The Mauve Knight, or, Avengers: Infinity War

There aren’t any specific spoilers for Infinity War below, but if I hadn’t seen the film I wouldn’t read it. You can check out some of my pre-viewing predictions for the movie, which I’ll be returning to on Monday to grade for correctness in a separate post, here.

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CHIN ATTACK

Watching the 18 preceeding Marvel films before going into Avengers: Infinity War gave me an appreciation for the myriad character narratives that wind throughout the franchise, with huge developments often happening for characters in movies that don’t even bare their name. For instance, some of the most compelling moments in Iron Man’s development throughout the MCU have been in the likes of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Black Panther has a huge moment of clarity in Civil War. Black Widow has an arc all her own despite never having an eponymous film. You never know how consequential any given Marvel film will be for any given Marvel character, and so going into Infinity War I was very curious what it would contribute to some of these individual characters’ narratives, what this chapter would mean in the book of Iron Man, or Black Panther, or Captain America.

I was pretty surprised when the answer was, sort of, kind of, not a lot. That’s not a barometer for the quality of the film, mind you, and it isn’t to say that consequential things don’t happen, but there aren’t a dearth of defining character beats for our heroes. There are simply so many that no one Avenger has a particularly verbose arc. I thought there’d be more Cap. More T’Challa. More Tony. And despite loving the film, I found myself wondering who exactly it was about.

But that’s actually pretty obvious.

Avengers: Infinity War could have just as easily, and more aptly, been dubbed Thanos: Infinity War, because Josh Brolin’s Mad Titan is the protagonist of the film.

In The Last Jedi (don’t worry I promise I don’t have another hot take) Supreme Leader Snoke makes a comment to Kylo Ren bemoaning the existence of hope. Not hope in the Jedi, or hope in the Resistance. Just straight up hope. It’s an exchange that drives me bananas because it rings so flat and so dull, because it is such an utterly villainous sentiment, as if Snoke is going out of his way to be a villain. It’s a sentiment that makes it seem like Snoke is not only a villain to our heroes, but a villain to himself, as if he is primed and ready to unironically grab the mic and announced “well my name’s rappin’ Snoke and I’m here to say it’s fun to rap in an evil way.”

Thanos, inversely, is no such arch-villain. In fact he’s not entirely dissimilar to Tony Stark. Both operate under the assumption that they have been, as Loki would say, “burdened with glorious purpose.” They have lofty, conceptual ideas of morality and salvation and equally lofty, conceptual notions for achieving those ends. There are certainly parallels of egomaniacal do-goodery between Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet and Stark’s Ultron program.

Part of what makes Thanos’ pursuit so compelling, what makes him a perverse, distorted protagonist (not hero, mind you), is that it doesn’t seem like he even necessarily wants to be doing what he’s doing. He’s possessed by the notion that controlled destruction is the only way to save life from utter annihilation and that he, like a great cosmic martyr, will foot the bill of that heinous but necessary sin on his own soul for the good of life itself. He seeks to save life from itself at his own expense.

There is no time then, to plumb the depths of the likes of Tony and Steve and T’Challa once more, because if Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War, the antagonist is the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Every one of the heroes in this movie has run deep in some previous film and thus, at least so far as the long term Marvel audience is concerned, they do not need to here. Here, in Thanos’ story, their purpose is to be short-sighted, to lack the will and purpose to make the sort of sacrifices the film’s true protagonist is prepared to demand of himself, to lack scope beyond themselves in space and time. They’re henchmen, the lot of them. Obstacles. And to see them relegated to as much before Thanos is frightening and distressing, all the more so because Thanos is our twisted protagonist.

How do you bring together twenty-something protagonists from six or so separate film series? You flip the script and dare them all to stop one protagonist from acquiring the dopest MacGuffin ever. If this were the last film in Marvel’s phase three I’d be unhappy, but as the penultimate chapter before much of the MCU’s inaugural class purportedly graduates, Infinity War upends the MCU in exciting ways with a villain whose six-year build up does not disappoint.

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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!

A Different Kind of Worldbuilding, or, Black Panther

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Wakanda: a vibrant, luscious world of CGI and discourse.

Watching the trailer for the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp, I found myself hard pressed to get excited. I dug Ant-Man and I have no doubt I’ll enjoy the film, but I’m coming off of Thor: Ragnarok here. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten to a point at which worldbuilding, neigh, universe-building, is in full swing, and after the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ragnarok, in which nearly everything on screen is conjured from someone’s imagination, it can be hard for me to settle back down to Earth for the likes of Spider-Man’s Brooklyn or Ant-Man and the Wasp’s San Francisco. By and large, I love Marvel movies the most when they take me some place extraordinary.

Black Panther is quite likely the best worldbuilding Marvel has done yet, its setting, Wakanda, one of its most extraordinary. A large part of that is how Black Panther builds its world. There’s the amazing art direction and the imagination writ celluloid, but more than that Black Panther builds its world by letting us in on its characters’ opinions of that world and its culture and tradition.

More than any preceding film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther steeps itself in a hearty discourse on tradition, fitting subject matter for a film in which the protagonist is a king in the modern world.

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa finds himself crowned king of the isolationist, techno-oasis Wakanda, the most advanced and invisible country on the planet. But as his father says, “it is hard for a good man to be king.” T’Challa finds himself tasked with becoming the arbiter, the living personification, of centuries of tradition that mean many different things to many different people.

To T’Challa’s sister Shuri, played by standout amongst standouts Letitia Wright, tradition is something flimsy and old, something to be dutifully, if begrudgingly, honored but lightheartedly scoffed at. Early in the film she expresses the sentiment that just because something is not broken doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.

Arguably her polar opposite, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of T’Challa’s body guards, the Dora Milaje, has dedicated her life to upholding Wakandan institutions. She is a protector of tradition even when it is anything but pragmatic. Okoye is no bureaucratic extremist, but she understands that traditions exist for a reason, that they can stem the tides of chaos, that they can minimize violence, that they can be a glue that makes a country more than a place and a people. She has given herself over to something bigger than herself.

Somewhere in the middle is Lupita Nyongo’s Nakia, a Wakandan spy who has traveled the world her country has so expertly isolated itself from. She’s as quick to honor the cultural tradition of her country as she it to point out the flaws in its political traditions. She’s not one to hold up the establishment or abandon it, rather she urges progress, she urges establishments, culture and tradition be dragged into the future.

But what Black Panther’s examination of tradition comes down to is what does tradition mean for the powerful and what does it mean for the powerless?

Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the greatest MCU villain yet. To him tradition is a weapon, one that, if not actively used against him, has at least utterly refused to come to his defense. His is a quest to harness tradition, to usurp it and redirect it, to wield it like the weapon it could be.

Killmonger keeps it real. Real real. He challenges T’Challa’s worldview and Wakanda’s traditions so completely and effectively that even his villainous means ultimately do little to help the Black Panther or the audience intellectualize his crusade away.

While T’Challa finds himself surrounded by hot takes on tradition, he himself is the one tasked with carrying that tradition forward, be it carefully like an old antique vase or brashly like a weapon affecting everything around it. As king he finds himself in a position unlike any of his Avenging counterparts. His is not a duty simply to save, his is a duty to govern, to keep the trains running, to prune and nurse tradition like a careful gardener so that it best serves people not only in crisis, but day to day. He is a living bridge between a past and future that are continually being analyzed and redefined by all around him, all the while striving to be a good man.

Wakanda seeps into the marrow of these characters in a way that no other locale in the Marvel Universe has because these characters don’t just live in Wakanda, they analyze Wakanda. The script, co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, boasts characters that dedicate themselves to it, that roll their eyes at it, that condemn it. Black Panther’s worldbuilding through character brings Wakanda to life in a ways that even the best art direction can’t achieve, ways that make it even harder for me to get excited for a return to San Francisco or Queens.