These are uncharted waters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a mega-franchise that produces hits so dependably that it’s acquired a logic of its own, which does not resemble normal human artistic endeavor.
In 2018, Marvel Studios produced Black Panther, a profoundly successful movie about a character who was not particularly well-known before he started showing up in Marvel movies. The film made a staggering amount of money, with a $700 million domestic box office take. It was the #1 movie of the year in the United States, even beating that year’s Avengers crossover.
They planned to make a sequel, of course, with Chadwick Boseman returning as King T’Challa. Writer-director Ryan Coogler started working on a script, and most of the original cast signed on for the second movie. They were about seven months away from the start of filming on Black Panther 2 when the news broke that Boseman had died of colon cancer, a condition that he’d been struggling with privately since 2016.
At that point, the normal thing for the studio to do would be to announce that the film was cancelled, and that the MCU would regretfully move on without Black Panther. Instead, they decided to make the movie anyway, rewriting the script to have the lead character die offscreen on page 2.
This is a bizarre way for a movie studio to behave. They made a two hour and forty-minute film about how bummed they are that they couldn’t make a sequel to Black Panther, and released it to theaters, and then everybody showed up and loved it anyway.
So it turns out I have the kind of brain that finds it difficult to experience a complex space-time event like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever as a story with characters and incidents and action sequences, because I’m dazzled by the sheer unlikeliness that it even exists.
It begins with T’Challa’s science-genius sister trying at top speed to cure him from an unspecified offscreen illness using what I guess I’d have to call a hand-operated macro-DNA molecule mixer, but she can’t do whatever she’s doing fast enough, and he dies. Then they show his whole funeral, which is extremely photogenic and involves what looks like a couple hundred citizens of Wakanda performing a celebratory dance number dressed in matching spotless white outfits, and then Black Panther’s sweet-ass embossed collectible coffin is lifted off the ground by tractor beam into a Wakandan spaceship and then I don’t know what happens to it.
And everyone around me in the theater is extremely moved, engaged in a collective simultaneous worldwide ritual of fictional remembrance, and I’m sitting there thinking, look at all that money they had lying around that they were planning to make a Black Panther movie with.
One reading of the film is that it’s the ultimate expression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, a sequel so mandatory and inevitable that even death couldn’t stop it. People wanted a second Black Panther movie so much that the studio found itself simply unable to not make it.
But it wasn’t just about money, of course. We could have learned to live without Loki, or a second Captain Marvel movie. If tragedy struck Ryan Reynolds, they wouldn’t go ahead with Deadpool 3. But Black Panther — the first Marvel movie headlined by a Black actor, and the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy of hidden but triumphant African majesty — meant a lot to a whole audience of people who wanted a Marvel superhero for their kids to identify with. Allowing Wakanda to fade into the background of the MCU after only one movie would have suggested that Black people are still kind of optional in the superhero world.
The filmmakers are entirely sincere about their improbable decision to take their shock and loss over Boseman’s death, and bring it to the screen in a serious and thoughtful way, plus car chases. Yes, the big funeral dance number is literally a performance of grief, but it’s not like they get it out of the way at the beginning of the movie and then put it aside; the entire movie is about dealing with the loss of T’Challa, as his family and his kingdom struggle to find meaning and purpose in his absence.
But that’s how cynicism works, says the post-structuralist film theory part of my brain that does not allow me a moment’s peace.
For example: Shuri, the new lead character of the franchise, has a moving and powerful character arc that just happens to hit all of the Marvel machine’s goals.
In the first movie, Shuri was set up as a contrast with her brother T’Challa. He was physically powerful and constantly in motion; she was the brilliant young scientist and healer who supported him from headquarters. He was grave and majestic; she was spirited and mischievous. She could grab a couple of sci-fi blaster gauntlets and provide air cover, but I wouldn’t have thought she would ever be interested in wearing the Black Panther suit herself, to engage in the usual big dumb kickboxey fistfights.
But in T’Challa’s absence, somebody has to climb into the costume and make like an action figure, so we follow Shuri on her emotional journey from anger through bargaining to acceptance, and at the end of her grief process, she gets to the stage where you jump on dudes and rip at them with your razor-sharp claws.
And then there’s Riri Williams, an African-American college student genius with a metal suit, who establishes a narrative bridge between the Black experience in America and the movie’s fictional African upper class, and by the way she’s got a Disney+ series.
In the first movie, Killmonger was the American character — a kid who grew up in Oakland, and was drawn from his everyday American childhood into the secret fantasy world of Wakandan politics. The same thing happens to Riri in Wakanda Forever, who is essentially kidnapped from Harvard twice in the space of a single evening — first by the Wakandans, and then by Namor’s underwater merpeople. She brings some American real-world perspective to the fantasy fight between Wakanda and Talokan, and she’s a fun character to have around.
She also happens to be the lead character in Ironheart, an upcoming Disney+ show, and I think it’s pretty clear that she was inserted into the script as a machine-mandated rewrite. She’s a MacGuffin, and I suspect that in the early drafts she was just an important object that the Wakandans, the Talokans and the Americans all wanted to get their hands on. In the film, everyone refers to her as “the scientist” who they need to get hold of, because she built the vibranium detector — but the vibranium detector was already built and deployed before the story starts, and Riri doesn’t plan to make another one.
You can tell that she wasn’t originally part of the story by the way they treat her when she and Shuri are captured, and brought to Talokan. Shuri gets to leave their prison cell and go have emotionally rich experiences with Namor — an important turning point in the plot, and for her character growth — while Riri is left behind to wait around offscreen, until she can piggyback on Shuri’s rescue and arrive in Wakanda. Once she’s there, she suits up for the final battle in her Iron Man-inspired flight armor and hits a bunch of blue people, but she’s just one of a half-dozen other Wakandan warriors who are all doing the same thing. As with any MacGuffin, if you replaced Riri with some other valuable object, the plot would still be exactly the same.
But like I said, she’s fun and I enjoyed spending time with her, and besides, maybe the movie isn’t specifically aimed at me.
Because that is the other remarkable thing about this movie: it’s an enormously successful tentpole powerhouse blockbuster that’s aimed primarily at Black women, and there aren’t that many of those, especially in the superhero genre.
I saw the movie at a theater in Oakland, where I live — the hometown of Erik Killmonger — and the Black women sitting around me in the audience were clearly connecting with the movie in a really powerful way. Populating the theater, there were little groups of Black women— a group of three, another with four, all over. The group right behind me had six women who all came to see the movie together, presumably leaving the men in their lives at home. It was an event for them.
The mid-movie moment that really stood out in my theater was when Ramonda was furious with Okoye for losing Shuri during her failed away mission. After some sharp, angry dialogue, Ramonda abruptly strips Okoye of her rank, removing her from the Dora Milaje — and the women around me gasped in shock. I heard one woman mutter, “Oh, dang!” which summed up the common sentiment. Okoye really means something for them, and this was a stunning blow.
Really, they responded to all of the returning Wakandan characters, and it was pretty clear that many of them hadn’t just watched the first movie once in 2018, and then forgot about it until now. This was an audience that knew Okoye and Nakia and Ramonda, and sitting in the theater and experiencing that energy made the film way more engaging than it would have been if I’d watched it at home on Disney+.
As I’ve talked about before, the point of blockbuster movies is to pack as many people as possible into a theater, and then create a cathartic experience of intense feeling that’s magnified by the responses of all of the other people sitting there in the dark with you. That’s why 180 million dollars worth of people paid to see Wakanda Forever this weekend — not just to watch the movie, but to experience it in a crowd. And, man, that mid-credits scene at the end? That was a big hit with the audience that I was in.
That’s really the reason why this sequel was mandatory — not just that it’ll make a huge amount of money, but that it serves a specific audience that’s distinct from the rest of the Marvel movies and shows. Black families want their kids to connect with the epic heroism of T’Challa and Shuri and Okoye, and Black Panther is the part of the MCU franchise that is proudly and specifically for them.
But — drifting back into cynicism, I think that the way the movie treats the Talokans is extremely weird.
Namor, their leader, gets a big origin-story flashback right in the middle of the movie, showing his family drinking vibranium gaspacho to escape from the colonizers who were coming to destroy their Mesoamerican culture. It’s set up as a twin of the same experience that makes Wakanda a powerful fantasy — a civilization of people who slipped through the colonizers’ fingers, and set up a kingdom hidden away in fairyland, where they could be safe and powerful.
Then the audience is led into the magical underwater world full of sexy Mexican mermen, which I believe is a brand-new idea that I wish somebody had come up with before. We see the enormous, beautiful city that the Talokans have built, and Namor advocates for their right to exist alongside Wakanda.
But Namor isn’t the same as the Talokans that he rules. His mother was currently pregnant when she drank the liquid vibranium, and he emerged as a special one-off case — a child who was half-human and half-Talokan, and therefore universally accepted as their ruler, which I don’t know if anybody else has really noticed.
We don’t get to know any of the full-blooded Talokans in particular: if there are any blue-skinned people who have names and feelings of their own, then they did not get a chance to express themselves enough for me to notice. As far as I could see, they had two modes — a relaxed, friendly civilization that doesn’t wear a lot of shirts, and a faceless horde of goblins who lure sailors to their death, and swarm battleships to try and kill the superheroes. As far as I could tell, the swarmers are indistinguishable and entirely dispensible, which I think grates against the movie’s ethics around how you portray other civilizations.
So it’s a weird mix of a movie, is what I’m saying, with elaborate funerals and elaborate car chases, right next to each other. It’s trying to be a lot of things:
- a soap opera about these characters, their relationships and their feelings;
- an action film where people run and fight and use explosive balls of water as a weapon;
- and a wide-eyed exploration of the unknown, expanding our horizons to encompass new civilizations and ways of life.
If I had to choose which of these threads is most successful, it’s the soap opera, by far. The action was fun but often not that meaningful, like the chase through Cambridge that blows up police cars for no particular reason — and as I suggested above, the exploration of the unknown thread feels strangely incomplete, like they couldn’t quite decide on how to present the Talokans as people.
But to be there in the theater with a lot of Black women, who are feeling a connection to the characters and relationships on screen — that was the most exciting part. And that’s why they went ahead and did this improbable thing, making a blockbuster superhero film where the superhero dies in the first scene. Uncharted waters.
4.9: The Wizard
— Danny Horn