“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” – An Epic Send-Off To A Hero

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER AHEAD!

All films have a lot riding on them. Even the most obscure arthouse films, though rarely expected to make all that much money in the handful of theaters where they’ll find available screens on which to play, still need to catch the attention of critics (or of a streaming service looking to buy up content on the cheap), while the biggest and “safest” Hollywood blockbusters still need to make a frankly ridiculous amount of money at the worldwide box-office, enough to sate the greed of studio executives and to recoup the cost of making them (ironically, the reason they’re so often “safe” from an artistic standpoint is because they’re very much not safe from a financial standpoint, and their creators, however visionary they may be, aren’t in a safe position to make demands of studios). The stress that puts on filmmakers is no joke.

Wakanda Forever
Shuri | koimoi.com

Few filmmakers would willingly shoulder another burden on top of that, particularly one as heavy as the legacy of the late Chadwick Boseman, but Ryan Coogler has made it his mission with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to bring a much-needed sense of closure to the character Boseman portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to fans of that character, and to himself and to Boseman’s close friends in front of and behind the camera – and the reason I believe Black Panther: Wakanda Forever succeeds at what he set out to do is because Coogler was surrounded and supported, each step of the way, by a team comprised of Boseman’s friends and people who understood his impact on the entertainment industry and the world. It is no coincidence that Wakanda Forever is a story about the importance of community in the aftermath of tragedy, and about the dangers of trying to work through grief alone; it’s not just a tribute to Boseman, but to Coogler’s entire support-system who helped him build this beautiful memorial to his friend.

When Wakanda Forever remains single-mindedly focused on accomplishing that one task, motivating its entire cast and crew to do their best work, the film is eloquent, soulful, and important,┬ástanding a full head and shoulders above all other Marvel films since the first Black Panther; particularly in the first act, when the pain of Boseman’s passing is most fresh, and in the latter half of the third act, when the emotions that accompanied it are again evoked. Between those two high points, the film is a better-than-average Marvel movie brimming with action and adventure, but cluttered with far more characters than were actually necessary to tell this self-contained story.

Most egregiously, the choice to shoehorn Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into Wakanda Forever feels like the result of an unfortunate studio mandate, and her surprisingly large role in the film’s second act could easily have been whittled down to a single quick cameo, if Kevin Feige’s intention was merely to start laying the groundwork for the Thunderbolts movie she’s supposed to co-lead. Same with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman); charming fellow, but totally extraneous. These two characters are the furthest removed from the core thematic conflict of Wakanda Forever, and the time we spend with them seems especially undeserved seeing as their subplot trails off without a satisfying conclusion – presumably waiting to be picked up in another film.

Black Panther in Wakanda Forever
Black Panther | rottentomatoes.com

For the most part, Wakanda Forever limits its attention to the here and now, although several characters are established who will have a long future in the MCU, if there is any justice in this world. The delightfully menacing antagonist, Namor (Tenoch Huerta) a hot amphibious mutant perpetually clad in bright green gogo-boy shorts, is obviously one of these – there is a historical precedent in the comics for him interacting with Wakanda, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men (and recently, it’s become nearly impossible to scroll through Twitter without running into a joke about Sue Storm leaving her husband for Namor, something that has never actually happened in the comics but is still an oddly appealing idea to a lot of people), and his MCU counterpart has unfinished business with the Black Panther who brutally strong-armed him and his people into a truce after he nearly brought Wakanda to its knees. He’ll be back, and frankly I can’t wait: Namor is up there with Killmonger as one of the MCU’s most interesting, fully fleshed-out villains, not to mention the most devastatingly beautiful.

I can only pray that Michaela Coel, after being relegated to the sidelines in this story, will someday get another chance in the role of Aneka, an endearingly defiant member of the Midnight Angels (an autonomous subdivision of the Dora Milaje, who protect the royal family of Wakanda). Aneka is one of Marvel Comics’ most prominent queer characters, although that aspect of her character is only briefly hinted at near the end of the film, when she and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), her lover in the comics, share a deliberately chaste kiss on the forehead. It’s a disappointing debut for such an interesting character, portrayed by such a talented actress – but much like how Ayo herself was essentially an extra in Black Panther before she became an actual character (with her own small fandom) in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, I can foresee Aneka becoming extremely popular, particularly with LGBTQ+ fans, if given a sizable role in a Disney+ series…like, say, the Wakanda series that Ryan Coogler is apparently producing, that still has no cast or crew attached to it almost two years since its announcement.

Though I may be in the minority who actually liked the look of the Midnight Angels’ distinctive blue armor in live-action (but even if you hated it, I think we can all agree that Ruth E. Carter’s costume design was overall stunning and Oscar-worthy), I’d love to see the concept used again, and properly this time. As for their coolness factor (a necessary part of any superhero’s persona), the Midnight Angels are finally deployed in the third act battle as a last resort by the Wakandans, but apart from their suits allowing them to fly and dive underwater, they’re not outfitted with the kinds of cool gadgets and high-tech weaponry I was eagerly anticipating by that point. Luckily, they do have Okoye (Danai Gurira), who joins the Angels after being expelled from the Dora Milaje, and you need only put a vibranium spear in that woman’s hands for an instantly iconic action sequence to just happen.

In the absence of a Black Panther throughout most of the film, no one else besides Namor and his lieutenants come close to matching Okoye’s prowess on the battlefield until the third act, when Shuri (Letitia Wright), the actual star of Wakanda Forever, dons the Black Panther mantle at long last before launching herself recklessly into a no-holds-barred duel with Namor on the beach, where her objective is to prevent him from reaching the water and regenerating his strength (a twist on the story of Antaeus, a character from Greek mythology who could not be defeated while his feet touched the ground). At the end of the day, brains win out over brawn, but Shuri does put her panther-claws to good use, so I think it’s safe to say she’s a full-fledged action hero at this point…or perhaps antihero would be the more appropriate term?

Namora and Namor in Wakanda Forever
Namora and Namor | me.mashable.com

Shuri’s character arc in Wakanda Forever takes her to a very dark place from which it’s difficult (though in my opinion, still too easy) to extricate herself in the third act, when the accumulated rage she’s bottled up inside her heart breaks free of its fragile vessel and takes control of her with little resistance: rage over T’Challa’s tragic death at the beginning of the film, which Shuri missed while frantically seeking a cure to his illness in her lab, and over Ramonda (Angela Bassett)’s death at the hands of Namor; rage at the goddess Bast for allowing them both to die and for preventing Shuri from visiting either of them in the afterlife; and a general, all-encompassing rage at the world, which she tells Namor (in a moment of vulnerability) she would burn to the ground just to feel something again. It’s no surprise that Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) appears to her when she first enters the Ancestral Plane – because at that point, she’s not seeking guidance but validation for the violence she knows she’s about to unleash upon the world, and he’s the one person who understands.

Or so she thinks. What Shuri refuses to acknowledge, even to herself, is that she’s actually a lot like Namor, in that both of them are still beating themselves up about a tragedy in their lives that they’ve never moved on from (the inciting incident in Namor’s origin story was the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th Century, which forced his people to take refuge in the depths of the ocean). Both of these characters have a community at their backs who would support them, but crucially, they’ve both been isolating themselves from their communities for a long time – Shuri by outwardly pretending that she’s fine while privately hurting, and Namor by adopting the role of an aloof god-king inaccessible to most of his people (as one does). They’re only ever emotionally honest with each other, which is partially why some fans are aggressively shipping the two (that, and enemies-to-lovers ships are always popular, although it’s still relatively rare to see any ship featuring an unambiguously Black woman – coupled with a brown Indigenous man, no less – gain traction in the mainstream at the rate this one has).

But while they’d make for one hot power couple, I maintain that Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who has been rumored to be bisexual in the MCU, was coyly trying to ask Shuri out on a date at the end of the film. There’s chemistry there that I’d like to see further explored in the Ironheart Disney+ series. Sure, I might just be inventing queer subtext to make up for the lack of Aneka and Ayo, but Shuri needs Riri in her life, whether as a love interest or a friend; someone her own age whom she can talk to without any strings attached, who intimately understands grief (canonically, Riri’s father died before she was born, and her step-father was killed in a shooting) but has had time to adjust and move forward with her life.

From the opening scene onwards, Wakanda Forever is sad – but until the second act, it’s sad for all the reasons we expected it to be. Then the film delivers a shocking emotional gut-punch by killing Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, the solid rock upon which Wakanda rebuilt itself following T’Challa’s death. Bassett was one of the franchise’s unparalleled stars, delivering magnificent performances in both Black Panther films but especially in this one, where her role was greatly expanded…and to lose her so suddenly, almost unceremoniously, without even a final word of farewell to her daughter, just felt cruel. It would hurt less if the film had adequate time to mourn her properly, but following a quick funeral we rush on to the third act battle and Ramonda appears again only for a split-second on the Ancestral Plane. At least she slayed in her dozen or so different royal outfits (seriously, Oscars all around for the costuming department).

Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Wakanda Forever
Ramonda | gamesradar.com

In conclusion, Wakanda Forever knows what it wants to say and delivers its message eloquently when it stays focused long enough to do so – which is admittedly difficult when the film has so many subplots it wants to pursue and so many characters clamoring for more screentime. It is, however, the satisfying send-off to Chadwick Boseman that it needed to be, and a decent middle-chapter in the story of Wakanda and its continued struggle with the outside world. But on that note, I also hope that Ryan Coogler is allowed some much-needed time off before jumping into his next project for Marvel, because the unique stress of making this particular film, compounded with the usual stress of making any film, cannot have been easy to handle, even with the support of a team.

Film Rating: 8.5/10

“Soul” Review!

After two decades in the business of making feature-length animated films that continually break new ground for the medium, Pixar has finally…tried to break new ground for representation, with Soul being the studio’s first Black-led film. And, in a pattern established by Disney Animation with their first Black-led Princess movie, The Princess And The Frog, Soul is at its very best whenever it’s illuminating the beauty and complexity of Black culture in America – and at its worst when it’s forcing an uncomfortable bodyswap (or, well, soulswap in this case) that in this case involves an awesome Black character being transplanted into a green blob/therapy cat for around 90% of the movie. That’s not to say that 90% of the movie is bad (it’s actually quite good, for several reasons), but it is deeply frustrating that we keep having to have this extremely specific conversation about the importance of allowing animated Black protagonists to remain in their own bodies.

Soul
Soul | variety.com

Soul dives headfirst into a conversation about the meaning of life, by following a middle-school band teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he…well, dives headfirst into an open manhole and is left in a coma, while his untethered soul desperately tries to find its way back to him. An accident leads Joe’s soul to The Great Before, a dreamy, pastel-colored landscape where young souls first have their personalities and various character quirks picked out for them before being sent off to Earth. Here, another accident leads to him being selected to mentor a rambunctious soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey, a casting error if ever there was one), who doesn’t want to leave The Great Before or live on Earth. Naturally, Pixar cranks up the tear-jerking dial to an 11 as Joe leads 22 on a fast-paced tour of New York City, giving them both a chance to savor the true joys of living.

What I truly love about Soul more than anything else is its unwavering focus on simple things: things we too often take for granted, but which keep us rooted in reality; things as small and seemingly insignificant as a pizza crust, a spool of thread, or even a helicopter seed. As a Tolkien fan, that message resonated deeply with me, and brought to mind Gandalf’s iconic quote from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (I know, I know, a movie quote: but a good one) – “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” That’s what Soul is really all about: small things and kind deeds that get us through one day, and then another, reminding us of how much wonder and beauty this world still has to offer us at every turn. A sequence in the third act illustrates this beautifully, allowing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting New Age score to narrate a vibrant montage of small-scale city life that pulls back to become a sprawling picture of the cosmos itself – and our tiny place in it.

Music is (pun most certainly intended) instrumental to Soul‘s success, and there will be h-e-double-hockeysticks to pay if Reznor and Ross aren’t rewarded at the Oscars for their work here. Their delicate New Age compositions harmonize beautifully with Jon Batiste’s jazz tunes, making the entire film as irresistible to the ears as it is to the eyes. Music, specifically soul music, is at the heart of everything Joe Gardner does throughout the story: and the film makes that clear, lavishing plenty of time on the moodily atmospheric nightclub where Gardner performs alongside in-universe jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), becoming so lost in the power of his music that he’s briefly transported to the astral plane, a mystical soundscape of shifting lights.

The animation is stunning, with all the levels of hyper-realistic detail you’d expect from a live-action film set – except in The Great Before, which has a quirky, abstract visual aesthetic, and The Great Beyond, a dark area comprised entirely of deconstructed geometric platforms, like the blank space outside the boundaries of a video game. But although I’ve heard complaints that animation’s goal shouldn’t be to mimic real life but to exaggerate it, I still preferred the sections of Soul that take place in New York City to those that center the spiritual realm. Firstly, because the entire film is clearly such a passionate and genuine love letter to every aspect of city life. And secondly, because of the character designs, which are among the most diverse I’ve seen in any animated film, ever. No copy-and-paste facial features here: Soul‘s New York is accurately populated by people of every race, gender, body type, height, and weight, each with their own individual character quirks. If the extras in your movie all look detailed enough to probably carry their own story, you know you’ve done something right (in case it wasn’t clear, I am in fact demanding that Pixar commission a series of shorts focusing on various extras from this film).

Soul
Joe Gardner | nytimes.com

Of our two leads, Joe is by far the more interesting: tall, lanky, middle-aged and bespectacled, he isn’t anything like the usual Pixar protagonist, or even the usual Pixar “hot dad” character (yes, that’s a real thing). He’s also sometimes Black, which makes him pretty unique for Pixar simply by default. I say “sometimes” because, well, he’s not Black for most of the film. And the worst part isn’t even that he gets turned into a wispy, featureless, pale green orb ten minutes in. The worst part is that the film gets a chance to remedy its mistake soon afterwards – and instead doubles down on its original bad choice, placing Joe into the body of a therapy cat while inserting 22 into Joe’s body. You can claim this is much ado about nothing, because 22 is just a disembodied voice in a green orb: but Pixar made the choice to have them voiced by a white actress, and even commented on it in the script, with Joe asking 22 why they prefer the voice of a “middle-aged white lady” when they can adopt any voice they want. This is all played for laughs, but it’s not funny. Just like it wasn’t funny when Tina Fey, 22’s voice actress, wrote blackface performances into four episodes of her series 30 Rock – something for which she only finally apologized earlier this year. Pixar giving this opportunity to her is a clear sign that the studio needs to do better when casting: because there is nothing in the script that requires 22 to have a white woman’s voice…unless it is the belief that the soulswap will somehow be made funnier because of it.

And unfortunately, all this comes about at the expense of Joe, who, as previously mentioned, gets stuck in the body of a cat. If you’re not familiar with the strange phenomenon of Black animated characters being transformed into animals, this probably seems like just another joke I’m not getting. But it’s an unfunny joke that’s been driven into the ground at this point: one that relies on the notion that audiences won’t relate to a Black protagonist, but will happily laugh along if that Black protagonist is usurped from their body and placed in an animal – or really anything else but themselves. Soul, by keeping Joe’s body hanging around, seems to think it’s doing the right thing: but it’s not Joe we’re seeing onscreen – it’s Tina Fey’s white-lady voice, using Joe’s body as a mouthpiece for their own agendas, at one point even hijacking and running off with it (apparently, Joe’s body didn’t suffer a single bruise, cut, or broken limb during his coma-inducing fall) like a shoplifted costume. There are other instances worth noting, but I will leave it up to individual Black critics and audience members to decide whether and where Soul crosses the line exactly. I am nonetheless certain that many – if not all – of these issues could have been easily avoided by casting a Black voice-actress in the part.

The other major issue with the film, less severe than the ones I’ve already mentioned, is a problem with pacing: as the first two acts meander all over the place. There’s no clear point at which the action really starts, either – eventually, you just have to accept that the story is moving along ever more swiftly, and there’s not much time to slow down or take a breather before you’re swept up in it. I feel that all of this may have been intentional, to mirror the hurried pace of real life and the need to savor the few respites we get from daily hustle-and-bustle, but while that sounds like an intriguing concept, it makes for a strange viewing experience. Still could win over some Academy voters, however, if it was a conscious choice.

Soul
Joe’s soul | denofgeek.com

In the entire history of the Academy Awards, only two animated feature-length films have ever been nominated for Best Picture – one being from Disney (Beauty & The Beast), and the other from Pixar (Toy Story 3, somehow). Soul, if it hopes to be the third, may therefore benefit from the COVID-19 delay that forced it to debut free of charge on Disney+ this Christmas: a date that puts it firmly in the middle of awards season. I personally doubt the film will score a Best Picture nomination, but it’s certainly the early frontrunner for Best Animated Picture, to nobody’s surprise. Onward never stood a chance.

And speaking of Onward, the lighthearted fantasy adventure remains my favorite Pixar film of the year (and my second-favorite Pixar film of all time), believe it or not. But fear not: Soul‘s decidedly Tolkienesque messages and simple delights will ensure it a safe place in my affections, though perhaps never a spot at the top of my Pixar tier-list.

Movie Rating: 8/10