The mournful and reverent sequel film breaks new ground, but may divide fans
With two kids and my own personal history of reading comics, Marvel movies are a big deal in my house. So it was with great anticipation that my daughter looked forward to joining me for a screening of the MCU’s latest, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ryan Coogler’s followup to his 2018 smash hit.
Before the movie, we stopped for a quick dinner at McDonald’s, where, as it turned out, Black Panther is the current Happy Meal theme. It was a great little surprise for her to get an M’Baku figure directly before seeing the show on the big screen.
Wakanda Forever is definitely a meal, but not a happy one.
Of course we know this, the huge loss of star Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa the Black Panther is palpable. Few celebrity deaths have ever felt as personal and tragic of a loss to me as this one did; for Boseman was a man of both principles and faith who chose his roles with great discernment. When he wasn’t actively pioneering as the breakout superhero Black Panther, he portrayed other black pioneers, building up an impressive filmography full of biopics and lifting up the true stories of Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown.
The first Black Panther film was an colorful and exuberant celebration of black and even specifically African identity; its sequel mourns the incalculable loss of an icon — cutting even more deeply for its real life truth.
Obviously there was great debate as to how the film should uphold this legacy while maintaining its own narrative, with many fans feeling strongly whether the role of T’Challa should or should not be recast. But if there’s one thing this film absolutely nails, it’s its reverent and thoughtful handling of the real-life tragedy.
The impermanence of death is one of my staunchest criticisms for superhero comics, a criticism which has carried over to the films of the MCU.
When Thanos eradicated half of humanity in Avengers: Infinity War, its followup Endgame opened carrying on that somber note. There was a period of mourning, but it wasn’t the story. We jump to “Five Years Later”, where the engine of the story is a new “time heist” mission to turn back the clock, and settling back into an adventurous tone with a tremendous escalation of humor, action, and fun.
There is no turning back the clock in Wakanda Forever — T’Challa is gone. And while we have lost important and notable characters (Iron Man, Black Widow, Aunt May, most of Asgard) it’s the first film in the sprawling Marvel franchise that’s just… genuinely mournful, a tone which colors and defines the entire film.
Both the Queen-Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) are heavily burdened in the film, carrying the weight of their loss and handling their grief in different ways: Ramonda is openly filled with bitterness, and Shuri buries herself in her work, her anger festering deep down. The era of the Black Panther, and the sense of exhilaration which defined the first film, seems to be gone forever (the power-enhancing “heart-shaped herb” having been destroyed by Killmonger in the prior film).
And I have to give a huge shout-out to Winston Duke’s M’Baku, who remains a lovable standout character and will further establish himself here as a fan favorite, dispensing good advice to Shuri as she battles her demons.
With the death of T’Challa and the world now aware of Wakanda’s vibranium resources, a new arms race arises as nations scour the planet for the powerful resource, awakening the aquatic hermit kingdom of Talokan who, unbeknownst to Wakanda, also have access to vibranium and have created a society that rivals and parallels their own.
Talokan’s king Namor (Tenoch Huerta), is one of Marvel Comics’ oldest and most celebrated major characters, a noble ruler whose love for his people is matched by his hatred of the evils of the surface world — a flexible character whose complex profile can make him a formidable villain, hero, or antihero as stories might require. He’s also a mutant with powers of strength and flight and is unique among his people in the ability to breathe air, which basically make him the “Daywalker” of sea people and attributes him godlike status to his subjects. As in the comics, Namor seeks to protect his kingdom by waging war on the encroaching surface world, and he has the power to do it.
Namor, sensing Wakanda’s similarities to Talokan, approaches Ramonda and Shuri, to either ally with Talokan — or be the first to fall to it.
Talokan’s representation is rooted in Mesoamerican culture, its people originated from the Mayans, impacted by the a similar history of violent European colonialism as Africa. There’s certainly a direct and obvious implication of the same as applied in global and particularly American society, where black and Hispanic peoples have historically had both alliances and conflicts in different aspects of the Civil Rights movement and urban culture.
The conflict between Wakanda and Talokan bears the somber tone that colors the entire film. The great tragedy of this war is its futility: two powers that can work together for greater good, instead warring to their mutual detriment. But with Talokan intent on destruction, there is no alternative.
The “Black Panther” part of the title is secondary to the “Wakanda Forever”, though the mantle eventually makes its return in a way that I found satisfying.
It’s not a “Happy Meal” of a movie. The film’s general place of sadness, along with its lengthy runtime and frequent subtitles (for both cultures speaking natively) will make this a tougher watch for kids in particular, who mighty be expecting a jaunty superhero adventure and instead watching characters grieve and forced to fight a stupid and unnecessary war. (My 7-year old concluded that she liked the film, but I could see her struggling to stay attentive).
There are some peripheral subplots that introduce new character “Ironheart” or involve other characters from the MCU, and these are where the film more closely resembles the standard Marvel template with sequences of action and humor. Incidentally they’re also the weaker aspects of the film and feel like kind of a distraction from the main story (whatever Julia Louis-Dreyfus is cooking up, we know it involves that dollar-store version of Captain America and I’m actively disinterested).
Overall I was really moved by the film and felt it’s doing something pretty radically different from the typical superhero mold, but that’s also why it may have an uphill battle with fans.