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How Does Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Fit Into the MCU’s Get-Weird Phase 4?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

The original Black Panther movie was an absolute juggernaut when it was released in 2018, clearing $1.3 billion in global ticket sales and earning more awards nominations than any superhero film before it, including Best Picture at the Oscars. (Green Book ended up winning that year.) All considered, it’s one of the most successful movies of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Now, four years later, we’re about to get the sequel to that film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which arrives at much different time in the arc of the MCU. To better understand where the MCU stands and how Wakanda Forever fits into it, Sam Sanders spoke with Vox’s Marvel expert, Alex Abad-Santos. Read an excerpt of that conversation below or listen to the full episode of Into It — in which we also ask Vinny Thomas what he thinks of “Lift Me Up,” Rihanna’s contribution to the Wakanda Forever soundtrack — wherever you get your podcasts.

Into It

As someone who has probably thought about and watched more Marvel than most people — you once wrote about going to a 29-hour Marvel marathon — with all the Marvel content out there, are you more “love it” or more “hate it”?

No, this is dangerous territory because Marvel fans are like Star Wars fans. I mean, I grew up reading the comic books, and seeing all the comic books come to life is pretty great. But now we’re in Phase Four, a decade into Marvel, and it’s just — there’s a lot of it. If you look at the box office, and if you look at the way people are responding, there was a string there when Marvel was hitting a billion dollars worldwide on every movie. I don’t think that’s happening in Phase Four as much. Spider-Man: No Way Home, which they did with Sony, obviously did a bajillion dollars, but if you look at, like, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, they aren’t quite hitting the same numbers that they were two or three years ago.

That’s understandable because Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame were ten years of storytelling. Marvel movies are coming back down in the box office, but all their success lets them try cool stuff like WandaVision, which was great. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, which just came out, was also fun and kind of silly. And they also get to do, like, weird stuff. They’ve just released something on Disney+ — I don’t know if you’ve seen it — but it’s called Werewolf by Night.

How is that Marvel? Why is that Marvel?
It’s this shot-in-black-and-white, artsy-fartsy, kinda silly, campy horror story that incorporates some of their characters. It’s fun, but it’s stuff that you wouldn’t have seen maybe three or four years ago. But also: There’s just so much of it.

There’s so much. You mentioned the thing that I want you to unpack: Phase Four. I have no idea what you mean.
Marvel revolutionized the way we tell stories and the way the whole industry kind of tells stories when it comes to these superheroes. The idea was they were gonna tell a block of stories — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America — and those were gonna be the first phase of movies. The second phase of movies was gonna add more heroes. And then they were gonna have this team-up movie where it’s the Avengers

— where they all come together at the end of the phase.

I want you to be really taxonomical right now and just tell me the big players in each of the phases and how they’ve come together, because I seriously have no idea.
Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America — played by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth, respectively — have kind of been the through-line for the first three phases. Those are your big heroes. And then the second phase of movies added more heroes: the Guardians of the Galaxy and a few other players. And then in Phase Three, we got Black Panther, we got Captain Marvel. Phase Three ended with Endgame, and Endgame was basically “Oop, everyone’s kinda dead or retired except for Thor.”

So we’re at a critical juncture for the MCU. Because in Phase Four, you say, there’s a lot of stuff in flux.
You’ve totally got it. Do you follow sports?

LOL, you’re funny.
It’s like if a team lost all of its stars to free agency. And then you’re reloading this year. And then it’s like the only one you have back is Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who’s probably your center, but he’s not Shaq level.

He needs a team. Gotcha.
He needs a team.

Okay, then. So, Alex, I hear you talk about these four phases of the MCU and how the world is expanding and how all the characters work together and how Marvel is kind of rewriting the playbook of how superhero-movie stories are told. I kinda wanna geek out about it, but the other side of me says, I’m tired of this. It’s too much. I don’t care.

What would you say to someone who was on the fence about the MCU or doesn’t care at all and doesn’t think they have to? Why should they care?
Marvel is just a giant force within the entertainment industry, and I think that keeping your eye on what stories are being told is kind of useful. It’s like if you follow politics and you don’t follow the Supreme Court. That’s how big Marvel has become.

You could say you don’t follow Marvel, but what does Disney own? Disney owns ABC, Hulu, and has its hands in so many different pockets. A lot of the people say that, because of the way Marvel is and the way it has dominated everything, the entire movie industry has kind of wrapped itself around Marvel’s ideals.

Oh, totally. TV as well.
Like, you don’t see a midsize movie anymore. You don’t see executives rush out to do a rom-com anymore because they wanna make a lotta money doing a superhero movie, doing a sequel, mining IP. And that’s kinda disturbing.

That matters, yeah.
It makes me sad because I love a good mid-budget rom-com. How are you gonna get another Hangover or a Superbad or something in the middle?

The bar has to be higher for any film to get me into a theater. Knowing that, all executives are gonna go to things that they know can guarantee people being butts in seats. How much of this is a symptom of the rise of streaming as opposed to the rise of Marvel?
Part of it is our movie tastes and the way we consume media now, yeah. It is different than it was 15, 20 years ago. One of the recent examples is Bros, right? No one saw Bros. It was just kind of a disappointment.

I saw it twice. I was doing the work. But, yeah, go ahead.
But, like, no … Even if it wasn’t the first big gay rom-com, how are you gonna get people to see a rom-com in a theater?

Especially when you have Netflix making a new rom-com every week. And it’s decent.
Or the Hallmark Channel. And it’s just like, What makes this one special?

In the music industry, only the biggest brands survive. But if you’re Beyoncé or Taylor Swift and you sell a bunch of albums, no one’s gonna sit there and say, “Well, Taylor Swift caused all of the problems with the modern music industry.” They’re just gonna say, “She managed to ride the wave and survive this era of flux.” I don’t wanna be extra fair to Marvel in any way, but Marvel and those superhero films have survived the great shift in the viewing industry. It’s not Marvel’s fault they succeeded.
I mean, you could make that argument, but I think maybe the animus or the frustration that people have is with executives: You aren’t giving us the opportunity to watch a rom-com or watch a comedy or watch a mid-budget adventure movie.

But is that all executives’ lack of creativity? Or is it also the audience being that dumb and continuing to go to those superhero-movie sequels? We can vote with our pocketbooks, and we’re voting for the things the executives keep giving us.
It’s like the chicken or the egg. Remember when those Sony papers leaked and we found out those Sony executives were very, very discerning when it came to what movies were being made, who they are appealing to, how much money they can make off of ’em? You can be mad at Marvel for being the top student in playing the game, but why do we need three or four different spinoffs? Please, give me something new.

Yeah. So then how does the new Black Panther release play into the state of the MCU? I just assume that it will inevitably leave the MCU stronger and bigger and more well liked. Am I wrong to assume that?
It’s in good hands. I have to see it still, but I think people are genuinely excited. I also think, with everything in flux, this is kind of the statement, the kaboom, the giant blockbuster of the year. It kinda feels like a restore-to-order moment. No one wants to see this movie do badly.

As a watcher of the culture and someone who is not the biggest fan of Marvel, what question should I ask of myself and of my experience as I’m seeing the film and watching the MCU take over the world once again? How should I be looking at things differently?
I mean, I would just look at every single Black kid’s reaction. I don’t wanna say that this is the same or anything, but when I was growing up, I didn’t see myself as a superhero. Because I’m Filipino; I’m a brown kid. But the first time I saw Storm from the X-Men, my eyes lit up and I was like, This is the one. I was hyperjazzed, I wanted to learn everything about the weather, I wanted to learn everything about everything. I don’t know. People need a hero sometimes.

This interview excerpt has been condensed and edited.

The pandemic put a damper on movie-ticket sales, but according to Box Office Mojo, the MCU opening-weekend takes have indeed been on the decline since Avengers: Endgame.
How Does Black Panther Fit Into the MCU’s Weird Phase 4?