BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

By Marc S. Sanders

Marvel does it right.  DC doesn’t.  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever  is not a perfect film, but it’s not Black Adam.  The latest Marvel production offers sharp visual effects and action scenes, along with thought provoking moments that reflect on loss.  Black Adam offers a crusty, yellow lightning bolt on the chest of The Rock.

Director Ryan Coogler was faced with a terrible challenge to make the follow up to his smash hit, Black Panther.  The star at the center of the film, Chadwick Boseman, unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer.  A screenplay for the film’s sequel had to suddenly be rehashed.  A unified cast had to work with a hole in its structure.  Coogler opted not to recast the role of T’Challa, the King of the fictional African nation, Wakanda.  That was a smart choice.  Boseman’s portrayal was so embraced in that film, as well as three other Marvel chapters, that he was seemingly irreplaceable.  T’Challa was not just another James Bond or Batman.

I liked most of Wakanda Forever.  First and foremost, the primary cast is mostly female and Marvel’s early reputation with female characters left a lot to be desired when all they would do is flirt with the action star and scream for help.  As well, none of the women characters were very diverse.  The African influence of the Black Panther characters demonstrate that the Marvel universe is unlimited in appearance and style.  (Star Wars productions of late prove that as well.) 

The design of the picture is also gorgeous.  I still yearn for Wakanda to be a real locale that can be toured.  I’m sure Disney is already giving this some thought.  At times, it was hard to know what overhead locations were mere CGI and what was real.  The backdrops are seamless.  The whole movie is gorgeous. 

The sensitivity to the loss of Boseman is especially handled beautifully.  The opening sequence is a ceremony we have all been waiting for since the actor’s death two years prior to the release of the film.  Some of the customs and practices might be fictional, albeit inspired by what has been researched in other factual nations and observances, but it is also endearing.  The silence of the Marvel logo montage will especially grab you.

Wakanda Forever is carried primarily by Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  The film takes place one year after T’Challa has passed away from a disease and she is not ready to burn the funeral garb she wore when his soul was sent off to the ancestors.  However, while Wakanda was once thought to be the sole resource of Vibranium, the most powerful element in the world, a new character is introduced from under the ocean.  Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is the mutant who leads a nation of underwater dwellers with their own source of Vibranium.  He proposes that his nation works in conjunction with Wakanda to protect what they possess from other nations (like the United States and France; though why must Marvel show these countries in a bad light?) who could potentially use this commodity for nefarious purposes. 

From this seed in the storyline, subplots are branched out.  They just don’t work, though.  Wakanda’s American ally, Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), is brought back into the fold.  He only adds unnecessary running time to a very long film.  First, he provides a lead on to a new character, that’s expected to fill the hole left by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man.  A character named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who I have learned becomes the super hero Iron Heart with a new Iron suit.  After that Ross is left to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN as we have already seen the plot unfolding for ourselves, and have conversations with a character named Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus, looking at her most uninteresting and boring).  I know. This character serves as teaser fodder for what the MCU promises in future installments, but why is it necessary?  I believe this is her third appearance between the films and Disney + shows.  All she does is drag the stories down.  Wakanda Forever is a 2 hour and 40-minute film, that could have saved thirty minutes without the characters from Freeman and Dreyfus, and likely Thorne as well.  Let’s just stick with the Wakandans and forget about advertising what’s coming next from the Marvel factory, please.

Another issue with the film is the delay of showing the new Black Panther.  That’s what we ultimately paid for.  The middle section of this long running time had me yearning for when I could see the new suit in action, and who was going to wear it.  When it finally arrives in the third act, I gotta say I was let down.  While there’s a newly inventive design, like each time there was with Iron Man, we don’t see much of what’s new in action and there’s hardly anything that’s novel about it.  Does this Black Panther suit offer any new tricks? 

What’s fortunate for the film is the cast.  Letitia Wright has a good balance of youth segueing into maturity as she toils with loss.  I love this angle in the same way I appreciated the cancer storyline written for Natalie Portman in Thor: Love And Thunder.  Superpowers do not shield us from what slowly dwindles our lives away.  Angela Basset remains a very strong actor after an over forty-year career as the surviving Queen of Wakanda.  She commands a powerful presence of authority.  Danai Gurira as the spear wielding acrobatic Wakandan warrior Okoye is absolutely cool in action scenes.  She also has well written scenes to perform with the other two leads, as her character’s commitment to country is tested. 

Ironically, the Namor character is one of the oldest Marvel characters in print, introduced long before Spider-Man or the Hulk came on the page.  I was never a fan of the character though.  He just didn’t have a cool enough costume for me as it was only a bathing suit and he had wings on his ankles.  Meh.  I feel the same way here.  The back story of the character is altered to fit the mold of the script, and that’s okay, but I didn’t feel for this antagonist’s plight.  In the prior film, I was more on the side Eric Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) cause than I was on T’Challa’s.  In this film, Namor is just a guy to do battle with while he flies and swims.

Ryan Coogler is a detailed director.  When I’m in Wakanda, I want to explore every building and hop aboard each vehicle that hovers overhead.  He leaves no stone unturned.  I would have chosen for some of the action scenes to be shot in the daytime so I could get a better look at what goes on.  I feel that way about all action and adventure films.  However, a darkened action scene in nearly any Marvel film is much more articulated than any scene, daylight or otherwise, in Black Adam from DC.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good film, but not great, mostly due to its overstayed running time.  What should have been cut from the final reel is obvious.  Yet, good writing and acting allows for the film that many Marvel fans needed after one of their heroes left us.  Losing Chadwick Boseman likely equates to how we lost our Superman, Christopher Reeve.  It seemed so unfair that someone who offered such heroic optimism and joy could be taken from our reach so early in life.  At least, the loss of Boseman was thankfully not washed over with a replacement that could never fill his void.

BLACK PANTHER

By Marc S. Sanders

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a stand out film among what has become an overpopulated Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It is a super hero film for sure, complete with the standard gadgets, super strength and abilities, action and over the top science fiction. Yet, this film did not have to be a superhero narrative to drive home the message of its story. This could have been an Oliver Stone film rooted in political quagmire. It could have been a John Hughes teen rip off film that takes place in a typical Wasp suburban school.

A question embraces this film. Simply, when is it appropriate to share?

Chadwick Boseman plays the title character also known as T’Challa, and following the recent death of his father he becomes the next king of the fictional African based country of Wakanda, a location hidden from the rest of the world so that no one else can take advantage of its most precious resource, Vibranium, which has allowed for the most sophisticated technology, weaponry and even medical advancements ever known. How it’s all lumped together, who knows? Pick up a Marvel Comics Encyclopedia for that answer. T’Challa is tasked with whether it is a moral obligation to share the resource with the rest of the world. However, if it is provided, will the Vibranium be taken advantage of for nefarious purposes?

(SIDE NOTE: Reviewing all of these Marvel films is getting to be trying, as I feel resorted to using the same terminology some times; words and phrases like “hero,” “villain,” “nefarious purposes” and “also known as.”)

His nemesis is Eric Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan; this guy is going to get an Oscar one day. Killmonger is an educated, skilled soldier and cousin to T’Challa who was abandoned by Wakanda following his own father’s betrayal of the country. He grew up in the projects of Oakland, California. Killmonger returns to Wakanda with the purpose of becoming king and allowing the tech and resources Wakanda possesses to be used by the outside world, particularly by populations of African descent and people of color who have endured a history of suffering. Once again, Marvel Studios scores with a villain you want to root for and endorse. Just like Jeff Bridges’ Obidiah Stane in the first Iron Man film, you have to recognize the stance that Killmonger holds on his side of argument. That’s great writing. It’s not so much that Killmonger is a slaughterer. He really isn’t at all. Once he overthrows the hero, the mission is only just beginning as he wishes to right the wrongs of Wakanda for never providing in the first place. It’s ironic really. This guy sides on the fact that he doesn’t want a wall, while the protagonist is doing all he can to maintain a divider to the outside world. In 2018, was there another film that really reflected the sign of the times so succinctly?

Coogler makes a beautiful sweeping film of country and special effects. The Wakandan ships are very cool. Overhead shots of Africa and the camp bases of various tribes are astonishing. One particular tribe resides on a winter like mountainside and the leaders room is spectaculary decorated in horizontal lumber hangings. T’Challa’s staff of mostly female combat warriors and scientists led by Lupita Nyong’o are really exciting. At times the film takes inspiration from some of the best standards of the James Bond films, as his sister introduces her latest inventions for the Black Panther suit. Naturally, the Black Panther costumes are stand outs in the film, black with glowing power enhancements of purples and yellows.

Is Black Panther worthy of a Best Picture nomination and an abundance of awards attention? I’m still not sure. It’s a very strong piece that is light years ahead of any DC Universe film, but it has great characters and messages like most of the Marvel films and even some of the more recent Bond films featuring Daniel Craig. Maybe it is one of the best films of they year, and maybe it should be a Best Picture nominee, but perhaps only because 2018 did not offer a wealth of extraordinary film achievements to begin with. I found merits in all of the 8 Best Picture nominees in this particular year, but I also found problems with many of them too (don’t get me started on A Star Is Born); shortcomings that in another year with better films would keep many of these nominees from ever being considered for the grand prize.

Yet, as I document these thoughts, I think about Black Panther again. Truly, it does not have anything negative in its feature. Ryan Coogler directed and wrote a very focused and thought provoking film. Yup! It was truly one of the year’s best films.

DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)

By Marc S. Sanders

It’s time for the murder mystery to maintain an ongoing trend in modern films.  They’re just fun to watch and play with and deduce.  Why do you think the board game Clue has lasted so long in so many households?  Films like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and a recent retelling of Murder On The Orient Express have already whetted our appetites for the “who done it?” tales.  Endless variations of Sherlock Holmes continue to appear.  Even Steve Martin and Martin Short have gotten in on the mystery circuit.  Adam Sandler with Jennifer Aniston, too.  Kenneth Branagh’s second time as Hercule Poirot (following …Orient Express), in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile, is proof positive that the sleuth is the next super hero that movie goers should follow.

Branagh returns to direct his detective character in Egypt, aboard a privately rented boat occupied by the newly engaged couple, Lynette Ridgeway and Simon Doyle (Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer).  As the luxurious yacht makes its way down the majestic river Nile, the couple suspects that someone, particularly Simon’s recent ex-fiancée, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey), is determined to cause harm or even murder towards them.  They ask for the sleuth’s services in uncovering who is scheming against them.  Poirot is on vacation, however, and tells them his services cannot be made available as no crime has been committed.  Yet, he accepts their invitation to board the boat and attempt to relax and recline. 

Naturally, a murder will eventually occur.

Hercule Poirot was not even a character in Agatha Christie’s original novel.  Yet, Branagh seamlessly weaves the detective into an elegant page turner on screen, with a script from Michael Green.  Branagh is a skillful actor/director. 

As this is a murder mystery, there are a wealth of characters with possible motives and red herrings to keep the journey down the Nile tense and engaging.  There’s the doctor (Russell Brand), an aunt (Annette Benning), a nephew (Tom Bateman, returning from Orient Express), Lynette’s housemaid (Jennifer Saunders), a speakeasy blues singer and her niece (Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright), as well as Lynette, Simon and Jacqueline, and on and on.  Branagh wisely moves his camera repeatedly at times across the boat panning over the faces of the cast, as if to the remind the viewer of who are the suspects.  There’s a wealth of information to take in, but this is not going to feel like you are cramming for a final exam the next morning. 

Because everyone could have a motive and/or a background with the murder victim, each actor within the colorful cast has various moments to shine.  There are some great acting scenes going on here that the players share with Branagh, and they don’t come off with similar formulas from one moment to the next.  Each character actor is thankfully unique in both appearance and personality.  It’s not hard to keep up, and while I may have known the ending before seeing the film (having read the book and seen stage adaptations over the years), I don’t believe it’s easy to deduce and solve as a viewer.  Different characters and moments that never occurred in the source material turn up.  There might even be few unexpected deaths along the way.  Branagh also keeps the picture alive with outstanding blues numbers that begin in an underground speakeasy bar in Paris and then play over transitional moments throughout the film.  This picture has a great period soundtrack.

Beyond the well diversified mystery, Branagh treats the viewers to gorgeous scenery aboard the boat, but even beneath the surface of the river and within the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt.  There are spectacular starry night skies and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets to take in with palm trees and wildlife in the desert frames.  Sure, I imagine most of it is CGI, but it’s well done and nothing looks artificial.  Costume work is also magnificent as they lend to the distinctiveness of the suspects.  Whether it is evening wear, or casual garb for post-World War I, each character looks so intriguingly lively and different.

Michael Green’s script even delves further into the Poirot character.  There’s a background to that infamous mustache and tiny goatee.  I recall how people responded to the outrageously grotesque facial hair that Branagh donned in his first film as Poirot.  I appreciated it, however.  His appearance was as unforgettable as the red and yellow “S” on Superman’s chest.  Yet, why go to such great lengths, even if this is the early 1900’s amid an exaggeratingly glamourous murder mystery, to grow a mustache like that? Thankfully, there’s reason given here that draws out a dimension to Hercule Poirot both within a ten-minute prologue, and then implied periodically during the course of the film and wrapping up in a bluesy epilogue before the credits roll.  All I’ll say is that absurd mustache delivers a humanity to the film’s protagonist.

Death On The Nile has already suffered from negative publicity involving controversy with some of its cast members.  Its release was also postponed a number of times due to the pandemic.  Finally, it has arrived in theatres and what a refreshing experience it is to see on a big screen.  It opened to a modest box office response in its first weekend, though it finished at number one.  Normally, I don’t care about rankings at the box office.  How much money a film makes does not lend to the merits or faults of a piece.  However, for this film, I think I do care a little.  I hope it becomes a profitable success only to allow more films of the mystery genre to appear on screen in the future.  I’d certainly welcome another gripping yarn from Agatha, out of service from Kenneth Branagh.  Could And Then There Were None… be next?  That’s the real mystery.