‘Wakanda Forever’ Is A Triumph Of Production Design In Search Of A Story

The entire first 20 minutes or so of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is an extended tribute to Chadwick Boseman, beginning with a montage in the middle of the credits. Fair enough; the lead actor dying is sort of the elephant in the room here. It was nice that they didn’t recast it with a look-alike and just move on like it didn’t happen. Instead they gave us something surprisingly tasteful and undeniably affecting.

I knew Boseman hadn’t been replaced going in, but I was still curious to see how Marvel would balance the kind of typically tasteless expanded universe-pimping that usually bloats its films with a somber tribute to a beloved actor. Would Clark Gregg show up in a black SUV in the middle of funeral talking into an earpiece about some nonsense tie-in to Marvel TV show I didn’t watch? Thankfully, no.

For the most part, Wakanda Forever is one of the most tasteful movies Marvel has ever released. Partly because it avoids the obvious, most sacrilegious pitfalls, but also because of the exuberant production design. It’s full of visually impressive scenes that never feel utilitarian and that look better than just about anything Marvel has done before. Yet for as beautiful as it looked, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the story wasn’t worth an entire movie. The central conflict feels like something that could be resolved with one conversation, and eventually (after about two hours of screen time), it is. Wakanda Forever certainly isn’t crass but it’s not exactly a triumph, never quite doing justice to all the brilliant production design and inspired acting (Winston Duke, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o — they’re all killing it).

The story takes place in the aftermath of the death of T’Challa (Bosman) who was not only a man, but the Black Panther, champion of Wakanda. T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is ruling Wakanda now, but she has yet to crown a new Black Panther. Since Wakanda is the Earth’s only known source of the magic metal Vibranium, the lack of a champion is making them appear weaker, and the world’s other nations, like the US and France for some reason, can barely keep their holsters in their pants over it. (I imagine picking on France is an easy sell to investors, and so France gets to be the only other acknowledged example of a colonial power here).

Queen Ramonda gives the other superpowers a verbal stiff arm at the UN, and so they go off searching for alternate sources of Vibranium. Just when it seems like the Americans have found it underneath the ocean, their CIA/Navy SEAL mining vessel gets attacked by some underwater blue dudes, who not only seem to possess Aquaman-like capabilities (which can’t be acknowledged as such without copyright infringement), but also the power of mind control. The sailors dive off the decks of their ships like lemmings, apparently to save them from getting their asses kicked anyway by an obviously technologically superior force.

The blue dudes turn out to be the Talokan, a previously unknown civilization of indigenous pre-Columbian Mesoamericans (think Aztec/Mayan styling) who also have Vibranium. Basically the underwater Wakanda. The leader of the Talokan turns out to be Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta, who’s really having fun with it in another notably great performance. Namor, who has even more powers than the rank-and-file Talokanians for reasons both asinine and too complicated to explain, reveals himself to Ramonda and T’Challa’s scientist sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), simultaneously proposing an alliance and demanding that the Wakandans deliver to him the scientist responsible for creating the Vibranium-detecting machine.

That scientist isn’t actually a Wakandan, but a precocious MIT student named Riri (Dominique Thorn), whom the Wakandans soon discover and take back to Wakanda (she’s forced into the annoying “superhero fanboy” role these movies always seem to require these days). This is the entire source of the conflict between the kingdoms of Wakanda and Talokan, a conflict that takes up the bulk of this nearly three-hour movie: Talokan is angry at having been exposed to the Earth colonizers and blames Wakanda for it. Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross) and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (Valentina Fontaine) are the respective good cop/bad cop figures of the CIA who get mixed up in there; not quite as out of place and sitcommy as Clark Gregg has been in past Marvel movies, but certainly in the same vein.

The Talokanians are a lot of fun, and Namor (who can fly with shoes made of flying fish!) makes for a solid Killmonger 2.0. And yet it seems obvious that this uncolonized Magic Africa and the underwater Magic Mesoamerica are destined to become allies. The movie sort of flails at excuses for why these two nations need to fight, and the fight scenes themselves are visually exciting and much more compelling to look at than anything Marvel has done in at least five or six movies, but they never quite make us forget the obvious. These guys should probably just team up already, why aren’t they teaming up??

To some extent, Wakanda Forever just does a much more visually appealing version of what Black Adam did: present an obvious conflict between superpowered indigenous peoples and predatorial colonizers, and then spend almost an entire movie doing wilder and wilder mental gymnastics to justify why the big baddy is someone else. Black Adam goes to hell to fight Sabbac, the Wakandans go underwater to fight Namor. At least Black Panther and the X-Men gave us a compelling Martin vs. Malcolm dynamic (reductive and somewhat unfair to the actual Malcolm but at least compelling), Wakanda Forever and Black Adam just feel like they’re avoiding the obvious.

What is stopping these movies from making the actual CIA and the military-industrial complex the actual villain? (I mean I could speculate here, but I’ll keep the question rhetorical in the context of an arts review). This is precisely the kind of conflict superhero narratives have traditionally been great at exploring (see: The Boys, Watchmen) so seeing them delay it feels at best like an unsatisfying sacrifice to an episodic structure, and at worst like conceptual cowardice.

Either they’re afraid of having Americans be the villains or they’re saving it for later and wasting our time with a three-hour movie that merely postpones it. Wakanda Forever does a great job memorializing Chadwick Boseman but a poor job justifying its own existence as a narrative.

‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ is in theaters now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.