For years, Marvel has asked audiences to look to the horizon. So why are we surprised that some ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ viewers are having trouble living in the moment?
Warning: The following contains spoilers for ‘Avengers: Infinity War’
If I were to describe Avengers: Infinity War as the best possible adaptation of a Marvel crossover event, would you assume I’m praising the franchise or insulting it? Even I’m not really sure. As someone who has enjoyed each of the movies in this series to varying degrees, I’m always happy to see blockbuster entries with crisp character work and the best action sequences money can buy. That being said, I’m also all-too-aware of the diminishing returns offered by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With major deaths promised at every turn and the burden of introducing the endgame for several characters that we love, it’s safe to say Infinity War would need more than some good quips and a few flashy punches to deliver the goods.
That’s why I question the impact continuity has had on the series as a whole. No movie franchise in the history of Hollywood has consistently toyed with our expectations as much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and no movie has been positioned as the culmination of franchise continuity quite like Infinity War. So many things that people have spent the past few days arguing about – the implications of characters deaths, the buildup to Infinity War 2, the limitations and/or strengths of serialized storytelling – all plug into the idea that there’s a unifying through line that connects all of these movies. For years, this continuity has been the biggest selling point of the MCU; but here, at the first-half of the end, the years of continuity seem to have let the franchise down.
For one, the resurgence of continuity in Infinity War feels particularly egregious on the heels of Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, two films that cared more about their characters’ self-contained storylines than their implications on the broader Marvel narrative. Last year, Mashable‘s Angie Han wrote an insightful piece positioning 20th Century Fox’s properties against those of Disney, noting that the lack of continuity between films and between television shows is actually one of the series’ biggest strengths. Han went so far to distill the Marvel movies – even the ones that have received universal acclaim – to a series of plot points: “likable leads, quippy dialogue, forgettable villains, world-ending stakes, fake-out deaths, and a big, expensive CG battle in the sky.” While Disney has recently exhibited a willingness to let strong authorial voices nudge the franchise off the rails the fact that Infinity War reverts to this same plateau of good-not-great superhero cinema as its predecessors represents a step back.
Avengers: Infinity War also presents an interesting conundrum when it comes to our knowledge of Marvel’s broader machinations. It’s easy to point to other MCU films currently in production and argue that this knowledge lessens the impact of character deaths, but our knowledge of the comic books also puts us in a tricky spot. Most film critics argue vehemently against the importance of source material for comic book adaptations – certainly, nobody was arguing that an expansive knowledge of the Suicide Squad comics should be essential to a first viewing – but even a cursory glance at the Marvel comics shows that death is never permanent. For once, nondiegetic knowledge of the Marvel universe is operating with foresight, not hindsight; when taken in tandem with the Disney production details, it’s hard to get worked up about any characters’ suggested death.
And here’s the funny part: Marvel really only has itself to blame. For nearly a decade, the studio has conditioned viewers to look ever-forward, to leave the theater thinking about the next sequel or crossover event. And now they’re asking us to live in the moment? We know that T’Challa and Peter Parker aren’t dead because they have movies in the pipeline, and if these two characters can return from the grave, then anyone can. Ciara Wardlow did a good job of giving voice to the frustration of death in the MCU; as her read on character death serves as a more stringent version of my own, I’ll simply link to her article and move along. Given that the reactions we have to the various deaths of the characters is almost entirely defined by their importance to the MCU going forward, Marvel has – by its own machinations – ruined our ability to focus on the film at hand at the cost of the overall franchise.
For some of us, anyway. There are going to be plenty of people who leave Infinity War with their heart in their throats; I’ve heard stories of people – especially kids and young teenagers – who were absolutely gutted by the last fifteen minutes of the film. It’s important to remember that there are always people who approach these films with less knowledge than people whose hobbies or careers require them to spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about the MCU. For these fans, Infinity War has been a cliffhanger of suitably epic proportions, and no conversations about continuity and contractual obligations on the car ride home will erase the image of a scared Peter Parker slowly fading into the ether. In two decades, we’ll probably hear thirty-something filmmakers talk about Infinity War the same way the current generation of directors talk about, say, the ending of The Wrath of Khan.
For everyone else, though? I don’t know. We sometimes play fast and loose with the rules regarding continuity in franchises: sometimes movies are supposed to stand individually on their own merits, sometimes we’re only supposed to evaluate them within the context of a trilogy or a franchise. That being said, I do think Infinity War is a film that will play better in hindsight. Not because we can see how Marvel wraps up the storylines, not even because the franchise will reveal the true lives and deaths of its characters, but because we’ll be able to enjoy the movie divorced of the continuity that Marvel has made its bread and butter for nearly a decade. When Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr., have both hung up their superhero costumes, and there are no more storylines to serialize, maybe then we can look back and decide if this movie truly earned its emotional stakes. Isn’t it just like a Marvel movie to make us wait.