Some thoughts on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

I liked Black Panther a lot back when it came out. I think that as a film it’s flawed in ways that are inextricably linked with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and everything it imposes on a production, in particular in the obligatory but oddly shoddy CGI fest that is the final battle – and while I am not necessarily a big believer in the Academy Awards as a measuring stick for cinematic quality, I never bought into the argument that Black Panther should have won the Oscar for Best Picture (though, looking at the actual winner that year, I can definitely agree that Black Panther should’ve trounced that one). But I do think that Black Panther was and is important, that it still is one of the most thematically ambitious of the MCU films.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever tries its hardest to be a worthy successor to the first film – but the longer I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that it buckles under the weight of all the various expectations it has to struggle with.

The first of these is perhaps the one that is the most unfair: how do you deal with the death of Chadwick Boseman, the man who played T’Challa, the Black Panther of the first film? There are so many solutions to this that would be considered wrong by a number of people. Recast him and have another actor play the character? There is precedent in the MCU, but not for such a central part. (Terrence Howard’s Rhodey was barely a character before he was replaced by Don Cheadle.) Resurrect Boseman via CGI? The jury is hung on whether, artistically or ethically, it was worth doing this for Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Rogue One. The solution that the Wakanda Forever director and writers finally decided on is perhaps the only feasible one – and anyone who hasn’t seen the film and who wishes to avoid all spoilers, stop reading now. The film parallels Boseman’s death with the death of T’Challa, off-camera. Certainly, this leaves a hole at the centre of the sequel, but Wakanda Forever takes on that absence and does something with it. Coogler’s film is respectful of Boseman, of his memory and of what Boseman as T’Challa meant to audiences. The other characters in the film grapple with the loss as well, and all of this manages to feel honest and ring true. Wakanda Forever gives Boseman’s death the weight it deserves. I’ve read different takes on the various choices made to that effect, and not everyone is 100% happy with what we got in this respect, but I don’t think anyone can argue that they didn’t try and that they didn’t do so in a way that is respectful to the actor as well as the character and what he signifies.

But it’s not as easy as that, is it? They obviously had concrete ideas of where to take the Black Panther corner of the MCU next, but while they tried to integrate this with the fact that they had lost their Black Panther, the result is… not great. It’s not horrible, and the story of how T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the various other people in their lives deal with the loss has the space it needs next to the main plot, which like the first film makes use of the history of colonialism and the anticolonial struggle, primarily through the new character Namor (Tenoch Huerta). But it’s not enough for the two stories to coexist: they barely ever interact in any meaningful way, and as a result Wakanda Forever feels too much like a film made from two scripts duct-taped together. There would be ways of integrating one story with the other, with more, and more interesting, connections made between Shuri and Namor and between Wakanda and Namor’s underwater kingdom Talokan; such connections are there, but they’re thin, they’re underdeveloped at best and perfunctory at worst. It’s a shame, because there’s potential in how Shuri’s story and Wakanda’s struggle could’ve resonated with one another, and because Huerta does a great job of bringing to life a character that in lesser hands would’ve been a pale imitation of the first film’s antagonist, Killmonger (a fantastic Michael B. Jordan that would’ve stolen the first movie, if its central cast hadn’t been very strong to begin with). The film we got can be accused of repeating Black Panther‘s story too much, but Huertas succeeds at making Namor feel different and distinct.

So we’ve already got a film that has to deal with an immensely difficult, delicate real-life situation to begin with, which it does to a respectable degree. We have a script that should probably have been rewritten much more fundamentally than it has to address the death of Boseman, but the rewrite is adequate at best. This is already a somewhat creaky movie – but let’s add to that the requirements that the MCU puts on its films. We need to introduce new characters, in this case Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), and reintroduce characters from earlier films, such as Martin Freeman’s CIA operative Everett Ross and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ shady Valentina de Fontaine. Why? Because these characters will become important in later instalments of the MCU, whether that’s an upcoming film or a Disney+ series. Hey, this is the MCU, so this is not a new problem – but I find that either the earlier phases of the MCU did this better or I’ve just seen too much of this. Was Spider-Man’s introduction way back in Captain America: Civil War more essential to that film? Probably not, but at the time it didn’t bother me. That movie itself did a good job of selling me on the odd plot point that Tony Stark would recruit a teenager to fight a bunch of superheroes. This is more or less what Riri Williams does, but Wakanda Forever doesn’t succeed at making this feel like more than setup for a future storyline. You could take her out of the film, and the script would need less doctoring to patch up the cut than was already necessary due to Boseman’s death. Freeman and Louis-Dreyfus too have little reason to be in the film, other than to point back at Black Panther and forward at whatever comes next.

Obviously it’s easy for me to say so, but I think that Wakanda Forever could have been a much better film in and of itself if it had dropped much of the obligatory (and perfunctory) franchise service – or if it had made something of it. You’ve got the CIA in this film? Integrate them into the plot! After all, you’ve already got two nations resisting the pressure put on them by Western powers; surely it wouldn’t take too much work to make the CIA more complicit in this conflict! Or, if you can’t or don’t want to commit to that particular set of antagonists, cut them from the film. Don’t just make a whole set of characters superfluous to the plot that you have decided on! The same is true for Riri: her function in the plot we have is minimal and you could take her out without much of a trace. If Marvel wants her to be essential to the story they’re telling, they need to put more work into it. There is a kernel of an idea here, about the people the characters have lost, but it’s barely more than the hint of a glint in the writers’ eyes.

Having been disappointed to some extent with most of the current phase of the MCU and finding myself somewhat disengaged by now compared to how much I was looking forward to the new films when Endgame came around, I can’t help but wonder: is it me or is it them? Has the MCU always been as focused on franchise building to the detriment of the individual stories they were telling? Some critics have been arguing exactly this for years, but I’ve not felt it until after Endgame, which brought the overarching story to date to a bombastic and (mostly) satisfying end. Is there only so much MCU that I want, and I’m past that point? The franchise can still engage me, as Spider-Man: No Way Home did. But coming out of Wakanda Forever, I was vaguely disappointed, and that disappointment has grown since. More than that, I am sad because Coogler and his cast have done a good job dealing with the loss of Chadwick Boseman. They deserve respect for doing so tastefully and in keeping with the characters, world and themes of the earlier film. If only the same care had gone into the rest of the film. There could have been a version of Wakanda Forever that serves the franchise, but that doesn’t let this commitment to the MCU overpower the needs of the story and characters. At present, whatever phase we’re in, I don’t think that this balance is as it should be anymore. Too much, and more so than the film can quite handle, the needs of the MCU outweigh the needs of Wakanda Forever, and it’s to the detriment of the film in the franchise that most ought to have been served better by it.

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