Opinion | ‘Wakanda Forever’ is the latest ugly blockbuster


“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” arrived in theaters on Thursday burdened with impossible expectations. How could director Ryan Coogler replace his main character, King T’Challa, mourn the real-world star who played him and find the sort of political allegory that propelled “Black Panther” to a Best Picture nomination other a $1.3 billion box office haul?

The answer: He can’t. But that’s not the most disappointing thing about “Wakanda Forever.” It’s that the film is so often ugly. This is depressing, but not surprising, given how many contemporary blockbuster movies are visually indifferent or unconvincing.

As a practical matter, turning out movies that look worse in a theater than they might on a TV screen is a real problem for an industry that desperately needs box office revenue to survive. And as a cultural matter, it’s a shame that so many of the last remaining mass experiences are so underwhelming and unattractive. Audiences deserve better than this, even if they aren’t demanding it.

That said, “Wakanda Forever” has moments of real beauty.

The funeral for King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is full of eye-catching mourning clothes and artful choreography. There are no better special effects than a sly grin from Michaela Coel, playing Wakanda spy Aneka, a moment of tearful stoicism from Danai Gurira as General Okoye or an outburst of grief from Angela Bassett’s bereft Queen Ramonda.

Unfortunately, the care for craft and clarity of vision obvious in the movie’s best moments only highlight the deficiencies in its worst. Too many of the movie’s fight scenes take place at night and are choppy to the point of indistinctness, giving the impression that the filmmakers don’t trust that the sequences will stand up to sustained scrutiny.

Worst of all, the movie introduces what’s supposed to be the awe-inspiring underwater kingdom of Talokan with visuals so muddy that they undercut what is meant to be an epic clash of civilizations. There’s a difference between presenting images that are realistic and those that are believeable. Viewers know Talokan is underwater: they don’t need to see it as if through the actual distortions of the ocean.

The mediocre look of so many action blockbusters has as much to do with larger forces in the entertainment industry as it does with directorial failure.

Most recently, the covid-19 pandemic shutdowns produced a huge backlog of special-effects work that companies are rushing to complete, and that movie studios are impatient for them to complete.

These bottlenecks have already delayed movies, including “Black Adam,” the DC Comics super-anti-hero movie starring Dwayne Johnson, which came out in October instead of July. While the effects in that film were certainly finishedit would be an uphill fight to argue that they were good.

Then, there’s the sheer amount of special-effects work that’s required for any given movie. For a major action sequence, such as the one in the climax to the 2019 superhero team-up “Avengers: Endgame,” visual effects artists insert entire characters in every frame, build digital backdrops and make sure everything stays consistent and comprehensible from one moment to the next.

Given that big movie franchises often plan their release schedules years out, special-effects companies are working to rigid deadlines and turning around major elements of their work on exceptionally tight time frames. Multiple companies might work on a single scene, creating significant coordination challenges: The credits for “Wakanda Forever” list employees from 11 different special-effects companies.

And there are additional quirks introduced by the dominant role a few movie studios play in the blockbuster market. In July, Vulture published an account from an anonymous visual effects artist about the specific challenges of working with Marvel.

The employee suggested that lowball bids from companies eager to secure Marvel contracts mean slimmed-down teams and extensive overtime. Marvel’s penchant for hiring acclaimed indie directors who aren’t accustomed to working with computer-generated elements means that effects artists have to do more work up front to help directors realize their visions. The result is that some of the most lucrative movies in the world are produced under highly strained conditions.

Taste and care can be correctives to this general tendency. Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic “Dune: Part One” has plenty of sandworms, spaceships and personal combat shields, but the effects are all in service of Villeneuve’s austere, beautiful vision of a colonized desert planet and the intergalactic elites who rule it.

So do vision and obsession. James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is due in theaters in December, is likely to be a visual corrective. That’s in part because Cameron has a track record that makes executives comfortable letting him spend years and a reported $1 billion to make four sequels to his 2009 smash hit, a process that included developing new technology for underwater filming.

However dependent the movie business has become on blockbusters for the financial support that allows it to make, well, everything else, Hollywood can’t rely on Cameron alone. Genius is not a business model. But neither is letting everyone else coast on the memory of whatever a filmmaker such as Cameron or a daredevil actor such as Tom Cruise did most recently to make a big-screen theatrical experience seem worth it.

Movie executives can’t just talk about why going to a theater is important. They have to act like it. That means giving directors time, training and resources to produce truly awe-inspiring spectacles. And a company such as Marvel should confront its role in dragging the movies toward their present drabness. Superhero stories are supposed to be about the best in us. But choosing mediocrity is its own kind of villainy.

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