While Rules of the Game is largely intended to reflect on the rules, regulations, and incentives that help influence our lives, occasionally something hits close enough to home that I feel compelled to write about it on this blog. This is one of those times.
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On October 29, 2014, Disney’s Marvel Studios announced Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”), the culmination of a decade-long effort to infuse 20+ major motion pictures with just enough connective tissue to plausibly bring them together in one universe-shaking, climatic, cross-over event.
Well, that event is here. Avengers: Infinity War (“Infinity War“) has arrived.
A dozen galaxy-spanning locations.
6 Infinity Stones.
1 damn triumph.
As the MCU has grown to dominate the box office, almost every other movie studio has at least feigned interest in starting their own “universe” of interlocking films and other materials. But whether Warner Brothers, Universal, or others, none have come close to what Marvel has achieved, and after Infinity War, the bar has been set even higher.
How does Infinity War do what it does? How does the MCU work so well when seemingly all others have faltered? And how does Infinity War successfully navigate the “impossible” task of serving as the climax of dozens of plots over almost 20 movies and half as many years?
How? Let’s dig in.
Protagonist as a State of Mind
With Infinity War, the heads of the MCU set themselves a seemingly impossible task: bring together the plot lines, locations, casts, and characters from half a dozen (or more) different movie franchises, while not losing the distinctive “flavor” which made each of them so popular in the first place. Mix too much, and everything becomes bland and one-note. Mix too little and the film winds up feeling like 5 different movies running concurrently.
How did Marvel solve this problem?
They made the villain the protagonist.
From the first frames of the movie, Thanos, the mad titan, he who would end half of all life in the universe, “Grimace” to his friends, is established not just as a physical threat capable of nonchalantly demolishing the Hulk or murdering franchise-favorite Loki before the title card, but as his own internally-motivated actor. This isn’t Ronan, Malekith, Red Skull, or any of Marvel’s other motley assortment of mustache-twirling villains.
No. The Thanos of Infinity War is a man, mad in his reasoning to be sure, but with reasoning all the same. He is Thomas Malthus writ large, the inescapable, unacceptable end of the logic loop that begins with the trolley problem and ends with mass genocide. He is Mass Effect 3‘s “Catalyst”, only written to make sense over a film’s three hour running time and not as a slapdash Deus Ex Machina. He is the hero of his own story, making sacrifice after sacrifice to lift a burden we can easily imagine he wished he didn’t have to shoulder.
Through flashbacks, reality-bending expository speeches, a trip to the ethereal plane, and even a single tear, we are brought closer to Thanos than to any other villain in the MCU’s history (save, perhaps, Loki), and by the final frame of the film we understand exactly what he did and why, as heartless as his actions may appear from the outside. That final small smile is earned, and we can feel the satisfaction in what he has accomplished. What did he give up? Everything. In a different context, he might even have been considered a hero.
And not only is this a great set-up for a film’s villain (oh, if only other major film franchises deigned to give us such insight), it neatly solves the “numbers” problem which initially appeared intractable.
By structuring Infinity War as Thanos’ quest to acquire the six Infinity Stones (with only one gained off screen), the film is able to jump between multiple different “teams” of heroes guarding (or looking to gain the power to guard) the different stones at different times, all with the through-line that “Thanos is coming”.
Flipping the script on who the film really follows was the brilliant key to making the whole thing work, but it wouldn’t have worked at all if the MCU didn’t have 10 years of history to lean on.
10 years, almost 20 movies, heroes, villains, origin stories, arcs, revelations, betrayals, and more.
With the exception of establishing Thanos (and some light work reminding folks of the Infinity Stones), one could argue that Infinity War doesn’t have any exposition. It hits the ground running and doesn’t really let up, but the notion that it doesn’t feature exposition couldn’t be farther from the truth.
It has 10 years of exposition.
In almost every frame of Infinity War characters take actions or interact with other characters the audience has seen before. When Spider-Man climbs on the side of a rocket to the moon, it is immediately evocative of his harrowing adventure on the side of a stealth plane in Spider-Man: Homecoming. When Thanos uses the Time Stone as the final coup de grace to conclude his galaxy spanning quest, we are immediately reminded of the conclusion of 2016’s Doctor Strange, where our titular hero used such same power for vastly different ends.
And in what I would argue is likely the most important scene in the movie (and perhaps the MCU itself), when Peter Quill seemingly dooms the universe, unable to cope with the sudden realization of the loss of his love, how can we not be immediately reminded of Tony Stark’s same inability in Captain America: Civil War when faced with his parents’ murderer, and all while Infinity War’s Tony Stark looks on.
The MCU’s greatest strength, the strength that all other studios seem unwilling or incapable of following-up on, was and is its willingness to put in the “time”.
The MCU didn’t just release Iron Man in 2008, a second Iron Man two years later, and then move on to The Avengers. No, Marvel released a film for each of its main heroes and only then brought them together. And even that first “team up” film did not attempt anything as grandiose as Infinity War‘s quest for the Infinity Stones. That was left for Phases 2 and 3 of their grand plan.
The end result is stunning, but it was borne out of meticulous planning, a studio willing to put its money where its mouth was, and a creative head that may go down in history as a visionary the likes of which the industry has never before seen.
The Power of a Strong Hand
“[It comes] directly from the comic books, and the notion of a shared, ongoing, fictional narrative with characters inhabiting the same shared universe — which meant Spider-Man could pop up in Thor’s comic, and Hulk could come running through the streets through an Iron Man comic. That is what was great about the Marvel Universe.” – Kevin Feige
Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, is the man responsible for creating and operating the MCU.
Over the past decade, he has charted the studio’s course, from starting the Avengers with pieces “left over” from the studio’s many early intellectual property licenses, to giving director James Gunn the “keys to the car” necessary to make the Guardians of the Galaxy the most unexpected pop culture phenomenon of this young millennium. He is the beginning and end of all things in the Marvel (cinematic) story.
And what a job he has done.
With multiple movies at various stages of development at any one time, including multiple directors, multiple writers, and multiple casts, he has made the Marvel Universe feel at once both seamless and endless. A world where a Norse god and unfrozen World War II super-soldier can become lifelong friends while a talking space raccoon and sentient tree fight off alien invaders. A world where the Marvel “house style” can inform directorial decision-making to make things seem of apiece, while still allowing an auteur like Ryan Coogler to deliver a $700M royal epic in Black Panther that is undeniably all his own.
Infinity War doesn’t exist without this kind of leadership. It can’t.
The best example of that is what we can see across the (metaphorical) street over at Disney’s own Lucasfilm. There, president Kathleen Kennedy evinces her own strong hand, but in a manner very different from Mr. Feige. Over the course of producing five Star Wars films, four have featured at least some form of tumult, from writer changes to director firings, project cancellations, and more.
The fifth was The Last Jedi, a film on which much could be written.
More importantly, Ms. Kennedy’s approach has been to hire accomplished directors with their own directorial voices, and then to step away completely to let them do their work. As Rian Johnson said in respect of his process for writing Last Jedi: “I was truly able to write this script without bases to tag, and without a big outline on the wall.”
To some extent, such an impulse is laudable, but it prevents the unity of purpose and concept that is so evident in a film like Infinity War. The characters are what make the MCU, and in a perfect world, they would “feel” the same from one movie to the next. Thankfully in Infinity War they absolutely do.
Space to Breathe – The Team, The Team, The Team
“[I]n those movies, Spider-Man was the only hero in that world; the X-Men were the only heroes in that world; Daredevil; Fantastic Four. They inhabited a world where they were the single extraordinary element. And that really wasn’t what the Marvel Universe was all about. It was about all of these characters, inhabiting the same world.” – Kevin Feige
Whether it’s thinking about how Fred Flintstone would react to George Jetson or whether Batman would beat Superman in a fight, the lunchroom of every elementary school (and beyond) has long been rife with discussion of these fantasy cross-over events. Avengers (and to some extent, Avengers: Age of Ultron) has long been the gold standard for this in modern movie-making, but there is a new king in town.
In Infinity War, more characters than ever are thrown together, and with backgrounds ranging from billionaire industrialist playboy to master of the mystic arts, from super-powered high school student to antennaed alien empath, and each with their own interests, dialect, and character foibles.
With so many faces, it was important for the film to give each a chance to breathe. Thankfully, Marvel did just that with a near three hour running time (and the small matter that Infinity War is, in many ways, only the first half of an even longer story).
So, when the two Peters (Parker and Quill) expound on their love of 80s cinema with an extended joke about whether Footloose is the greatest movie of all time, it makes sense for what we know of their characters. When Iron Man jokes about Hulk’s lack of transformative power embarrassing him in front of the “wizard”, Tony Stark’s snark, Bruce Banner’s nebbishness, and Doctor Strange’s arrogance all inform the scene.
Each new “team” and the interactions that spring from them are a joy. Not because we as the audience expect every point or counterpoint in the conversation, but because it is evident as we watch (and even more so after the fact), that the writers and Marvel have done the “work” to make sure that each character is understood both in the moment and in the larger context of the film.
This latter point is no more prominently established than in the scene where Thor has sacrificed almost everything to restart the Star Forge and needs his axe in order to survive the trial. There, Groot, who had spent the previous two hours of the film’s running time playing up his “teenager” qualities (while also playing up Defender), grows and sacrifices a limb to complete the handleless axe.
Every character in Infinity War gets their moment in the sun.
Going into the film my primary concern was an overabundance of characters and the likelihood that most would be overshadowed by a core few. That fear was alleviated in the best way possible: with good writing and careful attention to detail.
The Soul of Wit
“If there is a cynicism about “comic book movies” or “studio movies,” we’re not interested, because we’re not cynical about it. And we think these movies can be the best movies being made, even with spaceships and even with capes and even with superpowers.” – Kevin Feige
In writing about Last Jedi this past winter, I made the following observation:
At some point in the past couple of decades (maybe Shrek, maybe Iron Man, maybe earlier than both) Hollywood lost its confidence.
Under the harsh light of the Internet, movie studios realized that there was a large (or at least vocal) segment of the fanbase that made fun of movies regardless of how well they were made. The “cool kids”, if you will, that elevated themselves by denigrating what others liked.
So Hollywood tacked into the wind of this phenomenon, adding jokes of every kind to every serious moment, as if to get in front of the folks that would otherwise be mocking their efforts.
“We know this is stupid and you can’t take it seriously. See? We are making fun of it ourselves.”
Now, Infinity War is not a sea change shift in this approach from Marvel. For every scene of heartfelt pathos or heroism, there is another scene of Starlord comparing muscle mass with Thor or Rocket Raccoon explaining just where he kept that cybernetic eye Thor is busy coaxing into his cranium.
But, perhaps informed by the seriousness with which they elected to treat Thanos’ quest, most (not all) of the humor in Infinity War is premised around these “side” exchanges, of finding interesting (and funny) interactions between the characters, not around undercutting the innate tension of the plot or the palpable sense of dread that takes over as Thanos moves ever closer to his goal.
And because of the careful attention to detail employed by the writers and Marvel in establishing the various different “teams”, the humor here is some of the funniest it has ever been. Of course MCU Peter Parker has a plan that involves blowing someone out of an “airlock”. Of course Tony Stark, billionaire egoist, and Stephen Strange, medical egoist, can’t help but interact with a humorous clash of arrogances.
As we watch these characters that we have seen for so many years interact for the first time, there is a joy there. And much to my surprise, rather than presenting a stumbling block, the sheer volume of different characters and possibilities seems to have opened up an entirely new door of humor for the franchise.
Infinity War is about dread, about loss, and about sacrifice, but it is also about the humor found in the space between those things. Of the joy found in ordinary interaction between people (and aliens) of vastly different backgrounds. For a 3-hour cosmic fantasy based around folks being hunted by a hulking purple alien, I’d say that’s a remarkable thing.
A Heightened Reality – Score, Scope, and Visual Splendor
When the first Thor film released in 2011, one of its defining characteristics (apart from legendary director Sir Kenneth Branagh), was in its almost operatic approach to depicting life on Asgard, the cosmic realm of Thor and his divine parentage. In the opening act of that film, everything is sweeping and larger than life, from the camera movement to the orchestration. Not since has the MCU even attempted to approach such grandiosity.
Infinity War changes all of that.
In music and scoring alone, from the piano-plink of the Avengers’ theme to the somber blasts of Thanos’ as he makes the ultimate sacrifice, Infinity War carries the same operatic approach that informed not just Thor, but also Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the epic films of yesteryear.
Further, the same impulse that motivated Kevin Feige and the Marvel team to create the MCU in the first place, that impulse to see vastly different characters “inhabiting the same world”, informs how the film and score presents such characters in Infinity War.
Captain America arrives out of his own Civil War shadows to the most bombastic playing of the Avengers theme heard in the film. Starlord (and friends) arrive to the cool funk of old Earth radio.
Each of their own place, each a “clash” of character, but each part of a larger musical mosaic strung together with some fantastic work by composer Alan Silvestri.
But on top of that, Mr. Silvestri also has the right instinct on when to “go away”.
For the first time in memory, the opening Marvel logo is accompanied not by music of any kind, but by the faint sounds of a distress call. And in the movie’s biggest moment, the one everyone will be talking about, after almost three hours of being scored as a cosmic space opera, the background music goes perfectly, eerily silent; uncomfortable punctuation on the sound heard round the world.
But music is only one part of the story.
The DC Extended Universe has had a number of problems getting started, but one which I think has been underrecognized is fundamental to what makes the MCU so strong. Differences.
Superman vs. Batman (as a concept) is “fun” not because they are both the same (or have the same mother’s name), but because they are different. We don’t want to see Fred Flintstone and George Jetson be identical. We want to see their differences, and the fun and interesting things that spring out of them.
Warner Brothers, by making Superman into Batman in all but name (dour, dark, rainy, aggrieved) took away a large measure of the “fun” of seeing that match-up. By the time Justice League rolled around, it already felt like its characters “belonged” in the same dark, foreboding universe. There was no conflict. Nothing interesting to be mined.
Infinity War by contrast, is nothing but that, contrast. The colors and rock and roll of the cosmic Guardians. The gritty espionage thriller that Captain America always seems to find himself in. The technological, royal, and political turmoil that are now synonymous with Black Panther. Each has their own visual style, and the characters not originally built in that style feel, to some extent, foreign to it. And that’s what makes it work.
Marvel has steered into the “skid” of making it all seem cohesive while still remaining different, and the result is epic imagery in almost every frame: Spaceships, battlefields, other dimensions, other planets. And all with the same “splash page” instincts that punctuated the first two Avengers movies, resulting in 30 seconds of perfection each and every time the audience and the characters react to a new scene. (Thor in the star forge is a personal favorite.)
There has never been anything as large as this, Infinity War says.
And I believe it.
Which brings us to…the “snap”.
Mind. Time. Power. Space. Soul. Reality.
All were necessary to bring the multi-billion dollar enterprise that is the MCU to the place it arrived at to end the Infinity War. A place where multiple fan-favorite characters were wiped off the map never to be seen again (or at least for a year).
A place of loss, informed by a desire to serve these characters, and with the guiding hand of a creative leader willing to overturn some apple carts with the backing of the largest media company the world has ever seen.
Many folks talked about Last Jedi as the successor to Empire Strikes Back this past winter. With the “snap” there is no question as to who the true successor to that title is.
Infinity War is a film that ends with our heroes at their greatest ebb, facing an unknown future with little hope and even less understanding of how to proceed. It is a triumph of storytelling and an absolute masterclass on how a “cinematic universe” should be handled.
The “snap” is why Infinity War will be remembered. It is what folks will talk about all summer, into next year, and beyond.
But it is important to remember what made it possible.
Mind. Time. Power. Space. Soul. Reality.
I won’t tell you that Infinity War is perfect. Some of its more comic scenes run a bit too long for my taste (the writers/directors appear to have fallen just a bit too much in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy), and it is no exploration of the depth of the human experience or anything like that. It is a comic book movie through and through.
But what it sets out to do, a goal which many (like me) thought all but impossible to achieve, it not only accomplishes, it surpasses.
Marvel has built something worthy of its name.
And isn’t that something worth marveling at?