Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
2022, PG-13, 161 min. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Dominique Thorne, Martin Freeman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 11, 2022
A little comics history. In 2000, Marvel Comics realized that its core continuity was so incredibly convoluted that it was hard to get new readers. Rather than alienate the faithful with a complete reboot, they launched the Ultimate line, a series of books in their own continuity with a simple underlying theory: What if the Marvel superheroes existed in the real world? It cleaned stories up, and allowed for contemporary takes on characters. By 2015, however, the Ultimate line had become so ungainly that Marvel killed it off, teleported a handful of characters into core Marvel continuity, and never spoke of it again.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe drew heavily from the Ultimate line, and now it faces a similar problem: It's become unwieldy and huge. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has the advantage that it's a bridging film back to the earlier movies and to the beloved Afrofuturist utopia of Wakanda, the hidden kingdom built on a rare resource, the exotic metal called vibranium (writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole appreciating that the colonial ravaging of Africa didn't stop with the end of slavery). Yet that bridge was also severed with the tragic death at age 43 of Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther himself. How to continue? Recast? Ignore?
Instead, for the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Coogler and Cole embrace their grief. King T'Challa is dead, dying offscreen as his sister, Shuri (Wright), fails to come up with a cure. A year later, there is no new Black Panther (why exactly Wakanda fails to select a new protector is unclear), and now Queen Ramonda (a captivating Bassett, regal yet crumbling) is besieged and bereft. The outside world wants vibranium, but also the assistance that Wakanda promised and has failed to deliver. The implication is that, post-T'Challa, the state is in peril.
That peril is personified in Huerta (a mainstay of Mexican cinema, probably best known to American genre audiences as gang boss El Chino in Tigers Are Not Afraid) as Namor, the Submariner. Well, sort of. The MCU has, often wisely, aggressively rewritten the origin stories for major characters, and Namor may well be the biggest yet. Rather than the half-human, half-Atlantean king of Atlantis, he's K'uk'ulkan, the god-emperor of Talokan, the underwater city founded by a lost tribe of Mayans fleeing the conquistadors. This maritime empire, like Wakanda, was born of a plant that sprouted from vibranium, and Namor isn't happy that Wakanda has revealed the existence of the handy-dandy metal to the outside world (although it's been established previously, via Captain America's shield, that vibranium has been known about since World War II, so that's quite a hefty plot hole). This becomes a mechanism by which to introduce Riri Williams (Thorne), one of those young supergeniuses of which the MCU seemingly has a surfeit, intended as a foil for Suri and the star of her own spinoff TV show. Honestly, the latter seems more important here.
There are many shared elements between the comic version of Namor and the MCU version (arrogance, a loathing of the surface world, a Speedo-clad thirst trap, those weird winged feet), but there are changes that may leave fans of the comic version disappointed. His vicious cunning is there, but Huerta's version has none of the haughty disdain and insight of the comic version. It's not better or worse, per se, but it's also a big break for an 83-year-old character, and sets up a war between Wakanda and Talokan.
This is really where that world building problem comes in. The first three phases of the MCU, the Infinity Gauntlet saga, had a clear destination: Thanos. Now the MCU seems so scattershot and divergent. There's Kang, and there are Celestials, and there's the multiverse, and there's the supernatural side. Such diversity flourished within the first wave, and the Wakanda/Talokan plot emerging seems designed to replace the geopolitical component of the Captain America films, movies that undeniably serve as a critique of America. Yet the films have now painted themselves into the politically strange corner of having two of the most empathetic nations being "strongman" monarchies fending off those pesky democracies. It's a weird twist when so much of what this film achieves is important: The mere existence of a blockbuster built around Black women and a fantastical Mesoamerican culture is astounding, even if it shouldn't be. The interpersonal storylines, the tackling of the connections between grief and rage and flight, are some of the deepest and most nuanced in the franchise's history, as is the underlying narrative of two powerful nations heading to a needless conflict in the fog of war. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is at its best when it looks at confusion rather than adding to it.