Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Far from yielding the disappointing box office some have suggested – it currently tallies at about half a billion less than the original movie – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s performance really ought to be regarded as quite impressive. Quite impressive that a movie as poor as this should nevertheless muster almost $800m worldwide. Whatever the faults of the year’s preceding MCU releases – and both Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder abound with issues – they were not, by and large, exercises in tedium. The shoddy pacing, pitiful plotting, incompetent action sequences and bland characterisations must be laid at Ryan Coogler’s door, as both director and (co-)writer. And while it’s also clear that he’s been prevailed upon to hit all the requisite 2022-Disney woke-content targets, he could have done a Scott Derrickson and bailed. So one must conclude he was either good with it or his agent and bank manager were.
I gave Coogler the benefit of the doubt with the first Black Panther. While I didn’t think much of the movie, it was clear he hadn’t been provided the same resources as most of his MCU stablemates (hence the appalling CGI in the finale). This sequel, though, displays such ineptitude that even the second unit and effects teams – previz is usually the saving grace of even the most average MCU director – can’t right the Wakandan ship. Most visibly, BP2 is adrift without a lead, Feige and co opting to mirror the departed Chadwick Boseman in the fate of his character, rather than recast. That this fits the MCU’s reconfigured wokester universe like a glove makes the decision dubious in itself, but the failure to fill the void he left in anything resembling a coherent manner is most glaring. Wakanda Forever is, effectively, a headless movie, sprawling about without a personality to centre it or propel it forwards, and when it finally selects an incumbent to take up the mask, she’s the least convincing of possible applicants.
That the woman who takes over as Black Panther should resemble a teenage boy is doubtless an enormous boon to Disney’s great adventure in gender blurring, much less so that the Wakanda Forever production has been haunted by Lelitia Wright sharing an anti-vax, anti-trans video. Naturally, she was hauled across the coals for it. And inevitably, she was going to back down – because she’s Marvel’s new lead, and her management told her it would not stand, screw her Christian faith – and, it goes without saying, she’s upset because people just will not let it lie.
The decision to make little sister Shuri the hero(ine) is kind of fatal, as she was just about the only character in the first movie with much of a spark or trace of sense of humour (Boseman had fared much better as support in Civil War, ironically, while Michael B Jordan proved accomplished at angry flexing, but not much else). That’s vanished now, as she’s the sincere one called upon to lead her people, cue numerous blandly earnest conversations to that end. When it comes to acting the superhero, almost anyone else here – Lupita Nyongo’o’s Nakia, Danai Gurira’s Okoye – evidences a more formidable showing. Wakanda Forever seems actively designed to test the audience’s patience, to see how devoted they are to the idea of Black Panther, regardless of what’s being sold under the banner (critics, obviously, have lapped it up, as any voiced dissension brings with it the danger of finger pointing, accusation and shaming).
To that end, not only is there no Panther until somewhere around the last half hour, but we also have future Ironheart – coming to Disney+ soon! – Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). She’s an “MIT student and genius” who has not only created her own suit of armour like Tony Stark’s (but better, right, because she’s not the toxic gender), but has also designed a vibranium detector. Which necessitates her involvement in the plot (maybe I drifted off – easy to do here – but it escaped me why Namor wanted Riri, given the cat is out of the bag and the government has a detecting machine/tech). Obviously, it’s essential that Marvel replaces all its male heroes with female ones, but does it have to be so – unless it’s intentional, right? – hopelessly? Thorne has negligible personality, and Riri’s a bargain bin character. But she’s female and African American and that’s what counts? That seems to be the message.
Pile on such returning players as Angela Basset, cranked up to eleven with imperious, overwrought rage as Ramonda – but not for long, as she will be doing a Thor dad/mum, to less than affecting effect – and Martin Freeman as the sympathetic CIA guy (except he’s played by Freeman, so he’s anything but. Freeman is awful throughout, looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, and probably deserves the cheese-froth lines thrown his way like “A coloniser in chains. Now I have seen everything”). Winston Duke’s agreeably knuckled-brained as M’Baku, though, so there’s that.
As for the antagonist/ villain/ antihero/ future ally of the piece, I was most struck by how endearingly retro Tenoch Huerta Mejia’s physique is. Not for him absurdly steroidal workouts. Namor reminds one of the days of yore, when action heroes had to breathe in or wear a girdle in order to look mildly buff. Troy McClure would be proud.
Talokan is a rebranding of Atlantis, most probably because Namor/ SubMariner is essentially Marvel’s Aquaman. In the comics, Namor came first, by two years, suggesting someone at More Fun Comics was paying close, very close, attention to the competition. Eighty years on, such blatant similarities between competing comic-book heroes weren’t going to fly so well, presumably, and since Aquabro had made it to the big screen first, the MCU appears to have taken the path of least resistance.
In the comics, Atlantis is located under the Antarctic ice pack and then the Pacific Northwest. Here, the Talokanians are very much descendants of Mayan culture, their aqua abilities deriving from being dosed with a blue plant circa 1571 so as to escape the attention of nasty white invaders carrying small pox (you know, that’s small pox: as defined by Pasteurian germ theory and subsequently underlined by Rockefeller Medicine Inc).
So Namor comes with some silly (I mean, comics-accurate) pointy ears and winged ankles, as a prime specimen of Homo mermanus, and while he’s remarkably effective at taking out Wakanda flying vessels, he’s as determinedly unimpressive as a character as pretty much everyone else here. Indeed, everything about Coogler’s undersea world, aside perhaps from the distinctive surface breathing apparatus of Namor’s full-fish fellows (they wear masks) is markedly inferior to James Wan’s exuberant work on Aquaman, not least the simulated undersea environment.
The shame of it is, there are some decent themes in the mix, if only they weren’t either raised then ignored or dealt with in ham-fisted bun-vending fashion. Advanced, cloaked or hidden civilisations shunning the degenerate (Elite-controlled) known world makes Atlantis Talokan a natural companion to Wakanda. Evidently, neither of these peoples are portrayed as especially spiritually enlightened, although they at least have the tech and savvy to know not to let it fall into degenerate rest-of-the-world humans’ hands.
An early scene finds the Queen acting – yes – imperiously when the UN takes her to task, deeply disappointed with Wakanda’s failure to share their science – ie vibranium – with them. Kudos for depicting the UN as the bastards they are, such that they have the temerity to accuse Wakanda of threatening global security and non-proliferation while their member states attempt to secure vibranium through foul means (a sequence that finds an MKUltra’d crew marching off the ship in a manner very similar to Netflix’s 1899). Ramonda, quite rightly, demurs from acceding to the UN trade requests because of their dangerous potential.
She’s on shakier ground when it comes to validating Wakandan legends, based as they are upon NASA-approved science. Lore says a meteorite collision provided Wakanda with its vibranium, but Talokan’s separate source leads Suri to suggest “Perhaps there was more than one meteorite”. As Ramonda says, “This changes everything”, not least because their advanced people, mixing up science and spirituality the way they are (admittedly, the latter is pretty much only evidenced when it comes to ascending to ancestral planes), are willing to fall in line with the rest of the world’s official story (rather like Namor buying into small pox, in that respect).
Wakanda Forever may be desperately weak in terms of maintaining a coherent plot, but its biggest stumbling block is Coogler’s lethargic direction. You’ll believe a fish man can fly. Well no, not so much. The vision quest is, once again, scrupulously unimaginative – Michael B Jordan striking a sullen pose – the grand, ocean-set action finale is all-at-sea, and the various funerals, rites and rituals are stagey, static and stodgy in their self-importance. Previously, I’d pegged Shang-Chi and Black Widow as the pits of the MCU, but Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has them pipped.