The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) must have seemed an audacious undertaking by those who first heard the plan. Only the James Bond, Star Wars, and Star Trek franchises can rival the underlying method (besides the DC Universe, which may be dead already, and is a sloppy copy of the MCU using DC’s characters). But even those entities have not tried something on this scale. There is a plot that binds together currently nineteen films, all bending toward a pivotal conflict. There are multiple origin stories that are at first loosely connected (Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, Black Panther). There are sequels that have little to no bearing on the overall plot (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), and there are group films that bring characters together to move the plot significantly forward (Marvel’s The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War).
James Bond is but one man fighting an array of malevolent agencies. Star Wars, until recently, eschewed offshoots, but has now embraced them in light of what the MCU has accomplished. The Star Trek universe, when you combine films and television shows together, comes close, but those efforts often have isolated plots and settings and little entanglement with one another. No, the MCU appears unique in the annals of Hollywood. And, trust me, I’d love to poo-poo it to death. There is something to the argument that Hollywood has lots its creative soul. Averse to risk, studios seemingly green light brainless action films and their legion of sequels until every dollar has been squeezed out of a stupid idea (yes, I am looking at you, Transformers 13: The Fall and Rise and Fall of Our Robot Overlords and The Fast and the Furious 29: This Time It’s Extra Personal Because I Mean It). I so reflexively want to push the MCU squarely into this category because it is so obviously both the effect and the cause of this phenomenon.
However, the MCU, while it might signify an ugly heritage, has managed to emerge fresh and springy. Like a flower that thrusts itself from a surrounding pile of large animal droppings (maybe they are T-Rex patties–yes, I am also looking at you, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Jurassic Land, and Jurassic Acres: The Retirement that Ate Common Sense), the Marvel Cinematic Universe deserves not to be buried in pre-historic excrement, but, my friends, praised.
Avengers: Infinity War is outstanding. Beyond my belief, the filmmakers that have overseen the MCU in general (I suppose most credit belongs to Kevin Feige), and Infinity War in particular (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo), have succeeded in making the build-up worth it. They have also solved a persistent problem in such cross-over films that feel so overpopulated that we neither get to know nor care about the dozens of warm bodies. In short, they pulled it off. Infinity War is a top-shelf experience.
Why did it work? For me, it worked because, in spite of my occasionally good judgment, I care about Captain America, Iron Man, Peter Quill, and even something as silly as Groot, a tree who only utters one phrase. I care because I have seen their adventures during the past ten years. I have laughed at them. I have watched them act foolishly and heroically. I have gotten to know them. This solves two issues:
First, Infinity War spends most of its running time on Thanos, the villain who has remained mostly behind the scenes for some time. This is the best decision because he is the main character we know the least. We already know the rest of the cast because Marvel can rightly assume the only reason our behinds are firmly planted in cushioned thrones is because we have already been along for the ride. They can assume our familiarity with everyone but Thanos. This was great judgment.
Second, because of the invested time over the past decade, the stakes in the film are intensely high. There is dread because we feel the vulnerability of these characters. Why? They are known well. We don’t want harm to come to them (we want some harm, but only some). Therefore, it is a bit nervy when things start going awry for characters we love. And, by golly, things go awry quickly. This is the Empire Strikes Back entry into the MCU canon, which makes it all the more satisfying.
The great flaw of superhero films is the general invulnerability the characters seem to possess. The fights are spectacles, but we always know, in the end, who is going to win. For dramatic impact, there must be the possibility of death, even for those who fly around in capes (or whose capes sometimes fly around without them).
But Infinity Wars works because Thanos brings the pain to the point of existential crisis.
The plot is essentially the last decade of the MCU. Thanos (Josh Brolin heavily animated) is in search of the infinity stones to complete his collection. Once he possesses them, he will be effectively omnipotent to the point he can destroy planets and species at a whim. Why does he want to kill about half of all living things? He is a Malthusian, it seems. He is convinced the universe has finite resources and too many mouths to feed. As an act of mercy, he endeavors to thin the herd by force. In his own defense, he promises the thinning to be random, not a respecter of rank, class, race, or prominence. There just needs to be fewer takers. He is Margaret Sanger with a bad chin and a fistful of stones.
Our Heroes’ initial goal is to prevent him from gathering the stones. They join odd groupings to achieve their goals. Groot, Rocket, and Thor go in search of a weapon. Peter Quill, Drax, and Mantis eventually meet up with Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange to defend the time stone, while Captain America, Bucky/The Winter Soldier, the Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, War Machine, and Vision find their way to Wakanda to formulate a plan with the Black Panther. The action takes place primarily in these three spheres. The battle scenes are detailed, fast, and full of verve, but in spite of their excellence, the film does not hang on them.
The film revolves around Thanos and his quest, which inevitably leads to his daughters, Gamora and Nebula. Their family dynamics provide the chief dramatic conflict and they head in unexpected directions.
Whatever you think is most likely to happen–it doesn’t. Go see Infinity War on the big screen. You won’t be disappointed.
Final Grade: 3.5 Eggheads
COMMENTERS: Please put a spoiler warning in your comment if you plan to reveal parts of the plot. If you don’t, I’ll likely delete your comment.
You have been sufficiently warned. If you have not seen the movie, unless you are the kind of person I never want to meet, stop reading.
The ending of Infinity War was stunning. There were, in our theater, audible gasps as our heroes began to unravel. Personally, I was expecting death and destruction, but not on this scale. Loki’s almost immediate neck-snapping made it clear this was not your average Marvel film where our heroes would emerge with a few scrapes but still victorious. Gamora’s literal fall was surprising, but expected given the direction of the plot. For me, and only for me, it was when Bucky disintegrated that I knew all bets were off. I heard both a chorus of “No!”s and tears falling when Black Panther fell. His character has already purchased such good will that his death could only be unjust. Drax. Peter Quill. Dr. Strange. Groot. Groot! Poor, Groot! Goodness, it was rough.
Given all of what happened, I cannot imagine this will stay in place. Everyone says, unless Marvel is positively Churchillian in its willingness to plant false information, that sequels for Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the Guardians are already in progress. Everyone believed Iron Man, Captain America, and maybe Hulk would make the ultimate sacrifices because their characters have seemingly run out the string. To the Russos’ credit, that was expected, which is why the twist was so effective.
I still think we will end up with most the heroes returning through some comic book trick, likely involving the soul stone.
However, let me say on record, if the filmmakers succumb to that temptation, and we end up essentially right where we thought we would (with the old guard dying and the new crop taking their place), the second film will have been a failure. I think, for the sake of dramatic effect, at least some of those who just fell must stay dead and their deaths have to hurt. I still think, somehow, Captain American will trade himself for Bucky and that Tony Stark will do the same for Peter Parker. And, I think Dr. Strange is the key to the whole thing. We will see.
The courageous choice would be to take this chance to reboot the entire universe with a new cast of characters either in another dimension or built from the ground up. Let someone else be Black Panther. There could be another Spider-Man. I just don’t see it happening due to the financial implications.
I am curious–what do you all think is going to happen?