With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever comes a sense of finality. That’s not just because it provides closure for Chadwick Boseman’s too-short tenure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—it’s also that Wakanda Forever marks the end of the MCU’s current storytelling era.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.)
The MCU operates in phases, each composed of a set of films that tell a complete act of the overarching story. Avengers: Endgame brought closure to Phase Three of the MCU, completing the 23-film saga that pit the Avengers against Thanos. Now, Thanos is dead (along with Iron Man and Black Widow and Captain America and…), and we need both a new story and a new set of heroes.
This put a lot of weight on the shoulders of Phase Four, something it didn’t quite handle masterfully. Since this saga is all about the multiverse, each film juggled a larger amount of characters and timelines. Coupled with the intrusion of several interconnected TV series, the MCU has gotten bloated, confusing, and unfamiliar.
It’s comforting, then, that Wakanda Forever was mostly unconcerned with fitting into the larger MCU tableau. But it did have one job to accomplish, which was wrapping up Phase Four and ensuring that the pieces are in place for the next act of this story. That final puzzle piece was the introduction of a new hero, a young woman with superpowers rivaling that of her Avengers predecessors. With her debut, Wakanda Forever wasn’t shirking Phase Four’s mold. Instead, it confirmed that the Multiverse Saga belongs to women.
Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) is the latest Marvel hero to enter the fold. In Wakanda Forever, she’s recruited to help Shuri (Letitia Wright), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the rest of the Wakandans in a fight for survival. They need Riri’s help because she’s a preternaturally gifted engineer, who can build not only a car from scratch, but also a CIA-grade metal detector. She agrees, mostly because the FBI burst through her garage and tries to arrest her for working with the Wakandans, whom the Americans suspect are up to no good.
Despite these talents, Riri still sees herself as just an MIT student from Chicago, fiddling with technology as a way to feel connected to her deceased dad. But that’s about all we know about her backstory, revealed in snippets during her scant scenes throughout the film. The rest of that development is left to Ironheart, a Disney+ series starring Riri that’s set to air some time next year. While Riri has yet to adopt the moniker on-screen, in the comics, she names herself Ironheart for a reason: She becomes a hero after building a suit of armor inspired by Iron Man’s iconic outfit, which finds its way to Tony Stark himself. He’s impressed by the teen genius, and the two team up to do superhero things together.
R.I.P. Tony Stark, though, which means Riri needed a new mentor. She has that in Shuri, the most technologically sophisticated, talented woman in the MCU. Shuri is also the new Black Panther, replacing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) after his death from an off-screen illness. This is a significant but meaningful change, pairing two Black women of a similar age together to embolden and support one another. We know how good a mentor Stark was on-screen; shout-out to the MCU’s take on Spider-Man, his protege. But Riri can benefit more from having a woman guide her toward being a superhero, considering they both have suffered great loss and feelings of hopelessness because of it.
That sisterhood solidarity is what’s striking about where Phase Four has left us. It’s crucial to remember how it started: with Black Widow, the long-awaited solo film for the first female Avenger, the one who also died before the battle against Thanos was over. (Still not over that.) Black Widow, like Wakanda Forever, is a story about sisters, chosen family, and the inescapable ties that bind them all together. With Natasha Romanoff dead, her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) takes up the main Black Widow mantle at the end of that film—a key changing of hands from woman to woman, even if Yelena’s allegiances to good vs. evil remain murky.
The Hawkeye show, meanwhile, stars Kate Bishop (Hailie Steinfeld), who trains alongside her hero Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to become an Avengers-level archer. While she’s without a female mentor, Kate quickly spars with Yelena and develops a frenemy bond to her, giving her a similar woman-centric motivation. And like Riri, she’s another somewhat disaffected college kid, blunting her grief by throwing herself full-force into her hobby. In Kate and Riri and every Avenger’s case, that hobby becomes their profession, as does saving the world. There’s no better panacea for depression than having the privilege and burden of holding every other human life in your hands.
Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) suffers slightly less than Kate, Riri, and Yelena, but she shares that unique teen-girl giddiness for a powerful responsibility. The one remaining female Avenger, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), is Kamala’s idol—she names her super self Ms. Marvel as a copyright-friendly branding—so Kamala also continues this burgeoning legacy of Marvel women supporting Marvel women.
There’s also Jen “She-Hulk” Walters (Tatiana Maslany), the oldest of the lot, who outpaced her cousin Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) at learning how to get the green monster thing under control; Maya Lopez, a.k.a. Echo (Alaqua Cox), the Native American, deaf, superpowered badass, who also appeared in Hawkeye on Disney+ and is set for her own spinoff; and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), whose intro into the MCU came in May’s painfully messy Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
That movie was so incoherent that it treated America mostly like an afterthought, so it’s not super clear what America will bring to the greater story. But she’s the one that plunged Strange into that maddening multiverse in the first place, so something big is planned for her. (She came into her powers while growing up on a planet composed only of women, for what it’s worth.)
Phase Five will kick off next year with February’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—that’s a male and female superhero duo in the title, which is a nice way to begin. The movie will also bring the daughter of Scott Lang, a.ka. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), into that heroic fold, marking yet another promised young female hero in this excitingly large pool.
The storytelling of Phase Four has mostly relied upon set-up, which includes the slow unveiling of the next generation of heroes. That doesn’t leave us with much in the way of expectations for them, for better or worse. (Is Riri going to team up with She-Hulk to defend whatever lawsuit the government probably is going to slap her with? Are Kate and Yelena going to fall for each other, like their idols did, and then have to sacrifice themselves in the face of the greatest evil? What is America’s deal, anyway?) But there’s an exciting promise here with this fresh-faced crop of characters. The MCU is in need of a makeover, and these women are at the ready.