Saturday March 04, 2023
Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Here’s a good way to make sure a movie won’t last: put “Forever” in its title.
Sure, some of them aren’t bad:
- “Diamonds are Forever” (1971), with Connery returning to the James Bond role
- “Dragons Forever” (1987), a reteaming of Jackie Chan, Samo Hong and Yuen Biao
But most don’t exactly last forever. They’re romance movies you’ve never heard of and franchises on their last sad legs:
- “Forever Young” (1992), with Mel Gibson and Jamie Lee Curtis
- “Waiting for Forever” (2010), with Rachel Bilson and Tom Sturridge
- “Batman Forever” (1995), the one with Val Kilmer
- “Shrek Forever After” (2010), the fourth and final feature
- “Jackass Forever" (2022)
Add this one to the pile.
A moment of silence
Yes, the decks were stacked against “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” It lost its young star, Chadwick Boseman, shockingly and tragically, to colon cancer in 2020, and his absence is felt throughout the film. After the cold open, in which his character, T’Challa, the Black Panther, succumbs offscreen to an undisclosed illness despite the heroic efforts of his braniac sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), we get a grace note: The Marvel logos all feature Boseman and there’s nothing on the soundtrack. A moment of silence. That’s nice.
And then, sadly, the movie begins.
I guess at the end of the last movie in 2018, T’Challa revealed that Wakanda was an all-powerful nation and the only source of vibranium in the world; and though in the interim we had, you know, the Blip, where Thanos extinguished half the lives in the known universe, western countries still fear a Black planet more than a big purple dude. At the U.N., both the U.S. and France bitch to Wakanda’s new ruler, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), about not getting any of the promised vibranium. Elsewhere, they (or just France?) try to steal it but are beaten back by Wakanda’s baldheaded female security force.
Ah, but using a “vibranium detector,” the U.S. finds some on the bottom of the ocean. Take that! Except, whoops, there’s also an undersea kingdom there, ruled by the 500-year old Prince Namor (Tenoch Huerta), whose superpowered people attack and kill the helpless Americans.
When I collected comics in the 1970s, Namor was also called the Sub-Mariner, and I remember him being angry, imperious, and forever kidnapping Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four. Here, he’s calm and seemingly reasonable—emphasis on seemingly. Bypassing Wakanda’s security, for example, he delivers an ultimatum to Ramonda and Shuri: Do what I say or I’ll destroy your kingdom.
And the thing he wants them to do? Find and kill the scientist who created the “vibranium detector” so both of their kingdoms will be safe again. Right. It should’ve led to a conversation like this:
Shuri: Um, you do know there’ll be notes, right? Spreadsheets? I’m sure the inventor had conversations with colleagues. How do you kill all that?
Ramonda: You can’t stop knowledge.
Shuri: Besides, doesn’t the U.S. military already know where your kingdom is? It’s the place where you attacked them.
Ramonda: You’ll be killing someone to prevent them from doing a job they’ve already done.
The scientist turns out to be a 19-year-old Black female university student named Riri (Dominique Thorne), and, hoping to head off Namor, Shuri and security chief Okoye (Danai Gurira) visit her to bring her back to Wakanda. Riri loves Wakanda, is amazed that they’re there, but still fights to not go. But then the FBI come, blah blah, and Namor’s warrior forces attack them on a bridge (it’s always a bridge), and Shuri and Riri are taken to Namor’s undersea kingdom, Talokan, where we finally get their backstory. Seems way back when, they were all part of the Mayan civilization, but Europeans came with their death and disease, and a cure-all for both was vibranium. Side effects? Their skin turned blue and they could only live underwater. Namor, born shortly afterwards, was different: superstrong, with wings on his feet, and able to live in both worlds.
Vibranium always seems to find historically downtrodden people but never in a way that helps the whole. Other Africans are still enslaved, the Mayan civilization is still destroyed. It’s just the chosen few that sail along. What an odd dynamic. It’s like writer-director Ryan Coogler and his screenplay partner Joe Robert Cole want to uplift people, but in doing so they just create some really weird continuity issues.
In the end, Namor, et al., attack Wakanda and Queen Ramonda is killed. Then Shuri, after spending the movie saying there would be no more Black Panthers, becomes the Black Panther, and they take the battle to the Talokans. They dry up Namor to weaken him, and after defeating him, and despite the murder of her mother, Shuri/BP shows him mercy. Which totally makes sense. She’s BP, he’s IP.
Oh right. Subplots. The love interest I’d already forgotten about from the first movie, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is hanging in Haiti these days. Why didn’t she make it back for T’Challa’s funeral? Because she and T’Challa had a child and I guess he didn’t want anyone to know. The boy’s name is Touissant, but his Wakandan name—revealed during the midcredits sequence with all the immensity of the “Rosebud” revelation—is …. wait for it … T’Challa!
OK. … And?
So much of the movie is this way. They want us to care about shit that … why? Who cares? The movie is overlong and bloated and we still get to know nobody. I’m beginning to wonder if Marvel thinks representation is enough—that you don’t have to make people of color interesting, that it’s enough that they’re people of color.
I guess I cared for Okoye—and didn’t like the way she was dismissed by Ramonda. I like M’Baku, all bluster and fun, but didn’t like that Namor took him out with one punch. Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows up as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, and you kind of wonder when they’re going to get around to her story—or if she’s just going to be like Viola Davis in the dipshit DC Universe: the evil bureaucrat behind the scenes who gets a few lines and nothing else. What a waste. We do find out that she’s the ex of Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), the anodyne CIA agent and FOW (Friend of Wakanda). Right. She would’ve eaten him alive.
Allow me a final rant.
Ross is the one who gives up the Riri intel to the Wakandans, and later, when Valentina calls him on it, this is his excuse:
The Wakandans saved my life! They’re a good people!
That’s a little me me for a CIA agent to be giving out state secrets, but sure, why not. Except they have him add this:
You ever thought for a second what they could be doing? Ever thought what we would be doing if the U.S. was the only country in the world with vibranium?
The implication is the U.S. would do awful, awful things. Because we’re an awful, awful people.
First, for centuries, Wakanda only cared about itself. They let the slave trade continue apace rather than give up their Edenic life.
More, the U.S. was the only country with vibranium … except it was called the atomic bomb. And what did we do with it? Sure, dropped it on two cities in Japan to end the war. And you can argue that Nagasaki was unnecessary and I wouldn’t disagree. But after that? What else did we do when only we had that power? Didn’t we work to resurrect the economies of our enemies, creating democracies that still thrive, while staving off Soviet aggression? I mean, I’m hardly the rah-rah America type, but I don’t think that’s nothing. Say what you want about Wakanda but it’s still a kingdom. They’ve had family rule for centuries. How is that good? How is that advanced?
Seriously, I’m surprised there wasn’t more pushback on that line.