Ryan Coogler should never have agreed to return for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It is beneath his great talents, a waste of time, and a dishonor to Chadwick Boseman.
In the years since Avengers: Endgame played with the space-time continuum to undo the erasure of half the universe by taking away anything and everything that might have been interesting or compelling about a villain, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has wrapped itself and its movies in an endless blanket of market research and VFX money to the point where almost none of them can even be remembered. It is only in some of the television shows that we have seen the slightest signs of even basic creativity and interest in answering potentially story-intriguing questions about the things that might have happened in the five-year interim between the snap and its reset, or how both events actually affected people.
Surely, therefore, a film about a kingdom of unique riches and its political leadership, whose predecessor was largely a critique of isolationism as an allegory for deadbeat fatherhood, might address these issues?
I should know better by now. Disney has not evoked human depth of that nature in decades. Wakanda Forever continues the pattern of acting like the “blip” was just that – as though it was a gas leak season. I’m not asking for things to be grounded to a halt in their tracks for us to dwell upon the dark depths of despair and agony among people whose lives were entirely upended, like the pilot of Manifest. Okay, maybe I am asking for that, but only because this film blurs the distinction between T’challa’s disappearance and his death. The king and the savior of a great nation suddenly vanishes along with half the people. Five years later, he suddenly re-materializes with his army, and they win a glorious day. Then he dies and joins his ancestors. Did anything change during this time? In real history, the Bubonic Plague wiped out half of Europe, creating the Renaissance from the hordes of wealth the remaining half found and claimed for themselves. Wakanda had just opened itself up to the world. Did its trade policy change? Did anyone try to attack it? Did the people of Wakanda flourish and reach even greater heights? When T’challa returned, did he have any trouble adjusting to a new and changed kingdom or a world with new and changed politics?
Wakanda Forever wants to play politics like the first film did, but isn’t interested in any of the necessary or hard questions. The reason we like political stories is because they spring from our everyday needs and interests. The Black Panther dies off screen, leading to a silent opening credits sequence. Then a year passes as new geopolitical problems emerge, and we just see the first movie repeated. Just like before, a suspicious foreign entity is interested in Wakandan vibranium, leading to an international expedition that goes badly wrong, bringing an enemy home to threaten the peace. The enemy speaks of many endangered or repressed people who are in need of Wakanda as an ally in a war it wants to wage against the entire world, and leaves the sovereign ruler for dead when the offer is refused. Following that, the people rally in M’Baku’s Jabari cave and prepare for battle with the help of an American in the air, with a final battle that offers the slightest suggestion of reconciliation between the main characters before all is restored.
The only difference is this time the enemy is Namor the Sub-Mariner and his underwater kingdom of people of Aztec origins who escaped Spanish conquest by growing gills, in a cringeworthy effort to get back at James Cameron for the correct things he’s said about modern superhero movies. While I liked Wakanda Forever a good deal more than I liked The Woman King (in part because somehow this film feels like less of a childish fantasy than that one and also has a better sense of history), the movie fails spectacularly with all of this because of two central problems on top of everything previously discussed.
The first problem is the fact that the threat is never made clear or urgent even as things in Wakanda start exploding or getting flooded. Nor is it addressed later. Like so many other Disney creations, what begins as a battle between two sides just ends with them becoming friends and acting like what might have been an issue before wasn’t really an issue at all. That’s an even bigger problem here because in the comics, Namor is like if Atlantis and Switzerland had a very aggressive baby. It doesn’t work, and ironing out a relatable difference between the two that makes for interesting drama isn’t even attempted.
The second problem is exclusive to Shuri. Years ago, when Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, Film Crit Hulk suggested on Twitter that the film was the silent pin that will deflate the entire Marvel Universe. His point, he later explained, was that it was the first film in the canon to double down on a character’s worst inclinations, thus negating any lesson he might have learned in the first place. It was a point I thought to be overstated at the time, but it’s been happening over and over again in Marvel movies since. Stark, Spider-Man, Thor, Thanos, Eternals, Doctor Strange, and others all do a version of this, and now it’s Shuri’s term. She ends the film as she begins – tinkering in her lab in an only slightly more social manner than Stark did in Iron Man Three. Everyone tells her to get out more, and when she finally does, she mostly just gets to only further escape the guilt she feels about failing to save her brother. Then, lo and behold, the answer was all right back there in her lab, so she creates a new Black Partner power herb and then a suit for herself and regresses further while the movie tries to pretend that this is actually all progress because she’s agreeing to disagree with prior villains and new adversaries. That’s all these films are now – agreeing to disagree. No one gets closure or solace; no one gets Tony Stark’s Christmas redemption or Yondu’s funeral of fireworks. It’s all just a flip to the next page for more colors and effects that have no depth or intrigue.
I suppose that’s what comic books are and always have been; funny papers with world building. But after nearly a decade into cinema being overwhelmed with the Mouse’s forced happiness, especially with how hard the earliest films worked to earn their moments rather than just quip or fart their way through a screenplay, you’d think someone would actually look at their own material and wonder if maybe there ought to be something that gives these films a greater credibility.
Credibility was what Chadwick Boseman had. If Wakanda Forever had any one job, it would have been to honor him and justify its own existence after him. It did neither.