By Liv Barry
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”carries the weight of expectations that no Marvel movie before it has.
Upon its opening in 2018, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther”was an instant phenomenon, inspiring over 35 million Tweets, sparking joy in black communities across the world, and grossing 1.3 billion dollars during its theatrical run.
Just under a month after the film’s release, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige announced plans for a sequel — “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”— with plans for Coogler to return as co-writer and director.
Following themass success of “Black Panther,” the hype around the second film was undeniable. According to Vulture, the sequel’s development began in June 2020, but was cut short after the tragic death of its main star, Chadwick Boseman, who played the titular Black Panther.
Boseman’s death was a shock to nearly everyone. The actor died of colon cancer, but according to USA Today, was an intensely private person and relayed his health struggles only to those closest to him.
Many of Boseman’s colleagues, including Coogler, were at a loss for how to continue with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” following his death. According to CNN, Coogler even considered quitting Hollywood.
Ultimately, Coogler returned to the project, crafting a heartfelt tribute to Boseman and his legacy.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opens with Shuri (Letitia Wright) rushing to cure the undisclosed illness that wracks King T’Challa (Boseman). Despite her attempts, she fails to find a genetic antidote and misses his death while consumed in her lab.
In these opening scenes, Coogler creates a moving homage to King T’Challa and Boseman. After Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) delivers the news of King T’Challa’s death to Shuri, the audience follows a bittersweet funeral procession, bouncing between Wakandan citizens dancing and singing in tribute and King T’Challa’s loved ones in mourning.
After the opening sequence, the audience gets their first taste of Wakanda without King T’Challa as a leader. The United Nations member states attempt to capitalize on Wakanda’s supposed destabilization, with France invading the county for vibranium, the natural resource responsible for Wakanda’s technological advancements.
Wakanda is self-sufficient without a Black Panther, however, taking down the invaders with ease. This scene sets the tone for the film’s explicitly anti-colonialist message.
Later in the film, it is revealed that there is another community with a wealth of vibranium: the underwater Meso-American society Talokan, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta).
Namor, a near-immortal being who witnessed the colonization and enslavement of his people at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, wants to join Wakanda in an effort to destroy the “surface world” that is encroaching on Talokan’s vibranium supply.
This anti-colonialist narrative is refreshing to see in a blockbuster film, but it is difficult to reconcile these ideas with United States military propaganda present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
According to The Institute for Youth in Policy, Marvel Studios collaborated with a few different branches of the military, including the Army and the Air Force, in order to ensure their portrayals of the military were not negative. Additionally, according to The Guardian, the Pentagon funded a number of MCU properties, including “Iron Man,” “Captain America and the Winter Soldier,” “Wandavision,” and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
The MCU’s history of military sponsorship makes for a morally conflicted film, distancing audiences from its condemnation of colonization and imperialism. It shows an unwillingness, or perhaps an MCU-imposed sanction, from Coogler to break form.
All of the most exciting MCU projects stray from the blockbuster formula in one way or another, even if it is in a small way — think the brightly saturated colors and silly wit of “Thor: Ragnarok, the campy noir of “Werewolf by Night,” or the exploration of identity present in “Black Panther.”
Expectations were high for Coogler to create another form-breaking film that shed the confines of the blockbuster and tackled loss and despair like no other MCU film had before it, but the film buckles under the audience’s desire for this.
While “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” presented an opportunity to focus on the slow-moving process of grief, which is antithetical to the MCU formula, Coogler left one foot in the blockbuster camp, creating a tonally confusing film that at some moments hits all of the right emotions and at others feels rushed and confusing.
Despite acting as a moving tribute to the legacy of King T’Challa and Boseman, the film’s downfall is that it is ultimately still a Marvel movie.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo caption: The cast of “Black Panther,” including Letita Wright, Michael B. Jordan, and Winston Duke, hug after a panel at 2017 Comic-Con.