Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach. This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.
The MCU has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal. While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.
Infinity War is quite an achievement. No franchise has built a world and story over 18 previous movies and only improved creatively, overall, while adding more and more characters, ideas and landscapes. Even Star Wars can’t rival the MCU for the ambition – it may now be approaching 11 films strong, all connected in terms of the same universe and mythology, but structurally they don’t function in the same respect. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has establishment, development, crisis and now resolution all in one, unified, connected overarching narrative. When you watch all 22 in this ‘season’, over three ‘Phases’, which you’ll be able to do this time next year, it will have been an unrivalled achievement.
There is a confidence you feel rippling across Infinity War. This is a picture which is self-assured. It knows precisely what it is, who it’s for, and where it’s going. The writers and the Russo’s understand this is payoff they have been constructing the pieces of for years now, and this is very rare in a cinematic franchise. In many ways, you have to look at Marvel, still using the season analogy, as Feige being the ‘show-runner’. He’s not precisely an auteur show-runner like, say, Noah Hawley, but he perhaps functions like a Chris Carter; he steers the ship, he knows the key beats, he understand the texture of what they want to achieve, but he farms out many of the details to other, regular creatives behind the camera who bring it to life with their own style.
The Russo’s and both Christopher’s penning the script have created their own style over the course of several films, and they port it effortlessly into Infinity War. They have a remarkable ability to engage an enormous amount of characters and make them feel like they have worthy screen time, bar a few exceptions. Infinity War consequently does feel a little episodic as a result, particularly in the first half; a chunk of time may be with Iron Man, Dr Strange & Spidey, then we head off with the Guardians and Thor, before we’re back on Earth with Captain America, Black Widow, Vision etc… and they even sometimes feel like three movies playing out in one, but yet from a tonal perspective they all *connect*. This is a lot harder than it looks to make work.
It’s harder because Infinity War has to blend a multitude of genres and styles, particularly in putting Stark & Strange together for a lot of the picture. Those two could not be more different in terms of characterisation and style (though given their arrogance, maybe not to the degree they think…). Ragnarok turned Thor into much more of a cosmic, comedic character so he fits beautifully with the Guardians. Equally, Captain America and his more Earth-based team work well with T’Challa and Wakanda, but you are still talking about pictures and storylines which historically don’t occupy the same air in the MCU. Infinity War very quickly has to stitch them all together and not make them jar, and it does so incredibly well, mainly because of its secret weapon.
Now. Comedy is subjective. Infinity War is very very funny in many places but there’s a good chance this will only be the case if you’ve watched all 18 previous Marvel films and you are invested in these characters. For me, as one of those fans, I laughed. Repeatedly. Whether it’s Thor referring to Rocket Raccoon as ‘rabbit’ frequently; Peter Quill’s attempt at masculine posturing in trying to measure up to Thor; Drax’s continued deadpan weirdness etc… the Russo’s pack Infinity War with jokes and comic asides which break up the tension and prevent the whole thing descending into arch ridiculousness, which it so easily could have been. This is, after all, about a giant space alien using a magic glove to wipe out the universe.
Which brings us neatly to Thanos, because he’s the other reason Infinity War works. There might well be no other villain in recent cinematic history who has suffered the weight of expectation like this guy. Ever since we first glimpsed him in Avengers Assemble’s post-credits sequence, we have known this is the ‘big bad’ (to use another TV season term) of the MCU. Surely he could never measure up? Well, luckily, Marvel doesn’t really have a great track record with bad guys. This is where they differ from DC, who arguably have a much stronger rogue’s gallery. Marvel’s strength is in just how many heroes it has, and how many shades of grey they can cast among them. The MCU hasn’t yet had a truly astounding villain. It’s telling probably the best MCU bad guy is Kilgrave from Netflix’s Jessica Jones, a comparatively small corner of the saga compared to Infinity War.
Thanos, therefore, has space to manoeuvre and place himself as the signature villain for this franchise, and by and large he does so. There is a theatrical silliness to the guy, don’t get me wrong; he is a CGI creation with, as Star Lord jokes, a chin like a “nut sack”, and he is fairly one-dimensional when it comes to his goals and motivations. In some ways, he feels like a less nuanced version of The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane; a physically imposing villain capable of beating the strongest heroes up easily (he smacks the Hulk down in the first 10 minutes) but one with a philosophical approach to balance and universal resources. Bane wanted revolution. Thanos wants order through genocidal chaos. It’s a simple, if terrifying, motivation.
What makes him a touch more interesting is the dynamic with Guardians’ Gamora, and it means the Guardians play a bigger role when it comes to emotional stakes than perhaps anyone else on the side of the heroes in Infinity War. Gamora is, of course, one of Thanos’ ‘daughters’, but here we get the backstory of a child stolen from her mother after her people are wiped out as part of Thanos’ ‘sacred’ mission to balance the universe in order to ‘save’ populations from the self-destruction of his people on Titan. She is his one tether to humanity still left, his weakness; much like Talia al-Ghul was Bane’s emotional weakness. Through Gamora, we therefore see Thanos given some development in a manner you may not quite expect. He is, in some ways, a surprise.
This focus does mean a few of our beloved characters suffer. Captain America & Black Widow in particular, as legacy members of this franchise, get little to do but show up, ‘kick names and take ass’ (another great comic moment). There isn’t even any sign of Hawkeye. When you see how Infinity War ends, however, it becomes clear this is likely a narrative, creative choice based on the fact this is merely the first part of the story.
Infinity War, therefore, is all about balance, in many different respects. Thanos’ universe-ending plan, the structure of storylines and character arcs across the film, and the choice of which characters to focus on and which to save for the next movie. Balance and tone, both of which, for a film with such ambition and size, are remarkable in how well they are executed.
What interests me about Infinity War is its longevity. For fans, there is a euphoria about Infinity War right now. This is a decade of storytelling with an incredible amount of audience investment. We have seen the MCU move from a superhero series into a naturally evolving science-fiction franchise, and Infinity War’s cosmic, heavily space-based scope underscores how they have fused together these styles and genres in a fascinating way. Distance, however, will be the barometer for whether Infinity War can truly work as a satisfying film in its own right, or in the long-term be considered a truly great part of the MCU lexicon.
For now, that euphoria is a wonderful feeling, particularly in how it feels like Feige & the Russo’s have stuck the first part of the landing. Subsequent watches will add more feelings and context but, regardless, this is going to be one hell of a year waiting for how the MCU gets out of where it’s ended up, and what it will look like when the dust settles…
What did you think of Avengers: Infinity War? Let us know. This is an abridged version of an essay on Cultural Conversation, which you can read in full here.