A couple of weeks back, I wrote about joining Rotten Tomatoes because I liked the idea of a critical conversation — all those informed perspectives, gathered in one place and trading impressions. Last week, I got to put that notion to the test as I waded through the rapturous — and to me, mystifying — praise for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the story of an African king being made to confront his nation’s longstanding policy of isolationism. (It’s a policy that makes a certain amount of sense, given the damage done by just one foreigner armed with just one piece of Wakandan technology.) It goes without saying that I’m wrong and everybody else is right; there are already 400 million reasons why. Happily, that success provides me the freedom to play the Harmless Crank, shaking my fist at the heavens as the money rains down.
A number of my fellow critics praised the film for all the ways it deviated from the standard superhero story, and maybe they’re right. But I was struck by all the ways it stuck to the script, which is a nice way of saying it borrowed elements from what came before. (Spoilers to follow.) A bulletproof super-suit that can be stored inside a necklace? Shades of Iron Man’s armor. Superpowers derived from a magic potion that enable you to better serve your country? Hey there, Captain America! But where it really fell into step was in the Sins of the Fathers Department. Maybe Star Wars really is our defining cinematic mythology.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe started with a big bang when Tony Stark was critically wounded by the explosion of a Stark Industries rocket — Stark Industries being the weapons-manufacturing outfit founded by Tony’s old man Howard. Dad’s legacy — and later, the mystery of his murder — loom large in Iron Man’s psyche. Soon after, we meet the mighty Thor, who gets stripped of his power and cast out from Asgard because he disobeys his father Odin. It isn’t until Thor: Ragnarok that we learn how Odin was every bit as battle-happy and bloodthirsty when he was a young god, though little is made of it, since Ragnarok was more buddy comedy than generational drama. Still, the plot is forged by a dad who did bad, bad things, so that the son has to deal with the fallout. From there, it was on to Guardians of the Galaxy, where fatherhood itself got slapped onto the exam table. Star Lord’s pop Ego saw offspring as just that — extensions of himself, a tool to help him subdue the universe. Our hero had to put a stop to that breeding mentality, choosing instead to craft a family from his peers. And he granted the mantle of Father to the blue sociopath who was there for him, even if Yondu was a monster who regularly threatened his life. Ant-Man’s Hank Pym shines by comparison, even if his tech is the reason Mom is either dead or trapped in subatomic space.
And now here is T’Challa in Black Panther, a king whose rule — indeed, whose very national character — is threatened by his father’s dubious decision to preserve a lie. At one point, Marvel’s latest superhero must be reassured that he doesn’t have to be defined by his father’s mistakes. But it seems to me a lot of Marvel’s stories are.