And on the occasion of this cultural phenomenon, it's time once again for another round of every movie fan's favorite dance: the Marvel Two Step.
That particular dance goes like this:
1. Critics praise the specific Marvel movie in question and admit it's pretty darn good, then
2. Lament the loathsome Lovecraftian leviathan that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is almost single-handedly responsible for the death of all that is good and decent in Cinema.
The discussion around Black Panther has featured a fairly common variant on the second step, which is to argue that the movie in question represents a unique entry in the MCU, something utterly unlike all the other films Marvel Studios has released over the last decade.
For example, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's review at The AV Club, which is titled "The entertaining and ambitious Black Panther breaks from the Marvel formula," starts with, "It’s taken a decade and 18 films, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally produced a superhero movie that feels like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book....Ditching the MCU’s familiar roster of heroes (they don’t get as much as a mention) along with many of the basics of the Marvel film formula, Ryan Coogler has turned Black Panther into a highly personal crowd-pleaser..."
David Edelstein's review at New York Magazine, titled "Black Panther Is Unusually Gripping And Grounded for a Superhero Film," includes such lines as "That Black Panther has a richer palette than its Marvel precursors is no surprise, since its roots are equally in pop culture and African folklore" and "For one thing, Coogler hasn’t explicitly connected him to the tiring Marvel superhero stable" and "Black Panther’s team is so wonderful that I hate to think of it being dulled by the mostly white-bread Avengers."
We could go on and find other reviews in this vein, but you get the point: Black Panther = Good, Marvel Cinematic Universe = Bad.
But allow me to defend the following position: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is good. It's good because Marvel Studios makes good movies, and the existence of the MCU means audiences get more good Marvel movies than they otherwise would.
What's odd about that proposition is that the conclusion is controversial, but the supporting argument - that Marvel Studios movies are usually good - isn't. Rotten Tomatoes has its flaws, obviously, but as a quick and dirty gauge of critical reaction it's useful.
Black Panther is at 97% "fresh." Thor: Ragnarok is 92% fresh. Spider-Man: Homecoming, also 92%. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is at 83%. Doctor Strange, 90%. Captain America: Civil War, 91%.
I could go on, but I think the point is clear. There are some (relative) duds here: The Incredible Hulk is just 67% fresh, while Thor: The Dark World brings up the rear at 66%. But taken as a whole, the MCU boasts a truly remarkable consistency, providing audiences with reliably outstanding movies every year for more than a decade. And that's something critics agree with.
So why, then, have so many critics responded to the MCU with what can fairly be labelled existential angst? Why do so many MCU reviews give the reader whiplash, bouncing from praise for the specific movie to over-wrought concerns about what Marvel Studios is doing to the world of quality cinema?
Crowding Out...What, Exactly?
Within economics, there's a concept known as "crowding out." To vastly over-simplify (because I only understand the idea on a vastly over-simplified level), it's a phenomenon in which government increases public investment by X amount, but this has the effect of decreasing private investment by roughly X amount, meaning there's no net increase in the amount of investment in society.
Much of the criticism of the MCU is essentially a crowding out theory: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is such a massive enterprise, a factory churning out multiple high-budget movies every year, that it sucks in an overwhelming share of Hollywood's talent and financial resources. Any individual Marvel movie might be fine, but the MCU, taken as a whole, has a negative effect because it prevents the production of other, smaller movies.
To be sure, it is literally true that a writer, director, actor or other member of the creative team can't be on two sets at once. If Scarlett Johansson is filming Avengers: Infinity War, that means, by definition, that she can't be filming some other movie.
We've seen specific examples of this. To cross over into the jumbled and poorly lit world of the DC Extended Universe for a minute, Ben Affleck had to give up a number of projects - including a long-gestating adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand - when he agreed to play Batman.
But that was only unfortunate because the DC movies Affleck has participated in since that decision have been utter crap. If, instead, DC and Warner Brothers had made good movies featuring Batman, it would be difficult for me to get all haughty about the loss of an adaptation of a Stephen King novel set in a post-apocalyptic America, even if The Stand is one of my favorite books in the world.
In general, however, the crowding out theory is melodramatic. Marvel's movies dominate at the box office and generate intense fan discussion, but for those who aren't fans of superhero movies, there's no lack of smaller, more intimate movies that recognize the only true drama is the clinking of silverware on plates at a tense family dinner. And these movies continue to attract critical attention and awards recognition.
The Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 2016 was a small budget picture about a young African-American man's budding sexuality - the runner-up (presumably) was a throwback Hollywood musical. The 2015 winner was a true story examination of child abuse in the Catholic Church. The 2014 winner was a technically innovative comic drama about theater and the artistic process. The 2013 winner was a brutal adaptation of a kidnapped black man's time in slavery.
Nary a superhero movie in sight! In fact, superhero movies have notoriously struggled to gain traction at the Oscars and other prestigious film awards. The fact is that while Marvel movies rake in the bucks, there's plenty of oxygen left for films that better fit the critical taste.
And while there are a lot of MCU movies out there, they haven't exactly prevented those involved from doing other things. Johansson, for example, first appeared in the MCU in 2010's Iron Man 2. Since then, she's released We Bought a Zoo (2011), Don Jon (2013), Under the Skin (2013), Her (2013), Hail, Caesar! (2016), Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Rough Night (2017), among many other credits.
In other words, since signing on to the all-consuming MCU monster, Scarlett Johansson has been able to make:
- A really stupid feel-good comedy (We Bought A Zoo)
- A surprisingly thoughtful romantic comedy (Don Jon)
- An expectedly thoughtful sci-fi exploration of intimacy and consciousness (Her)
- A Coen Brothers movie (Hail, Caesar!)
- A mis-begotten adaptation of an anime classic (Ghost in the Shell)
- A standard raunchy studio comedy (Rough Night)
- The world's most effective abstinence-only education film (Under the Skin)
All of which raises two points: first, the MCU has obviously not stopped Scarlett Johansson from making a whole bunch of non-superhero movies (and again, that's not a comprehensive list). And second, while there's some great stuff on that list (Her, Under the Skin, Don Jon), there's also some real nonsense.
(And not for nothing, but take a look at the list of recent Best Picture nominees. Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for his role in Moonlight, and he played the villain in an MCU series on Netflix. Arrival was nominated in 2016, and its two leads play prominent roles in both the MCU and the DCEU. And on and on and on.)
Which illustrates the core problem with the crowding out theory: its foundation is the disdain for genre fiction that still defines much of our critical discourse. To treat it as a given that it's a bad thing for society that a superhero movie has "crowded out" other, non-superhero movies is to treat it as a given that those other genres are inherently superior. It assumes that losing out on a family drama so an actor or director can make a Marvel movie is a net loss for the movie-going public, because it treats the former genre as more legitimate than the latter.
As a personal preference, that's unobjectionable. As a supposedly indisputable value system that should define how we all look at the movie landscape, it's intensely flawed.
And it ignores the fact that, in a hypothetical world where the MCU doesn't exist, we lose a bevvy of genuinely outstanding movies, and we shouldn't take it for granted, as many critics do, that the replacement films rushing in to fill the gaps would be superior. There's no reason to assume that, freed from their obligations to Marvel, the creatives in question would make movies that were closer in quality to Her or Under the Skin than they were to We Bought a Zoo or Ghost in the Shell. Should I be weeping at the thought that I've missed out on the chance to see the next Rough Night?
After all, how many more biopics do you want Chadwick Boseman to make? And how many more Hobbit movies do you want to subject Martin Freeman to?
All Marvel Movies Are the Same, Except the Ones That Aren't
The other prominent criticism of the MCU as a whole is that it's intensely formulaic - any individual Marvel movie is good, but the series of movies, taken as a whole, is too same-y, and so audiences are really just watching the same superhero punch-up over and over again.
And, to be sure, there's some truth to this. Marvel's movies share a basic three-act structure which showcases a big action setpiece at the end of each act and a big, climactic battle at the end of the movie. There's certainly a tonal consistency to the MCU. And, broadly speaking, Marvel's movies look pretty similar.
But to focus exclusively on the undeniable consistency in the MCU is to ignore - often deliberately - the extent to which individual Marvel movies break from the "formula" and find new ground. Black Panther is a bright, colorful film that explores difficult ideas with depth and subtlety. Thor: Ragnarok is similarly exuberant with its color palette. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies are beautiful to look at, and, you know, feature a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. Doctor Strange, while a lesser MCU film, is quite visually inventive. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War both play more like political thrillers than traditional superhero movies. Ant-Man is a small scale heist movie that largely eschews huge stakes or battle scenes. Even Iron Man 3, while not visually or narratively unique, is a genuinely weird movie - often, though not always, to positive effect.
When attempting to define a set of things as "just X," it's not unreasonable to pick out one or two exceptions with the set to the general rule. But at a certain point the exceptions hit a critical mass that undermines the point being made.
It's fair to observe there's a blueprint to the films in the MCU. But there's plenty of room within that broader structure for directors, writers, actors and others to do unique, interesting, even weird things with their little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it's neither fair nor intellectually honest to act as though those efforts don't exist.
Punching Bad Guys on the Battlefield of Ideas
The defining assumption behind both of these objections, which comes through in the (justly) positive reviews for Black Panther, is the sense that superhero movies in general, and the MCU specifically, do not grapple with big ideas. Your Marvel movie might be a perfectly fine bit of popcorn entertainment, critics say, but it's not really "serious - " it doesn't engage with meaningful themes and ideas.
Hence the praise for Black Panther, which openly muses on difficult questions related to revenge, racial oppression and the potential necessity of violent revolution. Jamelle Bouie's piece at Slate is a characteristically excellent examination of the film and its ideas.
But again, to treat Black Panther as unique in this respect within the MCU is to ignore so much of what has made Marvel's movies so compelling. Winter Soldier and Civil War are both examinations of loyalty and patriotism, with the former a genuinely thoughtful look at drone warfare and the surveillance state. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies ask big questions about the nature of family and friendship - and Volume 2, as Siddhant Adlakha brilliantly observed, is a "movie about the varying ways in which child abuse and neglect manifest...."
And on top of all of this, you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, which is a meditation on power, how it should be used, who should wield it and how we grow to be worthy of it.
But even if all of this wasn't true, even if Black Panther was the only Marvel movie to seriously grapple with big, difficult ideas, it would remain true that Black Panther exists. Put another way, a cinematic universe that can accommodate a movie where the (black) villain's last words are, "Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage," cannot, by definition, be the rote, simplistic, unchallenging franchise its critics say it is.
Marvel Studios has built an empire out of Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther and the freaking Guardians of the Galaxy. Its movies have succeeded commercially and artistically because they exist in a shared cinematic universe, not in spite of that fact. The films have succeeded in building audience loyalty because they have succeeded in forging a connection between their characters and their audiences, a connection that is only possible because we've grown to know them over the course of a decade and multiple films.
If you just don't like Marvel's movies, if you don't think they're any good - that's fine. It's fair and reasonable to simply dislike a given movie or movies.
But if you grant that most of these individual movies are quality films while wondering why so many of us got emotional just watching the trailer to Infinity War, if it seems preposterous to you that grown men and women could have an emotional connection with comic book superheroes, it's because you don't understand what Marvel has achieved through the MCU. And if you think the MCU has lethally poisoned our cinematic universe, that says far more about your genre pre-conceptions than it does Marvel.