Black Panther and Spider-Verse

Henry Stockwell ’19

Film Critic

If the Biblical Second Coming happens (I’ll decide in another column), surely the first question Jesus of Nazareth will have for us is: Are Marvel movies good?

We’ll clamor over each other, all trying to let our feeble voices be heard: Robert Downey Jr.’s best performance is “Iron-Man”! I watched “Ant-Man” on a plane, and I coughed up my Biscotti! Paul Rudd is AN ANT! “Wonder-Woman” is totally politically justified and totally not teaching my little sister that the literal most powerful female warrior in human history needs a Hot Chris to sacrifice himself for her! Taika Waititi should make more vampire mockumentaries!

Illustration by Richard Farrell ’22

Luckily, the Academy doesn’t need to wait on the Dear Lord Baby Jesus to hold a referendum on the subject, because the Oscars’ moment of spandex reckoning may well be nigh. 

Since Christopher Nolan’s 2008 triumph The Dark Knight, for which the late Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor, the most prestigious awards ceremony in film has at least pretended to take commercial superhero smashes seriously. But now, in a year where the Best Picture race is more up for grabs than usual, Marvel’s best film to date, Black Panther, is causing some Oscar voters to consider changing out their tuxes for . . . what do I call Michael B. Jordan’s fishnet sweater that would make me look like a malnourished trout but makes him look like more-jacked Creed dressed by Rihanna? 

Directed by Ryan Coogler, whose meteoric ascent has included just two previous films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, Black Panther is the work of a rising auteur who’s occasionally still held back by the confines of what makes a film Marvel. 

Basically, the third act sucks. 

But until the narrative descends predictably, Panther is one of the most compelling and original fictional investigations of contemporary international relations I’ve seen. 

Coogler’s film centers on the leaders of Wakanda, whose decades-long debate over the nation’s isolationist policies has come to a head. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the genre’s best villain since Ledger’s Joker. 

Killmonger’s veracity lies in the way Coogler crafts his character—this isn’t a supervillain out to destroy the world with a snap of his finger, but a child from Oakland who doesn’t understand why the most valuable resources in the world are accessible to only a small percentage of human beings. 

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse’s villainy isn’t as original; in fact, it’s sorely lacking. But Spider-Verse is the clear front-runner for Best Animated Feature, and it’s because it brings Panther levels of creativity to the superhero genre—via its aesthetic and formal innovation rather than its thematic moves. 

Spider-Verse’s animation is somewhere between a physical comic book, The Incredibles, and a Roy Lichtenstein piece. Action bubbles flash across the screen during fight scenes, and in a dazzling climactic sequence, portals to other dimensions throw the screen into a tornado of textures. 

I’ll never be able to un-see Spider-Verse, and that’s a problem for other superhero films. The way this film blends styles is the perfect way to bring a comic to life—a visual grounded in the art world of comic books through which audiences automatically suspend disbelief, give themselves wholly over to the innovation of the form, and allow the self-reflexivity of the work to carry the story further than Robert Downey Jr.’s spacesuit ever could. 

People mock shiny spandex battles because people wearing shiny spandex is (sorry) inherently ridiculous. But what’s the point of mocking something when it’s already mocking itself in infinite dimensions? 

If you’re a Black Panther fan, please, please, please make sure you’ve seen Fruitvale Station and Creed, Coogler and Jordan’s previous collaborations. If you you’re a Spider-Verse fan, check out screenwriter Phil Lord’s previous offering, The Lego Movie

Also, you should probably go Tobey Maguire crazy, or find somebody with geekier knowledge than me about lesser known comic book movies. 

Not shade. Geeky is king.

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