Synopsis: After the tragic death of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the royal family of technologically advanced African nation Wakanda must pick up the pieces and continue defending themselves from rapacious outsiders keen on exploiting their most important natural resource – the magical metal known as vibranium. In this vulnerable state, a new enemy emerges from the sea – the amphibious people known as the Talokan, led by their superpowered leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who blame Wakanda for the outside world encroaching into their territory in search of vibranium. But without the unifying force of the Black Panther, it falls on Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) to protect their nation, aided by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the Jabari tribe M’baku (Winston Duke), and retired spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
[mild spoilers for the movie in this review.]
1. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (from here simply referred to as Wakanda Forever) is, in many ways, the most ambitious movie that has ever been released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This might sound odd considering the last two Avengers movies had a main cast of about 900, killed off half its characters, and made almost five billion dollars. But there’s a difference between scale and depth, and while nothing is likely to match up to Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) in sheer scope in the near future (1), Wakanda Forever‘s interest is in the other direction. The last time any superhero film attempted to deal with themes or emotions with this kind of depth or complexity was … well, probably Black Panther (2018). Just off the top of my head, Wakanda Forever makes a concerted attempt to delve into (deep breath) the trauma of losing both a family member and a national hero, the deep and abiding scars of colonialism, the morality of vengeance, the way in which different groups of oppressed people are all too easily pitted against each other, and isolationism vs. collaboration. That’s a lot, and all this stuff is not touch-and-go either, but is fully interwoven with the plot and character arcs of the film. There was real care and thought put into what Wakanda Forever wanted to say and how it wanted to say it, and Marvel Studios and writer/director Ryan Coogler have gone to a great extent to make a movie with deep, rich, and resonant themes.
In doing so, however, they have inadvertently exposed the limitations of the MCU as a storytelling medium.
2. After all, for all of Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige’s high-minded ideals for this particular franchise, there is no denying that it remains a franchise, beholden to all the corporate obligation of brand continuity for itself and the wider MCU at large. Nowhere is this more apparent than the detour to MIT, which seemingly only exists to provide a backdoor pilot for the Ironheart Disney+ series. This is no shade to Dominque Thorne, who is charmingly convincing as the young genius scientist Riri Williams, but all the charisma in the world cannot hide the fact that the character is essentially a plot device. Williams has next to no agency of her own, and is basically a ball that the other characters play keep-away with. There is no good reason for the film to utilise a character as a MacGuffin, (2) especially considering how overstuffed it already is with characters. It doesn’t help that the Boston sections are so tonally discordant with the rest of the film’s sombre, downbeat mood, veering so suddenly into the quippy, take-nothing-seriously MCU house style that it verges on self-parody. Add to that an absolutely terrible car chase sequence and a setting so bare and empty it feels like an unadorned studio backlot, and you have a good 15 minutes of movie that could be cut out with next to no impact on the overall narrative. This is especially problematic when you consider the film’s (checks notes) 161 MINUTES OF RUNTIME?! (3) The Riri Williams character is far from the only bit of ‘brand management’ Wakanda Forever has to deal with, and it might not even be the most egregious one. That honour goes to all the scenes setting up the upcoming Thunderbolts featuring Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross (4) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Countess de Fontaine, which are so flat and so tangentially connected to the main narrative that it gave me acid flashbacks to Gal Gadot watching Youtube trailers of upcoming attractions in Batman vs. Superman. The fundamental tension between telling a self-contained story and being part of an ever-expanding ‘cinematic universe’ has only grown since the original Black Panther, which was a far more satisfying narrative due to how little it coincided with the MCU at large. But that was then, when Coogler and his creative team could get away with post-credit snippets and tossed-off references that led to Infinity War. Now? With Disney+ series and Thunderbolts and whatever the hell The Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars are going to entail, wider franchise obligations threaten more than ever to bog down the MCU’s most interesting tributary.
3. And make no mistake about it, the Black Panther franchise is almost certainly the richest vein in the MCU gold mine. Even ignoring the bucketloads of cash it generates, no other film series in the MCU is operating on the level that it is on. People who sniff about the purported benefits of ‘diversity’ and claim that the first Black Panther got a bye from critics because of its African setting and predominantly black cast are missing the forest for the trees – that in an increasingly homogenous blockbuster landscape, Black Panther‘s blend of heady themes and Afro-futurist aesthetic make it stand out from the pack. This remains true for Wakanda Forever, even with its far more obvious flaws. If anything, Coogler has gone even further and deeper with his messaging this time around, with a very timely reminder about how easy it is for those who at the top of power structures to pit different oppressed peoples against each other to maintain their own power. It’s a pity, however, that the film pulls its punches in this regard. After all, there is only so far a Hollywood movie bankrolled by Disney can go in terms of criticising Western hegemony, as evidenced by how Wakanda Forever seeming elides the CIA’s and the US government’s involvement in creating the conflict between Wakanda and Talokan, even providing a counterpoint ‘good CIA agent’ to soften the blow. Nonetheless, it’s exceedingly rare for a blockbuster of this ilk to even acknowledge colonialism’s existence, let alone portray its corrosive influence in the way that Wakanda Forever does. Circumstance may dictate that any criticism has to be neutered, but it is still an overall good that a film with this reach actually has something important to say.
4. The other major component that causes the Black Panther series to stand out is still very much present as well. Aesthetically, Wakanda Forever continues its predecessor’s fine work in weaving together traditional indigenous dress and architecture with the gleaming sci-fi trappings of the wider MCU. The Talokan city is beautifully designed, and it’s so refreshing to see an underwater city that actually looks like it was constructed to suit the needs of an amphibious people rather than the lazy Atlantis-style ‘take land city but just put it underwater’ method so many films revert to. Wakanda and the trappings of Wakandan culture also continue to be an aesthetic marvel, thanks to the sterling work of production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter. However, all this great work is unfortunately undermined by the cinematography and colour grading. Regarding the latter, Wakanda Forever continues the MCU’s terrible track record of washed-out, flat, and downright ugly colour palettes. This, frankly, is absolutely unforgivable a decade and a half into the MCU’s existence, and is made even worse considering how it impacts the film’s aesthetic vision. What’s the point of the rich, deep red of the Dora Milaje’s uniforms if they are going to look so dull onscreen? Why bother with the intricate design of Shuri’s royal outfit in Talokan when its details can barely be discerned from the similarly-coloured background? And, most criminally, why have the film’s main character be literally clad in a black that is not actually black, but more akin to a dour grey? The problem is exacerbated by the film’s cinematography, which unfortunately slots neatly into a trend of night scenes and underwater scenes (of which there are many) becoming so dark and murky (5) that it’s intensely difficult to tell what is going on. To add insult to injury, this also means that many of the darker-skinned actors’ facial expressions are next-to-impossible to make out in night scenes, with one particular scene between Shuri and Ramonda a key offender. Once again, the general aesthetic and overall restrictions of the MCU bog down what would otherwise be a strength of the film.
5. The acting in general is also as strong as it’s ever been in the MCU, largely thanks to the absolutely stacked cast. Lupita Nyong’o continues to be grossly overqualified for her supporting role in the series, and lends her Nakia a sense of emotional stability and warmth that is palpable in every single one of her (too few) scenes. Angela Bassett also shines in an expanded role, with the veteran actress given the bulk of the Oscar-baity monologuing and hitting it out of the park as expected. Unfortunately, while Danai Gurira continues to be excellent, Okoye’s role has been substantially trimmed, and she disappears for most of the film’s second act, which further speaks to some of the pacing issues involved in the narrative. Among the male actors, Winston Duke is clearly having the time of his life as M’baku, and chews the hell out of the scenery in every scene he is in. And Tenoch Huerta continues this series’ sterling track record of fantastic antagonists, with his Namor being simultaneously charming, terrifying, and sympathetic in all of his scenes. Namor is one of comicdom’s oldest and most complex characters, and Huerta absolutely steps up to the plate to meet the demands of the role. As for Letitia Wright … well, it’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it? For those who are not in the know, Wright is very involved in the more outré branches of Evangelical Christianity, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, shared a video from a church that espoused racist, transphobic, and anti-vaccination opinions, eventually quitting social media due to the uproar that followed. Rumours then began to spread that she had been sharing anti-vaccination sentiments on the set of Wakanda Forever. However, as objectionable as I find her opinions, the fact of the matter is that she is an actor in a film, representing a character who is not herself, and speaking words that have been written by somebody else. As such, I am more than able of separating the art from the artist. So with all that said – Wright is excellent! Her Shuri was already one of the highlights of Black Panther, and as the nominal protagonist of Wakanda Forever, there is no denying that she does an objectively fantastic job. As befitting a narrative arc of Shuri slowly being overcome by repressed rage and sadness, Wright is not given the explosive monologuing fireworks that Bassett has to work with, and instead has to convey her emotional journey far more subtly, which she does to great effect. Nonetheless, it is telling that the film goes out of its way in the ending to build in multiple future options to replace her as protagonist, and it is a pity that such a strong character and set of performances might come to an ignominious end thanks to the toxic opinions of the actor.
6. All of this just seems to add on to the perception of Black Panther being the MCU’s most snakebitten franchise. I have steadfastly gone five paragraphs without mentioning Chadwick Boseman, but it is of course impossible to talk about this movie without doing so. It seems awfully churlish to view the tragic passing of a far-too-young actor who by all accounts, was a decent and kind person, through the scope of what it ‘means’ for the quality of what is essentially corporate product. But there is no getting around the fact that Wakanda Forever suffers immensely from the loss of its lead actor and protagonist, who also happened to be an icon for the black community. It is a massive void to write around, and it is to Ryan Coogler’s immense credit that the film actually holds up together as well as it does. However, Wakanda Forever goes a step further than simply writing around Boseman’s absence, and the film is essentially an extended mourning for both him and T’Challa, as both its characters and the nation figure out how to move on without them. As mentioned, Shuri’s entire narrative arc is about coming to terms with the loss of her brother and the sense of helplessness that comes with the realisation that all the money and technology in the world could do nothing to keep him alive. There is of course, quite a temptation to view Wakanda Forever from the perspective of the meta-narrative of how the franchise copes with Boseman’s death, and it does seem very baked into the story of the film itself, from the way in which ‘outsiders’ proclaim that Wakanda is vulnerable without T’Challa to how Wakanda rises up again by literally replacing him with all of its actors/characters.
7. And just like how Wakanda triumphs with great losses and an uncertain future, the film largely achieves its goals, albeit with some qualifications. There is no denying that Wakanda Forever continues in Black Panther‘s vein of actually trying to mean something more and be something more than just disposable corporate product, but like its predecessor (which descended into typical MCU weightless CGI-infused dreck in its climax), Wakanda Forever can never quite transcend its circumstances. And with said circumstances this time being even more problematic, it is thus no surprise that Wakanda Forever is bogged down in overly-finicky exposition and narrative contrivance to cope with the tragic loss of one star, the batshit insane opinions of another star, and the usual obligation of franchise-management placed on one of the MCU’s big-hitters. Add on to this the continued aesthetic failure of the MCU house style resulting in muddy, unclear images and godawfully boring action sequences, and this is a burden that weighs too heavily for Wakanda Forever to be an unqualified success. It is quite the conundrum – are the increased visibility and cultural reach of the MCU worth the inevitable compromises that follow? Should we laud a film that is more critical of colonialism and celebrates African/Latin American culture than just about any mainstream Hollywood production, or bemoan the fact that it always arrives as a watered-down product? I’m not sure that there is any answer to this question, or whether it is fair to even place it on the shoulders of Wakanda Forever. It is what it is – an ambitious, mostly successful film that ultimately cannot live up to its very own high standards for a variety of reasons, both internal and external. What is certain is that it does a fine job in celebrating the life and achievements of its gone-too-soon star, which makes it worth a watch simply based on that. RIP Chadwick Boseman, you will be missed.
- That sound you just heard is James Cameron cracking his knuckles.
- Coined by Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is a plot device that sets the characters and plot in motion.
- With the continued prevalence of bloated runtimes in Hollywood, expect this to become a running gag. No, I don’t care if it’s not funny.
- Sporting an American accent so awful it makes me think that there was something funky in the craft services of Sherlock. Let’s revisit this when Andrew Scott makes a go at it.
- See the recent kerfuffle over House of the Dragon‘s night scenes.