Here's What So Many Reviews of 'Wakanda Forever' Missed

And why critics and audiences felt so differently about this movie in the first place.

logo

Stacy Lee Kong

Nov 18 2022

14 mins read

0

Image: Marvel

This newsletter contains spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

I’m a Pisces and have always been a crier, so in some ways, the amount of Kleenex I’ve been going through recently isn’t so surprising. If I’m stressed out? Tears. If someone in a book I’m reading is sad? Tears. If I feel very, very happy? Honestly, probably also tears. But I know there are more layers to my emotions these days; there’s been a lot of bad news among my family and friends recently, and I started the whole therapy thing. (As it turns out, lots of feelings.) And then there’s this low-level hum of something akin to grief that I never consciously acknowledge yet can’t actually ignore.

It doesn’t feel right to call it grief exactly, but I know it is about loss: of the life I had pre-COVID, and how I thought it was going to go. Of a sense of control and safety that I didn’t realize I had, but which the past two and a half years has definitely decimated. And especially my perception of societal progress, and even hope. As a woman of colour, it has been hard and heavy to see people choose selfishness over the common good over and over again. It’s been even worse to see so many white people briefly agree that racism was, in fact, both real and unacceptable before slowly backing away from those oh-so-bold statements in favour of a return to the status quo. 

That’s what was hanging out in my subconscious when I went to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever last week. And when I walked out of the theatre, I felt like I’d watched a movie that saw all of that sadness and helplessness and rage that I haven’t really given myself space to feel, and reflected it back at me in the gentlest, most affirming way. In short: I loved it. 

‎When I love a thing, I want to read everything that has ever been published about it, so I spent the weekend delving into reviews, analysis and of course TikToks, and I noticed something. Where for me, the characters’ grief and rage were important themes handled sensitively by director Ryan Coogler, who I thought balanced the real-life loss of Chadwick Boseman and movie universe’s loss of T’Challa in a way that felt fitting and true, for some reviewers these emotions were unrealistic, distracting, even “mawkish.” I know audiences and reviewers disagree on the finer qualities of popular movies all the time, but it was almost jarring to realize how differently we interpreted Wakanda Forever’s narrative choices. 

Maybe it shouldn’t have been, though.

So many reviews of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever just didn’t seem like they got it

I often think about—and have written about—who is equipped to engage with and critique art by people of colour, and this feels like the latest iteration of that conversation. To be fair, many of the reviews I read weren’t actually bad. Most tried to acknowledge that Coogler was facing massive amounts of pressure when making this movie and that it had to serve many, often disparate goals: pay tribute to Boseman, who died in 2020 of colon cancer; introduce a new Black Panther to carry the franchise forward; meet the sky-high expectations of Black moviegoers, who deserved a satisfying follow-up to the first movie’s beautiful, hopeful Afrofuturism; adhere to Marvel’s stringent requirements for action scenes and Easter eggs, etc. And most did like the movie, or at least parts of it. But even when they had positive things to say, many reviewers didn’t seem to know what to do with the emotions—Black rage and Black grief—at the core of the film. 

A few examples (I’ll bold the most egregious bits):

According to British film critic Robbie Collin of the Telegraph, the first Black Panther movie “has sadly begat one of its drabbest, stalest, most incoherent sequels—a near-three-hour endurance run of gloomy photography and turgidly staged, emotionally empty two-way conversations, all seemingly designed to sap cast and viewers’ combined will to live… Only [Lupita] Nyong’o and Winston Duke, whose avuncular mountain tribe chief M’Baku makes a welcome return, actually feel like human beings. Elsewhere it’s drainingly apparent we’re just watching the nth round of chess pieces being rearranged. Like Namor with his dinky ankle-wings, this franchise has become super-heroically adept at treading water.” (Side note: Aren’t most conversations in movies two-way?)

‎The dek of the Australian Financial Review’s write-up on the movie is dismissive and offensive (“The latest instalment in the Marvel cinematic universe is a triumph for diversity in Hollywood—but not much more”) and it just gets worse from there. “The bad news is that Wakanda Forever is just the standard Marvel blend of CGI action sequences interspersed with mawkish scenes in which characters bare their innermost souls to each other,” writes John McDonald. “As usual, the action is a lot more diverting than the sentimental exchanges.” He also demonstrates a stunning lack of contextual understanding by comparing Wakanda’s continued use of various African traditions to a medieval society that would appeal to far-right conservatives: “Even if we cheer on the former colonials (as well we Aussies might, being former colonials ourselves), should we not pause to consider the nature of a Wakandan state which is intensely hierarchical and ruled by a supreme monarch? The technology may be futuristic, but the political system is positively medieval, with trial by combat being the approved way of progressing up the ladder. Are we expected to see this as a desirable model of an advanced society? There are plenty of people in America today who would agree, but rather than a Black Panther as their leader, they might prefer something in orange.”

According to American critic Robert Daniels, “while the film is messy, you’re relieved that it begins and ends on the right foot. That is, until the saccharine post-credit scene. I’m not sure what Coogler was thinking. He had more weight on him for this movie than any filmmaker deserves. But when this scene occurred, I audibly groaned at what amounts to a weepy, treacly moment that’s wholly unnecessary, emotionally manipulative, and partially unearned. It’s one of the many instances where Black Panther: Wakanda Forever might have its heart in the right place but is in the wrong mindset and in the worst space—at the center of a contrived cinematic universe—to mourn on its own terms.”

Even the Globe and Mail’s otherwise thoughtful review concludes that the movie “lovingly honours Chadwick Boseman but fails itself.” 

‎Compare those reviews to ones written by Black critics

These reviews have uh, quite a different vibe than the ones by Black writers, even those that acknowledge the movie’s shortcomings. This paragraph in Wired senior writer Jason Parham’s review actually makes me feel a bit emotional on its own: “I’ve been told before that trauma freezes at the peak. It demands that we temper our pace, that we take stock of the totality of what’s happened, the bleeding ache of it. Ramonda and Shuri do their best to shoulder unimaginable grief, to remember what they lost. To pay homage and reflect. The thing is, superhero films—the narrative logic of them—demand a certain momentum. They need to keep moving. They flicker like a comic book, pane by pane, never resting too long before the next scene. Grief asks the opposite of us. It wants us to pause, to slow our steps. This is where Wakanda Forever is most at odds: It has a hard time deciding just what it should feel, what emotion it wants to land on. But maybe that’s the truer film. The more honest one. It’s not as neat. It’s unseemly but more vulnerable as a result.”

It demands that we temper our pace, that we take stock of the totality of what’s happened, the bleeding ache of it. This is the lesson many of the movie’s characters (and many of us in real life) have to learn at one point or another—that while grief wants you to pause, slow down and experience it, life keeps moving, and it’s up to each person to decide how to navigate a world that doesn’t stop when a loved one’s life does. This isn’t just an accurate description Queen Ramonda, Shuri and Wakanda’s grief, but also the particular sadness of realizing people are more selfish than we thought, all while experiencing a so-called, short-lived ‘racial reckoning’ on the topic of anti-Black racism, and a spike in anti-Asian hate, and war, and revolution, and incessant threats to democracy, and the slow disintegration of our right to bodily autonomy, and constant reminders that our lives actually don’t matter, tbh, and, and, and… 

‎Meanwhile, Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién straight-up did not like this movie, especially the way it handles its characters’ grief, writing, “Boseman rounded out T’Challa with a sweetness he aimed toward the character’s loved ones, which makes the actor’s absence in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever even more profound. Without him, the sequel struggles to hit the graceful emotional frequencies of its predecessor. The Marvel framework tends to falter when it comes to portraying genuine, complicated feelings, and what is more complicated than grief? It lacks a linear quality. It isn’t something you can overcome with a magic spell or godlike abilities. It breaks against the form and function of a Marvel property.”

I disagree with her assessment, but I admit I trust it in a way that I don’t trust the Telegraph’s, which never seems to consider the humanity of the characters, much less that of the movie’s audience. 

All of that being said, Wakanda Forever wasn’t perfect

To be fair, there were real flaws in this movie that I’d expect any decent reviewer to point out. To Bastién’s point, some of the talent feels wasted—Michaela Coel’s Aneka is barely in the movie, and I could have done with significantly more of Nyong’o’s Nakia and Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda. We don’t learn enough about Talokan, the subaquatic kingdom ruled by Mesoamerican god-king Namor (Tenoch Huerta). Some of the CGI is noticeably wonky and while the action scenes are almost overwhelming in their scope, they did sometimes feel like a bit of an afterthought. And not to get too Roxane Gay on you but: why were so many scenes so dark?! 

But to characterize the complicated, difficult feelings that make up the emotional core of this movie as “turgid” makes me wonder if you are reviewing it without actually understanding why it’s different from its predecessor. Wakanda Forever can’t mean the same as Black Panther, not just because of our, and the actors’, very real grief for Boseman, but because it was made for a world that is just different than the one Black Panther was released in, and for different people, too. Now, we’re sadder, more scared, maybe even gun-shy around the idea of hope. COVID gave us the hard numbers to prove all the systems that run our society don’t serve us and were never really intended to. Yes, we did receive mass acknowledgment of that fact and there has been some legitimate progress, but largely, white people declined to make real changes, instead offering their “ears to hear” but not their hands to help. This is why the themes of grief and rage—and even Namor’s desire for vengeance against a world that has taken so much from his people and now wants even more—feel so significant, and even personal.

‎I’d also argue that the central conflict of the film doesn’t resonate the way it might have a few years ago. At the very beginning of the movie, Queen Ramonda visits the United Nations to theatrically expose France’s attempts to steal Wakanda’s vibranium from a research outpost in Mali just after the French envoy has criticized her for not selling the precious metal on the global market. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the colonial mindset and for a few minutes, I hoped that this colonizer would be the true villain of the film. But instead, it was Namor, the dark-skinned, Indigenous leader of a kingdom literally created in response to Spanish colonialism. Desperate to survive smallpox, which Spanish conquistadors brought with them when they arrived on the Yucatán peninsula in the 1500s, Namor’s people ingest a plant altered by vibranium and gain superhuman powers as well as the ability to breathe water. His mother was pregnant with him at the time, and as Polygon writer Joshua Rivera explains, “he gains wings on his feet and distinctive pointy ears along with the newfound powers of his people, all while retaining his natural skin color and the ability to breathe air. His people imbue his birth with divine meaning, a link between their past and future made flesh, and the boy is destined to be king.”

I especially wish it had taken a different approach when addressing colonization 

In the intervening centuries, Namor becomes more and more fixated on revenge against the surface dwellers that took his people’s home, pillaged its resources and, when given a chance, enslaved them. And like Killmonger before him, Namor’s mission actually makes sense. As The Progressive magazine’s analysis of the movie argues, Talokon and Wakanda are both members of the Global South and “know well the way the West exploits these places for its own gain. The argument he makes for Wakanda to join him against the West may be violent and fueled with rage, but it is undeniably just. He has lived through the colonial pressure now being exerted on Shuri and Ramonda. Like most superhero stories, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a power fantasy. But instead of imagining a disaffected teen who becomes strong enough to beat up his enemies, it imagines power being restored to people who have been exploited for the sake of Europe and the United States.”

‎The similarities between the two kingdoms don’t really get adequately explored, though. Instead, Namor and his people are written as villains whose goals are fundamentally at odds with Wakanda’s, a conceit that never actually feels true. That leaves the real villains of the movie—France and America, who are both trying to plunder resources from sovereign nations that they perceive as uppity and undeservingly entitled, which must contravene dozens of international laws—to function mostly as comic relief. At a time when solidarity between marginalized people is more important than ever, it feels short-sighted to make a movie that pits them against one another.

Yes, I know there’s no way Marvel was ever going to let Coogler actually villainize France or America. Still, I wish more reviews had focused on these dynamics, as well as what it means to be Black, Indigenous or otherwise racialized and engaging with a film that reflects that we have been grieving in recent years, even if it does so imperfectly. 

The king is dead. So are many, many of us. How could a movie that guides us through our grief be a failure?


And Did You Hear About… 

New York magazine’s analysis of how celebrity spokespeople and social media influencers changed the way companies calculate value. 

TikToker 5hahem’s videos on recognizing the qualities of white supremacy. (This is the most recent one.)

This brutal look at the side effects of celebrities’ new favourite weight loss tactic: diabetes drug Ozempic. 

Anti-Racism Daily’s thoughtful analysis of what we actually lose if Twitter dies... which seems pretty fucking imminent, sigh.

Culture writer Tayo Bero’s new pop culture podcast, Pop Culture is Killing Me, and this week’s episode (featuring me!).

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter

Black Panther
Wakanda Forever
Chadwick Boseman
Ryan Coogler
Letitia Wright
Angela Bassett
Tenoch Huerta