Upon release, the Marvel film Black Panther (2018) was hailed as a cinematic rebellion against the racial hierarchies of Hollywood, unsettling eurocentric notions of sovereignty and progress and enthralling audiences with entertainment at its most spectacular. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) has had its work cut out for itself— to live up to soaring expectations and deliver cinematic ecstasy in line with its celebrated predecessor, a task it accomplishes with its gargantuan scale and strong emotional core. However, if the predecessor was politically relevant, does the sequel push the envelope? Where do we situate the phenomenon of the Black Panther franchise in an industry driven by commercial concerns, using issues of identity for its own gains?
The plot of the film superimposes the demise of Chadwick Boseman, who played the title character in the 2018 film, on the narrative with the death of T’Challa (or the Black Panther) due to an obscure disease, leaving Wakanda seemingly vulnerable. Ramonda (Angela Bassett) defends the country from international pressures to share its reserves of vibranium (a fictional metal of great importance within the Marvel universe), reassuring the world of Wakanda’s strength, while Shuri (Letitia Wright) scrambles to artificially create a herb which could have saved T’Challa’s life. International forces are deployed in a quest to secure vibranium from other sources and are confronted by a hostile underwater civilisation, leading to suspicions of Wakanda. In the mayhem that ensues, battles are fought, key figures are maimed and a new Black Panther is born.
If during the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics (1956-75), Marvel stood out against DC for its human and imperfect superheroes, fleshing out organic journeys, it is safe to say that the latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe carries forward this legacy with aplomb. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is a deeply nostalgic affair, with an emotional core which pulsates throughout.
The question of the subversiveness of the Black Panther franchise might need us to carry two simultaneous readings in mind. In One Dimensional Man, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse asserts that in modern industrial society, the establishment and its opposition are reconciled in status quo-preserving arrangements, which makes real resistance impossible. This logic can be applied to the films in question, championing progressive politics, while being produced by and incorporated within the hegemonic power structures of Hollywood. Scepticism around Black Panther (2018) was spelt out by people who noted the lack of revolutionary vitality in merely consuming popular culture. The other reading of the film is a hopeful one and acknowledges the cultural difference the franchise makes by, at the very least, stirring the establishment if not shaking it up, and creating conversations which might lead us into a better future.
Black Panther did help create an expansive cinematic universe which challenged Hollywood’s “whiteness”. The sequel takes this endeavour forward by placing women at its centre, not only adding concerns of gender to its intended progressivism but also by humanising these characters and allowing them jubilation, grief, vulnerability and agency.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a worthy vehicle for the series to be carried forward and perhaps the message is that films like these, whether cinematic masterpieces or not, will keep on coming, asserting racial pride against discrimination and reminding the world of the excesses of colonialism and colonialist tendencies. It is an exemplar of well-made watchable cinema which chooses to be politically informed. Wakanda’s Afrofuturistic achievements and nationalist vigour will be reinforced in the popular consciousness with this installment, with Marvel’s organic and human superhero universe providing suitable infrastructure for this intervention.
The author is an independent writer and researcher