For the QC
All ye olde Marvel fans, lower your pitchforks and extinguish your torches when I say that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) is a massive triumph for a tentpole studio that has failed to truly endear and mesmerize long-time fans—myself included—since the conclusion of the studio’s beloved “Infinity Saga.” Wickedly sharp and devastatingly heart-wrenching in equal measures, director Ryan Coogler has succeeded in delivering a story far more complex and arresting than anything Marvel’s Phase Four has thus placed on the table.
Though the film pays no mind to the concurrent events of the ever-expanding Marvel Universe (so feel free to take your unsavvy Marvel partner to the theater for this), the film opens a few years after the events of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, after half the world’s population returns from being blipped out of existence five Marvel years prior in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. But more importantly, the film opens on the sudden death of King T’Challa—powerfully portrayed in previous films by the late Chadwick Boseman, who died unexpectedly of colon cancer in August 2020. Following T’Challa’s death, his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) assumes the throne. But there is one question that hangs over the film just as it hung over the world in the wake of Boseman’s death: who will be the next Black Panther?
Shuri—T’Challa’s genius, tech-savvy younger sister, portrayed by Letitia Wright—is neither noble like her brother nor is she gracious like her mother. She is, unabashedly, angry and remorseful, and paralyzed. Paralyzed by the grief she carries for her brother (and subsequently, the guilt she bears for being unable to save him from his unspecified disease) paralyzed by fear of their new enemies, and paralyzed by vengeance. From the trailers, it is clear that it is Shuri who takes up the mantle of the Black Panther, but her reasons are more reminiscent of her estranged cousin N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” Stevens—portrayed in the first film by Michael B. Jordan—vengeful in his usurpation of the Wakandan throne. Yet this portrayal of a woman—rageful, unsure, conflicted—is a breath of fresh air. The film shies away from the bravado of performative feminism that Marvel has been championing for quite some time now (this is due to the fact that none of the female characters finish off their badass fight scene by saying a quip that goes along the lines of, “Now that’s how women do it!”). It executes the grief-stricken female avenger trope in a cleaner, more satisfying fashion than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). Shuri is not punished for her strong feelings like Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is. Instead, she is allowed to feel every facet of her grief and rage, she is supported in the midst of these emotions, and she is given the opportunity to rise above them.
Like its predecessor, Wakanda Forever delights in its celebration of afro-futurism and Black excellence, but it also pauses in reverence for the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. Coogler takes the language and culture of the Yucatec Mayan people and spins it in the threads of Marvel mythology, transforming them into an ancient civilization of underwater dwelling people in the city of Talokan led by their godly leader. To his people, he is known as K’uk’ulkan, the feathered serpent god, but to the Wakandans, he is known as Namor (literally extracted from el niño sin amor, or “the child without love,” named so by a Spanish friar of the Spanish Inquisition, during the burial of his mother, whom he loved, on the land she had come from and loved so much). Portrayed by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, Namor is—as described by Coogler—“kind of an asshole, kind of romantic, and just incredibly powerful.” Like Killmonger before him, Namor is yet another Black Panther villain who—despite occupying the antagonistic role—isn’t really a villain. He’s more of an anti-hero with incredibly valid points—colonizers really did destroy everything, and they’re continuing to destroy everything—but he’s misguided, blinded by rage and the urge to enact revenge against those who have hurt his ancestors. It is another type of sorrow that Namor displays: sorrow for one’s heritage destroyed by the effects of colonization.
A story of grief and heroes from fictional kingdoms, Wakanda Forever is also a story of what happens when people of color are pit against each other because of the hurt and pain caused by colonialism. Oppression becomes a competition, but when does the competition end? The United Nations (UN) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), though threats to the protagonists, were never truly involved in the film’s events. The UN’s entitled demand to Wakanda’s wealth of vibranium—the strongest metal in the world—is singular and happens early on in the film’s run-time, but it is a demand that looms over the rest of the film to the point of violence. It was the mere threat of exploitation and colonization that had Talokan and Wakanda at each other’s throats, ready to spill each other’s blood. They became consumed by vengeance and the fear of losing more loved ones to exploitation and colonization, but in their efforts to save their respective peoples, they are, instead, dooming them to eternal war. Neither party could ever win. In an endless cycle such as this, only the colonizer—the UN and the CIA—could ever win. These people do not work with the government, but they also do not work with each other. It is, in a way, a message being shot across the bay. When will we recognize that in order to stand against the effects of colonization and the systems set in place today, we must not tear each other down and do the work of the oppressors, but we must continue finding ways to support each other.
Wakanda Forever is long, and its run-time can make the film feel bloated in its second act. I will always dock a film points for having an extensive run-time (two hours, and 41 minutes; bring back the 90 minute movie!), but I am grateful that the film gives its characters—and the audience—the space to breathe through their emotions, the good and the bad. I am a firm believer that Marvel films do not allow their characters to properly sift through the wide expanse of their emotions, but Wakanda Forever enforces silence, it enforces moments of stillness amidst its numerous fight scenes in order to process the grief and rage and joy that surges throughout the film. It demands that you take a moment to find peace in your sorrow. It is the perfect film to close out Marvel’s Phase Four, which has centered around the constancy of grief, and everything that facing a significant loss can bring us. Most importantly, the film rejoices in memory, and the legacy that T’Challa and Chadwick Boseman left behind, and the legacy that Shuri and Letitia Wright—and all the cast of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever—will carry forward.
Photo Courtesy of IMDB