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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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.