Marvel’s first movie with a Black director, lead and majority Black cast, “Black Panther” (2018) was not a film soon to be forgotten. The film explored what it means to be a Black hero in the modern day, as well as the conflicts this identity creates.
Director Ryan Coogler is no stranger to these challenges, and his films commonly delve into the complexities of Black culture. Coogler’s sophomore film for Marvel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is another impressive achievement that explores themes of grief and unity among Black (specifically African) communities. “Wakanda Forever” also concludes Marvel’s “Phase Four” by continuing to explore themes of the resolution of grief and the passing of mantles. It is a masterful celebration of culture.
But even though the movie was successful in many ways, it had a few shortcomings. I question the strength of POC solidarity within the film, especially since it was the first Marvel film that has featured significant representation of indigenous Latin people: why were they in conflict with the African Wakandans during the whole film? Does a movie based on fighting between two POC populations really create a theme of solidarity?
The film opens with the death of Chadwick Boseman’s character T’Challa. We see that Wakanda is in mourning. Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) takes it the hardest because she blames herself for his death after failing to recreate the heart-shaped herb, which grants the powers of the Black Panther. Queen Ramonda takes Shuri to the riverside to help her come to terms with her brother’s death when a mysterious stranger emerges from the water. The stranger turns out to be the leader of the underwater kingdom of Talokan — the only other place where vibranium naturally exists. The stranger introduces himself as Namor (Tenoch Huerta). He comes bearing the drill that was used to locate the vibranium in his kingdom and delivers an ultimatum: locate its creator, or the forces of Talokan will attack.
Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the fierce Dora Milaje, and Shuri begin their search for the creator of the drill, who turns out to be Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a student at MIT. On their way out of Boston, Shuri and Riri are taken by the Talokan warriors to their kingdom. Shuri is exposed to the beauty of Namor’s people and kingdom. She becomes conflicted and notes the similarities between Talokan and Wakanda , and between Namor and herself.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), an elite Wakandan spy who Queen Ramonda employs to find Shuri, kills one of Namor’s maids during her quest, and Namor declares war on Wakanda. Queen Ramonda tragically drowns when the Talokan warriors flood Wakanda. Plagued by the loss of her mother, Shuri retaliates against Namor and Talokan. But when Shuri fights Namor alone, she stops herself from killing him, realizing that the solution to her grief isn’t vengeance, but peace.
This film is an impactful demonstration of the resolution of grief alongside the preservation of culture. Shuri does everything in her power to protect Wakanda, and likewise, Namor tries to protect his people from the outside world that ostracizes and mistreats them. Ultimately, in such a vulnerable moment, Shuri is forced to choose between seeking vengeance for those she has lost and letting go of her hate to protect both Wakanda and Talokan..
Even though vengeance and grief seems to drive Shuri in this film, she is also motivated by her strong sense of love. Shuri loves her family, her culture and her country, and she is willing to go to war for them. Namor shares a similar sense of love for Talokan. As their acclaimed god and leader, he is willing to go to the same lengths to protect his country. The movie attempts to establish the theme of solidarity among communities of color, promoting the idea that communities of color should rely on each other for strength and support. The movie backs this claim when Shuri uses the strands of the plant in a bracelet that Namor gifts to her in order to biologically recreate the heart-shaped herb. She literally can only become the Black Panther by accepting help from someone who was her enemy at the outset.
But while I was watching the movie, I remember wishing for a stronger feeling of solidarity between the people of Talokan and Wakanda. At the beginning of the film, the film establishes that Western powers were trying to take advantage of Wakanda after T’Challa’s death in order to claim the abundance of vibranium within the nation’s borders. This felt like an obvious set-up for an antagonist here, but it didn’t go any further. The film could have taken advantage of this premise as a critique of Western imperialism and neo-colonialism, and the abuse of power that Western countries impose on marginalized nations. As, Europe and America have historically taken valuable items from “developing” countries in Africa and other parts of the world to exploit them for their own gain. However, both of these themes are left unexplored.
I was expecting Wakanda and Talokan to join forces to stop the countries that were trying to take their vibranium — which symbolizes their power and freedom (a nod back to the idea of neo-colonialism). Especially because the conflict with Namor started because someone was searching for vibranium on their land, the lack of partnership between Talokan and Wakanda felt like wasted potential. As such, I think the film falls short of its theme of solidarity among communities of color. Perhaps because the film is still marketed toward white audiences, Disney did not want to make white people so explicitly the villains in this film.
“Wakanda Forever” is largely a successful sequel to the first “Black Panther'' film. Like its predecessor, the film expertly addresses the complexities of grief within the Black community. The film displays vivid cinematography, celebrating the diverse and beautiful cultures it contains. But by the end of the film, I felt that it did not develop the complex antagonist that I hoped it would, and the film almost seemed incomplete. Perhaps this film is setting up for an upcoming project that builds on the critique of Western imperialism. My only hope is that we will see more of the POC solidarity that Marvel claims that it has been trying to uphold.