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'More plot in its pinky finger than a DC movie': Black Panther 2 film review

Garden Theater, Princeton, New Jersey
Djkeddie / Wikimedia Commons

As an on-and-off Marvel fan, I never got around to watching the highly anticipated sequel to “Black Panther,” Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” last fall, so when USG Films offered a free showing a couple weeks ago at the Garden Theater, I jumped at the chance. After all, nothing beats the Marvel movie experience in theaters.

The film, directed by Ryan Coogler and released in November 2022, picks up with the death of King T’Challa — also known as Black Panther — from an unspecified incurable disease.  King T’Challa was played by actor Chadwick Boseman, who unexpectedly passed from colon cancer in August 2020, two years after the release of the first Black Panther film. The lack of resolution surrounding the on-screen character’s death mirrors the unexpectedness of off-screen Boseman’s passing. 

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While I was expecting the character to be written off early on, I was admittedly surprised at the unexplained cause. Surely the Marvel strategists would be able to integrate his death into some kind of plot-congruent explanation — a residual effect from the Blip, perhaps? His mysterious disease made me wonder if Marvel had a new master plan. A pandemic disaster? A Wakandan virus? We all know no secret goes unresolved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The film then skips to a year later, as the mourning Wakandan nation struggles to keep up its defenses without its champion. Letitia Wright steps forward as the franchise’s new star, playing a grieving Princess Shuri forgoing self-care and leisure for a workaholic lifestyle (a feeling I imagine many Princeton students can relate to). Soon enough, she is forced to break out of her bubble by the threat of foreign invaders and the greedy outside world. 

We’re treated to a new character from Marvel lore, Riri Williams, a young and upcoming STEM genius from (ahem) an unidentified school in Cambridge, Massachusetts (cue murmurs of discontent from the Princeton audience). The film also fulfills Marvel’s standard of good action choreography, as General Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, leads the women warriors through multiple satisfying fight scenes — better than DC’s Wonder Woman walking in slow-motion across no man’s land if you ask me.

A secondary plot line weaves in snippets of American agent Emmett Ross, played by Martin Freeman, as he advocates for the Wakandans. His plotline adds suspense to the film as Wakanda faces heightened suspicion from … every other country on land (Way to overdo it, Marvel). As much as I like his character, Ross’s underdeveloped storyline lacks a satisfying resolution, speaking more to Marvel’s need to anchor every movie in the United States by any means necessary.

That’s one of the main flaws of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The film has more plot in its pinky finger than a whole DC movie, but it has almost too much of it. At a whopping two hours and 41 minutes, the ambitious film delivers multiple moving, cinematic acts, going from peace to war to more war to the finale in a structure reminiscent of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” The sheer length of the film threatens to lose the less patient and less devoted moviegoers. At the start of the resolution, which would go on for almost a half hour, students in the theater opened their phones to check the time. 

Regardless, I appreciate Marvel’s need to follow up the smashing success of the first film by giving us everything we could possibly want. Another AI Jarvis? A man-eating fluorescent jellyfish? A man flying around in a Speedo? You got it. The film had so much unexpected variety that you never knew was coming next, and for me, that was enough to keep me going through its lengthy acts.

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One of the most unexpected twists was the introduction of the Talokans, an advanced vibranium-rich society that had lived in secrecy for years in the ocean. Once the mysterious sirens showed up out of the blue, I was hooked. Then came their leader Namor, also referred to as “El Hijo Sin Amor” and Kukulkan (another Marvel antagonist of many names), a flying cross between Aquaman and Hermes. It was astonishing, bizarre, and just plain cool.

Still, the premise of the Talokans stretches the balance between science and skepticism. On one hand, expository dialogue reminds us of the statistical likelihood that a vibranium meteorite landed in the ocean. On the other hand, magic siren voices? Blue skin? Healing powers from what should have been fatal wounds? An insane bone structure that can withstand the pressure of the ocean? I’m not sure how magic DNA and the heart-shaped herb can explain that.

What I liked most about the addition of the Talokans — a civilization inspired by the Mayans and Aztecs — was the way it played out a historical “what if.” What if a small population of the indigenous had escaped colonization? What if they had evolved separately into their own advanced civilization? What if they rightfully held a centuries-long grudge against the outside world? Their storyline was a way to rewrite history and deal justice to historically mistreated people.

I’d be eager to see Marvel explore more of the Talokans, but it seems like they’ll stay in the ocean as an ace in the Wakandans’ pockets until they’re convenient to the master plan. That’s the trouble with introducing new, even more, super-powered characters. There’s no room in the universe for them.

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All said, it’s clear that “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is the work of years and a labor of love from many of its creators. The CGI is at its A-game, shown when Namor darts around on-screen like a Golden Snitch. For the score, Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson traveled to Nigeria and Mexico to collect sound bites from rare traditional instruments. In a first for Göransson, the score also features songs produced in collaboration with modern pop artists, giving audiences a taste of languages from English to Spanish to Xhosa. Between the music and the heart-wrenching scenes from Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett, the film delivers on emotion. It’s moving, cinematic, and spectacular —  a tale of grief and forgiveness threaded through with a touching tribute to its former lead actor. 

Jessica Wang is a member of the Class of 2026 and a contributing writer for the Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at jessica.wang@princeton.edu. 

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