I liked Avengers: Infinity War and in many ways it’s a technical cinematic (excuse the pun) marvel — it’s not an easy job to integrate this many storylines, characters and stars into a single movie and both give them all enough space to do their thing, and still keep the film hurtling inevitably toward a climax. In this regard, this film’s cinematic predecessors aren’t so much other superhero films as the Cecil De Mille-style biblical epics, the kind where big name stars were dropped in for even the smallest roles, and part of the experience was watching, say, Vincent Price vamp about as a ridiculously incongruent ancient Egyptian. This is that, except that the gods are played by Australians and Brits, and the plague in this case is Josh Brolin, underneath some impressive CGI.
But as impressively well put together as it is — and it is; after this, Civil War and The Winter Soldier, I’m perfectly willing to say that the Russo brothers are possibly the most adept action directors we have working in film right now — and as enjoyable and exciting as the film is in the moment (which, bluntly, is its remit as a superhero film: to keep you munching your popcorn delightedly as events transpire onscreen), the film suffers and for me is ultimately unsatisfying. Not for anything the film itself does or doesn’t do; again, this is an extraordinarily competent film, and enjoyable on every level, and a more than satisfactory funnel into which to pour the entire official Marvel universe to date. It suffers not because of what it does, but because of what I know.
And what do I know?
(and here is where I put the spoiler warning, so if you haven’t seen the film, go no further)
(although honestly since the film made $250 million domestically and $630 million worldwide in its first weekend, there doesn’t seem like there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film by this point)
(even so, once again: spoiler warning)
(okay, that’s enough parenthetical grafs for right now)
What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.
This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.
Additionally, I’m well aware that on the Marvel schedule, there is another Avengers film, originally called Infinity War Part 2. It’s not called that anymore, but it’s not because Infinity War was meant to be its own stand-alone film in the Marvel continuity, or because the next Avengers film isn’t going to be Infinity War, Part 2; they just want to give it a cooler title. This was always going to be a film that was going to end on a cliff-hanger.
Knowing what I know about Marvel and Disney’s business, here’s what I felt when Black Panther turned into dust at the end of Infinity War, not for anything he did, but simply because he was part of the unlucky half of the thinking universe that fell under Thanos’ curse:
lol, yeah, okay there, Marvel.
Likewise with Spider-Man; likewise with two-thirds of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so on.
Again, to be clear: This is not the fault of Avengers: Infinity War. It hit its marks and hit them well, and the internal logic of the film holds up. Viewed from the inside of the film, the filmmakers didn’t shy away from what was necessary — they killed a shitload of characters, not only to illustrate the stakes, but to make the point of what Thanos’ scheme means to everyone in the universe. It does just about everything right within its own framework. I could quibble at points here and there, but not with the overall film.
But Infinity War doesn’t exist only within its own framework; it exists as part of an overall business plan for Marvel and Disney. And, leaving aside the simple fact that comic book universes aren’t exactly a sterling model of finality in even the best of times, Marvel and Disney aren’t going to deprive themselves of consistent money-makers. Not just in the cinema but in merchandising, licensing and all other sorts of ancillary revenue streams.
And that, simply, lowers the stakes. People who were congratulating the Marvel universe for going all Game of Thrones on their characters misapprehend this fact about the films’ corporate masters. When George RR Martin kills someone, they (mostly) stay dead; there’s real risk there. In the case of Marvel, and of Infinity War, meh. They’ll be back. Most likely, they’ll all be back (yes, even Loki. As if they would waste that fan favorite).
So, while I very much enjoyed Infinity War, and would highly recommend it on its own merits, in a fundamental way I left the theater unengaged with it. It’s because I knew, more than in any other film in the Marvel universe to date, that its stakes were false. I mean, I could be wrong. I would be delighted to be wrong. But I know Disney, and I know Marvel, and I know their release schedule, and I know basic economics. And I know if you’re one of the largest entertainment companies on the planet, you don’t wipe out that sort of value, just for the sake of a single film, and one splash of box office income. It’s just not smart.
And thus the irony here that the real Infinity War spoiler for me was not a list of who lived and who died in the film, but a release schedule, and a company philosophy.