The Culture is Calling
It feels like Black Panther films always drop in the midst of turmoil in this country. Or, this country is always in turmoil, and Black Panther films drop and highlight said turmoil. Mind you, the state of the world and a mega-budget movie sourced from comic books shouldn’t be this closely tied – but they are. The difficulty in reviewing Black Panther Wakanda Forever is that there isn’t just a film to talk about. Behind and all throughout the project are the hopes and dreams of people longing to see themselves in a future, any future. The current state of the world at large (and of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people) is why the Black Panther films, in particular, Wakanda Forever, are a cultural event. A fantasy set this close to reality transcends the medium and embodies the politics of the time.
Deeper still, the passing of Chadwick Boseman as the iconic and titular character echoes in many ways the many losses in the Black arts community. If you know about his approach to the craft, then you know what he meant to the culture. Symbolically, Chadwick and the role of Black Panther gave Black audiences a powerful vision of potential Black unity and excellence. Wakanda Forever mourns the loss of an avatar of artistic integrity who was intentionally aligned with their civic duty. It’s so much more than a movie. The core cast and crew were mourning during and through production and the film invites audiences to mourn with them. So, it feels strange to review this movie. But, in light of all that, we’re gonna sit here and review this movie.
Black Panther Wakanda Forever is a great movie. It has all the pieces needed to be great and only suffers from the unknown potential of what it was supposed to be. From costuming to cinematography to sound design and soundtrack, there were no technical flaws in this movie. That said, it still didn’t hit like the first one. However, the performances were incredibly airtight. Special shoutout to Lupita N’yongo who got to flex her whole full self as an actual Mexican citizen. She busted out the Spanish and the Mayan for this one. Although there were deep and resounding spaces left by Chadwick’s absence, the supporting cast really stepped up and delivered. The clever reimagining of Atlantis as Talokan is no small thing and the message of it speaks beyond the film and lands in the hands of Mayan and Mestizo youth who have their own “Wakanda Forever” in the phrase and gesture, “Lili’Ik Talokan” (Talokan Rises); which actors Tenoch Huerta, Alex Livinalli and Mabel Cadena brought to the production alongside their cultural advisors and language coach.
What It Is, What It Means
Yes, Wakanda Forever is a Marvel Studios movie sourced from comic books. Yes, there are set pieces and action sequences and green screens and blue screens – an entire spectacle. It’s part fantasy, part sci-fi, alongside being a connected piece of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe. But at its core, this movie is about indigenous futurism. Not to be confused with Afrofuturism, which imagines Black people in the future. Marvel uses Wakanda to imagine the trajectory of an Africa untouched by colonialism. Talokan, to that same effect, is not Wakanda. It’s an imagined nation that was forced into migration and hiding from the horrors of colonization and thriving in solitude. These are not romantic constructs; they are tragic ones. It’s tragic that we can only imagine indigenous futurism like this. Wakanda Forever uses that tragedy to great measure, bringing the actual indigeneity of Africa and the Yucatan together for the first time ever.
Now that we’ve gotten through the weeds of the intro, let’s get to the movie: SPOILERS ALL UP IN THIS FROM HERE ON!
Let’s Get Into It
Wakanda Forever picks up right where we need it to, dealing with the impending death of T’Challa. (There is very little filler in this movie, which is wild considering the bloated nature of big-budget flicks.) This movie has two modes, ‘foot on your neck high stakes’ and ‘you finna cry’. Ryan Coogler ain’t come here to play no games with nobody. There is so much clarity in his vision for this film, and it comes across despite the most difficult rewrite in the history of cinema. In my opinion, being able to see the things that needed to change made me appreciate what I was seeing onscreen.
They Want Smoke, But Not
If you read the comics, you know Wakanda and Atlantis (Talokan) got beef. Real on sight type stuff. If Namor and T’Challa made music, they’d be putting out disrespectful drill tracks…daily! If they were on pre-apartheid Twitter, it’d be flaming clapbacks until the server crashed. Wakanda Forever brings that heated conflict to the screen with a scale and scope to make you care deeply. That said, this is not an action movie. Not even close. In DCs’ Black Adam, and in Marvel’s Winter Soldier each plot point was punctuated by a fight. In particular, Black Adam had it that most of the characters and their progression were also introduced in fights. Wakanda Forever is built entirely on relationships, even the conflicts are based on relationships!
Running on Relationships
Okoye and Attuma as the generals and great warriors of their people, putting everything on the line for their nations in a time of upheaval and change. When they fight on that bridge, you have no idea who is going to win. The scene itself feeds on this anxiety, it’s so tense that you forget to breathe for a moment.
‘Queen Ramonda vs. The World’ could easily be an alternate title for this movie. Watching Wakanda rise to prominence on the world stage after going public set us up for colonizing superpowers committing trifling acts of espionage against the queen. The Dora Milaje act on the queen’s behalf, and they cut a swath through the French black ops like a vibranium knife through butter. Every time Angela Bassett was onscreen, she was a force, and when she moved, Wakanda moved in lockstep. The grieving monarch at war with the world but at peace with herself.
All the performances are stellar, and no one falls short.
The relationship between Shuri and Namor is one for the MCU hall of fame! Tenoch Huerta Mejia might look like a newcomer to US audiences, but he’s a goated actor in Mexico and Spain and takes Namor by storm. In the comics, Namor is a habitual line stepper and his introduction to the MCU is in line with that character. His intensity brings Namor to the big screen in a real way. To that, Letitia Wright absolutely shines as Shuri in Wakanda Forever. The full range of the plucky little sister of the Black Panther, who has to become the scientist, the warrior, the ruler, and the Panther herself? Wright handled the whole damn thing quite well.
Using the relationship between characters as the backbone of the plot sounds simple, but it requires so much skill with a movie this size. To use that dynamic to highlight what it means to hold an alliance in the face of historical oppression, even more skillful.
Wrath in a Speedo
It makes so much sense that it would be a movie like Black Panther to bring the Indigenous Mexican mythology and culture to the big screen for mainstream consumption. Namor is one of the oldest Marvel characters, and I was so hyped to see them at all, but for Ryan Coogler to bring this lens to reimagine this character and their nation is EVERYTHING. Wakanda is a composite of African ideologies and cultures stitched together in the absence of Black American connection to a motherland. And it’s that appreciation for a land and a culture to call our own, separate from our colonizers, that allowed room for the creative team of Wakanda Forever to give us this vision of Atlantis as Talokan. The culture displayed in Talokan is fully realized, and it can be tied to a land and a people directly. Pride like that can only be personified by a prideful ruler. I give you, the glory and regal brilliance of Tenoch Huerta Mejia’s Namor!
He was really about his people! Like Namor really set it on anyone he even remotely thought would think about causing Talokan harm. My guy set it on the most powerful nation on Earth and started by stealing up on Ramonda and Shuri! Popped out the water dripping like, ‘Y’all need to tighten this up over here.’ His threat game was immaculate, who the hell else would claim they had ‘more soldiers than this land has blades of grass’? And y’all, his hands work! Boy caught a helicopter with his mitts and swung that thing like a bat hitting a softball. Buddy juked Wakandan aircraft with winged ankles! Had them scrambling like Barry Sanders doing punt return. Mans caved M’baku’s whole chest cavity with a jab!?!?
Even outside of the braggadocio of Namor, Tenoch Huerta really balances the gravitas of a ruler with a nation on his soldiers with the anti-hero who gives no F’s. Namor holds the same standout place in this movie that Winston Duke’s M’baku held in the first Black Panther. Definitely one the greatest character intros in the MCU, hands down.
What I Can’t Look Past
When the entire cast and crew feel a call to create a film that supersedes the medium, even the mistakes and shortcomings are easy to glaze over. But they do exist.
On the surface, it’s clear that Shuri was supposed to be in a secondary plot arc to find Riri Williams and introduce Ironheart to the greater MCU. It comes off as very rushed and a little forced, but within the scope of understanding given the circumstances. With Armor Wars becoming a film instead of a Disney+ series and Dominique Thorne being a kickass actor, it was dope to see Riri, but she could’ve been given a better debut. On another level, it was fly to see Riri rocking rare Jordans, whipping a muscle car, putting MIT tech bros in their place, and flying Ironheart with fresh cornrows. The levels of Blackness woven into this woman will flourish in a show or movie where they are the center of attention.
Putting no shade on Tenoch Huerta Mejia in the slightest, but the direction of Namor was a tiny bit off for me. While Coogler and the creative team did the damn thing capturing the height of Namor’s nobility and honor, they left out the pettiness that drives this man to new depths of despicable deeds. I need Namor to do most extra thing on Earth and not show the remorse he might be feeling. Mind you, this is my comic nerd coming out to say, ‘hey, what’s up, hello’.
So, the very few plot issues I had aren’t that big of a deal in the scope of things but…What world do we live in where the most advanced civilization on the planet doesn’t know about the myths of other indigenous cultures? The River Tribe elder (played by Isaach de Bankolé) gonna act like he ain’t never heard of Kukulkan. Like fam, no Wakandan kids play Smite?!? Stop it. Also, I’m supposed to believe that these two vibranium having countries weren’t going to be allies off rip? Ain’t not one strategist for either nation wouldn’t have been like, “Listen, we can fight later, but for now we got each other’s back in these streets like Double Dragons.” Especially when the unseasoned nations were coming for their resources like Napoleon in Egypt. Nope. Don’t believe it. Lastly, Killmonger showing up on Shuri’s trip to the Djalia almost took me out of the movie completely. It didn’t feel right for her and led me to think about whether it was in the original script for T’Challa to see him there.
There are some other more opinionated things to nitpick, but all in all this movie is a must-see. Although not for the same reasons as before. With this final entry into phase four of the MCU, it feels like just that. A send-off for Chadwick’s T’Challa and for the je ne sais quoi that made Black Panther feel like a Black American movie that just so happened to be in the Marvel Universe. It’s different now and we need to make peace with that. Yes, it’s helmed by a Black Brit. Yes, it’s supporting the introduction of a Central American Indigenous peoples and mythologies to the MCU. Yes, it is being held up by a primarily female-led cast while being directed by a Black man from Oakland. All of these things are true and awesome. Wakanda Forever belongs to more of us than it did before. This film, leading into phase five, makes it as symbolic as it is impactful. It expands the MCU’s diversity through sheer authenticity. Go see that.