Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) Has an MCU Problem.

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2018 seems like ages ago. The face of the world has changed so much since February 16, 2018, when the first Black Panther film hit theatres. 2020 was an upheaval of a year. There were worldwide protests against police brutality as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hassle surrounding the US elections, among other troubles. The most significant change that would affect the future of the Black Panther films, however, was the death of actor, Chadwick Boseman. Boseman, who had previously headlined several films about iconic African American characters such as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2014), and James Brown in Get on Up (2013) became a different kind of icon for people of African descent all over the world.

Black Panther, the film, represented more than another avenue for high-octane entertainment for many people; it was a cultural moment that saw a comic book film with a predominantly black cast gross 1.3 billion at the worldwide box office. Since the lingua franca of Hollywood is profit and more profit, Black Panther was proof that a film with a majority black cast of actors could go toe-to-toe with other films that comprise Hollywood’s blockbuster climate. The moviegoing public was waiting with bated breath to see where the studio would take stories featuring the Black Panther and Wakanda next. Boseman’s passing demanded that earlier plans be scrapped.

The truth is that it was always going to be hard to make a sequel to the first film without the lead actor playing the titular character. As another critic pointed out, it would be like asking Sam Raimi to make a sequel to 2002’s Spiderman without Tobey Maguire. It’s a daunting feat indeed but Ryan Coogler and the talented cast and crew give it their best shot, and their efforts pay off too, from the brilliant performances to the way Boseman’s death is handled in-universe. However, where the film falls flat on its face are in the moments where it reminds us, so brazenly in fact, that this story is still part of a shared universe featuring a host of characters whose stories, like in their comic books of origin, frequently have to intersect. This is less a bug and more a feature of the current state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it prevents Black Panther: Wakanda Forever from being more than it could and should have been.

The film opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright) storming into her lab where several workers are milling about. They are clearly attending to an emergency. T’Challa, her brother and the King of Wakanda, is at death’s door. Shuri is attempting to synthesize the heart-shaped herb with the help of her AI assistant (as Erik Killmonger destroyed the last of them in the previous installment). The heart-shaped herbs grant the Black Panther superhuman strength, reflexes, and agility, as well as increased healing. However, before the synthesis is complete, her mother, (Angela Bassett) arrives to inform her of the king’s passing. This scene, well-acted and shot mostly in one take, is a good launching pad for the themes that preoccupy the movie.

Riri Williams in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

It is obvious that the story would be about Shuri grieving her brother and struggling with the decision to take on the mantle of Black Panther and the movie does deliver on this. Wright has a lot of work to do here, a lot of emotions to portray on screen, and she rises to the occasion. Angela Basset, too, gives a performance that is powerful and visceral, channeling her real-life grief through her character. There is a scene where the king is given the traditional burial rites, and for a moment, it seems like the film is on the right track, until it loses its footing and stumbles. The character drama gets out of the way so the plot can happen. Apparently, there is a young teenage girl, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who, in the wake of the conclusion of the last movie, where Wakanda promised to open their borders to help the rest of the world, has created a machine that can locate vibranium in the ocean. The CIA gets its hands on it and uses it to search for the precious metal in the Atlantic Ocean. All is going well until they’re ambushed by blue-skinned people who emerge from the water. The rest of the world, however, thinks Wakanda is responsible.

Shuri and her mother are having a quiet moment at the oceanfront in Wakanda when they’re visited by Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Wakanda’s open policy has alerted the world to the existence and usefulness of vibranium, and his underwater civilization of Talokan has been threatened as a result. Namor plans to kill the scientist responsible, Riri Williams, and orders Wakanda to retrieve her. It was at this point that I wished the Black Panther franchise wasn’t a part of the MCU or even Disney. I wish it was like Avatar, existing in its own space, and not in a cinematic universe that has become so bloated that the allure of a shared universe is almost completely gone.

Namor in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Namor’s plan does not make much sense. Killing the scientist would not change much. The government already has the blueprints and a prototype and can mass-produce the vibranium detectors anytime they want. This gap in his logic does not make him a very compelling villain and is one example of story being sacrificed for plot, and of the needs of this movie being sacrificed for the needs of the shared universe. The MCU has plans for Riri in the future as her Disney+ show is slated for late 2023. This explains why she feels shoehorned into the narrative. She goes from being the bone of contention in the first half to taking a backseat in the second.

There are also several scenes with Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross, and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) which are only there to remind the audience that of their existence and to set up future projects. There is however one important thematic moment where Ross mentions to Fontaine, “Did you ever imagine what they (Wakanda) could be doing with their resources? Did you ever wonder what we would be doing if the US was the only country with vibranium in the world?” Fontaine’s reply speaks to how much a villain she is: “I actually dream of that.” It also speaks to what actually happens in our world. Historically, less economically developed nations have been preyed on by multinational companies looking to exploit their resources. If any superpower does have something as resourceful as vibranium, there’s no telling how much havoc that would cause.

What the film loses by focusing on characters only tenuously connected to the plot is a lack of adequate screen time for the other important characters. Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), and M’Baku (Winston Duke), some of the standout supporting characters from the first movie seem to have smaller roles in this sequel than they had in Black Panther (2018). Wakanda Forever simply juggles too many things at once to give these characters enough time to continue their journeys from the previous installments in the franchise.

Shuri meets with Namor and asks to be taken to see Talokan. This is for the benefit of the character and the audience. We are introduced to an underwater civilization, advanced just like Wakanda, and based on Mesoamerican cultures. Namor tells Shuri his backstory and generally acts like a more-level headed person. In Black Panther (2018), the hero, T’Challa, has to learn from the villain and incorporate part of his ideology into his, changing Wakanda forever. Here too, Shuri must learn what she can from Namor. This particular trip proves useful at the end when she decides to not kill Namor. From what she’s seen, both societies, Wakanda and Talokan, are not so different after all.

The midpoint brings the first showdown between Namor and Wakanda and leaves the latter devastated. There is a calm before the storm during which they are able to regroup. This happens in a montage set to Burna Boy’s ‘Alone,’ and is one of the best moments in the film. The climax is a barrage of half-baked CGI and battle strategies culminating in the only possible outcome of a conflict like this in a PG-13 cinematic universe run by Disney.

Where Wakanda Forever really shines is in the moments when it is honoring Chadwick Boseman’s memory. The choice to not recast the character was a bold one, and his absence is felt immensely. But I think it is a testament to the work done by Ryan Coogler and the rest of the cast and crew that this film is being lauded as one of the best outings of the MCU’s Phase Four.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever commits Chadwick Boseman’s memory to film and manages to offer the usual blockbuster fare that is expected by the moviegoing public. For that, it works, even as there are several elements in it threatening to make it collapse on itself like a house of cards.

One comment

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