The much-anticipated Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, sequel to the wildly successful Black Panther (2018) is not a good film. First, it is too long. At two-and-a-half hours, this bloated spectacle feels labored and poorly conceived. Movies of this sort, action-laden and loaded with special effects, that are long (over two hours) generally do not have a good grasp of the story they wish to tell, so they wind up as a series of events or stunts or effects stacked like a bunch of precariously perched boxes in search of a sensible plot. Action movies easily fall prey to what I call blank repetition instead of achieving the escalating climaxes that the filmmakers are striving for. I think it is especially hard to make a truly good action movie. I do not fault the makers for failing to do so. As one noted filmmaker told me years ago, with the most talented company assembled, it is hard to make a good movie period.
Wakanda Forever has all the earmarks of the poorly or hastily conceived movie that exists almost purely because of commercial pressure: characters like the genius undergraduate from MIT (played by Dominique Thorne) who seems a Black, female knock-off of Tony Stark, complete with Iron Man armor, and who is total redundancy as the film’s main character, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, is already the genius Black female scientist, so there is no dramatic space for the second character; or the White CIA agent and his wife who do not even provide comic villain relief which I assume the few Whites in the film are supposed to do; or the fellows from a Wakandan tribe who go around woofing like dogs and beating their chests on occasion; all of these characters have no creative purpose in the film and could have been eliminated without affecting the plot at all. There are combat scenes that are interminable and where people die but then are resurrected more quickly than Jesus Christ. There are dramatic scenes, mostly scenes of mourning the death of the title character, that are interminable, taxing the fortitude of the actors as they exhaust the patience and drain the interest of the audience or at least some members of the audience. In short, the film feels padded.
Second, there is what is a long-standing issue for me about Black Panther and that is the idea of a Black royalty. Perhaps this is a way, intentional or not, of validating or valorizing W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of a Talented Tenth or a Black elite that should rule or lead. I have always felt uncomfortable about the idea of a blood aristocracy among a people whose blood and being were denigrated under the rule of White supremacy and the so-called superiority of White blood. Reversing the concept does not even strike me as clever irony. The idea of a Black elite made me think of the history of Liberia where a Black American elite or a group of Black American emigrants who saw themselves as an elite ruled an African geographical space with tragic, bloody results. (We Black Americans must face the reality that with Liberia we too were colonizers who were not as ruthless as we wanted to be only because of lack of capital and European empire politics.) I have always wondered how the ordinary Wakandans lived and what they were like. In any case, the first film at least understood that dramatizing royalty requires court intrigue and gave the battle between T’Challa, the rightful prince, and Killmonger, (fashioned temperamentally a bit after Shakespeare’s Hotspur combined with Denmark Vesey), the spurned claimant. In this sequel, there is a battle between two essential hermit kingdoms, Wakanda and Talokan, the latter an underwater society of the survivors of a Mayan civilization led by Namor—roman spelled backward—who is based on the Marvel character of the Submariner, squaring off against each other to remain hermit kingdoms but who somehow feel that the existence of the other threatens their security. This plot made no sense to me. As with the first film, this one climaxes with people of color fighting each other as the warriors of both kingdoms engage in combat. Strangely, both kingdoms feel their common enemy is “the surface people” (read White people, although they constitute only a small minority of “the surface people”), so how do they wind up fighting each other? And do the filmmakers feel constrained to avoid a climax of Wakandans and the Talokanians fighting the Whites because it would seem so much like a cosmic race war? I think these issues bedevil these films because they are so obsessed with mythologizing both current American racial politics and the American racial past. Whether this comic book character and this idea of Africa, invented by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby when the Black Panther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of the Fantastic Four (number 52), should and can bear this weight is an open question. One of the ironies of Afrofuturism is that it is less concerned with the future than it is with the mythological reconstruction of a past that would enable Blacks to see themselves differently in the present. Whether the idealizations of Wakanda are ultimately debilitating or liberating for the Black mind and its struggles with persistent racial disadvantage and the enfeebling belief in Black inferiority are open to debate.
Doubtless, the sequel ran into problems when actor Chadwick Boseman, who played the title character, died in 2020 while the film was in development. His death forced the filmmakers to reimagine the sequel, making the compelling and unusual decision to not cast another actor to replace Boseman. In effect, Boseman’s death was written into the film as the death of the Black Panther. It is a certainty that no Black actor has been accorded such status in this way; the conflation of his character with himself, of the practice of his craft with the results of it. Thus, the conceit of the film is about mourning and trauma, both of which are the psychological touchstones of Blackness in this our current hour. In this respect, it can be said that the film succeeds rather strikingly as a form of escapism while being rooted in and highly self-aware of the reality of the moment of its creation. This does not mean that the film manages to transcend its considerable weaknesses and flaws, as it never figured out how to get beyond its meta moment, but it is, nonetheless, a telling artifact of what we are and what we think we ought to be.