While civilizations have battled each other over resources since the beginning of time, there is something frankly disturbing about watching a technologically advanced African culture battle against an equally advanced and powerful underwater Mesoamerican one over philosophical differences in the protection of a common resource sought after by Westerners—well, let’s not beat around the bush, the white powers that be—for militaristic purposes.
And, folks, that’s my BIG problem with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the much-anticipated sequel to Black Panther, a film that joyfully celebrated the resilience and vibrancy of a proud continental culture and people while delivering some exciting action scenes and a lesson in geopolitics. That film was the pure essence of Afrofuturism.
While Ryan Coogler’s sequel may be primarily about sorrow and loss and how we cope when confronted by the death of a loved one, those very honorable and meaningful themes are drowned not only by the commercial demands of that sausage-making machine known as franchise filmmaking, but by its own wrong-headed and, given the tribal times we live in, where white supremacism is once again rearing its ugly head, misguided politics. Never have battles between two factions in a superhero-comic book franchise depressed me more than the ones in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The sight of two communities of color fighting each other and, in one case, even destroying part of Wakanda while the powers that be are deliberately kept on the sidelines by the script, was both disheartening and infuriating.
There’s no doubt that Coogler faced an uphill battle to get this film made after Black Panther star Chadwick Bozeman’s surprising and sudden death from colon cancer in August 2020. He was the heart and soul of that extraordinary outlier in superheroic cinema, his charisma permeating every frame even when he wasn’t on screen. His absence was deeply felt throughout Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Even though fans in the African American community launched campaigns demanding the character’s recasting, Coogler wisely ignored them and decided to confront the loss directly, turning his attention to the mother-daughter conflict between Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and her daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright). But he also had to kowtow to Marvel Studios’ need for further universe-building and introduce characters that will appear in future Marvel endeavors. The end result is a bloated film that overwhelms its more emotionally poignant scenes.
And so, before the traditional Marvel Studios logo pops on screen, we are dropped right in the middle of Shuri’s lab as she tries to find a cure to the lethal disease that has struck King T’Challah, in what to me seemed like a not-so-veiled reference to the many attempts at finding a cure for cancer. You’ve already seen the funeral procession in the film’s trailers: a simultaneous display of joy and sadness as an entire nation gives a final goodbye to its king with music and dance as the funeral cortege marches by, his family and council dressed in white walking alongside the coffin carried by the Dora Milaje, his all-female army.
A year (and opening credits) later, Queen Ramonda attends a United Nations meeting to hear the French and U.S. ambassadors accuse her of breaking T’Challah’s promise of sharing Wakanda’s technological advances, vibranium included. She has a tiny surprise for them, which I won’t spoil, since it’s one of a very small number of “hell yeah” moments in the film. Let us say that Bassett is truly regal and commanding as she warns the two countries and the rest of the world about their notion that Wakanda is defenseless without its king.
That doesn’t stop Western civilization from seeking other sources of vibranium, particularly underwater, and when one of their exploratory vessels is attacked by a group of blue-skinned men and women, the U.S. immediately blames Wakanda for the incident. Caught in her own geographical and spiritual bubble—after all, Wakanda is protected from the outside world by an invisible shield… isolationism at its best!—Ramonda is unaware of the forces gathering against Wakanda until Namor, the god-king of the underwater Mayan kingdom of Talokan (played by Tenoch Huerta who delivers such a terrific, magnetic performance, that I often wish I was watching an entire film about him and his people instead), rudely interrupts her private mourning ceremony with Shuri by the seashore, and issues an ultimatum: Deliver to them the young scientist responsible for developing a machine that tracks vibranium, or face the consequences.
Dude, couldn’t you have chosen a better moment?
With the help of their old buddy Ross (a wasted Martin Freeman), they track the scientist down to MIT and discover that she is a student from Chicago with a penchant for building mechanical devices. What follows is a lackluster rush of chase sequences, underwater marvels that need a far better projector and projectionist than the one we had for the film’s press screening to gaze at in wonder, underwater rescues, attacks and counterattacks, and the appearance of the new Black Panther—whose identity should have been guessed by now by anybody familiar with the actual comic.
There is also Namor’s proposal to Shuri later in the film of joining forces to topple the white colonizers seeking to control vibranium. Granted, he wants to wipe them off the face of the Earth, after witnessing how they destroyed his people more than 500 years ago, but Shuri will have none of it.
But there are also moments in between that made me smile and appreciative: the sight of Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita N’yongo speaking Spanish and Mayan on a studio movie for the first time as she travels to the Yucatán Peninsula, the use of Yucatecan Mayan dialogue throughout, and the scenes in Haiti shot in Puerto Rico, which makes you wish that, in some future iteration of this franchise, they address the history of slavery and racism in Latin America. And when Coogler and his writers take a break during all these shenanigans to explore Shuri’s anger at herself for not being able to save her brother’s life, plus Ramonda’s own motherly anguish, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever offers a glimpse at the emotional highs and lows it might have reached had it not been overburdened with so… much… plot.
There is in fact so much going on that promising characters fall to the wayside, starting with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ wiley CIA operative and Micaela Cole’s Anika, a charismatic and deadly Dora Milaje warrior as misused on screen as Lashana Lynch’s 007 in No Time to Die (Lashana was allowed to show her badass warrior chops in this year’s far better The Woman King, the story of the Dahomey women warriors that inspired the Dora Milaje).
Which brings me back to the two key attacks and counterattacks between Talokans and Wakandans. At some point in the film, I thought that the most rational outcome would be that both cultures would understand that they have a common enemy and that there are better ways to confront that enemy and defend their resources than silly ultimatums, posturing and killing each other off. But, nope, Namor declares war on Wakanda, Shuri declares war on Namor, and we end up with one badly edited and choreographed sea battle where we don’t give a damn about which side is winning—and really don’t want to because, given our history, why should we root for colonizers?
The potentially dramatic encounter of powerful capitalist forces trying to encroach into what they erroneously feel is a weakened country is denied to us and replaced instead with a problematic fight between people of color.
But this is, after all, a film made under the mandates of a corporation, and no matter how faithful it may be at representing our cultures, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever leaves a bitter aftertaste, one amplified by Namor’s final words. The ending also aims for a certain sense of redemption and acceptance, especially in the mid-credits sequence. But, unfortunately, by skipping three of the seven stages of grief for the sake of big-screen excitement and reinforcing a patriarchal message at the end, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever ends up being just another mediocre addition to an ever-growing line of films and TV series that, just like a Big Mac, may be delicious and filling but aren’t fulfilling.
A final note: Dear Disney and Marvel Studios, Tenoch Huerta Mejía needs no introduction, nor is he your discovery. Tenoch has a long, distinguished, and eclectic film career in Mexico and the U.S. (Narcos, The Forever Purge, Son of Monarchs). The word “Introducing” next to his name in the end credits of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is insulting. If anything, given his screen time, he should have been among the first five to six names, alongside Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Lupita N’yongo, and Winston Duke.
Featured image: Letitia Wright as Shuri in Marvel Studios’ ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ (Annette Brown/Marvel)