Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — Big Budget Blandness

Audiences deserve better. These are the biggest, most expensive and most culturally dominant films. Of course, you may expect a degree of homogeneity and emptiness from any piece of art like this, one that is fundamentally trying to court the mainstream (a market share that relies on you being unchallenging and on abiding by expectations). Wakanda Forever is, at points, not this. It makes interesting gestures; it presents perspectives that diverge from mainstream fare; it respectfully, and in a very touching way, deals with the tragic passing of the previous film’s lead (Chadwick Boseman) — where ethically concerning CG replacements, and bizarre plot gymnastics are deployed in large movies sadly struck by (relatively) similar circumstances, the frank treatment here feels very apt. So, then, what is the problem? Well, the problem is the filmmaking. The problem is that tentpole films in the biggest movie franchise in the world look like sub-amateur productions. Again, audiences deserve better.

Oh look, a blurry background!

The problem is the culture of secrecy around these things. You will have heard the stories of those involved never meeting their co-stars, just turning up at the soundstage/greenscreen/wrap-around-screen and delivering some lines towards an eyeline indicator. Lines out of context, of course. Because the more you know, the more you can reveal. These works thrive on hype and expectation, a manufactured experience crafted through this hush-hush mentality. This is silly, but ultimately fine… until it impacts the actual filmmaking. Truly, Wakanda forever seems to be the apotheosis of this.

In this film, the vast majority of the shots are a character, or characters, in the foreground of an otherwise blurred image. We often just have shot/reverse shot sequences, where somebody (probably is a stand-in) stands with their back to the camera, a comfortable amount of blur over them and enough smoke and mirrors to allow any line to be ADR-ed in. There is no feeling of space or geography to the film, just foreground figures flanked by blur, creating utter blandness. This lack of spatial reference screws with the depth-of-field, establishing flat images. Obscured objects in the background have no discernible position in space and therefore intersect oddly with the actors that are supposed to be in front of them. The vast majority of the film has the look of actors standing in front of static backgrounds, but not even very good ones. It feels like the whole film exists in the opening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), where we cut to Goldblum on a shoddy looking tropical island, only for it to be revealed that it’s billboard advertisement behind him. The issue is, Wakanda Forever never pans away. We are stuck staring at the billboard.

I wouldn’t bother looking behind you, there’s nothing there.

And then we have the lighting, or lack of it. So much of this film looks like it is being played on a laptop that has had the charger disconnected from it. The screen seems dimmed, almost unwatchably dark and profoundly ugly to look at. It reflects an overall clumsiness, as this film feels messy. Maybe it is the result of the slapped together secrecy; maybe it is the result of corporate interests overriding any artistic intervention. Whatever it is, the result is a mess. We begin with a promising (narratively, never visually) geopolitical thriller. It seems to take on the repercussions of state actions and certain key events in this, now very entrenched, cinematic universe. Ultimately, though, this only exists as a spur for plot and is not engaged with for well over two-thirds of a very long movie. It is a framing device used to introduce a new place, and with it a new culture brought into the MCU (which is really cool, even if a lot of the film’s storytelling feels like a shallow attempt to bring back the successes of the first — this new society have their own hand-gesture!). And then we just watch the interesting and established culture from the first movie fight the new culture introduced in this movie. It is a proxy battle but the backdrop of this is as hazy as the film’s backgrounds: a vague, flat blur that feels divorced from the thing in front of it. It is really a shame that we have this brand-new world to explore, and all we see of it is violence. There is just a lot of collateral death here, and in a film that actually does a very good job of dealing with the impact of death regarding King T’Challa, this all feels quite numbing. We wait for the main characters to do their thing, the thing that brings the telegraphed resolution; meanwhile, the fodder just dies in the background.

It all just feels flimsy and disposable, a film with some ideas worth articulating — about a changed world stage, about isolationism, about resource colonialism — but no clear idea of how to articulate them. The original film may not have always been perfect with its messaging (especially with its coda) but there was a political throughline and a structure that underpinned its ideas. This work feels structureless, a variety of moments that exist to keep the story going and to bloat the runtime (in the absence of filmmaking that matches the size of these movies, the length of them becomes the indicator of importance). A lot of new stuff is introduced and not all of it is ultimately worthwhile, it just feels the need to constantly have things happening. It is how it gains its runtime, rather than crafting out a raison d’être it packs in stuff. Occasionally it is very charged stuff (there is some political shenanigans between Wakanda and our new location that could do with some unpacking, regarding the way states act) but this ever-moving-shark of a film does not have time to deal with that: it pushes towards spectacle. And then it can’t deliver on the spectacle, the incredibly bland visuals sapping impact.

That’s it, gesture at the audience to make them look away from the all-encompassing blur.

There are things to like in Wakanda Forever. It does well, in small ways, by the majority of its legacy characters. But this is just banking the cheques that the previous film made. Our established feeling towards these characters allows the film to glean out some nice moments, and makes us want to watch them. Though, to be fair, some of the things it does with these players are interesting (and they remind you why you like them to begin with). There is some decent dialogue, mostly a good command of different characters voices, and the performers (even the anti-vaxxers) are mostly good in their roles (Martin Freeman still needs to be spared from having to attempt that accent and that dull character needs to stop being plot critical). These gains are just outweighed by a wider film that is disappointingly bland, and persistently inelegant.

Wakanda Forever is a sequel that splutters into existence, and that moves forward at random: the cardinal sin is committed of mentioning a brand new possibility at the beginning, a speculative claim about the filmic world, just so the film can make that thing happen later (new information is key for sequels, but sequels shouldn’t mechanically set up pieces just so they can knock them down, they should feel like coherent builds on what came before). It is also worth noting that the solution found to combat the film’s ultimate nemesis (a promising character let down by the plot they have to exist in) is reminiscent of a conversation had in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You (2012). This is a reminder of a better movie but also an embarrassing comparison towards an amateur and ultra-independent production that is, actually, a better looking and more coherently made film than Wakanda Forever. Audiences just deserve better. They can already go see better but a film of this scope should just be better. It shouldn’t be bland. It shouldn’t be such a mess. It just should be better.


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