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Monday, July 22, 2024

Review: 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' Is Not Your Typical Marvel Movie

The release of Black Panther was like nothing before it. The impact, immediate and abiding, was cosmic. That the film premiered during the Trump years, a dystopian period in 2018 when Black life felt more precarious than usual and the call for Black superheroes more urgent, gave its message a special charge. It was a phenomenon three times over—a commercial, critical, and cultural triumph.

King T’Challa was a new-age hero for a new, uncertain time. No stranger to larger-than-life roles, Chadwick Boseman brought poise and charisma to the performance alongside an all-star ensemble that included Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan. Black Panther had teeth, and it was smart enough to skirt the easy trap of representation in an industry starved for color and meaning. A credit to director Ryan Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, the movie was about more than the miracle of being acknowledged; it was a measure of genuine progress. It spoke to us and we answered back. New Black futures—intricate and lush and free—were opening up.

Unforeseen in one of those futures was Boseman’s passing, in 2020, from colon cancer. Franchises are built on star power, and without Boseman, one of Marvel’s brightest and most promising, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is haunted by his absence, draped in the kind of sorrow that can’t be ignored. It’s rare for MCU films to channel the turbulence of grief with such unflinching focus (WandaVision came close in its unconventional depiction of spousal heartache and its psychological aftershocks). The positioning is curious but effective. I hesitate to call Wakanda Forever a new kind of superhero blockbuster—it hasn’t totally reinvented the wheel—but it’s close. Coogler has equipped his sequel with a changed vocabulary: It speaks equally from a place of loss as it does triumph. Grief is its mother tongue.

The king is dead, and the eyes of the world are once again on Wakanda. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has assumed the throne, and, in the year since her son’s passing, done her best to maintain the African nation’s standing as a sovereign power. The only known nation to have it, Wakanda remains rich in vibranium—the mystical ore used to create cutting-edge weaponry and tech—and refuses to share its resources with allies (in one early scene, French soldiers attempt to steal some and quickly get their asses kicked by undercover Dora Milaje agents). Greed being the spark for all manner of conflict throughout history, Cooler and Cole are keen to jumpstart the story in such a way. The US government begins a vibranium-tracking operation in the Atlantic Ocean but it is mysteriously thwarted by an unknown power—the people of Talokan, an underwater empire home to the only other wellspring of vibranium on Earth.

Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) is their wounded leader, and hell bent on keeping Talokan’s existence a secret. He's got mutant superpowers—heightened strength, aquatic regeneration, and flight (thanks to the wings on his ankles)—and commands his nation with a meticulous, if forceful, hand. (In the comics, Namor is known as the Sub-Mariner and hails from Atlantis.) The mining operation threatens to expose his oceanic utopia so he devises a plan to stop it: kill the genius scientist who built the vibranium-tracking device (Riri Williams, introducing Ironheart to the MCU) and align with Wakanda against the surface world. But Wakanda refuses. And the two nations find themselves staring down almost certain war.

A war, as it turns out, that isn’t quite as persuasive as the animating principles behind it. Like the US government’s relentless appetite for global influence. Or the all-consuming rage Shuri (Letitia Wright) feels from the loss of her brother, and the very real way it drives her to action. Or how Namor’s villainy, if it should even be called that, is rooted somewhere deeper, somewhere more human. He’s cut from the cloth of classic MCU antiheroes. Like Wanda. Like Kang. Namor is regaled in paradox and not completely unjustified in his wrath. It’s all in how nicely his backstory is propped: He is the descendant of a 16th-century Meso-American tribe that fled enslavement and was forced to find refuge underwater. He’s a survivor from a people who learned to survive under horrific conditions. His morals have weight.

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All of Coogler’s defining touchstones are present. He adopts the same diasporic hybridity that made the original Black Panther a singular feat (production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter both returned for the sequel). This time, beyond Wakanda’s emerald fields and swarming marketplaces, we are introduced to Namor’s aquatic eden. What Beachler and Carter devised is a visual elixir that pulls from Mayan folklore: the dress, speech, and architecture are all threaded with striking Indigenous details. One of the great failures of the movie, however, is that we don’t spend more time meandering through the underwater city, getting insight into its people and their culture.

I’ve been told before that trauma freezes at the peak. It demands that we temper our pace, that we take stock of the totality of what’s happened, the bleeding ache of it. Ramonda and Shuri do their best to shoulder unimaginable grief, to remember what they lost. The thing is, superhero films—the narrative logic of them—demand a certain momentum. They need to keep moving. They flicker like a comic book, pane by pane, never resting too long before the next scene. Grief asks the opposite of us. It wants us to pause, to slow our steps. This is where Wakanda Forever is most at odds: It has a hard time deciding just what it should feel, what emotion it wants to land on. But maybe that’s the truer film. The more honest one. It’s not as neat. It’s unseemly but more vulnerable as a result.

The central aspect that makes Wakanda Forever a unique Marvel movie—grief as its centerpiece—is also the aspect I find least satisfying about it. Of course, you can’t ignore it in a film like this. You can’t avoid the fog that arises and the pain that feels like it might never leave. You have to circle it. You have to face it head on. In some way, you have to make it the story.

And what that looks like, what it beautifully materializes into in a movie like Wakanda Forever, is what it has always looked like: capable and caring Black women—mothers and sisters and friends—making use of the grief they’ve been saddled with and not letting it make use of them. Even in Afrofuturist utopias a fact of Black life is stubbornly persistent: Not even our superheroes can outmaneuver death.

And when they don’t prove invincible—what then? Those who remain find a way to fight, to heal. It’s an age-old story, and tragically too real. It’s one you’ve probably heard before. It’s one that never loses meaning.

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