Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is an upgrade for Marvel’s bumpiest phase of projects to date – and addresses some of the Marvel fatigue too.
Note: This article contains light spoilers for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, revealing the presence of one unannounced character in the movie.
There’s no denying the success of Avengers: Endgame. In 2019, Marvel delivered the mega-blockbuster to end all mega-blockbusters with a three-hour epic responsible for paying off a decade’s worth of storytelling. It duly made several billion dollars at the box office and briefly became the highest-grossing movie of all time before James Cameron – the Erling Haaland of popcorn cinema – re-released Avatar.
It’s fair to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struggled since. Its story had come to a logical conclusion, but today’s Hollywood doesn’t allow for endings – or logic. Thus, the MCU had to move on and the heroes had to return for Phase Four. With seven movies and eight TV shows, the studio has attempted to chart a course for the future, but it has been an uncharacteristically bumpy ride. The consistency that led Marvel to the top of the Hollywood tree is gone.
Reasoning for this varies, but a common complaint is that the MCU has suffered from a lack of direction. Back in the old days of Phase One, the regular cameo appearances of Samuel L. Jackson made it clear that we were building to the formation of the Avengers. At the end of that team-up film in 2012, the world was introduced to Thanos, whose search for the Infinity Stones then became the focus for the next seven years of storytelling. Individual movies could stand-alone but the endgame – if you will – was always clear.
With Thanos now dust and Nick Fury swanning around in space somewhere, things are foggy. Recent post-credit stings have provided few clues as to story progression and have mostly allowed the studio to flex its muscles by introducing random A-listers as characters who may or may not return. Remember when Harry Styles was in a Marvel film? It feels like an eternity ago already.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the best film of Phase Four, by a considerable distance.
Ryan Coogler has conjured a terrific comic book adventure that also reckons with the very real grief provoked by the passing of Chadwick Boseman – star of the original Black Panther movie – in 2020. It thrives in a stand-alone corner of the Marvel landscape, with the isolation of Wakanda preventing the film from having to intersect with anything other than its immediate predecessor.
It’s no spoiler to say that rumours of a post-credits cameo for Fantastic Four baddie Doctor Doom did not transpire and, in fact, the film eschews the Marvel tradition of teasing the future after the final crew member has been thanked, merely stating that “Black Panther will return”. Coogler’s work provides a lot of things, but it doesn’t offer a roadmap for the MCU.
We know that Marvel’s upcoming Phase Six – it’s a lot to follow, sorry – will feature two massive team-up movies in the shape of Avengers: The Kang Dynasty (2025) and Avengers: Secret Wars (2026). But it would be giving the studio far too much credit to say that any meaningful groundwork has been laid so far over the course of the – based on very rough maths – 56 hours of Phase Four. We saw a variant of Kang in the final episode of the Loki TV series, but that provided little insight for the future. Jonathan Majors will play Kang for the first time on the big screen in next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which seems likely to start the build-up of the Multiverse Saga in earnest. Finally.
But Wakanda Forever doesn’t suffer from this, because it doesn’t care about any of it. It has bigger fish to fry, serving as it does as a musing on grief, legacy and the conflict between tradition and technology. The film is also uninterested in taking part in the bizarre parlour game that has dogged recent MCU outings – the pursuit of the cheer. Marvel benefits from an engaged and loyal fanbase who remember every detail of the franchise and will applaud when reminded of something from a previous film.
It started with the hugely enjoyable nostalgia of Spider-Man: No Way Home and came to a head with the dismal Illuminati sequence from Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness – a cavalcade of cameos which served no story purpose, but rewarded those with a black belt in Reddit fan speculation.
Wakanda Forever instead focuses on Letitia Wright’s Shuri as she attempts to reconcile the traditions of her homeland with her more outward-looking worldview, and on Angela Bassett’s Ramonda as she steps up to give her people a figurehead while grieving the death of her son. Then there’s the nominal villain of the piece – sea-dwelling mutant Namor. An outcast on the surface, he has found purpose as the ruler of an aquatic kingdom content to live in peace until it is threatened by the same geopolitical greed that Wakanda has hidden from for most of its history. The film is packed with action, but isn’t afraid to slow down to deepen and enrich its characters.
The best elements of Phase Four have been those that follow this template. Ms. Marvel worked not because of its superhero shenanigans but because of the likeable teenage girl at its heart. She-Hulk outwardly stated its unwillingness to be a superhero tale. It was about a talented young lawyer struggling with workplace sexism and the nightmarish dating scene. She just happened to be able to smash walls rather than just swiping left.
In fact, the worst moments of Wakanda Forever are the brief times when it starts trying to extend its tendrils into the rest of the MCU. The inclusion of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Val is a head-scratcher, marking the latest jarring outing for a character whose entire introduction – she previously appeared in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and Black Widow – has been botched. We still don’t really know anything about her or what she wants. The inclusion of Val plays into the worst instincts of Phase Four, setting up storylines without any idea of where they’re going. We don’t know when we’ll see Harry Styles again, or when Brett Goldstein’s take on Hercules will meet with Thor. There are a multitude of these threads currently dangling, and it would take a very enthusiastic fan to claim there’s a master-plan to tie them all together.
It’s true that more engaged fans will know that Val is due to appear in the TV series Secret Invasion next year and the 2024 movie Thunderbolts, but her motivations and goals are a complete mystery, despite her baffling prominence and amount of screen time. Anyone who – heaven forbid – simply watches the movies rather than consuming every morsel of behind-the-scenes news will be completely none the wiser as to who Val is and what she’s doing. The barrier of entry just gets higher and higher.
Wakanda Forever brings Phase Four to an end on a high, which was definitely needed after a year of pretty dismaying stuff. “Marvel fatigue” is an overused term, but it would be easy for viewers to look at the shifting balance of quantity and quality and decide that it simply isn’t worth it any more. It would be an overstatement to say that Coogler’s movie is the remedy for this fatigue, but the return to Wakanda brings an emotional resonance and a character focus strong enough to get past all of the question marks about where we go next.
It’s just a solid, enjoyable movie that stands on its own two feet. Remember when we used to get those?
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