This column doesn’t frequently spotlight superhero movies. This isn’t from some general animus toward the genre—as a Marvel and DC enthusiast since the 1980s, your correspondent has a vested interest in seeing these characters ably represented on the big screen.
It’s just that, typically, (a) these franchise entries arrive with all the subtlety of a drill sergeant on Monday morning, (b) opinions about them are too easily reduced to catty ridicule or defensive huffiness, and (c) the average Oregon ArtsWatch reader isn’t, to be blunt, exactly the target demo for Black Adam.
But Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is different, for both on- and off-screen reasons.
While wrapping up Phase Four (or is it Five?) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also has to contend with the sudden and stunningly tragic 2020 death of Chadwick Boseman, who embodied the African hero with the same gravitas and charisma he brought to Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. And, at least partially as a result of his absence, what was already a progressive take on the genre from director Ryan Coogler becomes something close to revolutionary, even if the narrative can’t quite overcome the gaping hole at its center.
As a recap, at the end of Black Panther, T’Challa (Boseman) has decided to open up his previously hidden, technologically advanced kingdom of Wakanda, and its exclusive supply of the near-magical metal vibranium, to the outside world. After T’Challa’s off-screen death from a mysterious illness in a pre-credit scene, Wakanda Forever jumps ahead a year. His mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has shifted course, frustrating the Western powers. (“The West Wing”’s Richard Schiff nicely cameos as a snide American diplomat.)
Searching for other sources of vibranium, the U.S. manages to piss off another previously hidden civilization, this one subaquatic and Mesoamerican in origin. Cue the entrance of Namor, one of Marvel’s oldest characters now retrofitted in an inventive and effective way and played with conviction by newcomer Tenoch Huerta. Long story (and it is one, at over 160 minutes) short, Namor offers to team up with Wakanda against the surface world, and when Queen Ramonda refuses, he decides to go to war against it.
Without Boseman’s T’Challa to serve as the primary protagonist, the duty falls primarily to a quintet of fierce females: Ramonda; T’Challa’s supergenius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright); the proud and deadly (serious) warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira); Wakandan agent–and T’Challa’s former lover–Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); and, most appealingly, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), an MIT prodigy who has built her own Iron Man-style suit.
Williams, as comics readers know, is destined to become a hero in her own right as Ironheart (her Disney+ series airs next year). She brings a disarming street-level humanity to a roster that’s full of regal, unsmiling types. The idea of a mega-budgeted, guaranteed global smash being headlined by five Black women is something that would have been hard to imagine just a few years go. And the fact that their conflicts (despite being with the shirtless, hypermasculine Manor) aren’t gender-based is an added plus. This isn’t some Fox Force Five, performative feminist exploitation: This is a group of smart, badass ladies taking care of business.
Armies of CGI-enhanced, blue-skinned warriors and a scene in which a large ship tilts over onto its side give moments in Wakanda Forever a James Cameron feel. But Cameron wouldn’t get political to the extent Coogler does, with Namor and Ramonda serving as the Malcolm X and MLK (or the Magneto and Professor X, if you will) of anticolonialism. The real villains here are the resource-extracting would-be empire builders like SHIELD leader Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, reprising her role), who use technology to plunder nature and destroy indigenous environments. Wait a minute, that actually does sound like a James Cameron movie…
Sandwiching an exciting, if overlong, action epic with relatively radical content, between a tribute to a fallen actor and the character he made real is a significant feat. If Wakanda Forever isn’t an instant genre classic, its degree of difficulty helps place it in the neighborhood. (Opens November 11 everywhere)
It feels sometimes like every week or two provides a new example of an impressive first feature from a young director. Even in that group, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun stands out for both its technical facility and its emotional sensitivity.
On its surface, it’s a childhood reminiscence tale, as 11-year-old Sofie (the phenomenal Francesca Corio) goes on a resort vacation with her divorced dad Calum (Paul Mescal), who’s about to turn 31. You don’t have to be a math whiz to realize that he was a pretty young poppa, or a psychic to sense that he hasn’t been very present in her life prior to this trip.
Wells shifts between straightforward, if poetically lensed, depictions of their activities and portions shot by one or the other of them on a vintage camcorder. The film takes place in the early 1990s, but every so often there’s a brief flash forward to an older, present-day version of Sofie in the midst of a strobe-lit nightclub.
Aftersun reveals its characters through quiet moments, and there’s not a strong narrative, but it’s not an example of kitchen-sink realism either. There’s life in these two, and every moment of melancholy or regret is counterposed against flashes of genuine affection and connection. Or maybe that’s just how Sophie remembers it. (Opens November 11 at Living Room Theaters.)
The Echo Theater opened in 1910 on what’s now SE 37th Avenue, just south of Hawthorne Boulevard. It showed silent films, of course, and was so successful that a larger movie palace was built by some of the same owners just across the street. The Echo closed when the Bagdad Theater opened in 1927, and currently serves as the headquarters for the Echo Theater Company, which uses the space for performing arts exhibitions, dance classes, and more.
Now, however, the Echo is returning, for at least a night, to its original purpose with a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General, accompanied by a live score from Portland Cello founding member Gideon Freudmann. This fundraiser for the nonprofit is also a test run for future film events in a space that’s known its share of them, and may be ready to shine in the shadow of its big brother across the street. (The General screens Saturday, Nov. 12, at 8 p.m.)