Film Reviews

The Feds Throw a Funeral in WAKANDA FOREVER

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I’m not a big fan of 2018’s BLACK PANTHER. I don’t have to retread that ground.

Right?

See, BLACK PANTHER did all the damage it needed to as a PSYOP agent of “civility,” so now the mythos can comfortably live on in the form of paperback adventure serial; enter WAKANDA FOREVER, a processed pile of stuff rushed to screen against the clock of hurried stunts, catastrophic setbacks, and Letitia Wright-indebted COVID shutdowns. Coogler and Feige are preoccupied with trying to make a star vehicle work with a suddenly deceased star, so they hadn’t much time to make another anti-revolutionary screed. 

There’s not much here to get mad at. 

If you wanted to go galaxy-brained, you could peg WAKANDA FOREVER’s first act with making the claim that Black crime doesn’t exist because it’s actually the Mexicans that are doing the crimes, and it’s up to the framed nation to snitch on the subterranean other, but it’s getting less and less fun to make a fuss like that. I mean, yeah, Namor’s isolationist fascism is tinged with an APOCALYPTO-flavored barbarism, and the CIA’s ineffectiveness in deciphering Wakandans from Atlantians is so glaringly dumb that I spent the film expecting the final showdown—a sincerely upsetting clash of vengeful egos between ancient Black and Brown nations—was an American covert operation to sow dissent between the sole vibranium holders on Earth. But no, that was just the writing.

Moment to moment, the clean, thick divide between second unit workmanship and actual movie couldn’t be more evident, but it’s not to say that Coogler’s tensionless tracking shots, offbeat, ultra slow-motion action, and tacky “handheld camera = emotional” aesthetics are robbed of their deserving spotlight. It is to say that a mediocre blockbuster is invaded by a worse IP extension. He’s playing an odd gambit, both heralded as the one auteur in the Marvel Studios system who can make legitimate cinema within it, but now pumping out this bona fide pilot preview for a slate of 2023 Disney+ series and a prologue for a 2024 team-up movie. On one hand, that’s the game. On the other, the film seems to be consciously injecting MCU antics to make a $250 million memorial service feel less grotesque (read: the movie yada-yada’ing the whole “grieving over Chadwick Boseman” aspect of the proceedings), but this is a rare case where folks would’ve openly accepted it. T’Challa’s construct brings his remaining family neither torment nor comfort because the memory of the character is flushed out the narrative airlock. A lot of people coming to WAKANDA FOREVER are coming exclusively for real-world catharsis, and based on the near total lack of word-of-mouth, I have a feeling a good majority were left hollowed out by the zoom-zoom-zoom of it all.

Autumn Durald’s murky slosh makes Rachel Morrison’s plastic, made-for-TV coverage in the first BLACK PANTHER look like ‘90s James Cameron, and I kneel before that big magical Na’vi tree in gratitude that next month we will finally have a director who can capture marine vistas: listen, Coogler attempted in four years what it’s taken Cameron 13 to create, so you might feel inclined to grade on a curve, but Jesus Christ, every poor Brown day player they got to play an Atlantian looks so uncomfortable underwater. It’s not much more compelling on land. Shuri is such an expert scientist that trial and/or tribulation has been written out of her character. The creation of the Midnight Angels’ armor—one in a laundry list of gadgets that materialize offscreen through the mind-blowing innovations of *checks notes* 3D printing—could have fostered a sequence wherein a wounded nation’s infrastructure is mended by the reinvigoration of its artisanship and industrial vigor, seeing how vibranium is developed from ore mined by laborers to its refinement in the most advanced facilities. Just fucking show me a montage of how some rock you chipped off a meteorite becomes the coolest super-suit in the universe, it’s a lay-up, Coogler, just show us how a country’s workers come together to defend and define itself by showing us what it takes for these Black Panther suits to get made, holy shit, it’s right there. 70 years of technological advancements later and Wakanda is composed of two backlot sets and the exterior of some Atlanta bog like we’re still cranking out Saturday night episodes of GUNSMOKE.

Wakanda Forever STill

There’s no sense of place or, devastatingly, culture. Every death in WAKANDA FOREVER feels monumental, and there are major ones that are opportunistic gut punches in a film that’s already shadowed by an all-too-real loss, because what we see is a country sparsely populated by a dozen character actors and approximately 90 digital extras roaming what closer resembles a Sunday farmer’s market than a thoughtful Afrofuturist conception of a free Africa—there is never a moment in the BLACK PANTHER series where I see the background blink-and-you-miss-it Maglev Train and think “yeah this is a functional society that utilizes public services.” There are early Xbox GTA clones with more communal scope. Coogler has made a film that technically features collective grief (Marvel has got to retire the “grieving = street art of the deceased character” trick), and sees some cartoon abstracts of characters we’ve spent hours with join together to stab blue Mexicans in the face with spears, but he hasn’t a shred of interest in collective action. Though emphasizing the strength of its remaining ensemble, the new mantle of Black Panther is handed off to a single heiress, and even then, a confounding mid-credits scene undoes whatever specter of unionized Black femme power was present in the first place. Lupita Nyong’o graciously joins the film after an hour to play Black James Bond—she’s really pumping the NOS to convince us that the last movie was home to some grand romance between her and the King—and is promptly escorted out of the picture before the audience is given any minute longer to consider why the multilingual warrior spy isn’t in the immediate running for the titular role.

On the same weekend as WAKANDA FOREVER’s release, Donald Glover’s ATLANTA premiered its final episode. ATLANTA’s mission statement was to confront its audience with possibly indecipherable truths about Black Americana, and in its finale it devoted an entire monologue to the spiraling frustrations of those confrontations being met with derision and dismissive confusion by Black America. In the show’s tradition of living out the human contradictions that we ourselves deem too uncomfortable to call out, the principal cast drove off into the sunset with Popeyes in hand, but its creators bowed out on the bitterest contempt. It was that dichotomy of tone and intention (and dips in quality) that will make ATLANTA live on forever as a living piece of art—and what makes BLACK PANTHER the target of its many ires.

On paper, one would think that the monumental modern Black myth about making peace with its own actor’s death would lead to a more volatile artistic project than the TV series that ended itself because its cast outgrew FX. But, just as with the case that ATLANTA makes in its final 10 minutes, it’s not that Coogler and Marvel have made trash. If you attend the cinema to purely disconnect, there’s a neat brawl on a Cambridge bridge, a strong antagonist in Tenoch Huerta, and an enduring movie star presence in Angela Bassett. I sat in a recliner at the AMC and stared at all the stars. Coogler ends it all on some hand-in-hand unity, and then tosses in an awkward montage of seven different endings before we even get to see the Mexican mermaids and Wakandans body the CIA, but I guess it was cool seeing the Mexican mermaids at all. WAKANDA FOREVER is a C-tier epic, like Hawks’ LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, stuffed in a sausage casing and elevated by tragic circumstances and whatever representational clout you can still get after a decade of every white entertainment executive Scrooge McDucking into the golden marketing pond of #BlackExcellence. WAKANDA FOREVER is for… Who? And by… Who?

Kevin Cookman
Kevin Cookman is a Film Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a graduate of Chapman University who acts as editor for Merry-Go-Round on the side: what a success story.

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