“My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever experienced the letdown of unmet expectations? I’m sure you have. We all do from time to time. Sometimes that’s our own fault because we placed too much hope in the wrong things. Sometimes it is the fault of someone else who sold us more than was available to buy. Oftentimes it’s a mixture of both. I recently experienced a theatrical letdown. My hopes were high for a great film, but it just didn’t deliver. This morning, we’re going to talk about the latest offering from Marvel Studios: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and why it just wasn’t what I expected. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, proceed with caution because I will include spoilers.
I really hate writing this. If you’ve been tracking with me for very long, you know I’m a big Marvel fan. What’s more, I’ve pretty much enjoyed everything they’ve released. Other than perhaps Thor 2: The Dark World (which I enjoyed seeing for the first time), I can’t think of a single film in Phases 1-3 that I didn’t like. I could watch the finale of Endgame over and over again and never get tired of it. But Phase Four, at least on the big screen, has mostly been one dud after another.
This isn’t uniformly the case. Spider-Man: No Way Home was incredible in nearly every way. I hated that they basically and finally officially wrote Uncle Ben completely out of Peter Parker’s story, instead giving his pivotal role in Peter’s growth to Aunt May (but who needs men in the world anyway…an idea this latest Black Panther movie basically doubles down on…more on that in a bit), but everything else about it was terrific. Shang Chi was outstanding as well. Even Dr. Strange 2 was good. Black Widow, though, was just okay. Thor 4 wasn’t nearly as good as Thor 3. And The Eternals was really interesting, but not all that exciting.
Now, when it comes to the small screen, we have an entirely different story on our hands. With the possible exception of She-Hulk, which I really enjoyed once I was able to take it for it was rather than waiting for it to be something else, Marvel’s Phase Four streaming series on Disney+ have been consistently amazing.
The sequel to Black Panther marks the official end of Phase Four. The forthcoming February release of Ant-Man: Quantumania will take us into Phase 5 and genuinely launch the Multiverse Saga which will be the equivalent of the Infinity Saga of Phases 1-3. As the capstone of the whole Phase, I was really pretty hopeful that it was going to be another gem like Spider-Man was…or like the first Black Panther film was. The first movie did a terrific job setting the nobleness of King T’Challa (wonderfully played by Chadwick Boseman) against the bitterness and selfish anger of Killmonger. And I know this isn’t a terribly popular opinion, but Killmonger was easily the most pitiable and pathetic villain of any of the Marvel films. He was fed a poisonous ideology by his father, was dealt a grave and unjust wound when he was a child, and instead of finding healing and hope in forgiveness, let that poisonous, racist ideology take him down an incredibly dark path. He was a perfect example of the wisdom and rightness of the Gospel.
With that story as a setup, the Black Panther sequel was going to be all about T’Challa expanding the global influence of Wakanda’s revolutionary technology and noble character around the world. We always knew it was going to feature the introduction of the character Namor into the MCU. Seeing those two powerful characters set against each other and possibly alongside each other was a truly exciting prospect. And then Chadwick Boseman lost his battle against colon cancer shortly after the completion of Avengers: Endgame, and the whole thing had to be scrambled. Nonetheless, there was a lot of confidence among the fans that direct, Ryan Coogler would be able to tell a story that was simultaneously just as good but also properly honoring of Boseman’s life and legacy as T’Challa.
What we wound up with was…well…a bit of a mess. For starters, the film’s runtime was 2 hours and 47 minutes. That’s a long movie. As a credit to Coogler’s directorial skills, it never felt long. It generally kept moving and didn’t drag much. There were plenty of action sequences which were all pretty well done. The CGI was mostly terrific throughout the film. The acting was outstanding. And there was a lot of character development. So. Much. Character development. But from a story perspective, other than clearly being yet another Marvel property at least partially about dealing with grief (which marks number four in this Phase to have that theme at its heart), it was just okay. Nothing about it was very compelling, much of it felt very contrived and forced, and there were enough holes to make a block of Swiss cheese feel a little jealous. And, other than including a few quick cameos of Julia Louise-Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Val, for short), who has now made several cameos in Phase Four in a role that is likely setting her up to be a kind of anti-Nick Fury, it was almost completely disconnected from any other Marvel film except its predecessor. To serve as the capstone of the whole of Phase Four and be so disconnected from the rest of the MCU was an interesting choice on Marvel’s part.
The movie opens with a long prologue in which T’Challa is dying from some mysterious illness off-screen (because Boseman is gone), followed by a long funeral sequence. Given how close much of the cast was personally with Boseman, I suspect the emotions throughout are so well portrayed because they are genuine. In a sense, the whole cast was using the production of the film as a way to process their grief. A significant part of the rest of the film is about Shuri’s processing her own grief over losing her father, now her brother, and in a pivotal moment that leads into the third act, her mother, Queen Ramonda, at the hands of Namor. She works through nearly all the major stages of grief throughout the movie, including anger after her mother’s death. That anger propels her to figure out how to give herself the powers of the Black Panther, which she fully intends to use to kill Namor in revenge. This results in her trip to the ancestral plain (something she emphatically doesn’t believe really exists because of science right up until she goes there) featuring a visit from none other than Killmonger, who basically serves as the devil on her shoulder.
Revealing that his death has not sparked even a dime’s worth of repentance in his heart for the evil he willfully unleashed during his life, Killmonger calls her to forgo the nobleness of her bother and embrace his path of “getting [stuff] done,” by which he means she should live into her anger, murder Namor, and serve as a vengeful ruler in her mother’s place. And that’s what she just nearly does. But for having another brief ancestral plain experience, but this time with her mother, she would have killed Namor, choosing instead at the last minute to spare him and forge an alliance between their nations which will likely serve as the point of tension for a future Namor feature film if Marvel chooses to make one.
Speaking of Namor, in the comics he is the first mutant and the King of Atlantis. There’s a rich history of Atlantis Coogler could have drawn on to make for a really interesting character. Instead, while Namor looks to be the first mutant (and explicitly calls himself that in a conversation with Shuri), he is now the King of Talokan, an underwater kingdom founded by his Incan tribe 500 years ago. When the evil Spanish (read: white) Conquistadors came to the new world in search of gold, and murdered or enslaved the locals in their efforts, one of his tribe’s priests received a vision from their serpent god that he should make an impossible underwater swim to find a glowing blue plant that he was to pick and make a serum for his people that would save them from the invaders. The plant is powered by…wait for it…vibranium, which apparently exists in the ocean as well so that Namor’s people can be super-powered (the whole nation of them).
The serum turns everyone who takes it blue and makes them start gasping for air. Somehow they know they are supposed to go into the water where they can now breath like fish. Also they’re super strong. And can sing hypnotic songs that make their enemies go into a trance and throw themselves into the water to drown. Namor’s mom is convinced to take the serum in spite of her initial resistance because she is actively pregnant with him. His father is never once mentioned…in a traditional culture from 500 years ago that would have given no quarter or protections to a woman who was pregnant and unmarried. She ultimately delivers Namor underwater, but while the serum just made her blue-skinned and super strong, his skin stays brown, he can breathe air and water equally well, and he also has wings on his ankles that allow him to fly. Also, he ages incredibly slowly so that when this movie is taking place 500 years later, he only looks like he’s in his mid- to late-30s. Why he was mutated like this when none of the rest of his people were will have to remain a mystery. Like I said: holes upon holes upon holes.
The major point of conflict in the film is that US government has acquired a machine that allows them to track the location of vibranium in the ocean. Not wanting to let anyone get their hands on “their” vibranium in much the same ways as Wakanda is ultra-protective of theirs, Namor and his warriors attack the military research ship that has found it, steals the machine, and kills everyone aboard to hide any evidence of their existence. They just want to stay underwater and be left alone…and will viciously destroy anyone who threatens to expose them to the world no matter how innocent the exposure may have been. The machine in question was invented by a Tony Stark-level brilliant, but utterly naive girl named Riri Williams. In the comics she is also known as Ironheart and is the modern successor to Iron Man. Black Panther offered her introduction before she stars in her own Disney+ series sometime next year and likely plays a role in the Avengers films that will serve as the climax of Phase Six.
The discovery of the underwater vibranium using Riri’s machine isn’t itself the source of the conflict. Somehow, Namor learns that she is its creator (another plot hole), and goes to Shuri and Queen Ramonda to tell them to find Riri and kill her to prevent her from making more similar machines…or they will kill everyone in the world to keep themselves from being discovered. I’m honestly a little surprised the whole movie didn’t disappear into that gaping plot hole. Shuri’s attempts to rescue Riri get thwarted and the pair get kidnapped by Namor so that he can fill her in on all of his back story for the audience. A later successful effort to rescue Shuri and Riri results in two of Namor’s people being killed for which he announces his intentions to destroy all of Wakanda.
Eventually you had to start laughing at the fact that Namor is presented as gentle and kind and totally reasonable…other than his being incorribly unwilling to take any other path than killing everyone in order to protect his people from being bothered by the outside world. Incidentally, other than Shuri’s finally (and barely) getting the best of him in combat at the end of the movie, leading to his accepting her terms for a truce and calling off his warriors, Namor’s people seem utterly invincible throughout the film. This is because instead of just one person drinking the Black Panther serum, the whole nation took it, were empowered by it, and passed it on to their children down through 500 years of history, during which time, other than creating some vibranium water bombs that completely defy all laws of physics, and some reverse diving masks that allow them to breath water when they are out of it, they haven’t advanced as a people at all. While Wakanda relies on vibranium-powered technology to make themselves powerful, the Talokans have it as a feature of their genes.
If you are a Marvel fan, go see the movie. It’s fun and you don’t really want to miss any parts of the larger storyline anyway. As far as movies go, though, the more I reflect on it, it feels like the original Avatar which in spite of being visually stunning featured a story that was so profoundly nonsensical and filled with holes that it was actually difficult to stick with it all the way to the end. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is another grief project with a bit of Marvel thrown in to make fans happy. It also showcases Coogler’s anti-white and anti-male bias.
On that first part, the only real villain of the movie is the Western (i.e., white) world. In spite of Namor’s constant genocidal threats, he was really the victim of Christian colonizers and is only trying to do whatever it takes to protect his people. And Wakanda is the only nation in the world who is really noble and good enough to use vibranium responsibly. Everyone else (and in this case, specifically France with the United States just in their wake…Coogler couldn’t be too overt about making the US the villain or his primarily US audience would reject the film) just wants to use it so they can make weapons that will destroy the world. There’s not a chance they will use it at all to advance life-saving and quality-of-life-improving technologies for the good of the world. At all. In the end, Wakanda and Talokan join together to stand against the incursions of the Western world.
On the second part, now that all the men have died, women are running Wakanda and they really don’t need men. The army is all composed of women of the Dora Milaje who are all fierce warriors, far superior to any man. They even introduce a new member of the Dora Milaje in this movie as near as I can tell for the sole purpose of revealing her to be a lesbian at the end of the film. The one male character of any significance, M’Baku (delightfully played by Winston Duke), basically spends the whole movie offering comic relief and getting bossed around by Shuri once she is super-powered by the synthetic Black Panther serum she created (since Killmonger destroyed all the rest of it in the first movie as it was conveniently all kept in one place). It is implied that he will become the King of Wakanda at the end, but Shuri as the new Black Panther is really calling the shots.
Both of these are part of a larger trend that has encompassed all of Phase Four as well as Marvel Comics for the last twenty years or so in which all of the new characters are minorities. All of them. I’ve heard that Phase Four was really about introducing new characters who will be carrying the show into the next part of the larger storyline. Every single one of them are minorities…unless they’re evil. Now, as a white guy, that probably sounds about as tone deaf as it possibly could. I can own that. For a long time, all of the heroes were white guys and most of the villains were minorities. Still today and in spite of Marvel’s best efforts, their most popular characters are Spider-Man (white guy), Thor (white guy), Iron Man (white guy), and Captain America (white guy). Now, they’ve created new versions of all of those who are minorities, but the originals still sell best. Now, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Thor, and Ant-Man are all still in the MCU and they’re not going anywhere. There are active talks about how to bring back OG Iron Man and Captain America because they sell really well. But there are nonetheless intentional efforts to sideline heroes that look like me in favor of heroes that don’t. This fits within the broader efforts of our culture to sideline and de-prioritize white guys in favor of minorities of every possible flavor. As a result of this, that still largest demographic segment of our population is cratering. My boys are growing up in a world in which the culture around them is aggressively declaring that it is perfectly okay to be absolutely anything other than what they are – white guys. I often wonder what kind of impact that is going to have on them, and what kinds of opportunities they might miss out on because of who they are.
Now, again, I understand that for a lot of folks this will all sound tone deaf. After all, people like me of the present are simply experiencing what people like me of the past aggressively inflicted on people who don’t look like me. We deserve it. Perhaps. But the damage done by a pendulum out of balance in one direction isn’t corrected by a pendulum swung out of balance in the other direction. That only creates more damage and sets up a subsequent pendulum swing back too far in the first direction. None of this reflects the equality of value latent in the Gospel. I am genuinely delighted that there are parents who don’t look like me today whose children have heroes on the big screen who look like them. That is a good thing. I want that for my boys as well. More than that, I want for our culture to recognize and celebrate the value of every single individual as uniquely created in the image of a God who is good and loving and just and righteous and holy. Black Panther doesn’t offer that. It simply parrots and feeds back into the narrative out of which it was created. And the result is a film that’s just mediocre in spite of a number of elements that should have made it outstanding. We are living in the midst of a worldview war. We have thrown off the Christian worldview as a people, and we are looking for one that will satisfy the needs we have as a people. We are like teenagers trying everything but what our parents told us was right and true just to be able to prove them wrong. But we won’t find what we are looking for until and unless we look back to the Gospel. Everything else just leads to anger and resentment and conflict. It is the only place we will find the peace and foundation for genuine equality we need. When our storytellers finally grasp that truth, they will start telling really good stories once again.