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.
This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it 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.
The MCU really has been structured like a season of television, if you break it down. Iron Man does serve as a pilot episode, establishing a tone which has been largely consistent over, to date, 19 films. By the time the untitled second part of what is Infinity War’s two-part story arrives, two more films within the MCU will have increased the number to 22. That is one of the historical numbers networks used to develop long-running seasons of TV shows, aside from 24 or even 26 during the 1980’s & 1990’s. The numbers have steadily decreased as production values have increased – prestige TV often now doesn’t exceed 13 episode seasons, but for years many shows had 22 episodes in their season. Some still do.
If we look at the MCU in this framework, it is worth analysing key points which fit within the template. The Incredible Hulk is your difficult second episode, having to build on elements laid down in the pilot (in this case, the burgeoning ‘Avengers Initative’, which is your underlying ongoing story arc). Iron Man 2 and Thor both also have teething problems in how they approach the nascent MCU – at this stage it hasn’t quite found what by Infinity War will be an almost effortless blend of high-stakes, apocalyptic science-fiction gravitas and self-effacing, knockabout comedy. Captain America: The First Avenger feels like the first ‘standalone’ episode to get the mixture right after Iron Man, and therefore serves as a good lead-in for your first picture which really encapsulates what the MCU will be: Avengers Assemble.
As much as people will undoubtedly lose the plot (pun intended) over Infinity War, given just how ambitious the movie is, Avengers Assemble still remains the pinnacle of the MCU to date. Joss Whedon, though he later soured the milk a little with sequel Age of Ultron (the difficult middle-child), created a Star Wars for his generation with the first Avengers movie; a film which balanced world-shattering action with the comic, even slapstick, tone that was embedded into much of the MCU subsequently. While Infinity War directors Joe & Anthony Russo arguably have been the strongest overarching creative forces outside of Feige in the last five years, having helmed both The Winter Soldier & Civil War—two of Marvel’s best—it remains Whedon who put the mixture together, taking what Jon Favreau in Iron Man started to a new level.
Infinity War wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have existed without Avengers Assemble and how skilfully it weaved together these initial heroes we had been introduced to in the first five ‘episodes’. It understood everyone needed breathing room. It understood Thor works best when you play him for comedy (a lesson The Dark World forgot) and pair him with the Hulk (a lesson Ragnarok remembered). It understood Tony Stark was always heading for a tragic dramatic arc, and that Steve Rogers was the heart of the MCU. These are all factors which are built on by the Russo’s and writers Christopher Markus & Christopher McFeely in Infinity War. Even though there are over 20 characters in the mix, these essentials have remained.
Each Avengers movie broke up what became ‘Phases’ of the MCU, but this is just a cinematic word really for arcs within an ongoing season. Avengers Assemble concludes the establishment arc, of the world itself, and then builds on those elements; each of the main characters are given sequels which deepen and flesh out their world, while new corners of the MCU are introduced with films such as Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man, which have to balance being origin stories while weaving into the texture of the ongoing, steadily building background story of the Infinity Stones. It has meant for years of films, years of storytelling, Thanos has imperceptibly always been there; we briefly saw him in Guardians, then in Age of Ultron, so his appearances have been scant until Infinity War, but we have always known we have been heading to this point.
It is why, if ever the MCU hit a bumpy road after a few of the weaker opening outings (indeed there’s an argument, had it started in this climate, it may never have survived The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2), it was probably in parts of Phase 3 following what can be described as the mid-season ‘turn’ in the season arc: Age of Ultron. Whedon proved while he understood the MCU from a tonal perspective, he wasn’t the man to balance the myriad amount of characters and storylines that were blooming into Infinity War. When you see how seamlessly the Russo’s manage this in Civil War, and then Infinity War, it puts Age of Ultron even more sharply into focus. It was also a film with a difficult job because it had to fracture that core relationship: Stark and Rogers.
The second half of the season has very much been about the defragmentation of the Avengers as a concept before Infinity War. It’s interesting just how quickly Marvel Studios seemed keen to deconstruct the world they had established in the comics and adapted for the screen; The Winter Soldier and TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. very quickly destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D. and revealed it to be an arm of villainous organisation H.Y.D.R.A; Age of Ultron helped usher in the Sokovia Accords which adapted the famous ‘Civil War’ comic arc and split the Avengers in two, after what Steve considered an abuse of power and mind by Tony in creating Ultron, and after revelations about Howard Stark’s death, their clash in Civil War seemed to end things for good.
Despite this, Marvel continued developing origin stories for key characters who would expand a universe which already had brevity. Doctor Strange did for time what Guardians had done for space, while the Marvel/Sony deal to port Spider-Man into the MCU gave us easily the strongest Peter Parker incarnation on screen yet in Homecoming. Black Panther, too, became a social and cinematic phenomenon, not to mention one of the finest origin stories Marvel have ever done, after T’Challa’s supporting introductory role in Civil War. You could even go as far as to say Ragnarok was a new origin story for Thor, completely reconceptualising the character by making him a comic lead rather than a serious one who just becomes comic when with the Avengers, and the result wasn’t just the best Thor film by far but one of Marvel’s strongest films to date.
Given over this ‘season’ the MCU has built and torn down an incredible amount in terms of character and storytelling, developing a universe which goes far beyond Earth into deep space and alternate dimensions, the fact the tone remains largely universal is really quite staggering. Marvel seem to also have understood how to allow interesting filmmakers the room to put their own stamp on this universe which still remaining true to the escapist, pop-cultural mockery of the whole thing, which didn’t really happen in earlier pictures such as The Dark World (probably the MCU’s nadir) or Edgar Wright’s involvement in Ant-Man. The Russo’s films, James Gunn’s Guardians pictures, Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther prove lessons have been learned here, too.
When you take all of these factors, 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.
This means that Infinity War isn’t quite the season ‘finale’. In conventional terms, it would historically have been the first part of a two-part, large-scale season finale which tied all of the season threads together – The X-Files Season 8 is a good example if you want a comparison. Between Infinity War and Avengers 4, there will be Ant-Man and the Wasp & Captain Marvel (the latter of which may well lead into the next Avengers movie as Black Panther did with Infinity War), so this places Infinity War as episode 19 in a 22 episode arc, even though it feels akin to a finale. Another analogy could be Game of Thrones; that show is renowned for having a pre-finale ‘finale’ in which major, world-shattering events happen, before a finale ‘epilogue’. The MCU may well end up working in similar fashion for ‘Season 1’.
So when you examine Infinity War on these terms, it shouldn’t be judged as an ending. This is ‘Part 1’ in every single way. The entire movie is about establishment within the structure of a broad, conclusive storyline. It *does* serve as the end for a few long-running MCU characters (god bless you, Loki), but primarily it builds to one heck of a narrative challenge for Markus and McFeely to get themselves out of. Markus discussed the thinking behind this:
Two of the watch phrases at Marvel are “Spend it all now,” just use all your good ideas now because you’ll have more, and “Write yourself into a corner.” And we did both of those. Then it was like, “Okay, we’ve got to get out of the corner. We’ve used up all our ideas, so what do we do now?” (laughs)
What this speaks to 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. McFeely has suggested as much:
There are 23 characters, and they don’t all have an equal amount of screen time, right? We did our best to give them arcs to some degree, but some will have much bigger arcs in the next movie. And some with big arcs here will have smaller arcs in the next movie. That’s just sort of the balance.
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…