Saturday, November 12, 2022


I don’t envy the cast and crew of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever's task in creating a sequel after its star unexpectedly passed away. Imagine being obligated to make a blockbuster feature film for the most popular ongoing franchise for the biggest studio, but it has to be about the sudden death of your friend and co-worker. That writer-director Ryan Coogler and his collaborators manage to make a movie that’s simultaneously enormous spectacle and gently grief-stricken is some kind of miracle. It has such incredible liftoff that it manages to avoid the downward drag of Marvel formula for more of its runtime than you’d expect. Wakanda Forever is a superhero movie. Technically. But it’s not really interested in building huge CG slugfests, and, indeed, is at its worst when it has to fill half of its climactic confrontation with hectic effects shots of big armies blandly hurtling at each other. What does work is its mournful qualities, which extend not only to its characters mourning the death of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, but to its exploration of the legacies left by tragedies—familial, royal, colonial. It opens with a funeral, and throughout finds tenderness in scenes with Queen Angela Bassett and Princess Letitia Wright. Starting with such somber celebration—a franchise sendoff that would be crass if it didn’t stay just on the right side of an honest salute—it keeps a fragility throughout.

This sequel finds the fictional African nation tossed into uncertainty as Western nations seek to exploit its resources. Meanwhile, Wakandans are also confronted with another secret nation—an underwater kingdom populated by mutant descendants of a lost Mayan tribe. And so the encroaching conflict is about indigenous survival in the face of genocidal oppression, and the ways in which the pressures of potential colonization turn tribes against each other. Coogler takes the time to build the antagonistic king of the underwater people, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), into a richer character than we usually see in the more formulaic of these pictures. With evocative backstory filled in quickly, in generously evocative historical flashbacks during a sensitive monologue, we see the pain of Namor’s past sits close to the surface. And the angling between Namor and the Wakandans takes on some complicated real-world edge as characters on all sides consider taking violent steps to protect their own, even at the cost of others. Pity that their conflict has to run through some scenes with Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus back in the States, especially since they tease a promising geopolitical wrinkle that’s summarily dropped. Besides, it’s underwater and in Africa that the movie is most alive.

We get a sense of history in the ways the characters speak to each other, in their gestures and intentions, and as the frames push out into small, suggestive, murky glimpses of a fantastical setting. Coogler keeps his camera close to the characters, but pulls back just enough to give a sampling of worlds populated by unique peoples and cultures their rulers want to protect. The plot globe-hops in a way that feels expansive, and the stakes feel genuinely large. Turns out when you build conflict rooted in character and expressed through their emotional deliberations and deep lineages, you can suggest world-changing suspense without shooting a blue laser into the sky or summoning swarms of aliens or robots to punch for an hour at a time. The result is a comic book plot—complete with side-quests and living MacGuffins—that’s often warmly characterized. Wright, in contrast to the eager comic relief she played last time, is sunken with grief, and sees opportunity for connection with new characters before growing tempted by sorrowful vengeance. Bassett is strong regal suffering—a speech culminating in “Have I not given EVERYTHING!?” is a powerful expression of emotional pains. Returning supporting characters (Lupita N’yongo, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira) have slightly less to do, and I wish there was more attention paid to their moral dilemmas, but their presence is a warm reminder of what the first film did so well: building a community of characters whose words and deeds have consequences, and who relate to each other in ways that have actual weight.

Coogler, unlike most directors working for Marvel, has ideas and knows how to communicate them. His work—a day-in-the-life of a man murdered by police, Fruitvale Station; a celebration of an old franchise by reframing its perspective, Creed; and the original Black Panther—has consistently considered questions of what one can build for oneself while alive, and what one leaves behind for others once gone. He’s suited to make a film about an absence, about characters struggling to live up to a good example that’s been taking from them too soon. But this is also a movie that complicates this easy sadness. It’s earnestly committed to questioning violence and lamenting cycles of retribution. It comes by this honestly, engaged with issues of vengeance and victimhood, expectation and exploitation. Namor is never entirely in the wrong; Wakandans are never entirely right. This makes for good drama, with our heroes wrestling with a sense of morality, weighing what’s satisfying in the moment against what might be better long term. In the movie’s most exciting moments, the spectacle—a fun car chase with an instantly-compelling new character, a concussive water-bombing of Wakanda—runs hand-in-hand with a thrilling sense of wondering how these peoples can find a way to deescalate.

By the end, though, the movie has lost some track of these ideas, burying them in so much zapping and stabbing and chaos that’s atypically, for Coogler, and typically, for Marvel, unreflected upon. I found myself puzzling back through the chain of events and lamenting the shortcuts and sanding-down that had to happen to force a more typically Marvel climactic collision. Here’s a movie that pretty persuasively makes its own case against the formulaic stuff that’s weighing it down. It’s difficult to care about armies colliding, let alone the teases for future conflict, when the movie itself has made it clear it is about, and builds towards more characters realizing, that war does not make one great. Coogler has made an open-hearted franchise picture that’s often genuinely funereal and always interested in rebuilding its heroes’ broken hearts by helping them find new purpose. For the first couple hours, it’s alive and engaged and animated by interesting ideas beneath the fast vehicles, big explosions, and sparingly deployed quips. And in its final moments, it returns to a soft, quiet, tender spirit. That’s the stuff that will linger long after the noisy, simple, limp action of the finale fades.

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