No movie has ever been more appropriately titled than Avengers: Infinity War. You can’t blame the marketing department for calling the movie “most ambitious crossover event in history,” but the internet was also right to turn it into a punchline.
Beyond the endless hype, there’s only one thing that matters: The Marvel Cinematic Universe ends with Infinity War, freeing the studio to hopefully make good movies again.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Marvel used to know what they were doing. They’ve spent 10 years building an entire Cinematic Universe of films that revolutionized the superhero genre, surprised audiences and created believable romantic relationships instead of just tacking a woman onto the story when the hero needed motivation.
The first Iron Man remains possibly the best of the lot, which numbers 19 films with Infinity War. Why did everyone suddenly start caring about superheroes? Because watching Tony Stark fight back against the monsters within and outside of himself put the superhero back in its place: as the alter ego. Yeah, cool, the suit can fly, but we cared about the man inside it, whose motivations weren’t always good and indulged in the power he’d created for himself.
He was quickly joined by Steve Rogers, who never stopped being a “kid from Brooklyn” even after putting on the Captain America suit. Thor spends his debut movie learning how to be a regular person so he can be worthy of his god status. Bruce Banner never wanted to be a part of any of this. Black Widow and the Winter Soldier were born villains but chose a path that would hopefully allow them to live ordinary lives one day. Watching each character wield their “gifts” like burdens has challenged what it means to be a hero, and who can be one.
But starting in 2013, the obstacles became too small and the character-driven filmmaking turned into a CGI orgy with the typical stilted dialogue and deus ex machina plots of action films. First came Thor: The Dark World, most egregiously Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the fun but fluffy Guardians of the Galaxy.
Even when they tried to make a movie that got back to personal stakes and the complicated life of a superhero — specifically Captain America: Civil War, which may as well have been the actual third Avengers movie — it’s bloated with launching new franchises and so many side plots that you’re burned out on trying to figure out what’s happening and why.
How to Build a Villain
Infinity War's villain, Thanos, is an alien who’s been lurking in one of those side plots and in post-credits scenes since The Avengers when Loki borrowed his army to wreak havoc in New York. What does he want? Some glowy rocks that’ll help him destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? To save it from consuming all the universe’s resources. A likely scenario.
Other recent uber-villains have been just as problematic. Ultron was at least compelling for being an AI built by Tony Stark with the intention of keeping humanity safe that went rogue, a timely idea even if the movie ended up being a hot mess. But the excellent rebooted X-Men universe is probably dead in the wreckage of Apocalypse. And as much fun as it was to watch Cate Blanchett throw Thor and Loki around in Ragnarok, Hela didn’t have much of a plan beyond making Asgard suffer. Now there's Thanos wreaking havoc, with humanity, Earth and indeed the entire universe merely so much cosmic flotsam in his way.
Last summer, we got a glimmer of hope. Marvel had caught on that villains could be as compelling as heroes (way to double your franchise prospects, too!) with Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Bought out by Stark Industries, he built an empire on stolen technology not to conquer anything, but simply to ensure his family’s future. And this summer, Killmonger left some people walking out of Black Panther wondering about who they were supposed to be rooting for. But all of that is possible only when the stakes are personal on both sides and there’s room for something beyond explosions and fight scenes.
What's the Point?
So what does a too-powerful villain, 40 heroes shoved into one movie and no real plot leave the audience to anticipate? What bigger and better machine will Tony Stark build now? Will CGI artists continue to try and top Independence Day’s peerless disaster porn as they level all new cities? How will the manufactured love story between Scarlet Witch and Vision play out?
And to top it all off, Infinity War will end on a cliffhanger because it is actually two movies, with the second set to be released sometime next year. So if you like being frustrated, confused and having stuff blow up in your face, Infinity War is going to be everything you want.
It might also be the cleansing fire that saves the superhero genre. Infinity War will be the end the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with no guarantee of which heroes will live, die or get out of the game, as has been hinted for Captain America. Except for Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Warner Brothers’ spectacular Wonder Woman, Marvel remains the only studio playing the superhero game right. Hopefully, wiping the slate clean will let them get back to storytelling rather than blowing things up.
But me? I’m going to sit out this particular ending of the world.