I admit, part of why I didn’t like Black Panther is my fault. But the onus of the blame isn’t even on the movie itself, but the state of the entire MCU. Black Panther’s greatest crime isn’t being bad on its own merits, but being bad due to its constraints the MCU puts on it. Let me explain by telling you why Guardians of the Galaxy, one of my favourite movies in the franchise, has ruined the future of the Universe.
Phase One of the MCU consisted of a couple Iron Mans, a Hulk (kinda), a Captain America, a Thor, and capped off with the Avengers. Now, what I’m about to say may seem like I’m praising Phase One. I’m not, it’s almost definitely the worst phase. However, I find myself missing the tone of these films. The first Iron Man is definitely one of the top 3 MCU movies, despite being the first. It has a new, charismatic, and funny main character, great action, and a surprisingly decent plot. Now, when you think of Iron Man, do you remember the best part being how uproariously hilarious it was? I highly doubt it, because that wasn’t the central focus of the movie. It focused more on the plot, the war drama, and most importantly, Iron Man himself. I think if you’ve seen all the Marvel movies you know where I’m going with this. After that, we have the Hulk movie. It sucks. But is it funny? No. Did everyone hate it because it wasn’t funny? Also no, they hated it because it is poorly written, loud, and not fun. The First Avenger, my least favourite movie in the entire MCU, is actually terrible. It’s boring, it promotes boredom, and it bored me, the most egregious thing a movie can do. Again, did it lack humour as its fatal flaw? No, it’s just that the action is meh, the story is less than meh, and the dialogue… I don’t even remember, it put me to sleep. Then we have Thor. Thor had the potential to be the introduction to the major flaw of the Marvel Universe, but it wasn’t good enough to cause the rift, as odd as that sounds. Finally, we come to The Avengers: the culmination of all these movies and an Iron Man movie I didn’t bother mentioning. Though I haven’t seen it in a while, I recall The Avengers being very entertaining. It had drama, it had a bloated cast that didn’t leave too many out to dry, and it ends the first Phase on a high note. Oh, and it’s funny. IT’S FUNNY. Joey, why the heck do you keep using the word funny as if its a threat? Oh baby, we haven’t even begun the humour related threats yet.
Phase Two has 3 movies prior to GotG, but only one of them matters. After another Iron Man and another Thor, we are given the thread that could be used to tie the franchise back together, should the MCU choose to let go of the thread they currently grasp onto oh so tightly. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the last movie in the franchise that I can watch today and actually fill me with hope. It is fun, it has great action, but most of all, it takes itself seriously. It is a serious action movie. Sure, it has some one-liners, it has some physical humour, but what defines the movie is Steve and Bucky’s relationship, and the moral dilemma Steve must overcome, creating a thrilling dynamic that ends up causing the entire team to shatter into two opposing sides in the sequel. This also brings up another great thing that sets this film apart from most other Marvel movies, in that it actually affects the rest of the Universe in a quantifiable way. One of my many qualms about Black Panther is that none of it matters. But I’ll get to that in a bit. The second film that actually matters is the Patient Zero for the plague that has infected every single Marvel film since. Guardians of the Galaxy is — and I don’t use this word lightly — funny. In fact, it’s very funny. It just works. The characters are fun, they have a great dynamic, and they all seem to be on the same page. Dave Batista freaking kills it; I think he’s comedy gold in his Drax role.
I’d like to interrupt this analysis of the Marvel franchise to talk about an event in history that both fascinates and terrifies me: The Laughter Epidemic of 1962. At an all girls boarding school in a small Tanzanian town, three girls started laughing. And kept laughing, and laughing, until other students started laughing as well. Soon enough, the laughter spread through their class, and then through the school. Many girls went home laughing, and brought their highly contagious laughter to their homes, where their families started laughing. In the end, 6-18 months later, the phenomenon finally ended, having affected about a thousand people and shut down 14 schools.
We may now return to our analysis, but make sure to keep that mysterious and hysterical occurrence in your head. Coming off the heels of the hilarious GotG comes the sequel to one of the highest grossing film of all time. The Avengers 2 shows its symptom in traditionally the weakest spot in every Marvel movie: the villain. Instead of a cold, calculating, and merciless Ultron, we receive James Spader’s Ultron, a wise cracking robot that may as well be a dude in another Iron Man suit, since he acts like any other boring human would. His personality is defined by him being… funny. He may not be interesting, he may not be complicated, he may not have clear motivations, but at least he’s… funny. And the funny spreads like wildfire from there.
I’m not gonna talk about Ant Man, because I haven’t seen it. I have heard it is funny though, and with Paul Rudd as the main character I wouldn’t doubt it. Phase three begins with Civil War, which honestly does skirt the symptoms much better than every other post-GotG addition. It has Spidey and Ant Man as comic relief, but most of the time they don’t get in the way of the incredibly intriguing concept that actually manages to stay interesting to the very end.
Doctor Strange is another movie that I actually like. You may be seeing a pattern here, in that I actually enjoy quite a lot of the Marvel movies, and even most post-GotG movies. But remember, this is ultimately gonna be a review of Black Panther, which will be a culmination of everything I’ve complained about here. Doctor Strange has some jaw dropping visuals that are executed perfectly, and a couple genuinely interesting characters (those being Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor). Even the humour works for the most part, but some of it feels shoehorned in. That joke about the exotic word written on an ancient piece of paper actually being the wifi code was hilarious! But when Doc starts making jokes in the middle of a serious fight, I start to question whether the writer really wanted that there, or if (gasp!) the GotG plague has begun infecting another victim.
GotG 2 gets a free pass, because while I thought it was pretty meh, that mostly had to do with the weak plot and villain, not the inclusion of humour. See, GotG is a comedy, and advertises itself as such, which makes me much more inclined to temper my expectations to a comedy rather than an action movie.
Spiderman Homecoming also gets a free pass, although I’m undecided on whether or not the plague hit this movie as well. Whether it did or whether it didn’t, I think this movie is absolutely hilarious. I love it. It’s my favourite MCU movie, and one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in the past few years. That scene with Tom Holland going over to pick up his girl for prom or whatever and finding out her dad is the main villain is a scene that still makes me both super tense and super giggly every time I think about it. Tom Holland himself is so perfect as Spidey, it makes me wish the Andrew Garfield ones never existed. Tobey had his own thing that also worked (until he started dancing), but Tom just nails the character so damn well.
Thor Ragnarok is an interesting case. The GotG plague actually revived this series rather than hinder it. A cynic such as I, however, looks at this revival and wonders what the thought process is behind turning the Thor series into a straight up wacky comedy. Marvel sees that they have a mediocre-at-best series, and they decide to inject some comedy into it. Instead of continuing the vaguely dark setting of The Dark World, comedy is used as a crutch since they know for a fact it’ll work, deciding to play it safe rather than take a chance and do something different. As my history of film professor said last week, the Marvel movies are purposely bland. Any deviance from the bland template would make it difficult to fit in to the rest of the franchise, and so Marvel plays it safe over and over and over again. At least the Cloverfield franchise is taking risks, despite the mixed results. And here, folks, is where we can finally begin to take a look at — wait, where is it? Where did it go?
I am Marvel. I look down at my feet, and I see dirt, ground into finer dirt. I look to my left, and I see a wall of dirt. I look to my right, a wall of dirt. I don’t even bother trying to climb out, the lip of the wall is too high to reach. So i keep walking forward. And forward. And forward. I pass a wall, hey, didn’t I just see that wall? I realise I’m walking in circles. So what do I do? I guess I just. Keep. Going. Once I realise that I’ve been walking through a rut of my own creation, it’s too late. So I keep going. As the rut gets deeper, I begin to make out something beneath my feet. It’s a bunch of letters. A little while later, I can finally read what they say: BLACK PANTHER
AAAAAAH! I just had the most awful nightmare. I was Marvel, there was a rut… oh man, you shoulda been there. Anyway, now I can finally get around to talking about what this review was actually supposed to be, which is “the best film of the year”.
Black Panther is defined by pretending. First, let’s talk about the most egregious way it attempts to deceive: through pretending to have any tension whatsoever. The Marvel movies have always had a problem with tension; this is why when the first Marvel movies were coming out I wasn’t very into them. This issue wasn’t really solved, but I think Marvel realised their problem and skirted it by adding the Infinity Stones. These MacGuffins allow there to be actual stakes even when we know none of our beloved main characters are going to die. All the movies that don’t involve the Infinity Stones or Tesseracts are either bad or comedies that don’t use tension as their main attraction. Black Panther has zero tension, zero consequential MacGuffins, and zero comedy (that works). Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have written a movie that, had it been a standalone film, could have had a semblance of tension. Unfortunately, it’s part of a massive franchise, and simply does not work. The part that stands out most is the half hour where T’Challa is chucked off a cliff and is assumed dead. This half hour might be the worst in the entire movie, mostly because it has the most odd dramatic irony I have ever seen. Even if this had been standalone, it still would have been obvious that T’Challa would come back, but this generic second act trope is amplified tenfold by the fact that we have literally seen T’Challa in the trailers for the next movie. While all the characters in the movie are sent scrambling by the supposed death of our main character, the audience has not even a seed of doubt about whether he will return or not. This seems to be just a misunderstanding by the writers. This movie is not capable of having tension, the audience knows it, Marvel knows it, and yet it still pretends to, and this is likely the strangest and largest flaw I’ve seen a movie make in quite a while. Thor Ragnarok doesn’t have any tension for two reasons: first, the villain sucks, as all but a single one do, and second, because it doesn’t even try, and that’s a good thing. What is even better is the tension in Spider-man Homecoming. Even though there are no MacGuffins, this movie manages to mix tension and (amazing) comedy through incredibly effective character use. The movie isn’t tense on a colossal Marvel Universe level, it’s tense on a character level, which takes a lot more skilled nuance to pull off. Black Panther fails at every single level of tension, which leaves it with only one other option: comedy.
Black Panther is brutally unfunny at times, tolerably funny at others, but every time a joke is made I lose faith in the franchise a little bit more. Coming back to the problem I mentioned earlier, every movie post GotG has the issue of shoehorning humour in, with mixed results. Black Panther was what I had hoped to finally be another relatively serious entry, since it takes on some serious subject matter, involves politics, and I don’t think Black Panther was a particularly funny comic book, correct me if I’m wrong. Not only was I hoping for a serious movie, I was expecting one. All the trailers for Black Panther seem to market it as a cool superhero action movie, not a comedy, leading to a complete mismatch between what I thought I would be seeing and what I ended up seeing. What we got was a young tech genius or something screaming “WHAT ARE THOSE”. If I find out how to put gifs into this blog, I would love to put in the one of Steve Buscemi walking into a school with a sideways baseball cap and a skateboard saying “how do you do, fellow kids?”
That’s a problem with the comedy itself, but I found myself most annoyed at how the film has no clue what it wants to be. It’s too humour filled to be a cool superhero action movie, and it’s too serious and politically charged to be a comedy. So what the hell is it? This question has been gnawing at me for a while, and I have come to the conclusion that I actually don’t care, and may very well stop caring altogether. I started off agnostic to the franchise, then I warmed up to it through the charming tone and fun characters, but now Marvel seems to have lost its identity. The first Iron Man features a sarcastic and funny main character surrounded by mostly serious folks, and it works so well as an action movie. Downey Jr’s wit makes the comedy work, but if he were constantly spewing one-liners, it would lose its charm. Black Panther is charmless, identityless, and lacks a plot that can even come close to making up for this.
I could go on and on about how angry I am that people actually think Killmonger is a good villain, but that would once again involve revisiting every single Marvel movie and I know you don’t wanna hear about that again. I could also go on about how weak the characters are in general, but I think I’d just be reiterating why I think this movie simply doesn’t work. I won’t even discuss what I liked about it, because that isn’t what this review is about. This review is an urgent request to Marvel to not fuck up Infinity War by making it funny. You finally, finally have some legitimate tension, no hero is safe, but if this movie doesn’t take itself seriously enough, you’ll have some very difficult convincing to do to get me back on the Marvel train. Ok fine, I’ll be back for Homecoming 2 but that’s it. And only if it’s by the same writers. But when it’s all said and done, I don’t want to think of the franchise as having been a joke, I want to think back on the characters, the villains — ahem, villain, the mindless fun. I don’t want to think about pointless petty pandering perpetuated permanently and polluting the potential of a powerful pranchise. And that joke. I wanna think about that joke I just made.