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From Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Observed Online Reviews

‘Wakanda Forever’ Gets Lost in the Marvel Machine

Pitting two Indigenous nations against each other, the convoluted 'Black Panther' sequel lands as politically confused at best.

By Rōgan Graham

From Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Director Ryan Coogler opens Wakanda Forever in the lab of Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), with a handheld camera trained on her face as she tries to save the life of her brother, King T’Challa. This, we know, is not a possibility. 

In this prologue, we bear witness to Wakanda’s royal family laying their King to rest in a traditional ceremony, with everyone adorned in bright whites. Wakandans come out in droves to pay their respects and an aerial shot of the funeral procession captures a mural of King T’Challa, once played by the late Chadwick Boseman. With his passing, Coogler and his team faced an insurmountable challenge going into this sequel, shouldering the sudden loss of a friend and an international icon. The Marvel logo itself becomes a dedication to Boseman, its usual comic book flick-through of Marvel characters a silent montage of some of the actor’s most notable scenes as the Black Panther. The audience at my London screening erupted in somber applause.

Unfortunately, this is where the highly anticipated sequel peaks.

We pick up in Wakanda one year on, where the absence of the Black Panther has made the fictional nation vulnerable to the West’s colonial inclination to plunder. The best directed action scene of the near 3-hour long feature happens here, when the Dora Milaje (Wakanda’s all-female special forces) scupper the plans of French infiltrators to rob a Wakandan lab for Vibranium, a supercharged mineral believed to be found only in the small nation. Angela Bassett reprises her role as Queen Ramonda, regal as ever as she commands the halls of a United Nations conference, condemning the attempted thievery and demonstrating the matriarchal strength now ruling Wakanda.

From Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

But of course, the world is a big place and even bigger still is Marvel’s Universe, and as the US military scours the oceans in search of Vibranium, they are attacked by who they assume to be Wakandans—now enter this movie’s anti-hero. Tenoch Huerta shines as the 700-year-old demigod Namor, ruler of the hidden underwater nation of Talokan, which also runs on Vibranium. While Wakanda, at least in the first film, was bursting with Afrofuturist stylings inspired by traditions from across the African continent, Talokan is reminiscent of Indigenous mesoamerican culture and architecture, though hurriedly displayed amidst some muddy VFX.

Namor emerges from the water with a proposition for Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri: deliver the scientist who built the Vibranium detector, or face his nation’s wrath. That scientist is teenager Riri Williams, played by Dominique Thorne, who will soon have her own Disney+ spinoff, Ironheart. Riri’s role in this film mainly provides levity and an unconvincing sword for Wakanda to fall on, the character ultimately shoehorned into an already convoluted story. And so begins a politically confusing “A” plot that pits two Indigenous nations against each other and never names the imperial West as the common enemy—thus curbing and commodifying any radical thought that might otherwise apply to this arm of the franchise.

At best, the politics of Wakanda Forever are confused by its underlying explorations of grief: Namor feels grief for the treatment of his people, who were infected with smallpox and then escaped underwater to flee colonial forces, only to bear the brunt of rising pollution. Shuri feels grief for her brother, and the battle they face is against an all-consuming bitterness and hunger for vengeance. But the Marvel machine cannot allow for such complexity to be explored thoughtfully. Instead the Talokan people, with their Avatar-esque appearance, are one dimensional, devious, and sub-human, as the Disney need for a clear enemy wins out over adult storytelling.

From Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Marvel is no stranger to tragic VFX and cinematography, which often go hand in hand with its flat and rushed storytelling. The company’s tendency towards uninspired, unintelligible visuals and forgettable action sequences often leave each “product” looking dated upon release—an insult to audiences when you consider Marvel’s mega profits and international screen domination.

Yet in the case of the first Black Panther film, there was a distinct vision, and the attention shown to telling the story was visible on screen.

Watching the two installments side by side would only inspire more appreciation for the first. There is perhaps a feeling of the novelty having worn off—the awe-inducing Wakanda we loved has been masticated by the machine. 

But with the beauty and ingeniousness of the first film stripped away, it’s easier to parse the raw talents that do exist on screen. The only masterful visual elements of Wakanda Forever are delivered, of course, by the legendary Ruth E. Carter, who won an Oscar for her costume work on the first Black Panther. Once again, Carter’s work with the Wakandan characters dominates the screen, adding detail and beauty to a film that, for the majority of its runtime, is largely starved of visual artistry. Likewise, Bassett, Wright, and Danai Gurira (as Dora Milaje leader, Okoye) each bring a level of craftsmanship and depth to their characters, so foreign to a Marvel entity that they could lead you to misjudge the quality of the film you’re watching. Yet Wright’s character suffers particularly here; while the accomplished actor shoulders the weight of Shuri’s unbearable grief and bitterness, she’s bogged down by the MCU’s relentless pursuit of “universe building,” as hard won emotional moments are undercut by corny one-liners.

Cinematically, Marvel films are the equivalent of fast food or fast fashion—a short-term con that offers no nourishment or durability. We consumers tacitly accept the long term, irreparable damage they are doing to our cinemas and our capabilities as thinking audiences. Coogler’s work thus far has promised something different—think 2013’s Fruitvale Station—and indeed, he can still deliver something different, outside of Marvel’s framework. The chips were stacked against Wakanda Forever, but its failings were not due to the loss of its star or even its narrative gaffes, but to the entity to which it belongs.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now in theaters.