Friday, November 11, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – long-winded sequel full of heart and the ethics of conflict (cinemas from 11 November)

The premise of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is that the meteor metal vibranium has been found on the ocean floor far away from Wakanda. When the exploration mission is attacked, Wakanda is accused of being responsible. But another enemy is afoot, and T’Challa’s grieving sister, tech wizard Shuri (Letitia Wright) heads off with special forces chief Okoye (Danai Gurira) to find a clever student at MIT (Riri Williams played by Dominique Thorne and deservedly appearing in a TV spinoff next year) and restore order to the world. When their plan goes wrong, they end up at war.

The situation may be science fiction, but the storyline is very modern and familiar. A nation is dealing with border security, protecting valuable resources, mass displacement, and a strategic decision about whether the killing of a foreign leader might extend or prolong a war. Colonisation is at the forefront of people’s thinking. Death thrusts other family members into the spotlight and into positions of leadership. Add to that the threatened genocide of the surface people, and the realisation that vengeance is all-consuming.

In a world where ancestral power casts light as well as shadow over present-day thinking, can Wakanda continue to travel in the same direction as those who have gone before? Or make fewer mistakes and find an even more true and peaceful path?

The 161-minute duration leaves director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler plenty of time for ethics to be explored. There’s a powerful example of self-sacrifice to save a stranger. There’s a comparative analysis of world leaders and the power of a figurehead to incite and excite. There are pictures of a family who are grieving, divided and reunited to search for those who are lost. The line “the world has taken too much from you to still be considered a child” could have been lifted from Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia or Ukraine.

A throwaway remark notes that the discovery of vibranium outside their kingdom upsets their legends and beliefs. Science challenging culture and religion.

Sound is crucial to the story: the sound of (watery) sirens turns people into clifftop lemmings. The score – much of which celebrates Mayan music – is richer than most other films in this genre which would get away from swelling strings and plenty of brass when the fighting starts. Instead, Ludwig Göransson weaves together character themes and creates something much more lush and powerful.

For a sequel that could have been titled Blank Panther: Girl Power, it’s very noticeable that the first line of dialogue is centred around a man who needs to be healed (“Please allow me to heal my brother of this illness”) and then a ceremonial sequence as he returns to be with his ancestors.

Marvel fans will feel it’s a necessary and fitting acknowledgment of the absent character T’Challa (who had been the Black Panther in the first movie) and the much-loved actor Chadwick Boseman who died in 2020. But outside that universe of fandom, the long opening tribute may be an awkward start for anyone not bought into the on- and off-screen detail.

The Belfast Odeon leaving the houselights on until a patron left the screen to tell them fifteen minutes into the main feature was also less than ideal.

But all was well when Arthur Dent walked into shot. That was the moment that I knew everything was going to be okay! Martin Freeman is back as CIA agent and friend of Wakanda, Everett K Ross.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will please the fans as well as those of us who prefer superhero films to be more cerebral than violent. It opened in cinemas on 11 November.

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