It’s been about a week and a half since the release of Avengers: Infinity War, which I figure is the perfect time to write about the film. Not just because I can freely talk about spoilers at this point – if you want to know what happens in the movie, you’ll have seen it by now – or because I’ve been too smashed with my day job to get any serious writing done for a while, but because enough time has passed to consider not just the film itself, but how it was received.
Of course, critical consensus is a myth, Rotten Tomatoes be damned, so I’m not pretending that my methodology here has any kind of science behind it. Subjectively, though, my social media seems to be evenly split into the same two camps that rear the heads with the advent of any new MCU film. There are the die-hard fans, who might have reservations here or there but will happily trot along to second (or third) screening while posting memes and ‘news’ factoids every few hours. Then there are the resolute sceptics, turning up their noses at the latest iteration of the blockbuster-dominating, art-destroying franchise.
Naturally, there’s some space in the middle. Most new Marvel films are greeted by a handful of these sceptics noting with surprise that this one is actually fun/well-made/meaningful or whatever. The consistency of this isn’t especially surprising; plenty of critics understandably hate what Marvel Studios represent – monopolisation of the market, an erosion of mid-budget movies, a formula, anti-auteur approach to movie-making – while forgetting that a good percentage of their films happen to be hella entertaining.
For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened this time. In my experience, the sceptics have turned up their noses at Infinity War, greeting with derision and dismissal, even as the film is heralded by fans. Perhaps that’s a reflection of a dip in quality; a step backwards when compared to the politically-charged Black Panther and irreverent Thor Ragnarok. I’m not so sure. While Avengers: Infinity War is maybe not quite on the level of those two films (I prefer it to Panther, but I’ll concede that’s a fringe opinion), the lukewarm reaction from non-fans can be linked to how it differs from its MCU forebears, firstly in structure and then, more importantly, in continuity.
Structurally, Marvel Cinematic Universe entries are incredibly consistent. No matter how much they try to sell each chapter as distinct – an espionage thriller (The Winter Soldier), a heist flick (Ant-Man), even a space opera! (Guardian of the Galaxy) – you can set your watch to how the films are built around action setpieces, Whedonesque quips and one big showdown against an insane antagonist in the final half hour.
Rewatching the series in anticipation of Infinity War, it was impossible to ignore the homogeny. The uniformity of the MCU formula, particularly in the wake of the original Avengers’ success at the box office, can come across as oppressive. Personally, I found myself losing interest in the franchise through “Phase Two” (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man), with the films largely failing to distinguish themselves from what came before.
Apart from the middling Doctor Strange, Phase Three brought me back into the fold. The latest half-dozen films are as a formulaic as what preceded them, but they’re given room to breath without feeling obligated to set up the next few films. Outside of Strange, there’s no need to set up the location of the all-important Infinity Stones, and you get the distinct sense that Marvel studio bosses have found the balance between controlling their directors and giving them room to breathe. Ragnarok and Panther feel like a marriage between their directors’ artistic interests and the studio’s forward planning, rather than the awkward conflict that defined disasters like Whedon’s Age of Ultron.
Infinity War, though, is the first MCU film to do away with the familiar three act structure, opting instead for two-plus hours of third act shenanigans. Infinity War cross-cuts between our expansive menagerie of heroes fighting at different locales across the world – and the galaxy – much like the final 30 minutes of most of the earlier films. The protagonist here isn’t Iron Man, or Thor, or Captain America, but the villainous Thanos (first seen in Avengers’ post-credits scene over half-a-decade ago). (Side note: one of the defining features of Phase Three was the presence of actually memorable, three-dimensional villains; fitting that it pays off here with the series’ most well-rounded baddie yet.)
That structure is going to chafe against critics who aren’t already invested in these characters because, well, there’s nothing to get you invested if you’re not already. From frame one, it’s smashy-smash and boom-bang, with only the occasional joke or quick conversation to piece together the fragments of characterisation scattered about from earlier films. To enjoy Infinity War’s action extravaganza, you need to be enthused about these characters. To appreciate its stakes, you need to be fearful of the possibility that your favourites might not return for another outing. Hence the division – critics already lukewarm on the series are going to find little to hold onto.
Interestingly, though, this is arguably the first MCU film that this qualifier holds for. Ten years and eighteen films have gone by since Iron Man, but while each film makes more sense for audiences who’ve seen every chapter, pretty much every Marvel movie can be enjoyed on its own merits by newcomers unfamiliar with the underlying mythology. Even Civil War – which was entirely built around an ethical and logistical conflict between pre-existing characters – gives its audiences enough hints to the nature of its players and their prior relationships to allow you to (mostly) follow along.
That changes with Infinity War, the first MCU film that really relies on the loose continuity of the series. When it comes to continuity, the Marvel franchise has always existed in this awkward middle ground between a television series – which are beholden to the strict continuity demanded of a serialised narrative – and films, which are intended as standalone works even when they’re placed in a series (note how often film franchises like Star Trek and X-Men reboot their histories to avoid placing too much expectation on audiences).
Take Tony Stark, the arguable protagonist of the series. While his characterisation and performance has been the contiguous backbone to the MCU, watching the films back-to-back will give you whiplash at how his character arc bends from film-to-film. One minute, he’s detonating his army of armoured drones (Iron Man 3); next minute, he’s rebuilt a peace-keeping army of independently operated mecha-soldiers (Age of Ultron). In Iron Man 2 – and most other films – he’s fiercely opposed to oversight, but come Civil War he’s the biggest cheerleader for the Sokovia Accords. He’s on a break from Pepper Potts one film, but a few behind-the-scenes contract negotiations later and they’re planning their wedding!
Each of these arcs can be justified by what we don’t see – the off-screen character growth that might take years in between films – but understandably frustrates those expecting a TV-esque franchise with strict continuity. Todd VanDerWerff – a TV critic, first and foremost – argues as much in his Infinity War review, arguing that “[t]hese character beats almost always work in the moment of individual films” but fail across the broader franchise.
While I don’t disagree with Todd’s broader point that this inconsistent continuity can subtract from the emotional core of these films – note how quickly supporting characters like Natalie Portman’s Jane are written out of the franchise when their lack of superpowers clash with the series’ sensibilities – coming into Infinity War I soon realised that the best way to appreciate the MCU was to disregard any inconsistencies. Does it really matter that Elizabeth Olsen’s “Sokovian” East European accent evaporated from Age of Ultron to Civil War? Not when the upside is a more naturalistic, engaging performance. Ragnarok might retcon the Asgardian backstory that anchored the (dismal) Dark World, but it does so in the service of a potent subtext on the scars left by colonialism (built upon in Black Panther). I’d much prefer a series that allows its creators to tell the best story for their film, rather than one shackled to, say, a mediocre television series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
That loose continuity is well-and-truly tested by Infinity War, however, given how much the film relies upon your prior engagement with its characters. Minor moments – like the interactions between Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and their father Thanos (Josh Brolin) – are predicated on the emotional arcs established in earlier films, and presumably fall flat without that context. Richard Brody’s review for the New Yorker complains about this very thing, lamenting that the film’s “characters aren’t introduced; they just show up, and their behaviour is entirely defined by the template set for them in other movies.”
Thankfully, most of Infinity War’s departures from continuity are relatively minor. Watching it right after a Ragnarok rewatch, I couldn’t help but note that most of Thor’s character arc from that film was tossed aside (to facilitate an extended forge scene, for some reason?) and that prominent characters like Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie were forgotten altogether. (Further details on what’s been ditched in Infinity War can be found here.) But really, Infinity War relies less on the emotional specifics of these characters than your interest in them as movie characters. I worried about Hemsworth’s Thor making it out of the film alive because I want to see him trading quips and swinging hammers (or axes) in future films, not necessarily because of my investment in the character.
For those who are lukewarm – or even hostile! – towards the MCU, it’s no surprise that Infinity War might be banal, even boring when you don’t have that investment. However, for me, coming off the back of a rewatch of the series it made the film rewarding in a way that recalls the feeling of watching the original Avengers for the first time. By resisting formula – both structurally and by being the first MCU film where our heroes truly fail – and anticipating its audience’s bond to these characters, Infinity War was a truly gripping, even profound experience. It might not be as purely entertaining as Ragnarok nor as politically sophisticated as Black Panther, but Infinity War plays like a devastating finale to a great season of television, working by building on what preceded it.
Like many great season finales, the impact of its conclusion is undercut once you have the time to sit back and reflect. Even casual fans will know that there are sequels to Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther on the way, and that the tragedy of our heroes disappearing into dust will be reversed in due time, one way or the other. But that doesn’t, even in retrospect, lessen the aching vacuum left by Infinity War’s conclusion, a vacuum granted its resonance by the eighteen films that came before. That the efficacy of that conclusion is entirely dependent on its audience having already bought in to the series is a strength, not a weakness – even if not everyone’s going to see it that way.