Saturday 12 November 2022

Daft and dolorous: "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"

Sometimes a death in the family is both a punch in the gut and a kick up the backside. I whisper this, given its universally beloved status, but 2018's Black Panther did little for me: look beneath its vibrant toplayer of Afrofuturist doodling, and it was still all too plainly Marvel Movie 101. (When I caught up with its writer-director Ryan Coogler's earlier Fruitvale Station recently, it seemed even more heartbreaking for being a road not pursued; fantastical doodling may be all the mainstream now has to offer those coming in from the fringes.) The film's colossal box-office inevitably gave rise to talk of sequels, yet planning would be confounded in 2020, first by Covid, then by the sad passing of star Chadwick Boseman, aged just 43. Two years later, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever raises an intriguing question: how does a vast, broadly unfeeling corporate superstructure - in this case, the now-labyrinthine narrative chicanery of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe - even begin to absorb and process real-world grief and loss? The answer is it can't, ultimately, but you feel the question hanging heavy over at least the sequel's prologue, unusually hushed by event-movie standards, which begins with nearest-and-dearest being informed of King T'challa's sudden demise, and ends with an intricately carved coffin - continuity doodling - being sucked up into a spaceship. You wonder, at least for a moment or two, whether this superhero movie is going to take an existential cue or two from its urgently whispered opening line: "Time is running out." Gather ye Infinity Stones while ye may.

A parallel question, for anybody who isn't a fully paid-up Marvel fanboy, is whether your remaining time on this mortal coil is best spent sitting through all two hours and forty-two minutes of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Sure enough, it's soon MCU business as usual: Wakanda decried as a vibranium-stockpiling rogue state by one of those mock-UN committees Marvel movies specialise in. (One development for anyone keeping tabs on those actors who've sighed and taken the paycheque: Toby Ziegler, here promoted to the position of US ambassador/suspect paleface, is now Marvel canon. Also new to the canon: Robert John Burke, Fenty 440 make-up, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the struggles of indigenous Latin Americans. By 2030, they'll be joined by you, me, fidgetspinners and Duncan Norvelle.) And yet, even as the kingdom re-enters war with the wider world, grief keeps bursting out - first in a fireside chat between Queen Angela Bassett (who's gone grey for the occasion) and a never-more-fragile Letitia Wright (who spends the entire movie, even the car chases and techie stuff, on the brink of tears), then in sporadic spats and heart-to-hearts between the Wakanda ruling class. These scenes are touching, because they fall close to the conversations the actors themselves must have had between takes on the subject of their fallen comrade; it's just, as on set, they're continually cut short by explosions or sudden mermen invasions. The impression one gets of Wakanda Forever is of a production rerouted - ct. its slick, one-track predecessor - and that rerouting is where the film threatens to become halfway distinctive: it's like a Fast & Furious dispatch that pulls into a wake and momentarily passes for a funeral cortege.

Only threatens, though, and at 160 minutes-plus, there remains ample room for much that is not untypically throwaway, forgettable or otherwise plain silly. We get at least an hour of water-treading - literally - in an Atlantis-like seascape, where Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole again labour in wearying vain to bridge the gap between Stan Lee and Shakespeare. (Tom Hiddleston's desperate press-junket aside about 2011's Thor being no different from The Bard now seems more than ever comparable to Michael Gove's snide pre-Brexit crack about the British public having had enough of experts: not just demonstrably wrong, but damaging in its implications. Comic-book movies used to be a whole lot of fun before they felt a need to justify themselves as high art of great social relevance.) There's more real-world location work this time, but the Wakandan scenes retain that resistible air of shot-before-a-green-screen artlessness, while the stick-on African accents - also a feature of the recent, broadly admired The Woman King - are as the generic moustaches Caucasian actors used to don before playing Charlie Chan. All this is before the movie gets around to those mermen, who leap into frame as either market-stall knock-offs of DC's Aquaman creations, or spoilers for the forthcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. Like so many elements of the contemporary American blockbuster, they'd be a wow if we hadn't already seen them before and weren't about to see them again in the very near future.

Their arrival is the point where the sequel betrays the essentially infantile nature of these comic-book projects; it still seems utterly back-to-front that grown-ups will spend more hard-earned cash on this in the next few days than they will on any other film. The silliness of Wakanda Forever is different from the implausible escapism of, say, Speed or even Con Air, films that took place in some idea of the real world rather than inside a four-year-old's head, and were thus bound by some (albeit often tenuous) degree to the laws of physics. Here, we're meant to take everything on screen - even the burly men with tiny, delicate hummingbird wings on their ankles, apparently powerful enough to lift them a hundred feet into the air - at face value, and if we're really wide-eyed and credulous, to applaud it as some kind of vision, a forceful corrective to the myriad iniquities of our own universe. I really wish I could, but again the effect is largely superficial and acutely overstretched. Coogler introduces one surprising, moving storybeat at the end of another nothingy action sequence - the surprise is partly that something that feels so rotely insignificant could have such grave consequences - but the funeral party around it is hobbled by an intrinsic lack of gravity. After nearly three hours, Boseman's passing is marked with scarcely more weight than the death of the fictional Iron Man (soon to be overturned, if the rumour mill is to be believed), the end-credit nursery-rhyme that represents Rihanna's musical comeback (the voice is still there, the material isn't), or indeed of a coffin being sucked into a spaceship, never to be seen again. These movies keep reaching for the eternal - as in that optimistic subtitle, and the onerous running time - but reach is all they've got: it's hard to convey profound loss when your characters are recyclable meat in catsuits, and the films don't bear more than one hour's serious thought.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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