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A scene from Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

Face front, true believers! We’re in the last few weeks of the year, so it’s time for family get-togethers, big feasts, and…one more excursion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Now this one is another virtual trek to a spot we’ve not seen in over four years. Mind you, we did lots of traveling in the previous MCU outings, from multiverses with Doctor Strange to outer space, and New Asgard, with Thor and his pals. Well, we’re pretty much back on “terra firma” now, although we’ll be diving into the lowest depths of the ocean to meet a new challenge. Did I mention that this is a follow-up to perhaps the most successful (in box office and awards) franchise of the non-group (those mighty Avengers) of the studio? But in those years a lot has changed. That’s because the returning cast is sadly incomplete for BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER.

As we open in that “hidden kingdom”, the unthinkable has occurred. Despite the determined efforts of beloved Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) brings her the news that death has claimed brother T’Challa. And though the family mourns, the populace celebrates their fallen king. Life goes on as the story jumps to the following year. Ramonda addresses a meeting of nations. Its members are growing impatient with Wakanda as they want to get access to their precious Vibranium, which T’challa graciously offered to share years ago. At the same time, a mercenary band attacks a Wakandan research lab to take the metal. But instead, they find the elite Dora Milaje led by Okoye (Danai Gurira). And that’s not the end of the “colonizer’s quest”. At a mining station floating in the Atlantic, another team has detected Vibranium on the ocean floor with a new gizmo (seems that regular metal detectors don’t recognize it). As two divers descend in order to retrieve it something odd happens. The facility is under siege by fearsome warriors who rise up from the waves, led by a very strong airborne man. He later confronts Ramonda and Shuri near a Wakandan beach. We learn that he is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the immortal ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talocan, who believes that they made the mining invention. After Ramonda assures him that they didn’t create the device, Namor issues an ultimatum. Bring him its designer or face his massive army. After he departs, the duo begins an expedition that will reunite them with US government agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and introduce them to young Cambridge University engineering savant Riri Williams (Dominque Thorne). But even with their assistance, along with old allies Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and M’Baku (Winston Duke), can Wakanda survive an attack from Namor’s formidable forces, without the leadership and strength of the Black Panther?

Wright is the first member of the royal family and is the dramatic focus of most of the film. Four years ago I remarked on how she almost stole all of her scenes in that first film. Here Wright ably embodies the heartbreak of her homeland as she struggles to forge ahead while dealing with”survivor’s guilt” and a sense that he’d be here if she only “pushed herself” further. Later we see her deal with an inner conflict of heroism and revenge, which Wright conveys with confidence. But that quality springs to mind when thinking of the “force of nature”, Bassett, as the grieving queen and “mother of us all” who will stand firm as the rest of the world tries to ‘steamroll” her legacy. She’s regal and majestic, but with her closest family and friends, we see her warmth. Though not introduced till the story’s midpoint, Nyong’o is compelling as the “almost queen” who deals with her loss privately but will step up to any enemy. And she (and the other Wakandans) have an intimidating foe in Namor, played with an otherworldly warrior’s grandeur by Huerta. When he softly issues threats to the royales, no bombastic blustering is needed. His intense glare shows that he’s not bluffing. And Huerta expertly handles the role’s physical requirements whether he’s digging his fingers into armored transports or hovering over his enemies. Comic relief is provided by the blustering Duke as the affable and arrogant M’Baku and Freeman as the befuddled and secretive Ross, who’s paired with a current comedic icon (no spoilers). Gurira still dominates the action sequences as Okoye, but she tempers the “ferocity” with a touch of sadness and her own regret as a new threat gets the “upper hand”.And Thorne is a terrific addition as Riri, a “fish out of water” who tries to temper her sense of wonder about the kingdom with the need to aid them and survive to create new scientific marvels (had to get that in).

Hey Marvel maniacs, here’s Namor AKA the Sub-Mariner from over eighty years ago in the pages of Timely Comics as rendered by his creator, Bill Everett! Imperious Rex!

Also returning in the director’s chair is Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole. It’s a true challenge that Coogler dives into, going from a nation in mourning to a high sea, high-stakes battle between the “hidden realms”.There’s still that sense of mythic pageantry as Wakanda remains a compelling clash of golden mythology and near-magic high-tech wizardry. But he doesn’t turn away from the intimate dramatic moments as the family tries to heal their still-fresh wounds. The big action “set pieces” aren’t neglected (they’re well-done, indeed), but they’re spaced out with long stretches of dialogue-heavy exchanges in too many locales that may test the patience of many viewers in search of the stunt spectacles of the original (does the final battle need multiple flashbacks). Yes, it has pacing problems that threaten to dull the story’s dramatic impact. Part of the problem is the need to tell the backstory of Namor, which could’ve been explored in a spin-off film or a streaming miniseries. Yes, the Talocans have some nifty “bits of business”, from whale-riding to a hypnotic siren’s call, and Namor’s hummingbird-like ankle wings (and he darts through the sky like the critter), but it may add too much to the bloated 161-minute runtime. It all does honor the memory of the late star of the original (the revamped studio logo sets a melancholy mood), but the somber sequences and stop-and-start addled plot momentum weigh the end of Phase Four” and sink it down into the murky depths when BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER should soar.

3 out of 4

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER is now playing in theatres everywhere.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. © 2022 MARVEL.

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.