Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the worst parts of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; a surprising problem because under normal circumstances, Julia Louis-Dreyfus rules. In theory, she should be a fun little cameo, but so far she represents the worst kind of MCU crossover role: Someone who only exists to set up future spinoffs. She is, in essence, an unwanted ad break.
Playing CIA director Val Fontaine, Louis-Dreyfus is being set up as as a more nefarious equivalent to Nick Fury, debuting in the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and returning for a post-credits cameo in Black Widow. She’s recruiting heroes for the 2024 film Thunderbolts, which will feature an all-star cast including the Winter Soldier and Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova.
But is any of this relevant to the core themes or narrative of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever? No. And the film makes little effort to establish Val as an interesting character in her own right.
While the rest of the movie is concerned with the arrival of Namor, and with Shuri processing her grief for T’Challa, the scenes with Val Fontaine and CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) are a jarring departure into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. territory. As I put it in my review, it feels like Ryan Coogler is being forced to pay an MCU crossover tax in order to tell more interesting stories elsewhere.
Samuel L. Jackson defined this kind of cross-franchise role as Nick Fury, combining a powerful screen presence with the advent of shared-universe storytelling. In the early years of the MCU, it felt fresh and exciting to see a single character tie together different strands of the franchise, building up to something bigger.
At this point though, it seems like old hat. We’ve seen this trope many times before, both in the MCU and elsewhere. This leaves Val Fontaine in an awkward position, because in addition to feeling like a retread of old material, she’s neither funny (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ speciality) nor remotely impressive as an antagonistic authority figure. If anything, Val’s Wakanda Forever scenes undermine her intimidation factor, because the CIA looks pathetic compared to Wakanda’s military.
It doesn’t help that Val Fontaine is a rather obscure character. Viewers don’t have strong expectations for her role. And unlike the more successful rebranding for characters like M’Baku and Mysterio, there’s no obvious creative vision for her new personality. Which is, of course, a symptom of her being introduced via cameos. The writer and director of Thunderbolts will presumably think more deeply about Val’s impact, but right now she’s being written by a committee. A committee of people whose main priority is characters like Shuri and Black Widow, not Val Fontaine.