Movie Review: “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — Faith Restored

By Michael Marano

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is miraculous, in that it’s a Marvel movie that doesn’t come across as a link of sausage plopped wetly out of the Disney grinder.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, screening at cinemas throughout New England.

A scene from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

There’s a scene in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman movie that was a transformational cinematic moment for me. It’s when Christopher Reeve’s Superman catches Lois Lane in one hand, then catches a crashing helicopter in the other. At 14, I was already a dedicated comic book dork. I’d seen countless moments just like it in comic books, but it’d be profoundly wrong to say I’d always wanted to see a scene like that in the movies, because it didn’t occur to me I could want it. I couldn’t conceive of effects technology rising to the occasion, and much more importantly, I couldn’t conceive of the adults who made Hollywood movies “getting” the storytelling satisfaction of executing such a moment of pure comic book joy.

Today, I didn’t know I could want what director Ryan Coogler has given us with his comic book movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. As a kid, I couldn’t conceive that adults could make good on the potential of superhero narratives as an art form until Lois was saved on-screen. As a middle-aged codger, it is hard to accept that heartless bean counters would be creating comic book movies that — drawing on the fantasy potential of superhero narratives — would be an art form for adults. There’s a melancholy in Wakanda Forever. A grimness. “Weltschmerz” isn’t an idea you’d expect in a cinematic universe that includes Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, but here it is.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is miraculous, in that it’s a Marvel movie that doesn’t come across as a link of sausage plopped wetly out of the Disney grinder. Don’t get me wrong. It is a plopped sausage link, paving the way for at least one upcoming Disney+ series, and probably a few more movies. But despite that inevitable shilling, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever feels like a self-contained science fiction film made by a director who knows and respects the genre, but who isn’t shackled by its conventions.

“Self-contained” might not be entirely accurate. The movie is defined, dramatically and emotionally, by what is missing from it. The absences, plural, of Chadwick Boseman and his character King T’challa, the Black Panther, are insurmountable. Coogler does not bother to try to fashion a replacement. (The movie was drastically rewritten after Boseman’s death in 2020.) The void left by Boseman and T’Challa becomes the engine that drives the mournful punch of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

This is a story of kingdoms clashing. But, the fact that the kingdoms, both of which have evaded the yoke of colonialism for centuries, end up in conflict because of the pressures exerted by colonialist nations is what sets Black Panther: Wakanda Forever apart from your typical blockbuster fare. This feels like an actual war movie, more than any previous Marvel product with “War” or “Soldier” in the title.

With T’Challa gone, Wakanda finds itself in the middle of an arms race as “developed” nations scramble to find other sources of Vibranium, the magical, MacGuffin metal that is the basis of Wakanda’s power and technology. It is also what helped keep them from being invaded by charmers like King Leopold and Cecil Rhodes. Another nation, the undersea Kingdom of Talokan — an Atlantis-like Mesoamerican utopia untouched by the conquistador’s boot — gets caught up in that arms race, which leads, in a way I won’t detail, to Talokan and Wakanda going to war.

It’s the absence of T’Challa, and all the interpersonal drama that absence creates, as well as the political critiques of Wakanda Forever, that make this comic book movie adult fare, particularly what Wakanda Forever achieves via a geopolitical metaphor. Yes, there’s a subplot about a genius teen that’s pure kids’ wish-fulfillment. But that takes a back seat to the aspects of the movie that are equal parts Shakespearean dynastic drama, 1960s Fletcher Knebel political thriller, and the aforementioned war movie.

Wakanda’s (and the franchise’s) loss is palpable. The crisis of that loss feeds into the crisis of these two nations in conflict, which in turn feeds into drama of the Wakandans coping with that loss. T’Challa’s kid sister, Shuri, goes from sunny-dispositioned technocrat to haunted survivor. His mother, Queen Ramonda, becomes the ruler of Wakanda, seeing it as an act of duty as well as grieving.

This emotional vulnerability comes at a time of political vulnerability. Talokan’s ruler, K’uk’ulkan, aka Namor (a truly brilliant reinvention of the Sub-Mariner, a staple of the comics since 1939), throws the trauma of the Wakandans into greater relief as the conflict between these nations escalates. The political and the personal are tied together, to the point that the political and personal conflicts of the film must be resolved in unison. The Black Panther, T’Challa, embodied Wakanda, the kingdom he was sworn to protect. The King and the Land were intertwined. So it stands to reason that the defense of the land without him should be intertwined with deeply personal journeys.

At nearly three hours, Wakanda Forever could use a bit of streamlining. Not all the subplots work. But these are minor issues. Is Wakanda Forever as transformational a cinematic experience as when I saw Superman catch Lois? No. Is Wakanda Forever transformational, in that it has restored my faith in the potential of comic book movies, a genre that even I, a comic book dork, have gotten sick of? Yes, very much so.

Author and critic Michael Marano‘s very first film professional review 32 years ago was of a comic book adaptation. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Ordinarily, this would be the point where he’d add, “Marano Tweets at….” But as Twitter was just bought by a real-life Lex Luthor, he’ll hold off on that.

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