Wakanda long ago, ‘Wakanda Forever’

Wakanda Forever is filled to the brim with striking wide shots like this. Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

7/10 Everyone in the world has been through a lot since Black Panther showed us a magical dream of uncolonized Africa in February 2018. Four years later in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, that dream is tainted by real-life tragedy among the cast, but seemingly untouched by the pandemic or even by the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. The film is grieving, but still escapist on a level I’d never have dreamed of if I hadn’t seen it.

One year after the sudden disease and death of King T’Challa, Wakanda faces threats from all sides. Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) holds power, but after the events of the first film, she does not have the heart-shaped herbs required to bless a new Black Panther, and the international trade T’Challa dreamed for never got off the runway because Ramonda refuses to trade vibranium, the nation’s near-magical space metal, for any price.

As world powers search for other sources of vibranium, they stumble onto the underwater kingdom of Talokan, and facing an uncertain future, Wakanda is suddenly confronted by a deep-sea version of its past – another nation powered by vibranium hiding from European colonialism, which also holds its king as super-powered champion and a manifestation of god. K’uk’ulkan, who also introduces himself as Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), is deeply paranoid of his kingdom being discovered, and demands the shaky Wakandan leadership either commit to an alliance or commit to a war.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is mostly fine. There are some technical issues, a lot of fade cuts that should have been hard cuts, some of the sounds don’t quite line up properly and fail to heighten the drama like they should. The whole movie feels rushed, and while it does cover a lot of ground, the emotions along that path don’t feel full. Editors Michael P. Shawver, Kelley Dixon and Jennifer Lame mostly have sterling records, but they whiffed on this one.

Huerta carries the film with a strong central performance.

There are a handful of incorrect shot choices that stick out in a bad way, and everything to do with Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and the CIA’s relationship to Wakanda should have been dropped – or, you could probably salvage that plot thread by having Ross as a direct antagonist to Ramonda instead of what they did, which was introducing new CIA people trying to strongarm her that Ross then chafes against, and it turns into its own little plot cul-de-sac that doesn’t go anywhere and should have been lopped off. This is what it always looks like when Disney insists on bringing back name actors even though their characters have nothing to do.

Wakanda Forever corrects several of the specific, sharp problems with Black Panther. It doesn’t have any half-finished, Scorpion King-looking special effects at any point, so that’s really nice. Wakanda actually feels like an expansive, breathing place in this sequel, it doesn’t look like they’ve tried to pass off a handful of sound stages as an entire nation, and there’s also Talokan to explore.

Wakanda Forever is the second big-budget comic book movie to explore an underwater kingdom of frog people after Aquaman made $1 billion in 2018, and Wakanda Forever’s version is an incredible improvement. Deeper than sunlight can reach, Talokan is heavily grounded in Mayan architecture and the black fog of the ocean. It frequently looks like real undersea footage, and the distant masses of whales and jellyfish are genuinely frightening. Wakanda Forever’s frog people are also distinctive, with blue skin and detailed costumes.

There’s also a heavier focus on music to bolster every scene, rotating constantly between needle drops, returning composer Ludwig Göransson’s original score and a rich and varied soundscape, including what sound like literal echoes of Dune.

In a year full of mainstream subtitles, Wakanda Forever doesn’t disappoint. English is supported with significant chunks of dialogue in Xhosa and Mayan and a little bit of French and Spanish for brightness.

Traditionally, a sequel is the same basic story escalated, and the direct escalation from Black Panther introducing Wakanda and the warmongering N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan) to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever introducing Talokan and a warmongering Namor reveals a lot about what writer/director Ryan Coogler is interested in with these movies – and also makes the first Black Panther’s shortcomings more pronounced in hindsight, as just about everything does. They are stories of nations that were passed over by colonialism who feel forced into preemptive attacks against the global north by a shrinking world and ultimately choose peace over war, but they reach a peace without solving any of the problems that were leading to war. It feels poorly thought out in both, though the repetition makes it at least seem intentional. 

The narrative focus puts Namor as Wakanda Forever’s main character as N’Jadaka was Black Panther’s. They’re framed as villains, but they’re the ones with the most fleshed-out emotional motivations, and they’re the ones whose decisions drive the story. This is why the movies send such mixed messages – in most stories, the protagonist and the main character are the same person, but in these, the protagonists in Wakandan leadership are in direct conflict with the main characters who carry all the narrative momentum, so the movies are structured to be extremely ambiguous. They’re quite literally fighting themselves. The basic narratives would feel more at home in black-and-white ‘50s political dramas about crusty old white men set in conspicuously empty offices in what feels like permanent night because they’re always staying at work so late, but instead, they’re these bright, cheerful Afrofuturist dance parties.

Centering on Namor also helps Wakanda Forever navigate the untimely death of star Chadwick Boseman, who played T’Challa before dying of colon cancer at just 43, so gracefully. The film’s first scene lays the heartbreak bare as Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) scrambles to synthetically recreate the heart-shaped herb. She is convinced the thing that imbues Bast’s blessing onto a Black Panther, the source of power for Boseman’s highest-profile role, will save him, but he’s already gone. 

Coogler and photography director Autumn Durald Arkapaw use sudden bursts of slow motion a little too liberally, but always on striking images, and it’s always a hard stop with no yo-yoing, so it feels nothing like that constant “ramping” in Zack Snyder movies.

Wakanda Forever is action-packed like you want it to be, with large action set pieces to introduce the key nations followed by a couple of mass battle scenes, but this is a Marvel movie, so the action mostly sucks – until it doesn’t. The Talokan army’s asymmetrical attacking power feels dangerous and physical, with what looks like a lot of real water involved in the production, and their lead-off tactic of siren song to trigger a mass suicide in the opposing army is downright horrifying. The mass battles are brawls that stretch from sea to land to air, adding even more danger as Namor takes on the entire Wakandan air force himself more than once and makes a fight of it.

The climactic confrontation might be the best fight scene in the entire MCU. It’s dirty, angry and brutal, the exact kind of personal, emotional fight scene that’s weirdly missing from this franchise, wild and super-powered, but still just a bare-knuckle boxing match between two furious humans.

There’s so much action that the PG-13 “no blood” rule of thumb starts to become a real problem. It’s genuinely unnerving to see dozens of people get impaled or cut in half by giant spears and all look fine afterward. This is a movie whose primary anxiety is the costs of war, but it shows a war that looks like it has no cost.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the final entry in Phase IV of the MCU, and that’s a strange thing to read. Much like Phase II, IV has been a disjointed collection of obligatory sequels and new introductions grasping at straws. The idea of a narrative throughline from Black Widow to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a joke. After Avengers: Endgame, it’s been difficult to care about any of these movies and shows – and they all go out of their way to mention Thanos’ attack like a Hitchcock movie mentioning World War II, but like it or not, that story is over. They’ll introduce the next overarching villain soon, so hopefully that problem will go away.

You can’t buy a ticket to a whole series, only a single movie, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a fine single ticket to purchase. It’s a direct improvement on the original, with levels of action and music that raise it to another level of spectacle entirely. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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