As cinematic success stories go, there’s no arguing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Eighteen films old now, its run since 2nd May 2008 is unmatched. There’s only been one stumble to date, The Incredible Hulk (2008), but even that was a decade ago at the very start of the MCU masterplan. No other movie franchise can match the MCU’s achievements, its combo of sustained quality, number of films, and box office takings. It seems the only thing that can topple the MCU is the MCU itself, and as its nineteenth film Avengers: Infinity War (2018) shows there’s a danger that the Marvel movies are becoming their own worst enemy.
Infinity War is undoubtedly a stunning movie. There was a time when to include three or more comic-book characters in a film was to court disaster, Batman and Robin (1997), Spiderman 3 (2007). That Infinity War manages to successfully wrangle around thirty characters is a minor miracle. Every character has their moment, and even when the screen time is slight each characters moment is worthwhile and meaningful.
That perfect balance of humour and drama exists again. How the MCU get away with including laugh-out-loud moments right in the middle of their dramatic centrepieces without undermining the seriousness of the moment, ‘I’ll do you one better ... why is Gamora’ is a mystery every other Hollywood studio is itching to solve. And the catalyst for the drama this time around is the MCU’s ultimate villain, Thanos the Mad Titan.
If there’s one complaint with the MCU to date its that some of its villains haven’t been able to match the charisma of its heroes. Its not all bad news, but for every Loki and Erik Killmonger there’s a Malekith, a Yellowjacket, a Georges Batroc, a Whiplash, a Justin Hammer, a Wolfgang Von Strucker, a Mandarin, and an Abomination. A lot rested on James Brolin’s Thanos then, the MCU’s Emperor Palpetine, their Ernst Blofeld, their Sauron. It’s a triumph then that Thanos may be the best thing about Infinity War.
Having teased Thanos over a number of films the Russo brothers (this their fourth MCU film after Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Ant-Man (2015), and Captain America: Civil War (2016)) waste no time at all introducing him and demonstrating his power. In the opening minutes of Infinity War we find Thanos has already beaten Loki and Thor. He then downs the Hulk with little more than a well-placed fist and a skull cracking knee. And its all done with a smile and the bare minimum of effort. Things get more bleak for the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy from here as Thanos and his Black Order quartet of supporting villains gather together the remaining Infinity Stones to power Thanos’ ultimate weapon, his gold glove/gauntlet.
Maniacal murder on its own isn’t enough, but thankfully the Thanos back story is fleshed out well. There’s even a sense of logic to his aims, allowing viewers to potentially side with his motive, if not his methods for achieving. It’s a timely cause to, over population and the unstoppable march towards planet wide extinction via lack of space and resource. Thanos’ answer to this overcrowding issue is universe wide genocide, utilising the combined might of all of the Infinity Stones to instantly wipe out half of all life in the universe. It’s probably still cheaper than building a wall.
The coup de grace of his plan is so devastating for most of the film you doubt whether the Russo’s would have the courage to allow it. And as the finale unfolds it appears its close but not cigar for Thanos. But then the last twist arrives and it becomes clear that Infinity War really is the MCU’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Thanos snaps his fingers and in an instant fifty percent of life on Earth disappears, including a sizeable selection of comic heroes.
It’s a shocking moment when it first arrives, summed up perfectly by the panic of a distraught Peter Parker as he holds on to Tony Stark, his new surrogate father. But as the dust piles up and vacuum cleaner salesmen the world over rejoice, the edge on this shock finale begins to fade. There’s commonality amongst all of the Marvel heroes who are supposedly now dead; every one of them has follow up movies already announced by Marvel Studios.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spiderman: Homecoming 2, Black Panther 2, the future plans for the MCU have once again been laid out well in advance. For those that like to know what the upcoming movies in their favourite franchise are, it’s a nice bit of inside information. But for maintaining dramatic tension, revealing well ahead of time what characters will still be around in years to come deflates the ending of Infinity War. It’s a solid bet that Avengers 4 in 2019 will see Earth’s Mightiest Heroes turn the tide against Thanos and reverse much of the damage done (probably courtesy of Dr. Strange’s oh-so-convenient time-reversing stone). But it would have been much more effective to leave the question as to who survives unanswered until Part 4 arrives.
As it is, it’s fairly safe to assume that the Guardians, Spiderman, and Black Panther all return unscathed. Elsewhere, Infinity War swiftly does away with Idris Elba’s Heimdall and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Given the fan-favourite status of the latter and the fact that he ‘died’ before, expect to see the God of Mischief return as well. That just leaves poor Gamora. Sacrificed by Thanos in order to lay claim to the Soul Stone, it looks like it really is a case of Gamora-no-mora. Yet, given how integral she is the Guardians of the Galaxy quintet, and how happy-go-lucky the Guardians film have been, it seems unlikely that a Starlord won’t reunite with his beau.
For Infinity War, these dusty deaths could have been one of the best cinematic shocks of the era. But with the MCU pissing over its own bonfire by being too keen to announce upcoming movies, some of which are years away, the shock is diminished. All that remained was the ever popular post-credits scene to leave viewers open mouthed.
In the past these scenes have swung between light comic relief and story revelation. Infinity War went for the latter but again the film is undone by the MCU’s eagerness to reveal future films. As Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury starts to disappear, he has just enough time to reach for a nineties style pager and dial for help. This would be mean nothing to those not familiar with the Marvel universe; Captain Marvel’s insignia appearing on the pager would be meaningless. And for those familiar with the Marvel universe, they would already know that Captain Marvel (2019) is on the way, Brie Larson is taking on the role, Agent Coulson is returning, its set in the early nineties, and all of the other info that’s been released by Marvel Studios. As a post-credit scene to one of Marvel Studios best films, it’s a bit anti-climactic.
With Marvel Studious having finally acquired the rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and their other ‘lost’ Marvel movie properties, it would have been a hugely crowd pleasing post credit scene to introduce brand new heroes to help take down Thanos. Given the powers of the Infinity Stones, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of Marvel lore for a doorway to an alternate Earth to be opened up. Picture Hugh Jackman’s Logan or Ian McKellan’s Magneto stepping through to help kick some Thanos ass. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
All of this doesn’t stop Infinity War from being one of the best movies Marvel Studios has made. But confidence breeds complacency, and with the MCU riding so high and eager to hype future films before current films have even been released, MCU mastermind Kevin Feige is starting to trip over his own feet. For the sake of preserving drama and plot lines, the MCU would do well to slow down a bit. If it doesn’t, in time the Marvel Cinematic Universe will know what its like to lose, to know so desperately that its right, but fail all the same