This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and especially Avengers: Infinity War. Like, from the off. Click away NOW if you have yet to see Infinity War. Seriously.
A worrying thing occurred within the opening five minutes of Infinity War. You know the ones. The ones where we check in on the Asgardian refugee ship to find it utterly decimated by Thanos, with everybody on board barring 4 people dead. He retrieves the Tesseract and its accompanying Infinity Stone from Loki, before promptly killing both Heimdall and Loki in big grandiose gestures that have been designed to stab me in the heart much like Thanos does Heimdall. So, he wrings Loki’s neck, Thor screams in anguish, the ship explodes as Thanos escapes…
…and I had no reaction to this turn of events. I felt nothing.
This turned out to be a recurring theme throughout my viewing of Infinity War. Major emotional beats would crop up time and time again – Tony abandoning Pepper, Thanos’ “relationship” with Gamora, everything to do with Scarlet Witch and Vision’s romance that must have been appeasing somebody somewhere – and every single time they would land for me with a catastrophic thud. Actually, that phrasing is overstating the matter, since it insinuates that these moments made some kind of impact on me.
Infinity War ends with objectively the ballsiest climax of arguably any blockbuster ever: Thanos gets all 6 stones, snaps his fingers, and decimates half of the universe, including at least 75% of our main cast evaporating into dust in an extended funeral march, whilst the remaining heroes are truly powerless and devastated. No major entry into a multi-billion-dollar zeitgeist-controlling franchise has ever produced an ending as committed to downer-ism and status-quo bursting as Marvel has with this. And I felt nothing. Peter Parker gets a whole send-off where he breaks down in sobbing anguish about his occurring death, and I was somehow more moved by similar such sequences in genial old-people dramedy The Leisure Seeker than the deaths of characters I’ve spent up to a decade growing fond of and caring about!
Because, well, none of it is going to stick. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nothing ever does.
When you invest in a piece of fiction, and particularly long-form fiction such as the MCU, comic books, or television series, there are several unspoken rules that you have to put out of your mind in order to fully appreciate the work. The hero rarely being killed, the bad guy almost never winning, the evil plan never succeeding, Fox News being utilised as a reputable source of information; stuff like that. 24 won’t kill Jack Bauer because, without him, there is no show, for one example. If the media is doing its job even halfway competently, then these facts don’t matter, like the bad guy monologuing at the hero about how much of genius they are instead of just shooting them in the forehead, because we can put such thoughts out of mind and lose ourselves in the moment. We can witness characters grow and evolve even if the situation around them remains largely unchanged, we can enjoy being in their company, seeing them react to new scenarios and villains even with the knowledge that most of it largely doesn’t matter. How many of your favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are largely self-contained? Perhaps even more than you think. This paradigm is how 90% of sitcoms operate.
Resultantly, when works do upend those expectations with a big status quo shift, the results are often shocking and viscerally impactful upon one’s emotions. They make a big move like killing off or removing certain important characters, changing locations, changing goals, revealing huge twists with a loud “NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN” and the reactions can often be fantastic. Of course, when you announce that “NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN,” you kind of have to follow through with that fact and actually work with your new status quo, otherwise the next time you spring a giant “NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN” move it becomes a bit harder to make people care about such a world-changing shift. And if you keep announcing “NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN” and never follow through, and eventually start openly mocking the fact that nothing ever truly changes, then the time you finally pull the trigger for real, nobody is going to care.
Which is where we find the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Infinity War. For me, it’s time to admit that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a failure. Not so much on an individual film-by-film basis – when you release two all-timers within a 12-month span, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and Black Panther, it’s unfair to claim that you’re incapable of creating anything worthwhile – but in the stated intention of having all of these films and characters co-exist together in a shared universe where everything that happens in each movie creates lasting consequences that shall ripple throughout the whole MCU. Arguably, such a vision was too ambitious to begin with, since it has to exist within a studio system that now puts out 3 new entries a year, has at least an additional 3 in production at all times, all costing hundreds of millions of dollars each, and frequently whilst still handing the individual reins over to filmmakers with established voices (like James Gunn or Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler) to do whatever they want. Nothing really can majorly change because doing so would throw the entire precision-calibrated assembly line into utter chaos, even before one remains glued into the industry news lists and finds out which heroes have already got sequels pencilled in a few years from now.
Again, though, that’s one of those facts that the viewer is supposed to be able to put out of mind in order to surrender themselves to the world of the film, like how they are never going to kill James Bond. That’s fine, I guess, but it means that you really need to follow through the few times you do claim that “NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN” in order to keep the audience emotionally invested. Otherwise, they might start to detect a faint, damning whiff of bullshit about the whole enterprise, and by the time you pull something like Infinity War, you’ll get cynical bastards like myself sat there wholly unmoved because, well, when has the MCU truly changed post-Avengers?
Iron Man 3 built itself up to Tony Stark retiring from Iron Man, only for Age of Ultron to put him back into the suit with no explanation and rendering much of his character arc in that movie pointless. Captain America: The Winter Soldier revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been largely taken over by Hydra, necessitating its shutdown and leaving Cap and the other Avengers without resources and backing to mop things up… a new dynamic that Ultron immediately dismantled by just having Tony fund everything, as well as a Helicarrier turning up out of nowhere in the finale – and, no, I should not have to have sat through two whole seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to get an explanation for that. Ultron itself ended with most of the original Avengers scattering to the wind and a new group ready to take up the mantle under Cap and Black Widow, which the MCU utilised for exactly one 8-minute stretch at the start of Captain America: Civil War before discarding completely.
Speaking of, Civil War even had the gall to finish its very important, very serious, game-changing, relationship-destroying, superhero-outlawing narrative with a pair of final scenes deliberately designed to assuage the fears of anybody who thinks that everything is sad now by stating, point blank, that none of it matters. Cap’s letter to Tony may as well have just been Kevin Feige walking on-set, telling everyone to take 5, and then personally addressing the audience to assure them that everything will be tickety-boo in time for Infinity War. And in case you, like I, were holding out hope that Infinity War would at least slightly walk back that all-time insulting ending, the new film almost literally laughs off the Sokovia Accords within half of one scene around the film’s midpoint. Rhodey is even completely healed from his paralyzing attack during Civil War, just to fully rub the point home.
Hell, by this point, the MCU is effectively trolling anybody who is seriously invested in seeing this universe properly grow and change. Thor: Ragnarok made “nobody actually cares if Asgard gets destroyed” into both the main joke and central theme of its movie! And, as mentioned, I can vibe with that kind of blasé attitude towards long-standing consequences in this universe; when they’re not being like Infinity War or Civil War, the Marvel movies are at worst cinematic comfort food, weightless junk that’s still unlike anything else on the market and enjoyable to chow down on. But when you openly admit that nothing big matters, as the MCU has now done multiple times and which the Reality Stone in Infinity War is effectively one big constant reminder of, you forfeit the ability to elicit the kind of grand emotional response that Infinity War desperately wants its audience to have, unless your filmmaking is near-god-tier. Why am I supposed to weep for the death of Gamora by Thanos – in what is effectively an expedited and inferior version of Guardians vol. 2, for the record – when I know for a fact that it won’t stick? Because nothing ever does. Hell, not even on the micro character level anymore, since Thor’s entire arc in Ragnarok is pretty much undone totally within 20 minutes of Infinity War!
For real, why am I supposed to care anymore? Because I do care, very deeply, otherwise Black Panther wouldn’t still be my favourite film of the year at time of writing, I wouldn’t still be getting choked up over Yondu’s sacrifice at the end of Guardians vol. 2, I wouldn’t have marked out at the unexpected reappearance of Red Skull or watching the Guardians interact with heroes outside of their own franchise or the image of Cap and Black Panther both power-sprinting headfirst into a horde of CGI monsters. I clearly still care about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because I wouldn’t be so angry about Infinity War’s failings if I weren’t, but why should I be? And if I do care about these characters and this world, then why did I greet every single one of Infinity War’s big emotional beats with complete indifference? Why did I spend the entirety of those last 10 minutes wholly unmoved?
Marvel are clearly banking on everybody spending the next year theorising incessantly over how they’re going to write themselves out of this one, and I’m not even going to do that because I don’t care about this. I want this, this brief window where they cry wolf once again and expect us to really believe them, to just be over already. I want to be able to quit, because those box office numbers have proven to them that they can waste my time like this all they want and it’ll still make them money hand over fist, but I can’t because I clearly still want what it is they are selling. Next March, I get to watch a swole Brie Larson beat the shit out of some aliens, I can still watch the original Avengers and find myself having near-unmatched amounts of fun, and before Infinity War dropped they were 3-1 on great films released between the last two Mays.
I have no answers or fixes here, especially since all it will take is Ant-Man and the Wasp being great to get me back on the train again. All I know is that, for me at least, Infinity War definitively broke the Marvel Cinematic Universe and proved that the grand unified experiment has been a failure. Or, alternatively, that the experiment succeeded but the worst aspects of comic book storytelling have made the jump with them, as features instead of bugs. I honestly don’t know which is worse, right now.