning. A trip to Chicago, abductions, a shocking death and the prospect of all-out war between Wakanda and Namor’s underwater kingdom, Talocan, follow.
Rooting for the anti-hero isn’t remotely exhausting when their back-story is as compelling as Namor’s. Like Shuri, he has a strong connection with his passionate mum. Like Shuri, he speaks a language rich in history (Namor and his fuzzily blue-skinned followers have clear links to the Aztecs).
Like the Black Panther, Namor’s blood courses with the performance-enhancing Heart-Shaped Herb (if you’re not familiar with the aforementioned purple flower, just think of it as the long-lasting steroid of choice for the shamenically inclined). Black Panther’s sort-of-villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, should have been a hard act to follow. But Namor, thanks to Huerta and the script, is my new best friend.
Did I mention that he has wings on his ankles, is as strong as the Hulk and Thor, likes whales and is excellent at impaling people? Yeah, you get it. He’s a mutant for all seasons, while his commitment to protecting indigenous rights feels totally authentic.
And as for Wright - when she signed up to play Princess Shuri, few could have guessed how important the character would become. Shuri is an atypical protagonist: not just a woman of colour, but a geek. Watching her transformation in this film is as mind-popping as a Thunderbirds mission led by Brains, or a James Bond adventure dominated by Ben Whishaw’s Q, except that she’s so incredibly cool.
Wright’s always been effortlessly emotional. Here, she’s a tsunami-on-legs. What a difference a superb lead actress makes and how lovely to think that Wright - born in Guyana and raised, from the age of seven, in London - is about to become the most famous woman on the planet.
Coogler is an intricate, immersive world builder. In key scenes, it’s as if we’re being whirled round an intimate, yet ginormous, exhibition of Mesoamerican art. The visuals draw on European painting too (most obviously Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights) and 20th century American cinema, with nods to The Wizard of Oz, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. The result is a hyperreal and magical hybrid, one that, on so many levels, digs beneath surface pleasures.
Surprise surprise, Wakanda Forever aces the Bechdel test. Shuri has moving relationships with Lupita Nyong’o’s spy Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Dora Milaje leader, Okoye. She also gets along famously with a new face, Riri Williams (the supple Dominique Thorne), a precocious, savvy, Chicago student who, among other casually genius-level things, builds her own whooshy iron suit. That’s right. Riri is fan-favourite Ironheart, and though Namor’s beef with her never quite makes sense (it’s the one element of the plot that feels half-baked), the character has a robust interior life and is a welcome addition to Shuri’s gang.
Elsewhere, Winston Duke, as T’Challa’s barrel-chested former rival, M’Baku, never stops making us laugh, while Michaela Coel, as keen young warrior Aneka, does a lot with a sliver of screen time. But like Rihanna’s first single for six years, which plays as the credits roll, they’re not what you’ll remember about BP2.
The mid-credits scene is outrageously sweet. Even if you haven’t seen the first movie (though you really should see the first movie) it’ll break your heart, and allay any fears that Boseman has been forgotten. As an act of remembrance, this glorious sequel is unique. Chadwick Boseman mattered and, if Coogler and co have their way, he’ll be with us forever.
161mins, cert 12A
In cinemas from November 11