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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Road to Infinity War – Thor: Ragnarok, or, The Bummer King

Holy crap I’m almost done! 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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You will believe a Jeff can Goldblum.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie is amazing, but boy oh boy did it not require any of the Jacuzzi vision quest from Age of Ultron. Like, not even a little bit.

Anyway, spoilers ahead for Thor: Ragnarok.

Despite being a few hundred years old and a god and all that, Thor is one of the more dynamic characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a compelling arc that finally gets an equally compelling movie to match in Thor: Ragnarok.

When we met Thor in the original 2011 film he was ready to assume the throne of Asgard, eager to rule because damnit it was his birthright to rule, because it was simply what was supposed to happen. In his first cinematic outing, however, the God of Thunder falls prey to a Patented Marvel Humbling (PMH) and learns that even vaguely decent and worthy leadership requires more than lineage and demands more than a wink and a smile. He learns that the throne is more than a chair.

It is perhaps because of that daunting knowledge that when we return to Asgard in The Dark World Thor has no interest whatsoever in the throne he had once been so certain was his. In Dark World, as a far worthier prospect for kinghood than he was when we met him, Thor turns down the throne, maybe out of a newfound humility, maybe out of a newfound fear of ruling.

By the end of Ragnarok, however, Thor has come full circle, back to where we met him years ago, standing before the throne, surrounded by his people. But the golden palace is gone, as is the sparkling silver helm. There are no more feasts and cries of merriment, as all of that pomp and circumstance has been replaced by a sea of refugees and a leader who at last feels the true burden of what it is to rule.

As hilarious as Ragnarok is, it’s also a pretty cruel film. Though it concludes with Thor finally ascending the throne, it only does so after first utterly destroying Thor’s sense of home and then utterly destroying Thor’s actual home. Having finally attained a somber understanding of the responsibility of leadership, Thor is stripped of his understanding of the cultural entity he is tasked with shepherding.

Ragnarok’s uncertain ending echoes that of Captain America: Civil War, that unsure ground being one of many thematic through lines of Marvel’s third phase of films that run through the movie. The problematic and deceitful retelling of history by authority from in Doctor Strange, the protagonist faced with the harsh realities of their inherited privilege from Guardians Vol. 2, and the exploration of monarchy and colonialist antagonism that follow in Black Panther all play a part in Raganrok. One can’t help but wonder what sort of role these motifs might play in Infinity War.

Whatever fate may have in store for Thor, the character has finally truly gotten his due in Ragnarok and Chris Hemsworth has been able to take the God of Thunder on a philosophical and emotional journey few if any other MCU characters can match.

Anyway, I’m calling it: Hela lives!

#GoddessofDeath #Avengers4

Thor: Ragnarok = the God of Thunder’s first semester, freshman year of college? I think maybe:

November 17, 2017: Saved by the Bell: The Sakaar Years, or, Thor: Ragnarok

 

Saved by the Bell: The Sakaar Years, or, Thor: Ragnarok

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Someone’s rocking their spiffiest duds for freshman orientation.

By the end of Thor: Ragnarok the God of Thunder’s third solo adventure reveals itself to be something of the finale to a first semester of college, a young mind’s valiant return home from winter break after having been blown and expanded over the fall months. Thor: Ragnarok is a process of revealing and undercutting the status quo both for the titular character and the audience.

For the Thor franchise that status quo has been the giant golden pipe organ castle of Asgard, a Mario Kart level that debuted in 2011 as a spectacular departure from the earthbound adventures of Iron Man and Incredible Hulk but has since become increasingly less interesting compared to the exploits of Thor’s other coworkers. In Ragnarok, that tired, shallow, golden city becomes the world of half-truths and easy answers built up around a child, a straw house destined to be blown down when confronted with even the slightest shift in perspective.
Enter Hela.

Played by Cate Blanchett, the Goddess of Death is that change in perspective, that freshman seminar with a charismatic professor who antagonizes the way you think the world works so that returning home becomes more than a matter of geographic distance. Hela is Asgard’s past, the receipt for that lavish golden pipe organ than Thor never thought to look at.

Thor vs. Hela is not so much a beat ‘em up as it is a young suburban white kid’s first encounter with the film Twelve Years a Slave.

After his initial confrontation with Hela, Thor is removed from his own status quo and tossed into a different patriarchy, one in which he is not the favored son but the disregarded other. His perspective is challenged intellectually and then literally as he finds himself thrown below the heel of someone else’s lavish kingdom. Like that suburban freshman tasked for the first time with checking their privilege, Thor lashes out fists first, confused, agitated and uncertain, but before long he finds himself hanging out in a dorm room with a roommate, intellectually and emotionally grappling with Hela and all she represents.

Along for the grappling is Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the ideal companion for Thor’s journey through the first semester of freshman year. Where the events of Ragnarok change and rewrite everything Thor has ever known about himself and his history, they only reinforce Valkyrie’s understanding of the world. Thor is trying to wrap his head around Memento and Valkyrie shows up deftly dissecting Orson Welles’ F For Fake. Valkyrie doesn’t have to come to terms with Hela the way Thor does because for Valkyrie the Goddess of Death isn’t an idea or a concept but memory and experience.

Nothing is safe from being upended. Just as Hela disrupts Thor’s perception of the status quo, Ragnarok’s relentless, virtuoso pratfalls undermine the film itself and often Marvel Studios’ past films as well. Even Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, for my money the best of any of Marvel’s 17 films, presented at first with the noble orchestral flair one would expend from a grand superhero odyssey, morphs into what can only be described as aggressive synthesizer.

Every facet of Thor: Ragnarok is concerned with highlighting and then undermining the status quo, be it by speaking truth to authority through humor and smartassery or by subverting the cool of its own protagonists.

Director Taika Waititi has unlocked Thor in a way no previous director has, be it in the characters solo outings or with the rest of the Avengers. He ties Thor’s powers, arguably his most alienating characteristic, to an institution, Asgard, than rips that institution away. Presented with uncertainty, challenged with the revelation of his own privilege and that privilege’s cost, Thor has never been more compelling.

Did I mention this is also a straight-up comedy? And that Jeff Goldblum gives the performance by which all performances will be judged for the rest of time?
Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s best movies and easily the best Thor movie. It’s got action, humor, heart and an intelligence that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s all the fun of watching a college freshman get woke without having to sit through a pretentious holiday dinner with an actual college freshman.