Commentary: Why 'Wakanda Forever' and 'Black Adam' are taking comic movies in the right direction – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Editor’s note: This article contains minor spoilers for “Black Adam” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. “
We’ve seen the Guardians of the Galaxy explore the stars, and Doctor Strange jump to different dimensions. But everyone else? Manhattan, mostly. Sure, Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis are only inspired by New York, but the results are largely similar for most comic book films — a supervillain prevents the workaday bustle of metropolitan America with threats of crime or citywide destruction. Be they the Avengers or the Justice League, the superheroes enter the fray to save the American people and the status quo. There are only so many times a White male underdog from New York City can be fated with superpowers before one begins to wonder if there’s room for heroes from other parts of the globe.
Two of the biggest films of fall 2022, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Black Adam,” are decidedly different than the status quo of superhero stories. In addition to showcasing diverse fan-favorite characters from Marvel and DC, the movies take place in very different settings than the average superhero blockbuster. Black Adam’s story takes place entirely in Kahndaq, an Egypt-inspired fictional country in North Africa supposedly located on the Sinai Peninsula. The “Black Panther” sequel is largely set in Wakanda, a fictional futuristic sub-Saharan African country that takes inspiration from many African nations. “Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler was especially inspired by Lesotho, a kingdom that was largely successful in resisting Western influence at the height of British colonization, according to Vulture. Although the original creators of these countries weren’t experts, they are not meant to be exotic spoofs. Rather, Kahndaq and Wakanda remain beloved cornerstones of their respective universe because of how rich and detailed each country is.
These films’ decision to feature these countries helps them breathe new life into a well-worn genre. Both movies’ casts are overflowing with Black, African and Middle Eastern actors — a rare occurrence for any mainstream American movie. But having the films set outside of the U.S. sets a new precedent that heroes can come from everywhere — and that not all of them have the same ideas about truth, justice and the American way. In fact, the heroes of Kahndaq and Wakanda have very different ideas about the responsibilities that come with their power.
In “Black Panther” and its sequel, Wakanda and its protectors were mostly noninterventionist, and concerned themselves only with protecting the Wakandan people. However, by the end of the first film, King T’Challa (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) made first steps to extend their knowledge and technological resources to help those in need, including African American children in underprivileged communities. Deciding between protecting Wakandan sovereignty and providing aid to others is a major conflict within “Wakanda Forever.” Western powers clamoring for a share of Wakanda’s Vibranium — by pressuring trade deals or by piracy — certainly alludes to the dark history of Europeans colonizing and trading in Africa, especially along the Ivory Coast.

The people of Kahndaq in “Black Adam” also wish to be left to their own autonomy. However, unlike Wakanda, Kahndaq struggles with a history of being invaded by different countries or people groups, especially those with more advanced militaries. After the people of Kahndaq see Dwayne Johnson’s god-like Teth-Adam as their (admittedly belligerent) savior, they condemn the Justice Society of America’s efforts to pacify their new protector. They rightly ask, “where was your help when the invaders took over?” Although the Justice Society’s intentions might be to keep the super-powered Teth-Adam accountable, the people of Kahndaq see an overextension of the Society’s own authority. They also consider it hypocrisy that the Justice Society intervened when Teth-Adam sought revenge for the people of Kahndaq, but no superheroes came to help when Kahndaq was oppressed for millennia.
Although neither movie makes a decisive statement on imperialism, both films depict the damage that can be done when a powerful country tries to control another. Both films seem to confirm that each individual country should be able to decide their fate — not the “good guys” from America. If Superman stands for the American way, perhaps Black Adam will call that allegiance into question. Maybe Black Panther will have different ideas than Captain America on what makes a hero.
The world of comic book superhero movies often fails to address some of the biggest real-world problems, like systemic inequalities, climate change, or the lingering effects of colonialism. In fact, superhero franchises often receive push-back for being “too political” if they raise these topics, or even for casting a person of color in a significant role.

Admittedly, many of Marvel’s and DC’s first comic superheroes — like Superman and Captain America, created in 1939 and 1941 respectively — were created as symbols of unwavering support of the United States, its military and its foreign policies. American ideologies, concepts of what is good and what is evil, are embedded in the DNA of American superheroes, and still linger today. It’s often a challenge for superhero films to question these roots while still staying true to the original comics.
However, if comic book movies are here to stay, they must continue to bring new ideas to the table. The world has gotten smaller since these characters were created, and world of comic book heroes has grown beyond the original creators’ dreams. There are superhero fans across the globe, of every age, ethnicity, and gender identity. There are also diverse comic book locations and characters, old and new, that have yet to be showcased on the big screen.
Both Marvel and DC are at major turning points in their franchises as each aims to find a fresh identity. Recent Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Disney Plus Shows like “Hawkeye,” “She-Hulk” or “Ms. Marvel” spend lots of time making self-referential jokes about the MCU’s history, or ruminating in the glory days of the Avengers. Critics and fans felt mixed about “Eternals” and T”hor: Love and Thunder,” and although “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Shang-Chi” were well-received, they did little to explain where the heart of the MCU is traveling next. It’s been tough for the entertainment giant to get out of its own shadow in recent years, and many of Marvel Studios’ shows and movies since 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” have felt like epilogue material to the worldwide blockbuster.

DC has had its own difficulties. There was a major shakeup following the merger of Warner Media and Discovery, Inc. into Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), and several large-profile projects like “Batgirl” film were canceled despite being in the post-production phase of filmmaking. Following several delays, “The Flash” movie is now slated for 2023, but its star Ezra Miller is still knee-deep in controversy after two arrests and several accusations of harassment, per The Cut. This leaves fans wondering whether WBD will recast the actor going forward.
DC finally had some good news in October with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Suicide Squad” director James Gunn taking the helm of the DC Universe as co-chair and co-CEO of DC Studios along with Peter Safran, producer of “The Suicide Squad” and the upcoming “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” Kevin Feige — who runs the show at Marvel Studios — and many actors connected with superhero projects have been very vocal in their support of Gunn taking the position, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Feige and Gunn also stated that they don’t see Marvel and DC as rivals, but as allies — each studio laboring to bring their best high-flying entertainment to the movie-going public.
Superhero movies appear to be here to stay, and its exciting to see how they’ll evolve as we settle into the postmodern era of comic book cinema. With films like “Wakanda Forever” and “Black Adam” bringing new voices to the cowl-and-cape conversation, let’s hope that creators at Marvel Studios and DC Studios continue to set their films in different parts of the globe — maybe even real ones next time.

Franklin is a reader and writer of comics, sci-fi and fiction from San Diego.
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