Saturday, July 20, 2024

Starting five years after Thanos’ snap in “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), King T’Challa (aka the Black Panther) dies of a mysterious illness offscreen. During her years of mourning, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) also has to thwart Western attempts to steal Wakanda’s vibranium. An American expedition discovers a subterranean source of vibranium that also awakens the Talokans, a hidden underwater kingdom of superpowered people – think a Mayan-inspired Atlantis. Talokan King Namor (Tenoch Huerta), also known as K’uk’ulkan to his people and a god to others, blames the Wakandans for showcasing vibranium to the world. Interrupting Ramonda as she encourages Shuri (Letitia Wright) to stop losing herself in work, Namor delivers an ultimatum: Retrieve the scientist Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who created the vibranium-detecting machine, or the Talokans will attack Wakanda before conquering the rest of the surface world. Unwilling to give in to his demands but outmatched in numbers, physical strength and weaponry, Shuri finds a way to keep Wakanda safe.

Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) returns to the Black Panther franchise as director and co-writer to deliver an elegiac film that acts primarily as a tribute and poignant farewell to Chadwick Boseman. “Black Panther” (2018) introduced Afro Futurism and a utopian alternative history for Black people to mainstream audiences. Interestingly, Coogler uses the sequel to similarly popularize Mayan Futurism with the sumptuous introduction of the Talokans, which makes the Wakandans seem quotidian in comparison. By depicting Mesoamerican indigenous people as thriving, fierce, regal advanced leaders on the international stage, Coogler shares the wealth of representation with other people of color.

This sequel lays the foundation for this franchise to survive Boseman. Coogler’s “Creed” (2015) and “Black Panther” feature protagonists mourning the death of an iconic loved one and struggling to find paths forward. This sequel feels less cohesive than his earlier work because the story does not spend enough time investing in its protagonist. The narrative’s trajectory is to compel Shuri to address her loss of faith and embrace her spiritual side, but it is easy to forget her in the first two acts. Commanding characters such as Ramonda and Namor overshadow Shuri. Without the sumptuous setting and regal wardrobe, Bassett would still dominate the first act just by existing. Then the second act immerses the viewer in unfamiliar, fascinating surroundings and reduces Shuri to an audience surrogate, as if she was a passive Princess Jasmine in awe at witnessing the Talokan’s secret world. These storylines are powerful and riveting, but they do not develop Shuri into more than a supporting character. 

Wright is not to blame for getting relegated to the edges of certain scenes. She projects Shuri’s emotional journey throughout the film, but Coogler has too much faith in his audience’s emotional intelligence to pick up her performance amid the spectacle. Shuri has only been depicted as a scientist and healer, an enthusiastic, young genius, but she is no longer that exuberant teen. She is a young woman tired of humoring anything that is not solid and feasible, such as faith, the ancestors or the spirit world. An early line of motivating dialogue is insufficient and not a feasible way to explain her reaction to a series of losses since her introduction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

The third act sticks the landing by centering Shuri in one scene with a fantastic, unpredictable and shocking cameo by a character from the first film. Coogler’s visual language conveys more than the script, and Wright is convincing when she gets the opportunity to take center stage. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that Shuri’s proximity to fire and Wright’s movements are more staccato and brutal, a harsher reprise to her jovial hand clasp with her brother in the first film. Shuri’s version of leadership contrasts with her brother in provocative and uncompromising ways. Unlike her brother, she is not a natural listener. M’Baku (Winston Duke) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) make effective screen partners for Shuri because the viewer knows the history of their relationship dynamic, which makes Shuri’s transformation more obvious, and can compare to how these characters interacted with T’Challa. 

The final confrontation is uncomfortable because viewers will be rooting for both nations of color to find a way out of violent conflict and unite against the real villains – the United States – without becoming what they hate. Coogler devotes more time to metaphoric mustache twirling and sinister hand-wringing from the Americans, which was distracting and could have stayed on the cutting-room floor. Even action sequences set around MIT feel like a cheaper copy of the casino and car-chase scenes from the first film. That screen time would be better spent with the Dora Milaje, who when not fighting are reduced to the butt of jokes, which felt disrespectful.