Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Like most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever works until it doesn’t. However, what sets it apart ought to be no surprise. For one thing, writer-director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther, Fruitvale Station) is exceptionally good at moviemaking, especially of the popcorn variety. For another, the loss of actor Chadwick Boseman looms large over the endeavor, a real-life tragedy woven respectfully into the movie’s fabric. Dozens of films and shows in Disney’s superhero sandbox have featured casual resurrections—even T’Challa, Boseman’s regal vigilante hero, has scored one fake-out death in his solo film, and one death for real when he was snapped from existence—but rarely have these stories ruminated on loss in any meaningful way, whether its impact, its complications, or its finality.
However, in a world of gods, magic, and multiverses, Wakanda Forever forces Marvel to take death seriously, at least for a little while.
This becomes immediately apparent—both narratively and aesthetically—in the opening scenes, which circumvent Marvel’s usual garish fireworks in favor of a more grounded, tangible texture, as they zero in on Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s brilliant younger sister. This is her movie through-and-through, starting with her deep pain and regret over the fact that no amount of scientific prowess could prevent her brother’s demise (which, of course, occurs off-screen). It’s hard not to be moved by T’Challa’s death, if only due to the knowledge of Boseman’s real-world passing, but what immediately follows is a surprisingly intimate story that, before it inevitably explodes in whizbang fashion, places Shuri in a particularly volatile headspace.
It’s hard not to be moved by T’Challa’s death, if only due to the knowledge of Boseman’s real-world passing, but what immediately follows is a surprisingly intimate story that...places Shuri in a particularly volatile headspace.
Time passes, but Wakanda is no closer to choosing a new leader or a new masked protector, and Shuri is no closer to fully mourning. In Black Panther, she was introduced (by rival Wakandan leader M’baku, played by Winston Duke) as “a child who scoffs at tradition,” an idea brought forward to the sequel and transformed into an emotional blockade. Her mother, Queen Ramonda (a forceful Angela Bassett), takes comfort in Wakanda’s religious rituals, and the idea that “death is not the end”—a spiritual concept that harkens back to T’Challa’s own beliefs, when his father was killed in his debut appearance, Captain America: Civil War (2016). Shuri, however, can’t bring herself to believe in superstition (she might even be an atheist; her very first line in the movie suggests she’s at least agnostic). While she always had science to fall back on, her failure to use it to prevent tragedy leaves her adrift, setting the stage for a tale in which she’s forced to navigate enormous geopolitical hurdles with a dark cloud hovering overhead.
Wakanda’s place in the world is uneasy. It seems like T’Challa’s promise at the end of Black Panther—to perform more outreach and help vulnerable nations—hasn’t come to fruition. Western superpowers like the U.S. and France have begun using this failed promise as an excuse to bargain for (see also: demand) the country’s valuable stock of the metal Vibranium, but this political landscape is thrown into turmoil when a deposit of the rare material is discovered outside Wakanda for the first time, deep under the ocean. As it turns out, Wakanda wasn’t the world’s only secret, isolated superpower, and the thing about militaristic nations is they don’t often play nice. So, it isn’t long before Wakanda finds itself embroiled in a standoff it could not have foreseen.
This is where Marvel introduces its version of Atlantis (dubbed “Talokan” in the movie, after the watery Aztec afterlife “Tlālōcān”) and its version of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the pointy-eared, winged-ankled undersea ruler, and one of its earliest comic characters. What was rather plain on the page becomes fascinating on screen thanks to Huerta’s layered humanity, and to a highly original re-imagining of the Atlanteans (or the “Talokanil”) as a Mesoamerican-inspired undersea kingdom. And while there’s an unsavory history to connecting these specific dots—colonial, Ancient Aliens-esque ideas about the Mayan and Aztec peoples being influenced by “superior” civilizations—Wakanda Forever pulls a commendable Reverse Uno when it reveals Talokan’s history. Namor, for instance, is both part human (he’s descended from the Maya) and driven to protect his subterranean kingdom because of the way Spanish colonizers once enslaved his people.
The Talokanil are immediately imposing, between their mysterious blue skin (a trait shared by all of them except Namor) and their unique designs, like ceremonial headdresses carved from the skulls of hammerhead sharks. When Western powers tread on their territory, they take care of business in spectacular fashion, using spears and sonic abilities that manifest as song (which are blended, quite deftly, by composer Ludwig Göransson into the movie’s score). They’re even terrifying to the Wakandans, who usually have no trouble dispensing with their enemies.
A brief trip to their undersea kingdom reveals a society just as rich and vibrant as Wakanda’s, and paints a moving picture of what’s at stake.
The two isolationist peoples come into conflict over how to approach the world’s encroaching hunger for Vibranium, a resource and a mythical origin they have in common. The solution is far from simple, owing to Namor’s threatening tactics. However, the Talokanil are far from two-dimensional baddies. In fact, a brief trip to their undersea kingdom reveals a society just as rich and vibrant as Wakanda’s, and paints a moving picture of what’s at stake.
Marvel has had a long-standing problem with its antagonists, wherein supposed “complexity” takes the rote form of villains with noble end-goals but violent means. Black Panther’s Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) fought for liberation and global equity, which their respective heroes agreed with in theory, but not in practice, reducing each conflict to a disagreement over methodology, rather than a battle of beliefs. Namor, on the other hand, is much more straightforward, with a violent streak that emanates directly from his desire to keep his people hidden from the surface world. His ensuing disagreements with Wakanda stem not from common outlooks with diverging methods, but beliefs that are up for debate in Wakanda’s council of elders, about how best to protect their people, and whether the most reasonable path forward involves war, negotiation, or sacrificing individual lives.
One such life caught in the crossfire is an American student and engineer, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), whose technology has been misused by the CIA for nefarious means. She finds herself a pawn in the Wakanda-Talokan chess game, with one side hoping to keep her safe, and the other trying to hunt her down. While Thorne brings an immediate bravado to the role, she’s unfortunately reduced to this plot function more often than not (a side effect of Wakanda Forever being a backdoor pilot for her own streaming series). However, the debate about her safety leads to some surprisingly gentle scenes between Shuri and Namor, who are no doubt at odds, but who commiserate over their common circumstances, as rulers and protectors driven by loss.
It also helps that Wakanda Forever is quite handily the best-looking thing Marvel has ever put to screen, especially when compared with its predecessor.
Grief pervades a good chunk of the movie, but it proves to be surprisingly fun and swiftly paced. Its 160-minute runtime feels like a breeze, owing to exposition woven expertly into musical montage, and Marvel’s usual variety of quips being laced with familiarity between the characters, rather than sardonic irony. It also helps that Wakanda Forever is quite handily the best-looking thing Marvel has ever put to screen, especially when compared with its predecessor. The moments of plain, flatly lit dialogue exchanges are few and far between, and the CGI-heavy action loses its sense of weight and gravity only on occasion (and almost never when Namor takes to the sky, practically running on air). Instead, Coogler and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw appear to have been granted the space to shoot in more tangible locations, and allowed the time to make actual decisions about framing, lighting and even the pacing and rhythm of their lengthy takes. While this is the bare minimum, it’s also refreshing, especially when Marvel’s creative mantra of late seems to be “figure it out in post.”
There’s real tension to the action, and a real thoughtfulness to the way the movie is filmed, whether it’s the choice of speed-ramping to maximize superhuman impact, or even something as simple as the way a dramatically lit, long lens close up holds without cutting away too quickly. This comes especially in handy when characters like Shuri, Ramonda, and T’Challa’s former sweetheart Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) broach the thorny topic of grief and how differently they wear it. T’Challa, like Boseman, belonged to the people, but these were the folks who truly knew him, and Coogler captures this deeply personal drama with a no-frills sense of reverence.
Coogler is damn good at his job. Unfortunately, the moments when less involved, less artistically minded voices serve creative mandates stick out even more sorely.
This may all sound like backhanded praise because of how basic it seems—after entries like Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder, the bar for Marvel movies has plummeted through the floor—but the fact remains: Coogler is damn good at his job. Unfortunately, the moments when less involved, less artistically minded voices serve creative mandates stick out even more sorely.
One truly great thing about Wakanda Forever is the journey on which it takes Shuri, and the way loss eventually rankles her to the point of seeking vengeance. Despite counsel from returning supporting characters like M’baku and General Okoye (Danai Gurira), it clouds her judgment. As much as she hopes to walk in T’Challa’s footsteps, she ends up molding herself in the image of his arch nemesis, her cousin Killmonger, a man so twisted by grief that it made him a murderer. Even her hair and costume design begin to subtly resemble his, and it briefly thrusts the film into territory that feels genuinely complicated, at least for a four-quadrant blockbuster.
When a battle eventually rages between Wakanda and Talokan, it’s hard to pick a side and parse all the feelings at play. The Talokanil may be fearsome antagonists, but the film has made us privy to their culture and history, and above all, it ensures a lucid understanding of their deeply personal motives for war. The major action beats, therefore, are at turns exciting and concerning. No matter who’s in the wrong, or who’s throwing the punches, Coogler ensures an emotional connection to both parties, whether empathy for either culture and its self-preservation, or an understanding of either leader’s destructive impulses. This makes it all the more difficult to have a straightforward, simple emotional response to sounds and images that should feel familiar. And what is that, if not the confounding nature of grief, translated into popcorn entertainment?
It’s almost impressive to watch a film that blasts through blockbuster expectations for over two hours, only to shit the bed in a multitude of ways right at the very end.
And yet, this nuanced approach, owed largely to Shuri sliding down an unexpectedly murky path, is too hot for Marvel to handle. Just when it seems like the MCU may finally risk being un-didactic—especially in a film where warring emotional impulses frequently rear their head—you can practically feel pearls being clutched in a gilded Burbank boardroom by someone worried about toy sales, or what it would do for Marvel’s brand should grief fundamentally change and challenge one of its new flagship heroes in uncomfortable ways. The result is a cop-out of a resolution that’s given zero time to breathe, or to unpack some genuinely messy feelings. To make matters worse, it isn’t just one climactic story decision that sours the movie. Rather, it’s a sudden, cascading series of decisions that mostly feel like the product of re-shoots and spare footage cobbled together to create a conclusion on fast-forward.
It’s almost impressive to watch a film that blasts through blockbuster expectations for over two hours, only to shit the bed in a multitude of ways right at the very end. Still, in a Hollywood studio landscape that feels increasingly homogenized, it’s something of a relief to see that one of these can still have genuine soul, even if it’s eventually squandered.
Published on November 9, 2022