The Following Post Contains Infinity War Spoilers.
Thursday morning, I woke up to the following headline in my inbox: “To Save the Future, Marvel Studios Must Forget Its Past.” It’s the title to Marc Bernardin’s THR essay about the potential pitfalls of Marvel Studios’ everything-is-connected storytelling strategy. But I was already on complete Infinity War media blackout by that point. Sorry Bernardin. Your article just had to wait.
Then I saw Infinity War, and if you’ve already read my spoiler-free review you know how that went. I’ll give you the one-sentence version: I loved it! The equally Marvel Cinematic Universe-knowledgeable friends I saw it with seemed to feel the same way, although one of them was very concerned about how exactly the characters wiped out by Thanos would ever return.
But then I saw Infinity War again Friday morning with my elderly stepdad. He’s seen around half of the MCU movies, yet he still struggled to keep up with Infinity War’s plot, leaning over to tell me in a frustrated voice, “Too much.” He ultimately walked away shaking his head and muttering “Why in the world did they have to make things so complicated?” and “What was the point of it all anyway?”
Then I saw it again, this time with my brother, nephew, and niece. The latter two are young enough I wanted to both see the movie through their eyes AND be on hand to explain the heartbreaking deaths. Surprisingly, my Ragnarok-loving nephew who has seen most MCU movie since the first Guardians turned on Infinity War pretty quickly, declaring it far too busy for his tastes. When anyone died, he simply shrugged and cynically predicted, “They’ll be back.” He actually fell asleep well before the ending.
My niece, on the other hand, is a newly converted MCU fan, having switched out her Disney cartoons for Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in her repeat-viewing rotation. Infinity War had her undivided attention the entire time, so much so she barely ever looked away to ask me any questions. The soul-crushing ending didn’t crush her at all, as she, too, instantly assumed everyone who died will probably just come back. I should add that she’s only 5-years-old.
It’s ridiculous to draw too broad of a conclusion from such a small sample, but what this showed me is how entirely punishing Infinity War can be for those either not prepared for it or unaccustomed to having to track that many characters and stories in the body of one film. It also showed me how thoroughly Marvel has retrained our expectations when it comes to on-screen death, but let’s put a pin in that for a future article.
That brings me back to Bernardin’s argument, which is best summarized in the following paragraph:
What Black Panther did so well, among many things, was act as a beginner’s Marvel movie. Anyone could come to it and know what was going on. You didn’t need to keep track of Infinity Stones, Loki’s shifting allegiances, Bucky’s arm count or Black Widow’s hair color. After a while, what was a feature — the interconnected narrative — will become a bug. Worse, it will become homework.
None of what he just described is a problem for me. In fact, last year when so many people were raving about Thor: Ragnarok and saying how it was one of if not the first Marvel movies they’d ever seen I was the stick in the mud Thor fan struggling to adjust to Taika Waititi’s soft reboot of the entire franchise (I’ve since come around on it).
So, I’m the nerd who knows way too much about all of these movies. Wide accessibility isn’t exactly a concern for me. That’s because I’m the type of fan Marvel can always count on to turn out for every single one of their films. However, even the most successful Marvel Studios production is ignored by 80% of Americans over the age of 13 in America (just as a measure of tickets sold versus total U.S. population). While I’m always in the bank for what they’re doing Marvel can’t simply please the fanboys and rest on its laurels. It has to keep evolving and diversifying – bringing in more women (Ragnarok), people of color (Black Panther), and younger people in general (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
What that means, though, is we have just gone from one of the most widely accessible titles Marvel Studios ever made – Black Panther – to easily its most impenetrable – Infinity War. And now because of Infinity War’s universe-wide-genocide ending both Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel have the “How is this going to connect to Infinity War and lead into Avengers 4?” question hanging over their heads. This comes after Marvel went out of its way to pull back on all of the Infinity War set-up and allowed movies like Homecoming, Guardians Vol 2., Ragnarok and Black Panther to mostly do their own thing and prosper as a result, both financially and creatively.
That doesn’t mean Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel will entirely suffer. Both films will most likely quite simply predate Infinity Wars in the timeline (we know for a fact Captain Marvel is set in the 90s) and feature endings or post-credits scenes explaining how their titular heroes will factor into Avengers 4. However, now a storytelling need has been forced on both of those films in a way Black Panther never had to worry about. It’s a side effect of the interconnected universe and Infinity War going so impossibly big with its ending. How do you keep telling stories in this universe when half the characters just died, albeit likely just until the heroes save them in Avengers 4?
It’s a challenge Infinity War screenwriter Christopher Markus is aware of, telling ComicBook.com: “”How do you not fall into the trap of what these movies are sometimes accused of which is just sometimes feeding each other and not being standalone things. You can’t make them overly dependent on each other, and yet you still want to have this bloodstream flowing through the universe.”
The truth is the longer comic book movies continue to exist the more they move past simple parades of spandex, tortured origin stories, tried-and-true morality plays and third-act throwdowns and into a tangled web of impossibly complex continuity and/or mythology. That’s how you end up with a thing like X-Men: Days of Future Past, a time travel story bringing together two different sets of the same characters, and Infinity War, an event comic brought to life in near-nonstop splash page glory. Now, Avengers 4 is highly likely to do a time travel story of its own and/or head into something called the “quantum realm” (and to get that reference you’ll need to have seen Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp).
To the outsider, movies like these must feel like homework built on a foundation of confusing mythology; to the insider, they are a warm embrace and realization of all those things you always saw in comic books and never thought you’d actually see on screen. They could never fit that many superheroes into one film, we thought, until we saw Avengers and then Ultron and then Civil War and now Infinity War, which blows all of those out of water.
None of this is necessarily a problem…yet. Marvel’s success has trained us to treat these things like TV show episodes instead of movies, and you can only skip an episode if you don’t think it will significantly impact the larger storyline. Plus, with Hollywood’s love of sequels and franchises showing no sign of slowing down the recurring “How many older films do I need to see to understand this new film?” question isn’t going away anytime soon.
Plus, Marvel has been promising us Infinity War’s battle with Thanos since that Avengers post-credits scene in 2012. The world’s had plenty of time to catch up, and anyone who didn’t do this for Infinity War now has another year to binge-watch any and all of the earlier MCU films to prepare for Avengers 4, which Kevin Feige has promised will be the end of the story they started back in Iron Man in 2008.
You wouldn’t drop in on the season finale of Westworld or The Walking Dead without having seen all or at least of the prior episodes and then complain about it being confusing. Similarly, if you don’t know your MCU and complain about Infinity War being confusing what else did you expect? It’s the first half of the season finale (if not series finale) to the world’s most popular TV series.
But this you-need-to-see-all-the-earlier-movies-to-get-this feature can’t become a defining characteristic of Marvel’s movies. Event comics like Infinity Gauntlet were popular and novel at first, but over time and even into today they can be horribly disruptive and alienate both casual and regular readers. Don’t let that happen with the films too. Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Logan, and Deadpool have shown the global appeal of superhero movies that can actually stand on their own; Infinity War has shown the immense joy of seeing a plan finally come together. In the long run, there needs to be more of the former, less of the latter. The interconnectivity must remain a bonus, not a homework assignment.
I trust Marvel already knows that, but with the X-Men, Silver Surfer, and Fantastic Four about to join the cinematic roster who knows what they might do next.