Road to Infinity War – Black Panther, or, A New Hope

Oh dear God I’m done! I did it. This is the last one. Every freaking day for two and a half weeks. Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Bleed hot takes on every Marvel film onto the page! And at last, started with Iron Man and now I’m back here! Writing about Black Panther! Just like I did when it came out! Like two months ago! Anyway, I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

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I’m mistaken. It has been more than two months since the last Marvel film. Maybe there aren’t enough superhero movies?

In many ways, Black Panther is the final piece of the puzzle that Thanos is going to punch the shit out of in, like, twelve hours. The final component of the status quo, clicked into place just before the whole thing is utterly upended, bringing together many of the themes from across Marvel’s third phase of films.

Hot on the heels of Thor: Ragnarok, which saw the God of Thunder ascend to a position he had adopted a healthy wariness of, Black Panther shows us just how well-placed that wariness is as T’Challa takes up the mantle of King of Wakanda and all the headaches that position entails. That T’Challa is in such a position of power at this point in the MCU is compelling because throughout Marvel’s phase three those in power, mentors, predecessors and the like, have continually let down our heroes, be it Odin or the Ancient One withholding secret histories from Thor and Doctor Strange, or Tony Stark just not listening to little old Peter. Even T’Challa is let down by his predecessors. But only T’Challa is given the opportunity to fully wield the same position of power that has let him down.

Luckily for Wakanda, T’Challa possesses a skillset that offers a glimpse of hope for the MCU in spite of the disillusionment so many of its heroes have faced of late after the likes of Civil War and Ragnarok. As Jack Donaghy would say of any Phil Collins fan, T’Challa’s “got two ears and a heart.”

He listens. In an era within the MCU when listening and discourse fail on a global scale, they thrive in T’Challa. At the climax of Civil War, when Cap and Tony are locked in conflict beyond words and reason, T’Challa actively makes the choice to step back and listen. Literally, physically he steps away from the situation, listens and in doing so is able to reassess and rise above the machinations in play.

We watch him learn this lesson in Civil War and we see him continue to heed this lesson in Black Panther, which benefits not only T’Challa and Wakanda, but the film itself, as well as its many excellent characters. Tasked with ruling, T’Challa listens. He listens to his sister, his mother, his spy, his general, his friend, his enemy. Part of the reason Black Panther is so spectacular is T’Challa, and thus the film itself, takes the time to listen to its characters, and hearing their thoughts, ideas and fears breathes life into them and their world.

Black Panther rightfully, tactfully avoids smothering itself in the shadow of Infinity War, but as an audience member in the real world, knowing Thanos looms ahead lent a potency to the events of the film because at a time when the Avengers have been so utterly disassembled, Black Panther gives the MCU hope in a hero who rises above ideological differences, who overcomes disillusionment, who first listens, then considers and then kicks ass. Black Panther’s placement just before Infinity War is a statement that perhaps Thanos will destroy the Avengers, but the recurring themes of antagonism that have dogged our heroes thus far will not.

For some thoughts on the worldbuilding in Black Panther you can dust off this old hot take from, like, 50 days ago:

February 26, 2018: A Different Kind of Worldbuilding, or, Black Panther

I’m done! I’m a champion!

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Doctor Strange, or, Breaking Most of the Rules

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Pew pew!

Marvel’s 14th film, Doctor Strange, is all about flipping off the establishment.

After the titular Doctor Stephen Strange, the unlikeable Tony Stark of surgery, gets in a car accident that utterly destroys his hands, he scours the earth for a solution to his perpetually quaking fingers. His search brings him to the doorstep of The Ancient One and her sorcerer acolytes, who offer a solution to the limits of Strange’s body via the expansion of his mind, which it turns out, involves asking a lot of questions.

Nothing is sacred in the world of Doctor Strange. The culture of sorcery he immerses himself in is founded on questioning and redefining the rules of time and space in ways that leave the screen so cluttered with 70s prog rock special effects that it is legitimately impossible to take everything in.

But, like, in a cool way.

To The Ancient One and her ilk it seems the only certainty is the need to question anything deemed certain. Much to The Ancient One’s chagrin that rule doesn’t stop at her doorstep.

On his quest Doctor Strange is not only forced to question time and space, he’s forced to question authority and orthodoxy. He’s brought into a mystical microcosm that has torn apart the constraints of the larger world around it without ever taking too close a look at itself.

Intentionally or not Doctor Strange proves to be an incredibly appropriate superhero movie for November 2016. Its hero is ultimately tasked with never becoming stagnant. With never clinging to a worldview for the sake of towing the line. When his world as a surgeon is crushed around him he is presented with an alternative that shows him the flaws of his old life. But that alternative is not without flaws. Nor is the alternative to that alternative. Doctor Strange’s strongest attribute isn’t his newly-acquired understanding of the mystic arts or his newly-acquired ability to thinly veil his own jackassery, it’s his insistence on never taking any one sound bite from any one talking head at face value.

But despite the thematic through line of obliterating conventions and questioning dogma in spectacular 3D glory the film falls back on a particularly vexing trope I’d thought we’d moved past. The love interest for the sake of a love interest.

Rachel McAdams plays Dr. Christine Palmer, an ER physician who has a strained, romantic history with Stephen Strange. Rachel McAdams is great. She’s Rachel McAdams. True Detective Season 2. Spotlight. The script for Doctor Strange relegates her to what feels like a mark on some sort of blockbuster checklist you’d think the Sorcerer Supreme would have dismantled a thousand times over by now. This isn’t simply the case of an inexplicable kiss, à la Jurassic World or Civil War. It isn’t just the romance that feels artificial, it’s the entire character. Dr. Palmer has limited screen time and even more limited impact on the story overall. McAdams does as much as any performer could in the limited space the script gives her, but at best her character is written into the film as a benchmark audiences can use to tell Doctor Strange isn’t as big of a dick as he used to be. She ultimately feels like the girl shoehorned into a “boy” movie so that girlfriends will go too, a notion I’d hoped characters like Peggy Carter or Gamora or Black Widow had rendered obsolete. She isn’t given an arc or even afforded sufficient time to believably react to and acquaint herself with Strange’s new abilities (her introduction to and acceptance of Strange’s mystical powers is rushed to the point of feeling like an encounter with a new hair cut) and the movie suffers for it. That this is the capacity to which an actress of McAdam’s caliber joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe is upsetting, and a waste of talent. The debut of the new Wonder Woman trailer before the movie didn’t exactly lessen the blow.

Doctor Strange is a lot of fun. Its special effects are seriously next level. Its humor is on point. Its Mads is Mikkelsen. Strange’s consistent questioning of authority, establishments and institutions gives him, and his debut film, a unique and thought-provoking flavor. But an otherwise fun and exciting film is left with a few scuffs by the conventions it didn’t bother questioning. With any luck little kids will leave Doctor Strange with a healthy skepticism and a simulated LSD-trip hangover rather than antiquated ideas of gendered film.