Film of the Week: Avengers: Infinity War
The definitive word on Avengers: Infinity War may have been said this week by comics author Warren Ellis. The nineteenth in the series of Marvel movies—the crowning piece in this phase of the ever-expanding edifice that is the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe—Infinity War is, Ellis says in his blog, “perhaps best understood as an unprecedented brand power move. It is not ‘a film’ as that term is commonly understood. It is a sequence of connections.” Ellis, whose work includes Transmetropolitan and Hellblazer, as well as Marvel titles including Iron Man and X-Men, is well placed to comment on the strange logic of comic book narrative in general, and in this particular case, on “what is often an extraordinarily unconventional story event.”
I like that—not a “film,” not an episode in a series, but a “story event.” It’s true: Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t adhere to the standard rules of Hollywood narrative, or to the conventions of a sequel. It’s normally understood that audiences should be given all the information they need to understand a narrative, as thoroughly and as economically as possible; it’s normally forbidden to leave spectators baffled. Individual audience members shouldn’t feel alienated, out of the loop; the motto could be, “No viewer left behind.” Plenty of people will feel left behind by Avengers: Infinity War, but then this is a film that divides its audience almost like a cult: if you’re in the know already, if you have all the information needed, then you’ll understand; if you don’t understand, you’re not a true believer, the movie’s not for you. But you won’t know it’s not for you until you’ve paid your entrance fee—and over the last week, so many of us have.
The novelty of Avengers: Infinity War is that it manifestly isn’t just another superhero movie: it aspires, if you like, to be the ultimate superhero movie, or a compendium of all possible superhero movies. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this film picks up and assembles various strands that were worked through previous Marvel episodes, not just in the Avengers films themselves. The central premise is a set of six cosmic gewgaws called Infinity Stones which, when collected and inserted one by one into a sort of special presentation gauntlet, give the wearer infinite power. The film resembles that gauntlet in that, placing all the pieces of the Marvel universe together in one shiny de luxe vitrine, it creates the power to generate infinite material: not just revenue ($808 million worldwide in a week, at time of writing), but also a seemingly infinite amount of text. The latter includes tweets, blurbs, “paid editorial” in reputable newspapers, explicating and celebrating the film and its mythos, online features speculating on the film’s loose ends and on where Marvel movies can possibly go next, and fan commentary parsing with Talmudic exactitude the sources of individual images or moments in the film, tracing them back to specific frames in specific issues of specific comics.
Then there are those more skeptical observations on the film, in more, let’s say, high-minded or at least less partisan organs, such as this one—a field of commentary which has already formed its own tropes and styles of approach. One of the many Infinity Wars tweets I read last week bemoaned in advance the predictable rush to produce “hot takes” on the film, another criticized what it saw as the already fatigued strategy in writing about such blockbusters, i.e. to try and present them as being “really” experimental cinema in the guise of mainstream product.
Having made a point of reading as little critical writing as possible about the film, before and after seeing it, the idea of Avengers: Infinity War as an experimental film—or at least an “extraordinarily unconventional” one—strikes me as entirely plausible. Ellis hits the nail on the head when he talks about the film as a “sequence of connections.” In fact, it comes across as a movie that’s somehow all connections and no sequence—at least, little coherent narrative, not as we usually understand coherent narrative to be.
Perplexingly, the film is effectively the sequel not to one but to several films at once: or rather, it’s the point at which other movie sequences converge. It’s theoretically the follow-up to the last Avengers movie proper, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) but narratively, it’s really the follow-up to Captain America: Civil War (2016), at the end of which the Avengers team dispersed in different directions (“Broke up?” says Bruce Banner aka the Hulk, who’s been out of the loop. “Like a band?”). The film is also the direct continuation of last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, beginning as it does by telling us what happened to the evacuated population of Asgard after the end of that film (answer: nothing good). Infinity War also, some way in, turns out to be not entirely an Avengers story, but also an outing for another superhero team, whose world is governed by rather different conventions of fictional reality and comic register: the rather spoofier sci-fi collective Guardians of the Galaxy, whose third movie this effectively also is. And then, in the final act, this also proves to be the direct continuation of a movie we’ve barely had time to digest since its release in February, Black Panther—the only film in the cycle to achieve cultural resonance beyond the usual parameters of comic-movie fandom.
The narrative spine of Infinity War—which gives some urgency and unity to its sprawl of sub-narratives—is the activity of a baleful alien warlord named Thanos. He’s played by Josh Brolin, his human features still eerily, and expressively, recognizable within the CGI-generated motion-capture carapace that turns him into a monolithic purple-skinned, shovel-chinned apparition. His intention is to acquire all the Infinity Stones and then destroy half the universe. Why half? There’s a harsh logic to that, which gives the story an undertow of bleakness and cruelty that’s been entirely absent from all the series’ routinely cataclysmic cities-in-flames scenarios. Infinity War bets that it can make us care once more about that weary narrative warhorse, World Destruction—that it can Make Apocalypse Great again. And against all odds, it wins. This may be the first superhero movie with a payoff that could not just move and surprise you, but even traumatize you a little.
The daunting thing is just how many characters there are. The movie partakes of the same bulimic logic as certain issues of Marvel titles, which contrived to jam as many characters as possible onto one cover—leaping, punching, making warlike signs in the air—so that the page basically became one dense wall of superheroes. The movie’s poster is a bit like that, crammed with major star names—Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen—while many famous people who appear aren’t even named on the poster. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Multiverse. The real mastery in making this film surely went into the work of agents and attorneys, carving out deals that wouldn’t cause their clients to complain that they didn’t have enough screen time. It’s also interesting who does get significant exposure and who doesn’t—as if they threw all the characters’ names into a hat and pulled them out at random to decide who would have a significant Arc. Sorry, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, this wasn’t your lucky day.
Curiously, the big Arc—which comes with a poignant backstory and a surprising amount of emotional weight—goes to Gamora (Zoe Saldana), not normally a major player in the Marvel universe, but a mainstay of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which themselves appealed to fans precisely because these characters were considered marginal dwellers of this universe. As for characters like the Falcon, Nebula, Mantis, Bucky Barnes, who but initiates really know or care just who they are or how they fit in?
For most of us, those people will be no more than blurs running or flying around in the background—the superhero equivalent of seat fillers at an Oscar ceremony. But while many of us don’t need to know who’s who and why, the film pitches itself as potentially being most satisfying to an audience who know everything: you or I, cinephile reader of Film Comment, might enjoy this film quite a lot, but imagine how much more we’d enjoy it if we were the ideal viewer it presupposes, who can spot specific winks at iconic moments in Captain America #332 or Avengers #123. The film effectively conjures into being a hypothetical ideal viewer who’s 100 percent competent as a reader of Marvel narrative—who knows all the characters, gets all the references, can pick up every single slyly concealed Easter egg, just as Tanos gleans his gems. And presumably, non-initiates who wish they were qualified adepts will feel the urge to spend money on catching up on the previous titles.
The narrative is bizarrely structured, with characters forever crashing into each other’s worlds, where they don’t belong—the Hulk literally dropping with a bang into Dr. Strange’s Manhattan mansion, Thor turning up as unlikely passenger aboard the Guardians’ spaceship, the entire cast turning up in Wakanda. I suppose that’s what’s meant by a crossover movie. We keep jumping from one story strand to another, from one set of heroes to another, from one location to another—from Manhattan to Space (just “Space”) to Edinburgh, where assorted Avengers assemble to comprehensively trash Waverley train station.
The constant slippage is dizzying, like watching not one film but several simultaneously. I’d say the effect was like zapping between TV channels, but that metaphor is probably meaningless to the target age demographic that film addresses: it’s more like surfing between websites on a low concentration threshold, or rather like leafing through a few pages of a comic, before tossing it aside and skimming another from the same giant stack, then going back to your first title again, before eventually realizing that all along you’ve been reading parts of the same vast, wildly complicated story. Marvel were pioneers in the art of threading single storylines through multiple titles, a brilliant ploy to increase sales, and the comics’ urge to coherent cross-referencing from title to title made their overall mythos into a supercharged pop culture equivalent to the interlocking novel sequences of Balzac: a Superhuman Comedy.
What’s also odd is the way that the film shuffles constantly between registers, between somber and flip, farcical and lugubrious, mundane and cosmic: such shifts of tone that the film feels… you hesitate to say Shakespearean, but at least crazily diverse. There’s plenty of the usual wise-cracking, some of it very funny—Tony Stark (Downey) to Dr. Strange (Cumberbatch): “Did you seriously say, ‘Hitherto undreamed of..’?” There’s clever modulation of running jokes: the living tree Groot, from the Guardians, still only ever says, “I am Groot,” but now it’s with an adolescent’s petulant whine.
But then the film gets increasingly baleful, and indeed hallucinatory, as the violence turns crueler: one character is tortured while being simultaneously dismantled and dangled in mid-air, another is menaced with needle-like spikes of light. Thor has a self-contained episode set in a sort of cosmic forge, which is about as overtly Wagnerian as you can get, and other moments sustain this operatic tone: after Thanos commits one quite shocking homicidal act, you expect him to break out in a tragic aria of lamentation. In another scene, Thanos encounters a figure from his past on the surface of a planet steeped in orange-red light: it looks like a cross between a minimalist set from ’60s TV Star Trek and the delirious dreamspaces of certain MGM musicals, in which Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly would be greeted by Cyd Charisse striding out of the mists, a ten-foot veil of yellow chiffon billowing out behind her.
We know there’s a fourth Avengers episode to follow, and further stand-alone heroes to come—the next in line is even flagged up in the obligatory end-credits sting. Even so, the conclusion of Infinity War is so shocking because it doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger, more like a drastic wiping clean of the slate before the whole cycle starts again, with whatever reversal of fortune or comprehensive reboot it may be. The actual outcome is quite audacious; you may find yourself moved or you may just feel some vague sense of burn-out, exhaustion or melancholy. But it does feel like a rare moment in which the Marvel movies do at least toy with the specter of finality—which is to say, death. Several critics have commented on how the structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has less to do with the conventions of cinema, more to do with the logic of the TV miniseries. So, lest you find yourself upset by what happens here, look at it this way: death is not The End, it’s just a season finale.