A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for Hollywood to produce a superhero film in which all the lead characters were black African women. Even less likely was that the United States would play the role of the villain – an irresponsible superpower that can’t be trusted to preserve world peace. Welcome to 2022, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
If all these revolutionary developments resulted in a cinematic masterpiece, I’d be quick to sing its praises, but this is another of those occasions when I feel like the only sober person at a bacchanal, or perhaps the only drunk at a solemn church service. For the bacchanal, vide the outpouring of over-the-top praise the film has received, both from the critics and from fans on social media. It’s beautiful, poignant, poetic, moving, heartbreaking, and anything else you can imagine.
As for the solemn bit, the death of Chadwick Boseman, who played the Black Panther in the inaugural film in the franchise, has cast an inevitable pall over this production. For many viewers, to criticise this movie would be tantamount to an act of disrespect for the fallen hero – but occasionally one must draw a line between life and art.
If Black Panther was arguably the most overrated film of 2018, by virtue of Boseman’s status as the first major African-American screen superhero, the sequel is doubly virtuous, as it’s almost an all-female affair. The bad news is that Wakanda Forever is just the standard Marvel blend of CGI action sequences interspersed with mawkish, scenes in which characters bare their innermost souls to each other. As usual, the action is a lot more diverting than the sentimental exchanges.
Nobody expects Shakespearean dialogue in these films, but the script and the plot should not be this crummy. The characters talk in the stilted way that allows us to recognise they are foreigners, occasionally breaking into Wakandan, which necessitates subtitles. These switches between English and Wakandan make very little sense. The plot is so illogical even the most diehard fans must wonder why the heroes and villains go out of their way to complicate matters for themselves.
The movie begins with an extended funeral and mourning sequence for the Boseman chafacter, T’challa, who has died of an unspecified illness and is now being dispatched in a big plastic coffin. The catalyst for the story that follows is once again the mysterious metal, vibranium, that allowed the Wakandans to develop a secret hi-tech civilisation in the midst of Africa. The idea that any such society could remain a secret was the first strain on our credulity. It’s less hard to believe that the Americans and perhaps, the French, would do anything to get their hands on this magical substance. The more conventional bad guys, the Russians and Chinese, are never mentioned.
The list of dirty deeds includes staging a commando raid on a Wakandan outpost and searching for hidden deposits of vibranium on the ocean floor. When the Americans attempt such an exploration, they are attacked by figures who dress like ancient warriors but utilise cutting edge technology. We’ll swiftly learn there’s a new team in the game – a blue-skinned acquatic group of Mayans, under the leadership of a god-king called Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who has little wings on his ankles that allow him to zip through the air like a large dragonfly.
Namor introduces himself to Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), when they are out in the countryside still working through their interminable grief. He tells them he too has access to vibranium, provides a graphic illustration of his power, and proposes an alliance against their earthly enemies. The Wakandans are, however, obliged to do one thing: find and eliminate the scientist who developed the Americans’ vibranium detector – otherwise there’ll be consequences.
Without further ado, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the amazonian general with a shaven head, grabs Princess Shuri and sets off to find the relevant scientist. In real life, this would be like grabbing Jill Biden to come along on a covert CIA op, but hey, this is the MCU.
The target turns out to be a black undergraduate and scentific prodigy named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). Shuri and Okoye convince Riri she should accompany them to Wakanda for her own protection but are then surrounded by American police, and soon by blue acqua warriors who want to finish the job in their own ultra-violent manner.
There’s a big battle scene, which results in Riri and Shuri heading off to the underwater kingdom of Talokan to parlay with Namor. Meanwhile, Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) the unlkely CIA agent from the first film is back, and once again seems to prefer the Wakandans to his American employers.
Are you still following? Rather than continue to explain this tangled skein of plots and subplots, suffice to say Namor gets pissed off with the Wakandans (I know exactly how he feels), and launches a deadly assault on their city. As the war escalates, only one figure can save Wakanda. You guessed it, the Black Panther! But since the original BP is dead, it’s up to super-scientist, Princess Shuri to get her own jump suit, and come up with the technology to revive that panther power. More mayhem and mawkishness follow. Big finish. Fade to black and await the third installment.
While all this was going on, I kept wondering why Namor – if he’s so flash – didn’t go and get the scientist himself, instead of asking the Wakandans, especially when he sent his warriors in anyway. Conversely, why didn’t the Wakandans point out that it makes little sense to eliminate the person who invented a machine when that machine has already been put into manufacture. Did Namor think the inventor kept the plans in her head?
Neither does it feel quite right that everybody in the MCU seems to be both a scientific genius and a martial arts expert. Surely science is not so easy that teenyboppers can invent super-weapons on a daily basis?
Finally, when we dig a little further into the err… deep structure of this film, the findings are not that edifying. At base it’s a colonial revenge tale in which the Africans who were plundered by the slave trade and the Mayans who were ravaged by the Spanish, have all the technology on their side and use it to wreak havoc on their former tormentors. Naturally they also use their traditional plastic spears, swords and clubs, but these weapons are now equipped with flashing lights, which apparently makes them extra deadly.
It’s also curious to find that Riri, the scientific prodigy, has been spending her time designing weapons, such as a flying battle suit. She hasn’t deviated too far from the way science is applied today by governments and arms manufacturers.
Even if we cheer on the former colonials (as well we Aussies might, being former colonials ourselves), should we not pause to consider the nature of a Wakandan state which is intensely hierarchical and ruled by a supeme monarch? The technology may be futuristic, but the political system is positively medieval, with trial by combat being the approved way of progressing up the ladder. Are we expected to see this as a desirable model of an advanced society? There are plenty of people in America today who would agree, but rather than a Black Panther as their leader, they might prefer something in orange.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Joe Robert Cole & Ryan Coogler
Starring: Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Dominique Thorne, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Martin Freeman, Mabel Cadena
USA, rated M, 161 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 November, 2022