I remember when Iron Man was released in 2008. At the time, Everyone considered it a mad experiment. Tony Stark was not someone known to a large audience and Robert Downey Jr was considered a has been who wasn’t an actor so much as a pharmaceutical waste dispensary. And, even though superhero movies had been commercially and artistically successful, (like most of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy and Batman Begins) Marvel was using this B-list drunken superhero to launch a new franchise that would require an audience that watches only a few films a year to watch twelve films just so the massive crossovers would make sense.
But I saw Iron Man (at the midnight release, no less) and was greatly impressed. Downey Jr. did a perfect job encapsulating a man cut off to the world who slowly realizes the wreckage he’s leaving behind. There was a reason for Stark to become a super hero and a reason for him to fight the bad guy. It was a masterfully made movie that I still point out as one of the best examples of the genre.
And then the post credits sequence played and lead to sustained cheering in the theater. There was a sense of excitement about new entries. Finally, comic book fans had the chance to see not just the mainstream characters, but any character come to the screen.
Besides, it’s possible to build a cinematic universe. Indie Gen X darling turned professional podcaster Kevin Smith did so in the ‘90s. Each of his films stand alone, but there are hints at the larger world just outside the frame. Characters between films are relatives; Randall from Clerks and Brody from Mallrats are cousins, although you only learn this if you really pay attention to the dialogue. Certain locations and items show up between films. Even characters from other films make brief appearances in later entries. But I never felt Smith only wanted to advertise whatever he was working on next. I also didn’t feel like I had to watch each film to understand the larger plot.
Ten years later, I went to see Avengers: Infinity Wars and my attitude around Marvel movies had changed. Instead of looking forward to them, I came to dread each impending release. I felt I had to see them more out of obligation than desire, because everyone on the planet would be talking about it for the rest of the year.
Pretty much immediately after Iron Man, the movies started making the same mistakes the comic books have been making for decades. Individual comic stories, even the ones featuring superheroes, can be very effective pieces of writing and are sometimes better than mainstream novels. But they must have an opening and a definitive ending. They must have proper emotional stakes. They must embrace their medium and must be self-contained. It’s fine if you make in-jokes about other characters, but don’t make those jokes necessary to understand the entire story.
But most comic series can’t those things due to editorial pressure. The stories can’t have an ending, because the series can never properly end. Death is temporary and is dependent and the deaths that may make the greatest emotional impact with readers also would involve the most profitable characters. And writers aren’t allowed to interpret the characters or inject anything that may cause controversy. They take over the status quo and must maintain it.
Each of those flaws is present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon have walked away from projects because they would not get any editorial control. Age of Ultron contained unnecessary and bizarre scenes that had nothing to do with the narrative. Only later did we find out these scenes were meant to be teasers for whatever Thor sequel was about to come out. Each film must advertise the next installment in the story, meaning that it’s impossible for them to stand on their own merits. And any death in a Marvel movie is not likely to stick. There are exceptions (like Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) but Avengers: Infinity War asks me to care about the death of characters who have already been confirmed to appear in upcoming films.
And to add to everything, Infinity War only showed me half a movie. Splitting something into two parts was a marketing trope I thought we were past, but Marvel brought it back with a vengeance.
I should pause to say that I didn’t think that Infinity War was a bad movie on its own, necessarily. The plot is straightforward, about a cosmic villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) trying to gather all the magical infinity stones that allow the wielders to reshape reality. He wants to destroy half the universe and the heroes rather wish he wouldn’t. What follows is a sort of greatest hits montage between all the different Marvel film characters (except Ant Man) and all the greatest locations.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZfuNTqbHE8[/embedyt]
I admire how it pre-emptively responded to all my criticisms. I was concerned that, given the sheer amount of characters in the film, I would be unable to follow what was happening. But that didn’t happen, because the movie didn’t depend too much on the past. Additionally, the filmmakers knew how to use the characters properly. Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy are utilized the most, which makes sense given the cosmic scale of this fight. We also get a nice visit to Wakanda in the third act for the final battle. And I liked how they tried to add some depth to Thanos, who had only been briefly glimpsed in the past films. I understood why he felt what he was doing was morally right, even if it was horrifying.
But then it was all ruined by the ending, which doesn’t exist. The anvil has been dropped and the heroes are at the lowest points they could possibly be. Then, the film abruptly stops right as the emotional stakes couldn’t possibly get any higher and I realized I’d been conned. I left disappointed, knowing that I was essentially shown a massive trailer for the next Avengers film.
“But there have been films that end on cliffhangers and have dangling plot lines! What about The Empire Strikes Back?” I hear you cry. Well, Empire was a standalone film that wrapped up the story it wanted to tell. Yes, it left some dangling plot threads for the next installment, but the characters went through the arc they needed to go through. Luke realized that, even as a Jedi, he was not all powerful and could still fail to protect his friends. Leia realized how she was torn between settling down for what she wanted or continuing to fight for the greater good. Han realized that eventually his past was going to catch up to him and hurt the people who loved him. Lando realized that he couldn’t stay isolated from the galaxy. It was a dark moment that required further exploration, but each character came away with something they didn’t have at the beginning. And that was decidedly not the case with Infinity War, with the exception of the villain. Imagine if Empire “ended” right as C3P0 was shot by the stormtroopers at Bespin or as Han, Leia, and Lando opened the door to find Darth Vader waiting for them. You’d likely be mad, wondering if the film was missing a few reels or if the theater lost power. Yet that’s pretty much what Infinity War did.
Yet I couldn’t even have that conversation with anyone. Giving anything that may be considered a spoiler is a cardinal sin in today’s world, in case someone somewhere didn’t see the film. And this whole obsession with spoilers is just another way to stifle any commentary on the films that could inform audiences about what they can expect. I’d have loved to talk about the “ending” far sooner, but I could practically feel the scarlet “A” being sewn to my clothes every time I even thought about discussing that terrible “ending.”
Overall, I’m just frustrated. Marvel films have become the template that everyone is trying to emulate, which is just compounding the mistake. Marvel film releases have become an assembly line process where every movie exists to promote the next one. I guess it’s honest – that’s the same way comic book series have been churning out issues since the Golden Age. But that’s not what I want in a film. I want something that exists because the creators are passionate about the characters and want to tell their own version of the classic superhero story. Avengers Infinity War didn’t do that. It merely exists to set up everything for the next film. How should I feel about watching a nearly three-hour commercial?