This image is from the official trailer for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” distributed by Marvel Studios.

Saying Marvel puts out too much content is no longer a hot take. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been pumping out a constant deluge of TV shows and movies for the past couple of years, all of which introduce new heroes and storylines. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” might be another film in this barrage of superhero content, but at least its story stands apart.

“Wakanda Forever” begins when fictional East African country Wakanda’s King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, “Da 5 Bloods”) dies of an unexplained illness following his sister Shuri’s (Letitia Wright, “Death on the Nile”) unsuccessful attempts to revive him. A year later, Queen Ramonda (Angela Basset, “American Horror Story”) fights international efforts to steal Wakanda’s vibranium (a fictional metal that allows for advanced technology), leading the U.S. to turn its search for the element to the deep ocean. This angers the centuries-old Namor (Tenoch Huerta, “The Forever Purge”), leader of the underwater kingdom Talokan. Namor is an ancient Mayan who left the surface world to escape Spanish conquistadors and is ominously nicknamed K’uk’ulkan, the “feathered-serpent-god.” The two kingdoms are pushed toward conflict when Ramonda refuses to hand over Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, “Judas and the Black Messiah”), the scientist whose invention helped uncover Talokan’s vibranium.

The MCU has a history of problems characterizing villains. One Google search results in countless articles discussing early villains like Hela (Cate Blanchett, “Tár”) from “Thor: Ragnarok,” who lacks personality, and more recent villains like the Flag Smashers in “Falcon and The Winter Soldier,” who become psychotic murderers out of nowhere. Namor avoids this pattern, dominating the film as a sinister antagonist who doesn’t devolve into pure evil. Namor has both motivations and ambitions — he wants to protect his home and its natural resource of vibranium, and unite Talokan and Wakanda against the rest of the world. Huerta softens the edges of his sometimes violent behavior enough by showing a real love for his people. Namor’s motivation is clear, even as he adopts militaristic methodologies and harms characters we’ve grown attached to. He feels legitimately threatening and powerful without falling into overplayed tropes.

Huerta also works to elevate Namor’s character. The film devotes a lot of time to conversations between Shuri and Namor in which they come to understand each other’s cultures. In these scenes, Huerta adds sincerity to his character while underscoring his selfish motivations. The performances in these quieter moments are much better than what I’ve come to expect in MCU films, in which the acting typically feels serviceable and only emotionally compelling at the most climatic moments. Huerta and Basset set a new standard for performances in superhero films, leading the movie to success through character-driven storytelling. Ramonda has never been a particularly compelling character to me — in “Black Panther,” Shuri and T’Challa were center stage and thus outshone her. Basset changed that in “Wakanda Forever,” taking the spotlight early and giving the audience a lot to both love and hate. The interplay between Shuri, Ramonda and Namor is the film’s biggest draw, and their performances are responsible for making the film captivating.

“Wakanda Forever” takes on a more somber tone than most superhero films, dealing with the loss of Boseman and its ramifications for the series. Shuri and Ramonda spend much of the film working through their grief over T’Challa’s death. They struggle to live up to the memory of their brother and son in the face of a new threat. The humor and quips one might expect from Marvel are nearly nonexistent, a choice that adds to the film’s emotional throughline — serious moments aren’t undercut with poorly timed comedic relief. This allows the audience to focus on the layers of frustration and restlessness Shuri experiences, leading to a powerful climax in which she comes into her own. 

On the other hand, some scenes drag as the characters are left to repeat the same expression of emotions that the audience has seen for the entirety of the movie. There are multiple scenes with the same characters repeating the same sentiment about how they miss T’Challa and how they aren’t going to stop fighting Namor. At a certain point, the repetition of emotional beats no longer reinforces themes and feels like a way to bloat the runtime.

The film is also hampered by its time spent on tie-ins to the rest of the MCU. A side plot about CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, “Sherlock”) feels tacked on simply to advance an ongoing MCU storyline, cutting into important moments of the film. This causes emotional whiplash as the film cuts between the antics of a CIA agent running around the U.S. and a dramatic geopolitical conflict between two superhuman nations. The inclusion of Riri as Ironheart also feels like deadweight — she has too little screen time to fully develop her character but enough to make the already long runtime drag. This time could have been used to create a much tighter and more succinct story but is instead wasted to develop characters that the audience will ultimately have no attachment to. 

While pieces of “Wakanda Forever” feel tacked on, the film’s core — the conflict and relationship between Shuri, Ramonda and Namor — is extremely compelling. It had the potential to outshine the first “Black Panther,” expanding on the themes of colonialism and race in new ways while telling a powerful and emotional story about grief. It is still a version of that possible sequel, but in the end, it is watered down with filler and fluff.

Daily Arts Writer Zach Loveall can be reached at zloveall@umich.edu.

Correction: The spelling of the name “Hela” was corrected on Nov. 22, 2022.