Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever directed by Ryan Coogler

Poster for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, directed by Ryan Coogler, screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
Marvel Studios, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is so good! So, so very good!

But it should be much, much better. All I can see now is how far short it falls from what it could have been. I know this isn’t fair to the film and all the amazing, creative people who worked so hard on it. I don’t want to downplay what this movie achieves, but I’m disappointed.

Wakanda Forever wants to be an intimate character study. It has to be a Marvel movie. I wish it didn’t have to be a Marvel movie. The characters deserve a deeper examination than the format allows.

To be clear, I love Marvel movies. Marvel has stretched the constraints of the super-hero action movie as far as any franchise ever. They make character-driven, funny, poignant stories with genuine emotional depth, within a milieu that historically has never achieved that level of artistry. They let their creative staffs get full-on bizarre, daring and inventive, and it works. They embrace their weirdness in a wonderful way. It’s been compelling and rewarding to see this genre evolve.

But there’s only so far you can push things based on the fundamental needs of the genre. And the limits are beginning to constrict, especially for a filmmaker like Coogler.

Some of my reaction to the film stems from the fact that I can’t get onboard with the basic premise: I don’t believe grief would change Shuri this way. Yes, grief brings anger, and of course there’s her sense of guilt, but grief doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. I hadn’t seen anything in her character prior to this to suggest she’d become someone who wants to burn the world. That’s too much of a change for me to accept. I fully believe her guilt would lead her to hate herself, but not the rest of the world.

If I’m going to accept that she’s gone to a place of such darkness, you must show me her journey. You can’t just tell me it happened, give me a couple brief glimpses of her crying at her brother’s funeral, and act like that’s enough. But that’s all we get, and then she’s telling her mother she wants to burn the world. It’s not enough.

Likewise, when she finds her way back to forgiveness at the end: to come back from such darkness is a struggle, it takes time and effort and failure. I need to see that. I need a hell of lot more than a 30-second flashback montage of her brother being saintly. If it’s that easy for her to find her way back from darkness, she never would have lost her way in the first place. It’s not nearly enough.

Wakanda Forever wants to be a movie about grief: a sister struggling with loss and her sense of failure, a mother trying to guide her daughter through. We get a couple good scenes of this. That’s not enough. It wants to be a movie about flawed and conflicted leaders grappling with responsibility and personal desire: what’s right versus what’s necessary. We get a couple good scenes of this. That’s not nearly enough.

This story yearns to be an intimate character study. The most powerful, compelling, and emotionally resonant scenes are the ones of people just talking, wrestling with their thoughts and emotions. Honestly, the best scene in the whole thing is the one of Shuri sitting alone on a beach, with no dialog or any action at all. The scene of her and Namor in Talokan debating morality is stunning, and I want a lot more of that. These are the scenes which best capture what the movie tries to be. But you can’t have a 2+ hour Marvel movie of people just talking. You need fast-paced action, you need to include the larger mythology, you need battle scenes.

Too often, those scenes feel shoehorned in. The climactic battle between Wakanda and Talokan comes across as largely out-of-character for both Shuri and Namor. It’s too arbitrary, clearly put there to tick a box on the Marvel Formula. I always enjoy Martin Freeman and Julia-Louis Dreyfuss, but their characters aren’t necessary and they take too much time away from the development of the main characters. Their relationship is delightfully amusing, and it would have been a highlight in just about any other Marvel movie, but here it just distracts and confuses the tone. (Also, it’s unforgiveable to waste Lake Bell like that.) The one part of the larger mythology that works is the introduction of Riri Williams. She’s an ideal foil for Shuri. I love that she’s going to be a part of this world moving forward.

There’s an old adage amongst script writers: Show, don’t tell. This movie does a whole lot of telling without nearly enough showing. It offers sketches of characters, but never develops the depth they deserve. We get glimpses of their journeys, but never a full immersion in them. There’s too much else crammed onto the screen. The filmmakers had a compelling idea for a character-driven story, but then they awkwardly glommed on the required Marvel elements without fully developing it. All the pieces are there, but there’s not enough of what matters most, and too much distraction.

The scene of Namor and Shuri in Talokan makes it so clear these characters want to embrace nuance, to engage deeply with the messiness of their worlds. These characters are crying out for depth and complexity, complication and contradiction. But nuance is one thing a Marvel movie can’t really deliver. For all that Marvel has brought unexpected artistry to super-hero cinema, it’s still a blunt instrument. You can’t create nuanced portraits with a blunt instrument.

I want so badly to see what Coogler, these remarkable performers, and the rest of the creative staff could have crafted if this hadn’t been a Marvel movie. The constraints of the genre take too much away from the emotional heart of the tale being told. The Marvel format has become an impediment, and not a platform.

In the end, this movie claims a high level of emotional stakes, but it doesn’t do the work to earn them. It wants to be an intimate character study. It has to be a Marvel movie. What we lose in translation is a movie that actually earns the power and impact it wants so badly to achieve.

What we lose in translation is the movie I most want to see.


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