Cinema Screenings — Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

The first time I went to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I was unable to articulate what I found unsettling about the film despite so many things that I liked about it. I also lacked the urge to see it again for further investigation, unlike the first film which I saw in the theater at least four times (while resting my eyes more than once). Only because a friend requested a spontaneous invite to see Wakanda Forever did I watch it a second time. I am glad that I did, because my sober second viewing provided me with some clairvoyance. 

The original Black Panther arrived during the zeitgeist of the MCU. Kevin Feige announced that T’Challa would get his own film after his reveal in Captain America: Civil War, and fans realized that Wakanda would be the perfect fictional setting for the forces of Thanos to invade while in search of the Infinity Gems Stones. In commemoration of the MCU’s first movie revolving centering around a black character (sorry, Blade), the black community, from schools to churches to the Divine Nine, bussed throngs of our people into theaters, propelling its excellence to over $1.3B in profit, making it a then top-three grossing MCU movie. 

After Chadwick Boseman’s tragic death, Feige declared that Marvel would not recast a replacement for T’Challa. Thus, an impossible task encumbered Ryan Coogler; he would have to direct the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, without a Black Panther. As a direct result of Boseman’s passing and no replacement for T’Challa, Wakanda Forever suffered at least five rewrites. To produce a sequel that would do the first film justice, Coogler and co. had their work cut out for them. 

Comic book canon would provide Coogler with a solution to “the Black Panther problem.” After all, many fans expected that Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) would naturally don the mantle of the Black Panther as she does during Reginald Hudlin’s comic book run. Rumors of Namor, the Sub-Mariner, making an appearance in the film amplified the probability that the Atlantean/Wakandan war would be the principal subject in Wakanda Forever, where Princess Shuri represents Wakanda as the Black Panther during T’Challa’s absence.

Predictability is fundamental to the problems with Wakanda Forever. While those unfamiliar with the comics speculated if Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), or M’Baku (Winston Duke) might wear the mantle, in reality, it was not a matter of if for Shuri, but at what point in the film would it happen. This inevitability feels different from the conventional buildup toward the full power/costume reveal trope in the superhero genre, where viewers are ready to explode from their seats with anticipation and cheers (a kind of theater etiquette breach that only became popular during the advent of the MCU). And I do not think this difference is because of the somber tone during which Shuri breaks the code for a synthetic heart-shaped herb; I believe this lack of anticipation and celebration is due to the “lead actress.”

In 2020, Wright posted a clip of a video on her Twitter account from a pastor whose message was anti-vax; further investigation from fans would reveal that the pastor also shared anti-LGBT rhetoric and denied climate change. When pressed, Wright posted the following:

“My intention was not to hurt anyone, my ONLY intention of posting the video was it raised my concerns with what the vaccine contains and what we are putting in our bodies.

Nothing else.”

— Letitia Wright (@letitiawright) December 4, 2020

Users continued to reason with her, imploring her to take down the insidious video because of how much damage it could cause. Wright responded to one such plea in this way:

“If you don’t conform to popular opinions. but ask questions and think for yourself….you get canceled 😂”

— Letitia Wright (@letitiawright) December 4, 2020

After Don Cheadle caught wind of her Twitter antics, he posted that he would “never defend anyone posting this.” Apparently, Wright’s publicist got ahold of her within the next 24 hours because she deleted her Twitter and Instagram accounts with prejudice. For the next two years, there is radio silence from Wright while Black Panther fans are left to worry that her character, Shuri, would become, would remain a role model should she wear the signature regalia (full disclosure: my family named our Frenchie after Princess Shuri before the Twitter controversy). When Wright makes public appearances again for the Wakanda Forever media tour, she says that she has apologized for the gaffe and that her endorsement of the problematic materials is not indicative of her as a person. When directly asked if she has been vaccinated, she says, “Next question, thanks.”

Mega yikes!!! This came from the actress who plays Wakanda’s chief scientist and the smartest person in the MCU. In contrast to how Marvel would not recast T’Challa because it is difficult to imagine someone as kindhearted and noble as Boseman, Wright betrays the character she plays on-screen. Would Princess Shuri dodge a question about being vaccinated, or share a video skeptical of climate change? Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) would never. Ever.

Despite these details, I remained vested in Wakanda Forever’s success. It opens with a gut-wrenching scene: in desperation, Shuri tries to synthesize an artificial version of the heart-shaped herb but in futility as T’Challa succumbs to an unknown illness off-screen. Thankfully, this film’s interpretation of Wakanda is as community-driven as its predecessor, for it belays my dread of Shuri becoming the focal point by reminding the audience that Okoye, Nakia, and now, Queen Ramonda are powerhouses in their own right.

While we celebrated Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther, her role was minimal. Wakanda Forever corrects this “error” by placing the grieving, widowed, and sonless character front and center. Bassett’s acting gravitas looms even in scenes where she is absent. Her throne room speech as she strips Okoye of her command is pure Oscar bait. 

Speaking of Ganai Gurira’s Michonne Okoye, I appreciated the film’s attempt at lightheartedness concerning her makeup when she tries to infiltrate MIT in pursuit of Riri Williams even if it is forced. Her finally meeting her match in combat when she faces Attuma allows space for her to evolve beyond an indomitable general. She is humbled, humiliated, and distressed when she appears before the Queen—completely shooketh. And it is this defeat and dismissal from the Dora Milaje that compels her to reconsider Shuri’s offer to equip her in the Midnight Angel high-tech armor suit.

I hope Feige forced Coogler to shoehorn the Midnight Angel suits into Wakanda Forever because they look like the latter ripped them straight from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ tenure as the Black Panther writer. For over a decade, the MCU had successfully tiptoed at the threshold for comic book cheesiness, favoring its own brand of camp. Well, let the Midnight Angel suits stand as a modern example of why Hollywood traditionally tweaks costume designs for the silver screen because they are ugly and clash with the film’s aesthetics.

Speaking of out of place, Dominique Thorne does not merely cameo as Riri Williams but is featured as a central character. Her screen time exceeds Tom Holland’s as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. But unlike Spider-Man, one of the top three most popular comic book characters besides Batman and Superman, Ironheart does not have that kind of pull. Nevertheless, with the introduction of Ms. Marvel, America Chavez, Kate Bishop, and Love (Thor: Love and Thunder), it is clear that Marvel wants to foster a youth movement within the MCU. With Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur getting a TV show and Tony Stark dead, I suppose that means introducing Ironheart falls to a movie about…Wakanda?

It must be because she is black.

Coogler contrives a justification to feature Riri Williams in Wakanda Forever with the other blacks. Now that the world is aware of Wakanda, the world is thirsty for vibranium. Because a professor said that building a device that could detect vibranium was impossible, Riri Williams accepted the challenge. The government confiscates her machine and places it in the middle of the ocean (Where? Who cares about those kinds of details in movies?), garnering the ire of Atlantis Talokan. Namor encroaches upon Wakanda and delivers the message to Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri that he will wage war with Wakanda if they do not abduct the machine’s inventor and bring them to him for execution. His goal is to keep Talokan and its vibranium hidden from the world. The Wakandan council debates this demand for some cinematographic sleight-of-hand to keep the audience distracted from contemplating why Wakanda would feel threatened enough by what appears to be a spy or messenger to be coerced into becoming hitmen. It is a silly, paper-thin plot device for this particular MacGuffin. 

Riri Williams gives teenager vibes similar to MCU’s Peter Parker…while looking at as old as Okoye. Disney had already greenlit an Ironheart television series before Wakanda Forever hit theaters, so I will just have to “deal with it” in terms of Dominique Throne. Nevertheless, I will maintain that she is a miscast not due to her acting skills, but because she does not look the part. Adult actors playing teens is common, such as Lara Harrier as Liz or Zendaya as MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming. However, Thorne has nasolabial folds of someone well her senior, and the cornrows do her no favors, either. She really needed less “inspired by a dad who worked in the shop” tomboy, and a more feminine “bubblegum” look with afro puffs or box braids or a poofy ponytail. Compare her to other adult women playing as teens within the MCU, such as  Lara Harrier (Liz, Spider-Man: Homecoming) or Zendaya (MJ), and the contrast is undeniable.

Riri Williams’ suits are cool, though the signature heart shape displayed on her armor—and that which she painstakingly carves out of metal while forging her MKII suit—is nonsensical. The heart insignia is the “bubblegum” aesthetic Thorne cannot muster on her own. Because no one actually says “Ironheart” in Wakanda Forever, the heart insignia exists in the film without explanation, betraying the actress’ teenage ruse. This omission of detail places an exclamation mark on how all Coogler could have excluded all Riri Williams scenes from Wakanda Forever, and it would remain fundamentally intact. In desperation to save her brother, Shuri could have drawn the ire of Talokan after inventing a vibranum detecting machine to ensure that no stone on the earth had been left unturned in search of fertile ground for heart-shaped herbs.

Shuri and Riri’s capture at the hands of the Talokanil pressures Queen Ramonda to bring Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) out of retirement, all but begging her to find and infiltrate wherever Talokan lies and return her daughter. Lupita (as she is called in Hollywood because nobody has bothered to learn how to pronounce “Nyong’o) and Bassett on the screen simultaneously are simply sublime—an Academy Award-winner and one who should have won. Lupita reminds audiences that she was born in Mexico, putting her Spanish to use while investigating traces of Namor and Talokan in South America. As a bonus, the SDV she uses reminds me of Solid Snake’s infiltration of Shadow Moses Island at the beginning of Metal Gear Solid. Great character, great actress.

Winston Duke returns as poor M’Baku. I say poor, because despite all of his “Jabari Might,” he ends up being a Worf Effect jobber twice: first, during Namor’s obstreperous invasion of Wakanda after Nakia rescues Shuri and Riri, and M’Baku tries to fight him; second, when he arm-wrestles Shuri to confirm the Black Panther’s return. Besides this, he shines best when he provides to Queen Ramonda, and then later to Shuri when she is all who remains of the royal family line. 

I reiterate that I loathe discussing the bathos of Letitia Wright as the Black Panther. Yes, it is remarkable that Shuri reverse-engineers a gift of jewelry from Namor from her visit to Talokan into a substance that allows her to create a synthetic heart-shaped herb. Wright’s Shuri actually shines when she toils in her laboratory, or dotes on Riri like a “big sister,” especially towards the end of the film. Even her despondency in the face of T’Challa’s death is fitting. But anger to the point of desiring retribution? Fierce enough to pursue violent means of revenge, fist-fighting platoons of sea people in retaliation? Nah, son, not from an actress who is 5’5, 112 pounds. 

Sure, I absolutely agree that few question men in superhero movies with all the muscles in places that defy the human anatomy fighting giants 100x their size, much less surviving a  punch in the face from Thanos. Therefore, when it’s women’s turn to perform the unimaginable, I agree that there is merit to the claims of sexism and double standards, with an additional hurdle of unrealistic, if not also unhealthy bodily expectations for both genders (as I was never a fan of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and so I use the linked .gif ironically). HOWEVER, examples of women with body types that meet my expectations for what is appropriate for a lead role in a superhero movie are readily featured in Wakanda Forever itself! One needs to look no further than literally any member of the Dora Milaje. Even Basset is rocking guns in her biceps and she is over sixty! Agility yes, but there is no way that I can believe that a woman of Wright’s stature can win a brawl with Namor, who has gone toe-to-toe with the Hulk

Oblivious to my internal cringing Wakanda Forever rewards me for my patience with a surprise. When Shuri loses consciousness during the Black Panther ritual consumption of the heart-shaped herb, she hopes to see her mother but instead, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger appears. It is a mind-blowing cameo that puts a smile on my face; for a moment I wonder if he might return as the Black Panther from the spiritual plane, repentant and of a renewed mind. The movie denies me the satisfaction, as this scene serves the purpose of convincing the audience that Shuri is capable of “taking care of business.” But Marvel fans know that Namor is not actually the villain. So he is not going to die. 

(shuri gets impaled, but as Tony Stark demonstrates in Infinity War, even people without powers can shrug off an impalement, so she was never actually in danger here)

All my ranting about Wright’s Shuri/Black Panther now finished (I promise), I can move on to something Wakanda Forever absolutely nails: the portrayal of Namor and Atlantis Talokan. I went into Wakanda Forever expecting a deeper dive into Wakanda as a place where people thrive, depicting snippets of day-to-day life there or the interactions between the five tribes. Instead, time only allows for more Wakandan council deliberations, and just a glimpse—a tease of Talokan. The splendor of the hidden city deserves further exploration in its own film. And it is gorgeous. In every way that Wakanda blesses the eyes with its Afrofuturistic splendor, Talokan mirrors as an undersea paradise. 

Just as Wakandans speak Xhosa, Talokanil speak Yukatan Maya. Like Wakandans ride with war rhinoceri, Talokanil swim with orca. While Wakandans fiercely protect the secrets of vibranium, Talokanil adorn themselves with it. Black Panther opens with a short history of how Wakanda eluded and resisted imperialism through technology; here, the origins of Talokan begin with how the evils of colonialism brought a village to its knees with disease, necessitating that its inhabitants ingest a strange plant in religious fervor and desperation to survive. The Mesoamericans not only survive, but they evolve, gaining the ability to breathe underwater but not for long on land. 

Coogler further drives the point home through the story of the child his people call “K’uk’ulkan,” or the serpent god. The firstborn after the dying village consumes a plant sprouting from a vibranium deposit, he is born “a mutant,” with pointy ears, winged ankles, super strength, and slow aging. The boy emerges from the sea to bury his mother on the land where she was born. He arrives and bears witness to colonizers beating people in chains. Mistaken for a slave without permission to be unshackled, the colonizers attempt to subdue him. He razes the entire plantation in retaliation and adopts a priest’s curse, “niño sin amor,” or “a child with no love” as “Namor” (a contextually questionable departure from the comics where his name means “Avenging Son” in Atlantean). 

I love this cultural origin story because the burning plantation house setpiece reminds me of similar scenes of radical resistance in Underground (2016), Birth of a Nation (2016), and Antebellum (2020). This imagery aligns the Talokanil in solidarity with what  Wakanda symbolizes to Black Americans. While depicting two different nations comprised of black and brown ethnicities, Cooger communicates to audiences that BIPOC share commonalities, including their actual foes. This revelation is my main takeaway for Wakanda Forever

Yet, for the purposes of “selling popcorn,” as my myopic ninth-grade English teacher described cinema, the battle between Wakanda and Talokan is compulsory; Nakia could have likely liberated Shuri and Riri without lethal force, but the script required a catalyst to galvanize Talokan’s invasion of Wakanda. Queen Ramonda dying in retribution for an unnamed Talokanil character underscores how the script rewrites missed some fine details. I would have also liked to know more about Attuna and Namora, but they get the same treatment as Thanos’ Black Order.

Coogler takes no shortcuts in his interpretation of Atlantis Talokan. Elsewhere, plenty of writers have showered him with praise better than I can—specifically regarding Latine representation. I already expressed my disappointment that I did not get to see much of Wakanda’s day-to-day; I wish Wakanda Forever showed more of Talokan, especially the “vibranium sun” that illuminates the deepest depths of the sea. I suppose I will have to wait the TV show since Marvel is using that format to expand its universe. 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had been touted—marketed—with an emphasis on its expressions of grief. While I can attest to the powerful effect of T’Challa’s funeral followed by the silent presentation of the MARVEL logo featuring images of Chadwick Boseman I still question the necessity of this movie. Of course, all of these MCU films are for entertainment purposes, rendering questions concerning “necessity” rhetorical and pedantic. Wakanda Forever exists because the first Black Panther was wildly successful, exceeding expectations; as a result, Disney dialed up a sequel while not anticipating the death of its lead actor. Yet in the grand scheme of things, I do not feel that Wakanda Forever accomplishes much that is meaningful or lasting, especially with the introduction of Toussiant during a post-credits scene that immediately robs Shuri of relevance during her brief tenure as the Black Panther. At least I experienced catharsis writing this, so I now feel comfortable saying that Wakanda Forever is a middling MCU experience.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: