Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) By Ryan Coogler
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) Director: Ryan Coogler, Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole (screenplay by), Stars: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Martin Freeman, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Alex Livinalli, Mabel Cadena, Richard Schiff, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman (archive footage), Runtime: 301min, Rated: PG (Canada) G (Quebec CA) PG-13 (MPAA) for sequences of strong violence, action and some language.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)
After the death of King T'Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the previously hidden African nation of Wakanda is under the leadership of his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). As the land prepares to break all its trade agreements and slip into isolationism again the international community pressures it to share its advanced technology and resources only to be confronted by another ancient breakaway civilization, the aquatic Mesoamerica kingdom of Talokan, and its king, Namor the Sub-Mariner (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). He wants to either destroy Wakanda or have it join him in a pre-emptive war of vengeance against the world for past and future expected atrocities.
Running parallel to this clash of civilizations is the story of the scientist sister of T'Challa, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who grieves her brother’s death and blames herself for not being able to discover a cure quickly enough for his terminal illness. Mixed with her grief is the struggle to come to terms with the possibility she may need to take on the hereditary mantel of the Black Panther. This is further complicated because her cousin, the previous film’s antagonist Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), destroyed the unique flower that gives the Black Panthers superhuman strength and supernatural connections with the ancestors.
What prompts Talokan’s entanglement with Wakanda? Their conflict is predicated on America’s discovery of land-locked Wakanda’s most valuable resource vibranium at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. King Namor believes if the Americans use a newly-developed vibrainum detector to find a small deposit in the ocean then they will certainly be able to find Talokan revealing his hidden kingdom to the world. Like Wakanda the kingdom is built around the rare mineral deposited initially by ancient asteroid impacts. Why is America looking for vibranium outside Wakanda? Because Wakanda won’t trade its vibranium with America or any other world power due to Wakanda’s deep rooted general xenophobia and specific distrust of nations with histories of colonialism. Interestingly King T'Challa in Black Panther (2018) when confronted with the history of Wakanda’s isolationism during times of global distress and suffering pleads that he should not be held accountable for the decisions made by past generations. This grace apparently doesn’t extend to the rest of the world and is not the attitude of his mother Queen Ramonda, or the Talokan King Namor.
If this doesn’t sound like a kid’s comic book movie that’s because it isn’t: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is brimming with grief and loss, political manoeuvring, and the temptation of vengeance. With a run time just over two hours and 40 minutes (not counting commercials and trailers before the film even begins) it will be hard to keep young children consistently engaged through the three-hour-plus experience. With snappy pacing liberally dotted with explosive action and colourful excitement even a long film can be exciting for children but here there are long stretches of dialogue with no superhero action. Setting aside the general expectation of over-the-top-swashbuckling-comic-book-heroism there is a way in which Black Panther: Wakanda Forever reflects real life in that times of grief and loss don’t always bring out the best in people. One hopes it will but that’s not always the case. This film shows a family that has lost its way and while they are trying to honour T'Challa they are not embodying what he stood for thereby leaving their entire nation vulnerable and in disarray. While this has a lot of dramatic import it significantly contrasts with the hopeful optimistic forward momentum of the first Black Panther film in which the same family was grieving the death of T'Challa's father King T'Chaka (John Kani).
If on the one hand the previous Black Panther had a positive balance of masculine and feminine role models and heroes that emphasised the benefits of a healthy intact family unit in the face of adversity embodied in the Wakandan royal family versus the broken dysfunctional upbringing of the villain Killmonger, then on the other hand this new film presents a distinct imbalance favouring the matriarchal while de-emphasising the sanctity of traditional marriage. There is no equality between men and women in this film and writer/director Ryan Coogler seems to have fallen into a bit of a modern progressive ideological trap. Previously he had elevated female characters in a male-centric comic book genre by presenting men and women engaged in respectful relationships helping and relying on each other—a strategy that brought everyone to the table helping to make Black Panther a massive box office hit. This strategy appears to have gone by the wayside. From a Christian perspective diminishing the role of men or relegating them to the periphery or forcing men to yield to women is not the best way to empower women within a narrative. The reverse is also true.
On the whole men are not treated well in this film; they are either being marched in as captives forced to kneel before their female captors before a United Nations Panel, or dispatched in action sequences as cannon fodder — as is the case with a number of police officers who were simply responding to a disturbance — or they are belittled, handcuffed, and arrested for comic relief as is the case with CIA Joint Counter Terrorist Centre agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and his ex-wife CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
As an aside, the character of Everett Ross is twice referred to as a colonialist with obvious disdain yet this charge is not leveled directly at any specific women. Problematically the terms “colonizer” and even “cracker” are used as racial slurs toward people of European ancestry by the Wakandans. At the very least this is insensitive and raises the question of how or why writer/director Ryan Coogler would deem this as appropriate for characters he’s asking viewers to like or identify with in some way. This might raise a further question regarding who the intended audience of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever might be and whether this is healthy for any intended audience. It’s worth noting that this is a tonal departure from the first film with the character of Okoye’s (Danai Gurira), General of the Dora Milaje, comments regarding Ross as case in point. Previously her comments towards him were anti-American in nature but not laced with racialized sentiments. The first Black Panther does have the occasional comment directed toward Ross from Shuri but these are playful or gently dismissive not angry in nature.
Boys may be hard pressed to find an on-screen hero they can identify with and perhaps the general idea here is that in the past girls have been asked to identify with male super heroes like Thor or Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk or Captain America and that this film, along with many of the MARVEL Phase 4 movies and TV offerings served up by Disney have a theme of turning the tables regarding men and women. Viewers may be left wondering whether a MARVEL superhero film is the best place for settling cultural conflicts and grievances. Christians will want to remember that fighting racism with racism or sexism with sexism is a losing battle and an ideological trap worth avoiding. Keeping in mind the Christian conviction that all people are made in the image of God, St. Paul writes that among baptized Christians, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This conviction is not represented in this film. All these topics have become very delicate matters and can garner a lot of debate between friends, family, and strangers alike further proving that while comic book films are often thought of as children’s films or family films this one struggles with decidedly adult themes and questions.
More Spoilers Ahead
For some reason Coogler feels the need to tarnish the previously established noble character of T'Challa and perhaps unintentionally undercut the narrative arc of his sister Shuri — who by the end of the film finally takes on the mantel of Black Panther — by introducing T'Challa’s son with his love interest and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) during the trademark MARVLE mid and post credit scenes. This son, conceived out of wedlock before the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), born and raised by his mother after T'Challa vanished in the blip caused by Thano’s infinity gauntlet snap, is now about five years old and the true heir to the throne of Wakanda. Following in his father’s footsteps he, not his aunt Shuri, would naturally be the future Black Panther. This raises some questions: Why have T'Challa father a child outside of marriage? Is this to reflect the sad broken nature of marriage within western culture? Is it to be more relatable to families with children conceived outside of marriage? Is it intended to suggest that marriage is somehow not important when it comes to having and raising children? Christians should remember what Scripture teaches, “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). The gold standard of sexual ethics within the Christian faith is abstinence from extra-marital sex (including pre-marital sex) and for husbands and wives to love and honour each other. The charge that this is stern criticism for a comic book film made for children needs to be met with the established fact that this is clearly not a film made simply for children and doesn’t fit the mould of a general family film; even still the way relationships are depicted in children’s entertainment is nevertheless worthy of contemplation. Because this film will be viewed by a broad audience families will want to be particularly careful to discuss the morality and ethics presented as normative in the film especially where it contrasts with their own beliefs.
Christians, like anyone, are free to bring their beliefs into their interpretation of any media; technically this is called reader response criticism where the focus is on the audience’s experience and what they bring to bear on what they are watching. Like all viewers they are also free to question the intent of the artists involved. This freedom is vital to a healthy engagement with whatever media the viewer is watching, reading, or listening to. Now it is equally fair to note that both the secluded kingdom of Wakanda and the aquatic Mesoamerica kingdom of Talokan are presented as non-Christian civilizations so perhaps the social and religious standards of Christian viewers need not apply. This too is something for viewers to remember and consider.
In the case of Wakanda it was previously established that the Black Panther is also the high priest of the Wakandan Panther cult which is focused on ancestor worship a system of belief incompatible with Christian teachings about life after death. Interestingly, scientist Shuri, who upon taking on the mantel of Black Panther would be expected to be the High Priestess of the Wakandan Panther cult, eschews some of the traditional rituals of the religion and expresses that she does not believe in the possibility of the “ancestral plane” even though she nevertheless ends up entering it despite her scientific convictions.
In the case of the aquatic kingdom of Talokan — which in the MARVEL comic books is the mythological Atlantis — the Wakandan tribal leader M'Baku (Winston Duke) referring to its leader Namor says, “His people do not call him general or king. They call him K'uk'ulkan, the feather serpent god.” Here Black Panther: Wakanda Forever presents a kind of god-leader similar to the Roman Caesars or any other head of state considered divine. For Christians there is one conquering Lord of lord, one King of kings (Revelation 17:14) who has been given all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18) and that is Jesus a person absent from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Again, this is something worth noting. It won’t matter to some viewers but may catch the attention of others.
The films of Phases 1 through 3 of the MARVEL Cinematic Universe were collectively called “The Infinity Saga.” They eventually thread together into a clear story. The fourth through sixth phases have been dubbed “The Multiverse Saga,” with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever intended to be the capstone of the Phase 4 going into Phase 5. However a hallmark of this “Multiverse Saga” seems to be a disassembling of everything established in the “Infinity Saga.” Note the amount of progressive and woke ideological material infused into films and shows like Eternals (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) Loki season 1 (2021), What If...? season 1 (2021), Moon Knight (2022) or She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022) just to name a few. From the vantage point of your average viewer the first three Phases appear to be the “bait” and Phase 4 now appears to be the beginning of the “switch.” The problem with a bait and switch strategy is that a portion of the audience, sometimes a sizable portion over time, will tap out when what they loved in the first place is simply gone or perceived to be disregarded.
On its own Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is clearly endeavouring to tackle some challenging subject matter with some great performances from Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright. There are times where it rises to the occasion and gives audiences the heart and excitement established in the first Black Panther film but set next to the rest of the films of the MARVEL Cinematic Universe audiences might be left to wonder where exactly all this is going. Are these films morphing into regular lectures? Is that what MARVEL is now? Or are they still intended to be a form of popcorn escapism? Do audiences want ideological concerns and historical and contemporary grievances in the “driver’s seat” of their entertainment or would they prefer these things to “ride shotgun?” A bigger question for Disney is general profitability: with the long runtime and the more dramatic turn away from rip-roaring MCU fun, will a film like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever garner the repeat viewing needed to be a blockbuster hit at home and abroad especially without the all-important Chinese market as this film is now seventh MCU production barred from exhibition in China.
For those who have recently revisited the original Black Panther one thing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever demonstrates it just how vital Chadwick Boseman was to its success and how strongly his death has impacted this franchise. Clearly the political and social climate of North America has also had an impact on this new film sapping the franchise of its exuberance. For a fictional drama which at its core is dealing with real life grief and loss following Boseman death this is, in some ways, understandable the question is where will it go from here? Will it return to its warm, kind and optimistic roots in the future?
A practical note to those planning to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever: with the movie’s muted colour palette and the general darkness of much of the cinematography, especially in the first act, viewers might want to avoid seeing this one in 3-D. The 3-D doesn’t really add a lot to the film overall and isn’t worth the extra expense.Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!