Wakanda Forever Charts Risky Course in Marvel Universe
Afrocentric plot and themes may fail to engage broader audiences
A common literary storytelling device uses an off-page (or off-screen) character to drive a story’s plot and character arc. Readers usually never see these characters. They typically appear as ghosts, in dreams, or as memories. While they don’t always interact directly with the characters, their presence is known and influences decisions.
This device is used effectively by Ryan Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole to chart a new course in the Marvel Universe through Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The technique creates an effective break in the story to send it in a new direction. In the process, Coogler further establishes himself as one of the industry’s most talented filmmakers. However, whether their new direction will be financially sustainable in the long run is an open question.
Wakanda Forever’s Artistic Success
Artistically, Wakanda Forever is a top-notch film. The plot is well conceived, the characters conflicted, and the forward momentum rarely falters. While some have criticized the movie as overly long—clocking in at more than two and a half hours—action and balanced CGI graphics keep the audience engaged despite a few odd quirks in the setting of some of the action sequences. The $250 million production budget was well spent.
As in the first film, Wakanda’s economy is powered by an alien mineral called vibranium. Wakanda withholds worldwide trade in vibranium because its leaders do not trust other countries to use it wisely. Its potential as an energy source, combined with the power to destroy anything Earthly, motivates the plot underlying Wakanda Forever’s plot. The Sovereign Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), mother of King T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, believes other nations will use it to attack and destroy Wakanda.
Wakanda Forever takes place in the immediate aftermath of the first movie. King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), however, has died from a disease that his brilliant sister, Shuri (Letitia Michelle Wright), is unable to cure. Shuri is devastated. She becomes cynical about the world and her ability to change it. Her brother’s death becomes the shadow character that drives a great deal of the story and the motivations behind the characters.
Shuri’s bitterness and sense of injustice leads to a vengeful and retributive worldview. She ignores her regal mother’s advice and wise counsel (Romanda). Resolving this conflict becomes the primary driver of Shuri’s character arc, using the covetous lust for power among Western governments as the foil.
Africans Vs. Mayans?
The United States and its western allies, most notably France—yes, the U.S. and France are in cahoots—want vibranium to develop new weaponry. Predictably, the CIA covertly develops a Vibranium tracking device to uncover new deposits of the miracle mineral deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
However, as they begin the extraction process, a race of humans living underwater led by Namor (Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta Mejia) thwarts their efforts. Namor is the king of the Talokanil, a civilization apparently rooted in the Mayan and Aztec traditions, culture, and language. (Namor first appeared in the Marvel Comics universe in 1939 and is considered the first comic book antihero.)
Yet, the Western governments quickly recede into the background. The CIA’s machinations, carrying out national objectives, become a transparent plot device. The real plot revolves around the conflict between the Wakanda and the Talokan.
A Detour into the Atlantic Ocean
The Talokan civilization seems to be a historical revisioning of the Aztec Empire, or perhaps the waning years of the Mayan Civilization. (The Mayans succumbed to the Spanish in 1697 after a long decline). This most likely occurred around the early- and mid-16th Century.
Namor is motivated by the trauma from witnessing the Spanish brutally colonize Mesoamerica. He is saved as he dives into the Atlantic Ocean and ingests the same herb that flourishes from Vibranium. He discovers newfound powers and uses the herb to cultivate an underwater civilization of survivors.
His view of western nations, however, hasn’t changed in the centuries since. Like Wakanda, Namor sees the dangers of militaristic Western countries. Namor, like the Wakandans, believes Western Nations will use the mineral to develop new weapons to wage war and destroy the Talokan and Wakanda.
However, since the death of T’Challa, the Wakanda lack a superhero.
As Namor and his military search for the scientist who created a Vibranium detection device, he captures Shuri and its teenage-age inventor, Riri (Dominique Thorne, If Beale Street Could Talk, Judas and the Black Messiah). He uses his own vibranium-induced powers to blackmail Ramonda into supporting his quest to destroy the European nations. To save her child, Ramonda believes she has no choice.
Ultimately, it’s up to Shuri and Riri to keep Namor at bay.
Group Vs. Individual Identity
Wakanda Forever represents a thematic break from the 2018 film that started the franchise. While Black Panther focused extensively on internal conflicts within Wakanda between individual identities, Wakanda Forever embodies these conflicts in differing group identities – the Wakandans, the Talokans, and the collective white nations. The result is a less nuanced, less accessible film.
In the first movie, the primary conflicts were interpersonal, and the conflict centered on worldviews within Wakanda. This provided a universality to the main themes that could speak to a broad range of audiences. See my review of the first Black Panther movie for more discussion.
Wakanda Forever, in contrast, is more consciously about race.
The primary plot driver is Namor’s attempt to unite the peaceful and largely pacifist Wakanda in his violent and aggressive quest to destroy his Western enemies. This conflict between group identities is the primary frame for exploring familiar themes such as vengeance, retributive justice, loss, and redemption.
Individual identity, vengeance, retributive justice, power, and violence are not unique to one group or political system. More often than not, individuals can see these elements in their own lives, relationships, and workplaces. Thus, Black Panther’s themes and plot were inherently more inclusive by focusing primarily on individual weaknesses, strengths, and insecurities.
The Afrocentric plot in Wakanda Forever charts a different course. The white characters are highly marginalized as either nefarious plotters, clueless about the potential dangers of vibranium, or pawns in the power struggle. The European nations are two-dimensional, with a singular focus on extracting Vibranium. Wakanda, in contrast, is an ideal type for a peaceful nation governed by wise and strong rulers. (Wakanda is not a democracy.) Its military is used only for obvious self-defense purposes. While Namor’s motivations are not pure or transparently evil, the Talokans’ fears of white colonial powers motivate their desire to destroy their civilizations.
Wakanda Forever is a Risky Redirection of the Movie Franchise
Creating a race-conscious movie carries significant risks for the franchise. This second movie in the Black Panther series has crafted scenes that will appeal to a narrower market. Without a broad appeal to mainstream white audiences, the movie series will likely suffer commercially.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 57% of movie tickets sold in 2021 were to Caucasian / white viewers. Twenty-three percent were Latino / Hispanic. Just 12% were African-American / black. Similarly, just 12% of those viewing movies at home or on mobile devices were African-American or black.
Movies targeted toward niche markets can earn profits. However, these movies typically have production budgets significantly lower than the $250 million spent to make Wakanda Forever. The Black Panther‘s budget was $200 million. No other films with Afrocentric themes or characters since 2010 had budgets greater than $90 million.
Nevertheless, Wakanda Forever is profitable and a certified blockbuster. It’s earned three times its production budget in commercial theaters, with box office gross revenue approaching $800 million worldwide. (The rule of thumb is that a movie needs to earn twice its production budget at the box office for a theatrical release in order for it to be profitable.)
Consumers have a rather direct way of disciplining miscalculations in the marketplace. Wakanda Forever‘s budget is 25% higher than the original movie, and revenues are tracking about 20% lower. With these trends, the financial sustainability of the franchise may be in doubt.
A third Black Panther movie may already be in the works. Whether Ryan Coogler’s artistry can overcome the more narrow demographic barriers an Afrocentric storyline creates in Wakanda Forever has yet to be seen.