In praise of Marvel's destructive Phase 3 films
A son finds out his father lied about everything. The only way forward is destroying everything backward. Erase Dad’s legacy. Obliterate his creation. Does he yet live? Kill him: Hooray!
This was the unusual heroic journey told three times in three great Marvel movies released across one nine-month span. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor Ragnarok, and Black Panther arrived as Marvel Studios normalized billion-dollar grosses and achieved triple-yearly feature debuts. Increased quantity meant annualized characters, so Tom Holland already holds the record for most movies as Spider-Man.
Success can eradicate, or enervate. Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ends this weekend, somehow, with Avengers: Endgame. (Read our critic Leah Greenblatt’s review here.) There were bad or indifferent Marvel movies this era, phony-sweet comic capers dripping brainwashed good cheer.
But Phase 3 also saw the arrival of my MCU Holy Trinity. Guardians 2 told an intimate story about space crazies on a sugar-cereal planet created by a toxic narcissist. Ragnarok dynamited the runtiest sub-franchise, self-spoofing into a manifesto about the crucial necessity of apocalypse. And Black Panther crafted an empowering myth questioning myths of empowerment, driving one sad great man crazy from dreams of a superpowered fantasy land.
Far-flung variations on a theme, no doubt. James Gunn sequelized his cosmic sitcom into a storefront of music-video set pieces full of tossed-off ensemble banter. Taika Waititi turned Chris Hemsworth glorious by subjecting him to multiple castration anxieties: Trusty hammer shattered, flowing hair shorn Samsonically, invulnerability tasered powerless by Tessa Thompson’s sozzled anti-heroine. And Ryan Coogler populated Black Panther with addictive production-design details and legendary lore, building a rich new world for Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic Killmonger to conquer.
The common threads are there, though. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor finds out his lying father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) revised Asgard’s violent history. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa uncovers his own monarch-patriarch’s secret history of fratricide. That secrecy includes a surprise cousin, Killmonger, hid from official records just like Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett).
Black Panther doesn’t require its hero to destroy Wakanda, the way Thor unleashes Norse Hell. But defeating Killmonger means absorbing his message. T’Challa’s new mission becomes global engagement, a policy that retroactively renders our hero’s isolationist dad and imperialist-avenger cousin into equidistant extremes. Thor also subsumes Hela’s villainy into his own heroism. Actually, he’s the extremist. She only wanted to seize Asgard. Thor ends it.
And then there’s Guardians 2, where Kurt Russell plays Ego, a cool-dad dreamboat who thinks the only thing wrong with the universe is everyone who’s not him. Russell’s Ego is not the best villain in the MCU, unless you think Killmonger is actually a hero with unsound methods. He’s the essential Marvel grotesque, though, drawing in long-lost son Peter (Chris Pratt) with visions of candy-colored omnipotence. Russell’s performance is great, and invites all nostalgia. You see him first in a prologue 1980, with period-appropriate long hair out of his John Carpenter phase.
Ego also killed Peter’s mom, and dozens (millions?) of Peter’s half-siblings. He’s a heavenly visitor impregnating an Earth woman: Imagine another Gospel where God is a womanizer serial-killing his own children. So Peter kills one papa in a final battle that also claims his other father figure, demented-but-lovable captor Yondu (Michael Rooker), a lifelong scuzzball whose best paternal trait was never lying about his scuzzball-itude.
Burn it down and start over: Were these three films communicating something essential about Marvel’s route beyond Endgame? The MCU has feinted this way before. Captain America: The Winter Soldier tore down S.H.I.E.L.D. for, like, whole days before the next episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Iron Man 3 was the movie where Iron Man gave up on being Iron Man because he will always be Iron Man; whatever. You could throw Captain America: Civil War into Phase 3’s breakdown symphony. It was Avenger versus Avenger — but Civil War couldn’t let Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) walk away without knowing how much Cap (Chris Evans) still loved him. And last year’s Avengers: Infinity War ended with a main-character death toll no one believes will last this upcoming weekend.
You wonder if all this righteous destruction was an empty act, like that time Skywalker died before rising. As my learned colleague James Hibberd pointed out, Marvel Studios has a running trope of meaningless fatalities — and he wrote about that years before Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped his fingers. After Endgame, there will be another Guardians, another Black Panther, quite possibly another Thor. A new generation — of humans and filmmakers — has only really known superhero dominance in Hollywood. That fact keeps slipping into movie fiction. The kids in Shazam! worship Superman merch. The new teen Spider-Men learn Spider-Manity from franchise elders.
Guardians 2, Ragnarok, and Black Panther told another, freakier story. They looked back in anger, at the MCU’s history and beyond, with self-awareness and self-critique. Black Panther was justly praised for saga-building the story of an African superhero. It digs deeper every time you see Killmonger, a young man from mean American streets who thinks differently about Wakanda. Infinity War tried hard to bring poignance to Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Hard to take that seriously, though, after Guardians 2 viewed him from afar as a miserable father-tyrant, leaving emotionally mangled daughters to form a new friendship toward planned patricide.
And Ragnarok has a moment that’s either an all-time dumb joke or an sacred piece of self-deprecation. Hela finds Odin’s Infinity Gauntlet, a piece of 2011 fan service made nonsensical by ensuing continuity. “FAAAAAKE,” she side-eyes, pushing over a giant golden power glove that looks as heavy as a plastic flowerpot.
Is Hela nudging us toward a deeper revelation? Even the real Infinity Gauntlet is a goof, a god device so impotent that half the characters it killed already have planned sequels or Disney+ spinoff shows. Don’t trust anything we’ve told you, warned Marvel’s three best movies. Worth remembering, as the studio’s second decade begins.