Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Catherine Stone praises Coogler’s continuation of the Black Panther story whilst acknowledging its struggles to live up to its predecessor
How do you follow up after the ground-breaking hit that was Black Panther without its central hero? Wakanda Forever raises the bar, pulling the franchise into high fantasy while remaining grounded in solid character work.
The trailer for this film left me more excited than I have been for any Marvel film in a long, long time. The searingly powerful music choice of ‘No Woman No Cry’ rising to a crescendo of Queen Ramonda’s scream gave a glimpse of the emotional heights this film would climb to and the centrality of the female voice. The rawest portrayal of grief in any Marvel film aptly mirrors the cast’s mourning of Chadwick Boseman’s death. The film draws on and strengthens the cast of incredible Wakandan women of the Royal inner circle: Shuri, Nakia, Ramonda and Okoye, as well as the new character Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a genius American college student thrust into a power play between fantastically super-powered nations.
Chadwick Boseman brought a dignified humility to the role of King of Wakanda, and superhero Black Panther was a breath of fresh air from the roster of Marvel superheroes – his presence on screen was quietly powerful. In contrast, Shuri, roundly established as a maverick, brilliant and sharp, struggles to live up to her brother’s legacy. Instead, she becomes her version of Queen and Black Panther, wrestling with her all-consuming rage to find the solid spiritual faith that would link her to the ancestral plain after losing her family. She finds a foil in Riri, protecting her in a sister role and finding balance for her hardened cynicism in the younger girl’s bouncy wit and self-assurance.
The film draws on and strengthens the cast of incredible Wakandan women of the Royal inner circle
The franchise builds on a tradition of Afrofuturism, coined in Mark Dery’s 1996 essay ‘Black to the Future’ and drawing on the science fiction of the 1970s, such as the work of Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler. This work confronts the erasure of African and black history through the creative work of science fiction, seizing the potential of endless imagined futures. The Black Panther comics expanded Afrofuturism within Marvel under the writers Nehisi Coates and Nnedi Okorafor, which the film franchise brought to life sonically and visually.
The first film’s powerful score and costume design were pleasingly consistent in the sequel, with the fresh sounds and visuals feeling new and exciting while also remaining distinctly Marvel. The movies combine traditional African culture and mythology with a highly futuristic technological culture that works seamlessly and vibrantly – Wakanda feels real. Perfectly realised details, from Queen Ramonda’s 3D printed Zulu headdress to the sweeping cinematographic vistas of the vibranium-powered Wakandan capital city, from Shuri’s high-tech lab clothes to the traditional white funeral garb, complete the immersion. This is enhanced by the African and Mayan music incorporated in Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack, including performances by musicians such as Baaba Maal, recordings of talking drums, tambins and seashells, a Xhosa language choir and Mayan rappers.
In contrast to the gritty reality of the first film’s antagonists of arms dealers and neocolonial forces, which Wakanda Forever touches on in the opening sequence of an attempted French heist of vibranium exposed on the stage of the UN, the film loses some of its power by shifting the opposition to a fantasy race of underwater people descended from the Mayan civilisation, incorporating Mesoamerican culture. Therefore, the classic action film elements that made Black Panther a blockbuster hit – the party infiltration and breath-taking car chase where Shuri drives through Seoul remotely from her Wakandan lab – were not quite reached in the sequel’s American portion. However, Riri’s garage of vehicles, gadgets and a flying suit nicely ties the film back to the earliest roots of Marvel with echoes of Iron Man, even reflected in Riri’s comics moniker, Ironheart.
Incorporating indigenous Mesoamerican culture was a fascinating and natural extension of the Black Panther lore
Erik Killmongers’ motivations for navigating the Black American experience of disconnection from African heritage and rage against the deeply unjust world order were profoundly layered and exciting. Unfortunately, the antagonist of Wakanda Forever, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), feels much less real than the characters we’ve grown to care for and his motivations of protecting his undersea kingdom Talokan feel unfounded in the narrative. His warriors of Talokan made no lasting impression, reminding me strongly of the Na’vi from the Avatar franchise, with a heavy reliance on CGI. While in the final battle watching Shuri wrestle with and overcome her rage felt satisfying; her character arc made Namor’s character a poor reflection.
However, incorporating indigenous Mesoamerican culture was a fascinating and natural extension of the Black Panther lore and the message of colonialism’s insidious damage. In an engaging moment of narrative cohesion, the two cultures were linked together by Nakia, who has been teaching in Haiti since leaving Wakanda and embarks on a mission to rescue Shuri on orders from the Queen, reconnecting with her spy role and allowing her actress Lupita Nyong’o to embrace her diverse heritage, exercising her fluent Spanish from growing up in Mexico.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever stands head and shoulders above other Marvel projects of Phase 5; for example, compared to the pieced-together confusion of Thor: Love and Thunder. It introduced new characters with potential while maintaining a coherent and emotionally powerful story.