Reem Abouchleih, Managing Editor
November 22, 2022
Content Warning: brief mentions of oppression, death, and suicide
Contains spoilers! Read at your own risk.
Brief Synopsis: Following King T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) death, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) must join together to protect the nation of Wakanda after MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) builds a vibranium-detecting machine that accidentally exposes a secret underwater Mayan society. When the underwater society – the Talokan – have their demigod leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta) blackmail their nation, the Wakandans must band together to decide what to do to ensure Wakanda’s success.
Going Into the Theater
Since the release of Black Panther in 2018, our world has become unrecognizable – marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating natural disasters, and human rights violations across the globe. Let me reminisce for one second: the impact of Black Panther’s initial release will be unmatched in my lifetime. Never had we seen an all-Black cast featuring a handful of Black women in powerful positions. I grew up in an environment where seeing nonwhite people express their culture was often ridiculed and used to make insensitive racially-fueled jokes at the expense of those people. Simply put, seeing the mass majority celebrating a movie so rich in culture and adamant in resisting ideas of oppression was unrivaled, even though I am not African.
Now, with all this being said, you may understand how I was apprehensive to see such an individually and collectively empowering movie have a sequel, especially with its main lead having passed away. How would this movie recreate the ‘magic’ we felt in the first one effortlessly? Regardless of my doubts, I knew Black Panther: Wakanda Forever would be a good movie. I thought to myself: Even if it’s not meaningful, it’ll still be fun.
There was no solitary moment in the film’s 161-minute runtime where my eyes weren’t glued to the screen. To say that I was on an emotional rollercoaster is an understatement. I went from bursting out laughing to gasping in shock to feeling a sense of pride – and I felt all those emotions in just one scene.
The film’s opening scene shows T’Challa’s funeral. Queen Ramonda, Shuri, and the Dora Milaje are dressed in traditional white postmortem attire and adorned in face paint as their King’s black coffin – decorated with a silver emblem of the Black Panther mask and the Wakanda salute – is carried in the funeral procession.
The funeral proceeds as dancers cheerfully dance in memory of T’Challa; an emotional montage of Chadwick Boseman plays until viewers are interrupted by the “Marvel Studios” logo appearing. Going into the film, I was worried about whether the film would exploit his death – unfortunately, most blockbuster Hollywood movies end up doing this. However, I am happy to say this movie does not (excessively) profit from Boseman’s death but also makes it a point to state that T’Challa “died after a long battle with chronic illness”, making the superhero story feel all too real.
Next came Wakanda Forever’s best scene – the sirens. In the Atlantic Ocean, the CIA and U.S. Navy Seals use a vibranium-detecting machine to locate vibranium deposits in the area; the two scientists who radioed in about the vibranium are viciously attacked by something in the war as the camera pans away as we listen to them scream bloody murder. Blue-skinned, water-breathing, mutant superhumans slowly levitate upward from the water and climb over the sides of the gargantuan CIA ship as they hypnotically sing, overtaking the ship workers’ consciousnesses.
At first, I thought the background music was a part of the soundtrack, but no – the Talokan Mayans were singing, entrancing both the CIA workers and viewers. All at once, the CIA workers begin walking off the ship and into the cold Atlantic waters, inadvertently killing themselves under the Talokan’s spell. This scene was mind-blowing because we as viewers were lured in by the ethereal singing and psychedelic visuals that we had not realized what was happening. As the sound grew more intense, you suddenly realized that the Talokan had bespelled everyone on the ship to inadvertently commit suicide. Composer Ludwig Göransson perfectly mixed “Sirens” – the song starts off with hauntingly ethereal acapella singing then turns into sorrowful choir chanting as it morphs into an incorporation of dolphin sonar noises, Mayan chanting, and rattlesnakes vibrating.
In “Sirens”, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever gave superhero cinema one of its most horrifying yet also beautifully ethereal moments. I loved this new ‘modern’ take on the ancient Grecian siren; though it may not have been their intention, with the Talokan’s parallels with Wakanda, I believe their hypnotic way of singing is their expression of using art in an effort to fight against oppression from colonizers. While I was horrified by the siren scene, I was also stunned by the Talokans’ beauty. Costume designer Ruth Carter styled the Talokanese look based on what Mayans actually wore in the 16th century, which included heavy use of jade and shark bones – these were included in the final look. Though they seemed terrifying at first, the detail put into making the Talokan clothing authentic is undeniable, especially when looking at the precise feather placement in Namora’s headdress.
Many of the worries people had going into Wakanda Forever revolved around the pressure that Boseman’s passing would put on other cast members to become the next Black Panther, and specifically, not being enough to ‘keep up’ with Boseman’s charm and acting talent. His presence was and is heavily missed, and the movie did not suffer negatively from not having him as the main lead; the cast and audience certainly felt his presence as Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett delivered their lines. One scene in the movie that broke my heart was when Queen Ramonda was sobbing to Okoye (the General of the Dora Milaje and her trusty right hand) after Okoye ‘lost’ Shuri, Ramonda’s daughter, on an “easy” assignment in America. Ramonda says, ‘I am the queen of the most powerful country in the world and my entire family is gone.” Angela Bassett has a remarkable talent of putting you in a character’s shoes and making you empathize with them, even if you don’t like them. Letitia Wright also showed the audience this raw emotion that feels inspired by Boseman’s passing as she sobbed after Namor had drowned her mother, truly making you feel that desperation that comes along with grief. I did not believe Ramonda was dead until her funeral scene minutes later. Everyone in Wakanda Forever’s cast was able to capture the feeling around grief and desperation more accurately than I have seen in any Marvel movie.
The Film’s Commentary
Firstly, it is important to say that when a person watches a movie set in a sociopolitical environment, everyone’s experiences of what the movie’s message really is – the film’s commentary – are a result of their personal experiences. When watching Black Panther, even though I wanted the Wakandans to win against the Talokans, there was this deep sense of desperation I had for the Talokans to end up okay.
This is even something that Namora said to Namor after Shuri spared his life, asking him “why were you a coward?” Namor answers that it was strategically better for him to do so and that “we will be okay”. When Namor and his people returned to the surface world after many years, he saw Mayans being tortured and enslaved by Spanish conquistadors. In response to this, Namor burns down his village, ensuring that those colonizers can’t harm the surface landers any longer. Depending on your experiences, you may have had a different reaction to this scene, but for me, it was cathartic. Though some may argue that it “perpetuated the cycle of violence” to burn down his previous home, for those of us who have been oppressed in colonization and genocide, seeing this on the silver screen was purifying to the soul.
Though I do empathize with Namor and his people, traveling to the only part of Africa that has not been touched by colonization and threatening to expose their resources to the surface world is not okay. This concept in particular frustrated me because of the historical sociopolitical context associated with it. The United States, along with many other countries, has a long and secret history of turning racial minority groups against each other, directly or indirectly, by making them point the finger at each other so White Americans can sit back, and let the hate they manufactured among those groups essentially implode each other. If Namor wanted to, he could have taken his whole Talokan army to Spain and conquered the global superpower in hours. But he did not. He threatened a powerful country in a vulnerable time where their King has died and colonizers are trying to take advantage of this – and for that, I do not forgive him. Because of this tricky dichotomy where he walks the line of oppressor and oppressed, Namor makes the perfect anti-hero.
Andrew Lawrence wrote an interesting article on how the use of water in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever symbolizes the various struggles in the African Diaspora, from enslavement to desegregation to natural disasters. I would definitely recommend reading it for extra context on the symbolism of water.
After all of the praise I have given Black Panther, it is now time for me to admit that I am not a Marvel fan. At all. I find most of their movies to be a snooze-fest and largely unmeaningful, though I do not believe that movies have to be meaningful. But I must also admit that the reason Black Panther has stuck with me years later is that the movie is so emotionally intelligent and in-tune with its audience. If they had gotten a cast not so in-tune with their emotions, the end product would turn out much differently – jumbled, and with no core message of the effect that grief has on people and how family can heal.
Though there is an argument to be made that all films are cash grabs (which is true), I was surprised by how un-exploitative Wakanda Forever was in regard to Chadwick Boseman’s passing. It is unfortunately normal for Hollywood directors and producers to prey on the loss of a cast member for ratings or popularity, but Wakanda Forever gave me a sense that the cast and crew truly cared about Boseman and wanted to remain respectful toward the family in these difficult times. The footage used in this movie of Boseman totals up to ~ 60 seconds of montages that show him smiling and clapping, which seems to be how the cast wants to remember him.
As a borderline hater of some Marvel movies, one of Black Panther’s strengths is that it is a stand-alone film that does not rely on the Marvel universe to make it make sense. With Black Panther, you do not have to go onto Wikipedia or look up video essays on Youtube to have someone explain the plot to you in the context of the MCU, it is understandable even if you don’t look up analyses on it.
One aspect of the film that I wouldn’t say under-delivered, but was largely negligible, was Riri Williams’ role. Riri Williams was the child prodigy at MIT that built the vibranium-detector machine that the U.S. government used to almost (accidentally) find the Talokan. When we are initially introduced to Riri, the camera tracks behind her as we see her interrogate a fellow student as to why he hasn’t paid her for his coding work on a project – we believe her to be a significant player in the film. However, by the time the film had ended, I was surprised she didn’t contribute more. Her only job in the film was to be used as leverage between Wakandans and Talokans. I initially thought I was the only one who viewed Riri as a plot device, but others thought so too. Writer Carlos Morales said, “She’s treated more like a plot device than a fully fleshed-out character, but this isn’t the first time Marvel has taken this tactic with a potential Young Avenger”, hypothesizing this is because of the Disney + spin-off series premiering in 2023.
Despite all the pressures in the film’s way, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever turned out to be a mesmerizing story about dealing with grief despite having the world’s most powerful resources. For a sequel to be this amazing as its predecessor – in terms of creativity and heart– is rare. Personally, Wakanda Forever is my favorite of the two, though they are both amazing. The sirens and the story of Atlantis have always fascinated me, and because of the film’s amazing interpretations of these ancient stories, Wakanda Forever just barely rises above Black Panther in terms of its creativity and execution, though the original will always have a special place in my heart.
Movie Rating: 10/10! I was utterly speechless when I left the theater, and days later am still processing everything that happened. That’s what a great movie is supposed to do (in my opinion). 10/10’s are rare but this movie deserves it.