Early on in this sluggish sequel, the queen mother of Wakanda – played with Shakespearean relish, but no hint of King Charles’s late grandmother, by Angela Bassett – storms into a meeting of the United Nations. The representatives of France and the United States are put firmly in their hoity-toity places. Fair enough. Wakanda has made good use of its Vibranium. There is no reason to give in to the old colonisers. On the other hand, an independent-minded viewer might cautiously point out that the two western nations are at least nominally democracies (for now). It is an odd feature of the Black Panther films that they construct a semi-Utopia around an absolute monarchy. Nice if such things work out nice, I suppose.
The original Black Panther, a box-office smash and a best-picture Academy Award nominee in 2018, was justly celebrated as a breakthrough moment for black cinema. But the film’s politics were highly couched. We get a tiny, tiny hint of something tastier here when, during a flashback to the era of the conquistadors, the Christian church is briefly identified as complicit in genocide. We are, however, soon back to the barely coherent fights in the sky and in the water.
No matter. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was never going to be mistaken for a Trotskyist front. The main objective is to set an epic superhero yarn back on the rails. Ryan Coogler, director and cowriter, was presented with a challenging and sensitive task when, shortly after a first draft was completed, Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther himself, died tragically at the age of 43. The film takes a sane and sober approach to the situation. Recasting was never seriously considered. We begin with Shuri (Letitia Wright), the late hero’s sister, and her family coping indifferently with their recent bereavement. A busy funeral takes place, and we cut to a silent version of the Marvel logo with images of Boseman alone filling the spaces.
What follows is essentially an origin story interspersed with skirmishes between the Wakandans and followers of a hitherto unexploited Marvel favourite. (We are obliged to pretend you don’t know who is going to end up as Black Panther.) It is the ankle-winged, water-dwelling anti-hero Namor – often referred to as Sub-Mariner in the comic books – and, like Killmonger in the first film, he is here to unsuccessfully forward a more radical form of anticolonial resistance. “For centuries the surface people have conquered people like us – for our resources,” he says to Crown Princess Shuri. You won’t need to be told the allies eventually pull back from full-on war against the Yankee oppressors.
Coogler and his team have pulled together a functional time-passer in difficult circumstances. As before, the costumes are a gorgeous exercise in Afrofuturist chic. The music neatly works ethnic elements in with triumphant orchestral swirls. And the actors are consistently strong. Bassett, in particular, deserves a whole shelf of Oscars for declaiming butts of hogwash with the regal dignity of Coriolanus’s Volumnia. Wright makes centre stage her own.
But Wakanda Forever is, ultimately, a weary drag. It is as if the James Bond franchise had gone straight from Dr No to Moonraker in one leap (but with fewer jokes). The final conflagration between Namor’s people and the Wakanda naval contingent is sufficiently confusing to pass as an outtake from the Transformers movies. One senses the filmmakers pausing and slowing down the fight sequences merely as a way of breaking up the tedium. It says something about the murk and mire of the underwater exchanges that one ends up yearning for the zany lunacy of DC’s Aquaman. You won’t see Willem Dafoe riding a dolphin here.
Amid the Marvel clutter, we are, however, reminded of a delightful subtextual connection. Julia Luis-Dreyfuss is back as the ex-wife, and now boss, of Martin Freeman’s CIA wonk. How cute to think that Elaine from Seinfeld was once attached to Tim from The Office. You have to pass the time somehow.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens on Friday, November 11th