Words by Harry Moore
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Marvel’s sequel to its 2018 sensation Black Panther is tasked with the burden of continuing the story of the people of Wakanda, while also paying tribute to the original film’s star Chadwick Boseman who passed away in 2020. For director Ryan Coogler, it is a delicate undertaking that he manages to handle with grace – for the most part. Coogler doesn’t shy away from the real, palpable loss that looms over the film, allowing for grief to be a driving theme of the picture. When it comes to creating a tribute to the life and work of Boseman, memorably in a moving and visually striking funeral sequence for Boseman’s character, King T’Challa, Coogler is able to make one of the most potent spectacle films to be released in recent years. However, the need to balance this emotional throughline with the sub plots and table setting necessary to keep spinning the wheels of an interconnected film universe appears to be an ask too great for even a filmmaker of Coogler’s astronomical talents. The film’s story follows the people of Wakanda grappling with the loss of their king and facing the looming threat of war with the Talokan, an ancient civilization of underwater dwelling superhumans, who are led by their king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía).
Wakanda Forever opens with the aforementioned funeral, told from the perspective of the king’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who assumes the central focus of this story. Wright, much like Shuri, lives up to the gravity of the moment giving a performance that imbues the character with depth that wasn’t previously there; mostly serving as the exposition dealing comic relief prior to her starring turn. The rest of the cast is also at the top of their game. As Queen Ramonda, Angela Bassett gives a stirring performance as a grieving mother forced to assume the reins of responsibility over her people and protect them from an existential threat. Winston Duke returns as M’Baku, a former rival turned ally of the Wakandan throne, giving a memorable and charismatic supporting turn. While the relatively unknown Tenoch Huerta Mejía shines on the screen as Namor, creating an immediately compelling and sympathetic antagonist who will inevitably go down as one of Marvel’s best on screen villains. Another highlight of the film is its score by Coogler’s long-time collaborator Ludwig Göransson, who won an Oscar for his work composing on the original Black Panther. Here he expands on the Afrofuturistic sound he cultivated in the first film and creates a sonic landscape that is both sweeping and intimate.
The film struggles where a lot of these later stage MCU entries struggle. Characters from other projects in the super franchise just appear with little explanation. If you haven’t seen any of the many, mostly mediocre, Disney+ series, you’d be forgiven for asking why Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a minor role in the film as a character who receives no notable introduction. It is noticeable when Elaine just walks into a blockbuster movie with little fanfare. There is also the issue of the film losing focus on its own story in order to lay the track for future adventures. A new character named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) is introduced in a subplot that does the bloated runtime no favors; but it is important she is introduced as she is set to front her own series on Disney+ and reveals that she is able to build a flying metal suit. A novel concept for this long running franchise. There is also the issue of the climactic battle, set on a giant floating vessel, feeling incredibly tired and recycled from the other MCU films. It is as though the studio’s in-house effects team are just copy and pasting these sequences from one project to the other; and given how overworked they are with the endless churn of these releases, it is hard to blame artists for not being more inventive with these sequences. I am sure they are already hard at work on the many future productions that are on the horizon.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever serves as a moving tribute to its fallen and greatly missed star. The loss of Chadwick Boseman propels this film to greater emotional depths than many other superhero films could even dream of reaching. It is very unfortunate that a real-life tragedy is required to give the film such poignancy, and that the Marvel machine shackles the filmmakers from reaching even greater heights with this project. It is a terrific showcase for the film’s ensemble cast, particularly Letitia Wright who gives one of the best performances seen in any of these films. The film is also a reminder of the considerable talents of the director Ryan Coogler, who will hopefully now be able to leave behind the Marvel factory and flourish creatively as an artist of his calibre should be.
Steven Spielberg is the world’s most famous living filmmaker, and is perhaps the most influential and significant American artist of the last 50 years. Throughout his career, Spielberg has never been afraid of dissecting his childhood, usually through the prism of visiting aliens, rampaging dinosaurs or any other fantastic creations. But with The Fabelmans, Spielberg shows his authentic and unvarnished youth; detailing his burgeoning wunderkind talent as a filmmaker, growing up in post-war America and the tumultuous marriage between his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano).
The Fabelmans picks up with Steven Spielberg’s young avatar, Sammy Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryan and as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle) being taken to the cinema by his parent for the first time. There they see Cecille B. DeMille’s circus picture The Greatest Show on Earth, which features a dramatic train crash that at once entrances and horrifies the young Sammy, causing him to want to get his own train set and recreate the crash he saw on the big screen. His parents decide that he should film it, to avoid breaking his new toy, and like that filmmaking star is born. Like many of Spielberg’s films, The Fabelmans is dripping with sentimentality and a palpable love of cinema which shines through in practically every shot. As has been said many times, it is the great directors most personal film to date delving into his own life and story with tremendous vulnerability as retells his childhood as a melodrama. Many of his fans will have heard bits and pieces of these stories before, such as him discovering to create the effect of gun shots by poking holes into the film stock and his encounter with the legendary John Ford (played here by the famous filmmaker David Lynch), and it is thrilling to see these moments brought life by Spielberg’s exacting design.
The casting of this film is impeccable. Williams, who has long been one of the best character actors working today, is excellent as Spielberg’s free-spirited, artistic mother and is likely going to be a front runner this awards season. Dano has made a career out of playing weirdos and psychopaths, most recently playing the Riddler in Matt Reeves’ dark take on Batman, but here he is able to effortlessly portray a loving father, who cares greatly for his family but doesn’t fully understand his wife or son’s artistic inclinations. Seth Rogen also appears as the family friend Benny and gives what is undoubtedly the best dramatic performance of his career Gabriel LaBelle is something of a revelation in this film. For a young actor with minimal credits to his name prior to this film, he gives a breathtakingly nuanced performance at the center of the film that signals the arrival of a gifted young talent. Spielberg’s usual collaborators are also at the top of their game, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is immaculate as always, and with John Williams set to retire after next year’s Indiana Jones sequel, The Fabelmans may mark the final collaboration between two of the most prosperous colleagues in cinema history.
Spielberg creates a remarkably affecting coming of age story and goes to great lengths in mythologising the mythmaker’s origin. It is not only the best film Spielberg has made in many years, but among the best works he has made in the entirety of his illustrious career. The Fabelmans is a moving drama about family and the power of film.