Movie Review – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

So I’ve been reading/listening to this book called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. It’s a pretty gossipy tell-all piece of nonfiction about the rise of New Hollywood in the late 60s through to the 70s. Listening to that book has certainly been enlightening in some respects. But so far my main takeaway is given the unseen chaos behind the scenes, every movie is a minor miracle. By that logic though, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the much anticipated sequel to the 2017 pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a miracle several times over. The mere existence of this movie is an incredible feat and director Ryan Coogler, the whole ensemble cast (with one exception I’ll get to in a bit) and everyone who worked on this movie deserves to be proud of their work. That it’s not just good but easily a match for the first film in the franchise (which towers over most of the MCU) is nothing short of miraculous. But no movie is perfect and there’s a lot to talk about in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, so click the read more button and we can get to discussing.

First, I want to address the first elephant in the room. Wakanda Forever is a true ensemble piece, but the undisputed star of the proceedings is Letitia Wright as the Wakandan Princess Shuri. Letitia Wright is a talented actress and her performance in this film deserves accolades. She’s given the daunting task of carrying the film’s emotional core, and she acquits herself with grace and empathy. However, it should be noted that one of the reasons this film’s production was such a well publicized nightmare is that Letitia Wright is religious vaccine sceptic who used her platform as a celebrity and public figure to promote anti-vaccine materials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allegedly her continued pushing of such materials and rhetoric on the set of the movie was one of the reasons for the film’s delay. This behavior, in a pandemic that has to date claimed the lives of over 6.6 million people, is irresponsible and bordering on the immoral. I don’t necessary believe that the creators involved in our favorite stories need to pass some kind of ideological purity test, but there are points where I draw the line. Letitia Wright does a fantastic job in this film, but her actions soured me on her performance and her presence in the narrative of the film. It should also be noted that the film ends on a ambiguous note as to whether Wright’s presence in the MCU will continue.

That out of the way, the other significant pachyderm in the room when discussing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the tragic passing of the franchise’s leading man, Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer. Director Ryan Coogler chose to lean into this tragedy and as such, the film opens on the death of Boseman’s character, King T’Challa, the current Black Panther from an unspecified disease. The entire film is infused with a sense of mourning that forms the emotional pillar of the narrative. Every major character is grappling with the grieving process in some way throughout the film. Not only does it make the film a touching tribute to Boseman, it also generates the film’s first narrative tension. The Black Panther has always served as the guardian of the secretive African utopia of Wakanda. With the passing of their king and champion, the rest of the world is looking at Wakanda with greed and ill intent. Add into this a mysterious attack on a secret American mining operation and the stage is set.

Wakanda Forever is the type of superhero movie I never thought we’d get to see. I’m not talking the sense that 30 year old Tim would go back in time to 2008 and tell 16 year-old Tim that “hey guess what, Dr. Stranger is going to have multiple film appearances,” way. No I mean that Wakanda Forever is barely a superhero movie and yet it can only take place within the context of a world informed by the existence of superhumans. It’s more accurate to say that Wakanda Forever is more like a political drama, with multiple global superpowers becoming embroiled in an international incident. And it works. Mostly. I don’t know if every single plot beat clicks into place with perfect efficiency but for the most part the geopolitical stakes are clear and well-explained. Ryan Coogler has proven to be a master of character-driven storytelling with films like Creed and his debut, Fruitvale Station. So it’s a good thing that this is a movie where the fates of nations are based on the very human decisions and actions of its leads. The best and most fascinating of which is breakout star Tenoch Huerta as Namor.

If you’ll allow me to put on my “comic book history nerd” hat for a bit, Namor is a really interesting character but he presents an especially daunting challenge for adaptation. Firstly, he’s actually one of the oldest Marvel characters, original debuting in 1939 when his publisher was known as Timely Comics. He was created by Bill Everett to play as a foil to another early Timely character, The Human Torch. Everett was apparently inspired by elements of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his name is the word Roman spelt backwards because it sounded kingly and noble. But beyond that, what makes Namor and interesting prospect for adaptation is that he’s not actually a superhero. Sure at first glance his appearance, powers and backstory as the half-human ruler of Atlantis make him a dead ringer for “Marvel’s version of Aquaman” but the character is more complicated than that. As a quick digression, I feel like pop culture has kind of ruined the term “anti-hero” by making it apply to characters who like to glower in dark rooms. For example, Batman is by most metrics a traditionally heroic character. Yes, he has a tragic backstory and he’s all broody in most depictions, but he’s ultimately heroic. A better example of an antihero might be Michael Corleone from The Godfather, a character who does horrible things for outwardly noble reasons. I say this to give extra heft to my statement when I say that Namor the Sub-Mariner is, in almost all of his incarnations, a classic anti-hero. It’s what makes him a perfect foil for a Black Panther film. Moreso than even T’Challa, he’s a king before he’s a superhero, and unlike T’Challa he’s more than willing to choose paths of violence if he thinks they’ll protect his people. He’s also frequently a big ball of melodramatic emotions. He’s not a nice dude, is what I’m saying and that could make it hard for an audience to relate to him. Namor’s hobbies include threatening the surface world, kidnapping surface women in order to whisk them away to his underwater kingdom and kingly displays of might and power. All of which he gets up to in Wakanda Forever, so gold star there.

Tenoch Huerta has had a long career acting in Spanish language productions but this is his first English language feature film. I sincerely hope it’s not his last. Namor dominates every scene he’s in like a dark mirror of the absent T’Challa. This stellar performance is reinforced by the innovations Coogler and Huerta have introduced into the details of the character’s origin, and background. This MCU iteration of Namor isn’t the ruler of a Greco-Roman Atlantis. Instead, he’s the god-king of Talokan, an underwater civilization inspired by ancient Mayan culture, up to and including its people speaking the Yucatan Maya language. Making Namor (who is also called K’uk’ulkhan, a reference to a real deity from Mayan mythology) the ruler of a people who are, like the Wakandans, an analogue for a people and culture who are oppressed in real life gives the character new depths. See, Namor is a great character, but he’s also a little goofy. His defining traits are his pride and his arrogance. Basically, there’s a reason this guy’s catchphrase is “Imperius Rex.” Huerta instead imbues his version of Namor with a wary cynicism and a cold dispassion born of a desire to protect his people. This guy isn’t dumb, he knows what the surface world gets up to and he’s right worried about what would happen if they discover his kingdom. Just as on example, since he’s over 400 years old, he got to watch European powers colonize his homeland in real time. These traits are buoyed by a very classic sense of regal charisma. In the first Black Panther movie, King T’Challa was more of a modern king, a humble and down-to-earth monarch. Not so with Namor. This guy is the ruler of an undersea empire and he wants you to know it. The cinematography frequently has Huerta tower over his costars or finds ways to place him above them in the frame. All of this combines for an immediate star-making turn for Huerta.

Lastly I want to touch upon this film’s connections to the broader MCU and any implications it might have. So skip this section if you want to avoid some spoilers or, understandably just don’t care. Firstly though I do want to stress that overt connections to the broader MCU are light. This make sense, and I respect the choice to do so. This movie is, first and foremost, a memorial to Boseman and it would’ve been uncouth to stuff it full of MCU cameos or winks and nods to other franchises. In that regard, I really enjoyed the (one and only one) mid-credit scene, which was less of a teaser for future content and more like a a final, optimistic coda. But this movie is still a cog in the greater MCU machine and that machine keeps on chugging along. First up is Dominque Thorne as Riri Williams, the newly introduced hero Ironheart. Williams is great in the role and I love the design of the Ironheart armor. The character is getting her own TV show here soon and I feel like she slots nicely into the emerging generation of young, up and coming heroes like Kamela Khan, and Spider-Man. The MCU has clearly been moving towards a team of “Young Avengers” for a while now, but those kids are going to need someone to fight against. In this instance, Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns to the role Valentina De Fontaine, a shadowy character who’s shown up several times through Marvel Phase IV. She was in Black Widow for a minute, and also made an appearance in the Falcon and Winter Soldier series. In both cases she was seemingly recruiting characters who would work as evil version of classic heroes. This time she’s not doing something so overt but it has now been established that she’s the director of the MCU’s CIA. I think it’s actually pretty bold and kind of refreshing that since the downfall of SHIELD in the Captain America movies, the MCU has used the real life Central Intelligence Agency as its shadowy global spy network. Also bonus points for making the CIA if not the “bad guys” of Wakanda Forever then an overtly antagonistic force explicitly seeking to destabilize Wakanda in order to take advantage of the vibranium it possesses. Lastly, while I’m here shout out to Richard Schiff for showing up and really hamming it up as a sanctimonious American diplomat for a few scenes. But yeah, Director La Fontaine is clearly being set up to be a villain in future films and I’m 99% sure she’s going to be the director of The Thunderbolts, a team of characters who are basically the Marvel version of the Suicide Squad, i.e. supervillains or antiheroes working as black ops agents for the US government. Louis-Dreyfus brings a really fun energy to the role and I hope we get to see her more between now and whenever the Thunderbolts movie/TV show comes out. There’s also the debut of the Midnight Angels, a pair of Dora Milaje in power armor. They’re at the heart of a very interesting storyline in the comics, but I’m not sure if that’ll be up in the MCU. Right now, they’re just some cool power armor designs and get saddled with the, at this point tired, “MCU characters make fun of the names from the source material” joke.

Like I said at the opening of this review, that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever exists at all is a miracle. That it’s as good as it is, and as thought-provoking is also a miracle. It’s a powerful metatextual meditation on grief that also works as a compelling political drama. It’s not perfect. The pacing in the second act is a bit of a mess and I wish they’d done something a little more interesting for the final battle. Also, the CGI is a bit of a mess, but I don’t like criticizing Marvel or any studio really for that sort of thing given the horrible working conditions of VFX artists in the industry. That’s an industry wide issue and I’m not a fan of pinning the blame on Marvel films just because they’re the most popular thing at the box office. It never impacted my enjoyment of the film or its otherwise visually impressive action sequences. Look, I’m the last guy whose review about Black Panther you need to read. I’m a cishet white guy living in the American South who’s also an MCU apologist. For multiple reasons, in this particular instance, my opinion is pretty much a nonissue. But I’m always willing to salute a piece of art that manages to escape the blockbuster machine in as beautiful and empathetic a form as this. Until next time, thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s