(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: we reach our conclusion with Black Panther, a film that finds Marvel reaching its optimum.)
The final stop on the Road to Infinity War is Black Panther, a sprawling superhero epic the likes of which American cinema has never seen. It’s still cleaning house at the global box office just days before its follow-up (a nine-franchise culmination to the Marvel saga), and it’s one of the most important pieces of the Marvel puzzle. Not necessarily in terms of overall narrative – the film is relatively isolated from sixteen of its seventeen predecessors – but rather, as a potentially landscape-shifting benchmark for mainstream filmmaking.
While it’s hard to measure a film’s long-term legacy in just its third month of release, it’s safe to assume that no American film since Marvel’s own The Avengers has had this seismic an impact. Black Panther has flown past all critical and financial expectations (and then some), completing Marvel’s third act turn of stepping outside the norms of Western storytelling – as seen in Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok – albeit to a much more significant degree. It builds on all the tricks of Marvel movies past, dipping its toes in the familiar before transforming the visual and thematic language of the superhero movie entirely. It’s what happens when a studio places its trust in a creative team uniquely suited to the story, and it’ll probably result in other studios taking similar risks on Black filmmakers and other filmmakers of colour, redefining who gets to hold the megaphone of mainstream cinema.
The long-held executive myth that black stars can’t open big movies feels like it’s all but gone, and who knows what other myths will crumble in the years to come.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Thor: Ragnarok reinvents the God of Thunder with humor and subversion.)
Compared to Iron Man and Captain America, Thor feels short-changed in both his Avengers appearances. His first solo film narrowly misses a coherent character arc. His second doesn’t give him one at all. He is, at once, one of the most popular Avengers and one of the least narratively interesting.
Or rather he was, until New Zealand’s Taika Waititi was handed carte blanche for the character and his grandiose world.
To say that Waititi made a weird movie would be a disservice. It’s a really weird piece of an even weirder puzzle, course-correcting Thor’s prior installments while leaning all the way into the Jack Kirby-esque designs of Marvel’s golden age. It has a giant undead wolf. It has a kindly rock monster. It even has a Hulk, but it also has Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, a character so fun and alluring that you forget he’s a human trafficker who sends people to their deaths for sport. Which, in essence, is the thesis of Thor: Ragnarok, a comedy about the effects of downplaying colonialism, made by an unapologetically Maori filmmaker.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Spider-Man: Homecoming offers a peek at the margins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
The “Homecoming” sub-title has a sly double meaning in North America, but both the phrase and its many localizations – usually some variant of “Returning Home” – sent a singular message to most of the world. This was Spider-Man back where he belonged, at the House of Ideas, right alongside characters he’d shared the page with for over 50 years. In order to re-establish him though, Marvel needed to answer a key question following his appearance in Captain America: Civil War: Where does Spider-Man fit in a world of Avengers?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe had been around for nearly 10 years by the time we got Spider-Man: Homecoming. This fictional world began shortly after Tobey Maguire vacated the spider-suit, and it continued through Andrew Garfield fizzling out. Tom Holland was to be the third on-screen Spider-Man in under a decade, and separating him from the other two became imperative. In both prior incarnations, Spider-Man was the only hero around and he had to rise to the occasion no matter how big the threat. Holland’s Peter Parker however – younger, smaller, and of meeker demeanor – exists in a world much like our own: a world where a kid his age had grown up watching Avengers rule the skies, as the little guys looked up in awe.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 beautifully blends sci-fi craziness with an examination of anger, pain, and cycles of abuse.)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is oodles of fun, but it spends its first few scenes articulating a thoughtful mission statement. Its prologue, set 34 years in the past, features a budding romance later revealed to have twisted implications, but the love on display is still real. Following this comes the Guardians’ raucous reintroduction in present day, a battle against an inter-dimensional beast in a scene bursting with visual slepndour. Its out-of-this-world action however, is backgrounded and out of focus. The spotlight instead falls on a joyous Baby Groot, dancing his way through the scene as the other Guardians – Star Lord, Drax, Gamora and Rocket – take turns caring for him as if he were their child. When the Guardians collect their reward for this battle, they stand in contrast to the gilded Sovereign, a homogenous people genetically engineered to be perfect, but a people to whom slights and insults are unforgivable. The Guardians, on the other hand, are a group of broken characters from wildly different origins, but in their case, redemption isn’t off the table.
In short, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about the complicated relationships we rarely confront. It’s told against a backdrop of action and space-opera, but its focus is on a family of imperfect beings, searching for catharsis while helping one another other find some form of redemption. It may very well be Marvel’s most mature film, zeroing in on the emotional complexities of abuse carried forward into adulthood. But it also solidifies the Studio’s new political direction, acting as the first in a trilogy of films (along with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther) whose narrative is adjacent to colonial history.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Marvel Studios enters bold new territory with Doctor Strange.)
In August of 2014, as Doctor Strange was being written and as Marvel was figuring out where to film it in 15 months time, the studio underwent a significant restructuring. Kevin Feige would no longer answer to Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, a notoriously fickle penny pincher and blockade to diversity, nor would Marvel Studios be subject to the Marvel Creative Committee, whose hellish process of studio-notes was a source of contention behind the scenes. Instead, Feige began answering directly to filmmaker-friendly Disney Charmian Alan Horn. Not long after, Marvel announced films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel and directors like Ryan Coogler (Creed) and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) after only having had white men be the major focus on either side of the camera.
The message was clear. This was a whole new Marvel, and slowly but surely, the work began to reflect it.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Captain America; Civil War pays off years of build-up with a painful bang.)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to re-invent itself every couple of years. From big, fun crossover action to space-set family soap opera, it’s been laying track one way or another for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, but a decade of narrative investment can’t be achieved without a feeling of genuine loss. This year’s culmination re-introduces us to the scattered Avengers, a family at its most discordant after tearing itself apart.
And while no Avengers lost their lives in Captain America: Civil War, the team as a whole may have lost its sense of identity. It’s a film where the long-term personal and political narratives boil over, conflicting with one another for reasons both idealistic and petty, and by the end of it, the Avengers implode. It’s a difficult watch at times, even and especially two years later when debates about military intervention rage on. And while it may seem like folly to view a film from 2016 strictly through a lens of America’s 2018 bombing of Syria, this particular real-world intervention isn’t something new. It’s part of a long-standing and long-intervening military apparatus that makes a film like Captain America: Civil War relevant in the first place.
The Avengers’ legacy is America’s legacy. And it’s mighty complicated.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Ant-Man is sometimes muddled, but charm and style go a long way.)
While “superhero fatigue” is by no means a cultural phenomenon – Avengers: Infinity War could topple Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the opening weekend box office – it’s most certainly experienced on an individual basis. The bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, for instance, may not have been everybody’s cup of tea despite being one of this writer’s favourites. Which is perhaps why Marvel Studios, in order to end its run of “Phase 2” films in 2015, decided on a smaller, more intimate project in the vein of a studio comedy.
Ant-Man would’ve been very different under director Edgar Wright, who left the project over creative differences in 2013, but that hypothetical scenario assumes there would’ve been an Edgar Wright Ant-Man at all – that is, once The Avengers swept the globe and the Marvel Creative Committee under Ike Perlmutter was still intact. The Marvel Studios of 2015 was a different beast from the Marvel Studios of 2003 (when Wright first got involved), and while it’s nice to imagine what could have been, Peyton Reed of Yes Man and Bring It On did an ample job with a film that, for better or worse, seems more in his wheelhouse than Wright’s. (Side note: the visual flourishes people seem to think are Wright’s are likely Reed’s doing, though the film feels like the product of conflicting rewrites).
That said, it does make us ponder whether going smaller and more personal in theory is really more artistically sound when the decisions still feel like they’ve had their edges sanded down. Like the character leading it, it’s tough for Ant-Man to be truly good when forces beyond its control seem to hold it back at every turn.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Avengers: Age of Ultron takes a long, hard look at gods, monsters, and the humans in-between.)
How often do we ask ourselves why we created God and the Devil? We’ve been questioning our own existence for thousands of years – where we came from and what we’ll leave behind – so to have those ideas pumped into a $300 million superhero sequel, albeit to varying degrees of success, is something of note.
We’re well into Marvel being the biggest thing in popular culture with Avengers: Infinity War, but the questions asked by Joss Whedon’s medial crossover are of particular interest when it comes to the Avengers’ iconography. By 2015, our entertainment landscape had become dominated by the violent Übermensch in a visage of childlike fantasy, and it warranted artistic introspection.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not some Watchmen-esque deconstruction; then again, neither was the 2009 Watchmen movie, which took straight from the pages of the 1986 comic series rather than drawing from the culture around it. Age of Ultron on the other hand came out a mere two years after the destruction debate post-Man of Steel, which focused largely on civilian causalities. Whether as response to the new tenor of superhero conversation or as a means to set up Captain America: Civil War (or both; the intent isn’t mutually exclusive), Age of Ultron places similar debates in its crosshairs, first by making its characters’ top priority the protection of civilians, and then by exploring the ways in which they ought to go about it. The film forces the Avengers to contend with their in-world legacy as a means to explore their fictional legacy on-screen.
It’s a narrative nexus, building on what came before while setting up Marvel’s future, as it attempts to define that very nexus for each of its characters. A mirror to our modern pantheon.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy gets weird, and it’s spectacular.)
Flashback, Comic Con 2012. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige announces development on Guardians of the Galaxy, to which even seasoned Marvel readers respond: “Wait… Who?” Flashback, Comic Con 2013. Marvel plays the first public footage from the new James Gunn joint to a crowd who had no idea what to expect. I would know. I was there, buzzing with bewildered excitement. And from the moment we got a glimpse of this thing – a sizzle reel not dissimilar from the film’s first trailer – we knew we were in for something special. Flash forward, April 2018. The Guardians’ upcoming team-up with the Avengers is currently outselling the last seven Marvel movies combined.
Gunn’s superhero space-opera existed independently of the rest of the Marvel Universe (unless you count post-credit scenes, which I do not) and it seemed to exist independently from most sci-fi films in general. Equal parts grimy and bursting with colour, it felt like bright new world that had been used and lived in by ingrates not unlike ourselves. From an idyllic, multi-species utopia led by Marvel’s Nova Corps, to a floating space-penitentiary with alien inmates of all stripes, even to a mining colony within the severed head of an ancient Celestial, the film departed from its relatively grounded predecessors and marked Marvel Studios going full-Marvel Comics. While Asgard in Thor featured a familiar regality, Guardians of the Galaxy represented a major step out into the larger Marvel cosmos, starting off on Earth before ending up in far-flung corners of an unfamiliar universe – though not without the right characters to guide us through it.
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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Marvel Studios finally finds the perfect blend of character and politics in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)
Nine films into its now 18 entries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe found its groove in a major way. The series’ prior imbalance was owed to both occasionally muddled character arcs and often-incoherent worldviews, capturing the superficial texture of post-9/11 geopolitics without anything more significant. That superficiality has been a sticking point on the “Road to Infinity War” even for some of the series’ very best entries because of how their political backdrop has been contextualized. It’s always treated as key thematic focus rather than mere allusion, even though it often only amounts to the latter.
As you may have read in this series of articles, much of Marvel’s political outlook is lip-service to prop up their heroes so their journeys can relate to their immediate antagonists, and their immediate antagonists alone. The result is at the very least a partial thematic void, even when the characters work. The MCU lacked, for the most part, any substantial use of the American “war on terror” which lies constantly in its peripheries.
That is, until Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
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