“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is like interrupting that unmistakably joyous and sorrowful feeling at a wake with a live infomercial. When the genuinely exciting talent of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and his players are allowed to process their grief through the film,”‘Wakanda Forever” is transcendent. And yet, as we’re reminded of the film’s entanglements and obligations to the boundless MCU, it’s also suffocating.
Coogler’s “Black Panther” captured the zeitgeist in the twilight of the first Marvel Era. A genuine afro-futurist cultural collage featuring black excellence in front of and behind the camera steered the dominant cinematic genre into unexplored territory.
It was helped immensely by an outstanding soundtrack and the fact that it explicitly wrestled with the difficulty of a Wakanda-like nation in the context of our contemporary existence – embodied in Michael B. Jordan’s terrific portrayal as Killmonger. The movie overcame the nearly incomprehensible messy third-act CG fight to resonate deeply.
We enter the next chapter of the fictional and figurative Wakanda era, and disillusionment abounds. While mourning the devastating loss of King T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman), his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) must defend the people of Wakanda from morally devoid rival nations attempting to acquire vibranium.
However, as these nations try to unearth other deposits of this invaluable resource from the oceans, they awaken a hidden and hostile oceanic force – the Namor (Tenoch Huerta) led Talocan.
The film’s strength is Huerta’s Namor, a character I hesitate to call a “villain”. Namor joins the ranks of Jordan’s Killmonger and Wes Studi’s Magua from “The Last of the Mohicans” before him – an antagonist whose threat is equally rivalled by the conflict that you register with the plight they’ve endured.
Namor realises that the discovery of vibranium in his underwater civilisation is a threat that could unify Wakanda and Talocan against the world. Huerta is striking; physically up for it (as is a requirement), gracefully toeing the line between benevolent and cruel.
One has to admire the “Black Panther” films for their commitment to expressing a welcome defiance against literal and cultural imperialism, re-mixing these modern myths to reflect the cultural traditions they co-opted.
Alan Moore once spoke about the business of comic book IP as being about characters stolen from their original creators. In this part of the MCU, this revisionist approach to comic canon and creator intentions feels less like theft than an act of reclamation from screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.
The funeral procession is a beautiful Coogler tableau of colour, culture and slow-motion flourishes. Unfortunately, the story’s foundation is built upon an explicit contrivance in order to examine the contradiction of two fictional, once-hidden technological powerhouses – both representing historically oppressed peoples.
The Wakandans and the Talocan are put on a collision course, and the incursions of greedy, competing nations, who continue to circle like vultures – embodied by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is more squandered than I ever thought possible – go on without reprisal.
The film’s first slice of the action is a band of mercenaries raiding a Wakandan outpost for vibranium and having their arses handed to them by the Dora Milaje. Early in the film, Danai Gurira’s formidable and striking Okoye is sent with Shuri (Wright) to the USA to collect the magnetic dynamo Dominique Thorne’s Riri Williams.
During their extraction, they’re ambushed by Talocan on a bridge, and the melee between the small Talocan war party and Okoye is frantic, and the displays of superhuman strength are explosive and bone-jarring. The more contained the action set pieces, the greater the thrills here.
Composer Ludwig Göransson’s continuation of the original iconic sound of Wakanda once again impresses, this time integrating a series of terrific needle drops, including highlights such as Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up”, Tems’ cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and Burna Boy’s “Alone”.
What remains in ‘Wakanda Forever’, it pains to share, is largely fluff. The closer Letitia Wright’s Shuri can refract her notably mixed feelings about being back in this world without her fraternal big brother, the better. Watching her fondle a series of digital balls, representing who cares what in the multiple montages, feels routine as a chore.
Angela Bassett delivers her quota of memorable exchanges, none of which compare with even a three-minute guest role in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”. The wide supporting cast, especially Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, are relegated to the function of hospitality.
When the MCU of it all enters proceedings, you can feel the life of ‘Wakanda Forever’ sucked out of the theatre. The film’s aspirations to render a wondrous underwater world filled with blue people (sound familiar) feels like it’s flailing for “Aquaman” at worst and “Avatar” at best and finds itself in third place.
It’s hard to say if “Wakanda Forever” supersedes the sum of its parts. If I begin thinking about the story particulars, my mind is fuzzy with the lip service to the Marvel cinematic war machine. Yet, in its pauses, the deep breaths, the contemplations before the requisite movie rollercoaster, it’s something.