encounterOne of the oddest pieces I read this week about “Avengers: Infinity War” was that it was an example of experimental cinema instead of a blockbuster. I went through a few responses – amusement, bafflement, mild annoyance – and then ultimately shrugged at it. It seemed both too random to focus on and yet random enough to be mildly irritating. The latter because the idea that this tent-pole big-budget film was experimental created a skewed idea of cinema as art, when the very nature of experimental films depend on their risk. “Infinity War” is many things, but risky is unlikely to be one of them. And, yet, I was also amused because “Infinity War” is also a deeply weird film. A film with many plot strands, with many characters after a ten-year build-up. I love a good ensemble piece – Robert Altman’s sprawling “Nashville” is one of my favourite movies, for example. But despite the promotion of the film through its multiple characters, “Infinity War” is not an ensemble vein in that sense. There really is nothing to compare it to, other than to say it is the quintessential Marvel film.
The film centres on multiple Avengers (both official and non-official) in their quest to prevent Thanos, a genocidal, but methodical alien, from getting all six infinity stones, which will give him power to deplete the universe’s population by half to restore balance by ensuring the inhabitants do not outnumber the resources. Notice that my very brief summary focuses on Thanos and not an Avenger. This is not accidental. A notable take on the film argues that Thanos is really protagonist of the film, and not merely the villain. It’s such a perceptive idea, to the point of being inarguable. In a film with more than 70 named characters, there must be some unifying force and the unifying force of the film is their shared desire to prevent Thanos from attaining the infinity stones, which he will use for his mass genocide on the universe. But we don’t like Thanos, and despite the film’s attempts to add nuance to him, we do not particularly care for him, either. (Thanos’ decision to deplete the population rather than expand the resources, for example, seems much more limited and petty than he or the film want to confront.)
This means, that the film is an exercise in waiting to see who turns up (when and where they turn up) as “Infinity War” functions as the cross-over event of the century. And a cross-over not in the sense that these widely disparate persons come together for something with a central focus, but a cross-over in the sense that these wildly disparate persons and their widely disparate worlds are thrown together in a potpourri of cinema that will thrill you if you’re a Marvel fan, and probably leave you less exuberant if you’re not. There at least four to six different films happening in different parts of the universe and the film shifts in tone and form to match each of them. There’s a “Guardians of Galaxy”-type one which progresses with a sort of easy, jovial rhythm to mark its ragtag nature of heroism; there is an “Iron Man” film dovetailed with a “Spiderman” with the older hero hiding his congeniality behind his quips, and the younger one desperate to show he belongs; there is a “Thor” film which benefits from the fact that Thor is the only hero to have anything resembling a narrative arc as he seeks vengeance for two great losses he suffers in the film’s opening and there are a few others thrown in of less narrative value. And, like any cross-over event, “Infinity War” means to keep you hooked by wondering who will appear next. The anticipation is the thrill.
Last week, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody mined a pseudo-controversy when he complained that the characters in the film showed up without any sort of filmic or narrative explanation for them. The way the characters existed in the film, of course, depended on knowledge of them before the film. Many fans and even critics scoffed at his temerity, arguing that Brody was deliberately misunderstanding the developments of sequels as art – of course “Infinity War” does not take time to establish stakes which the 18 Marvel films before have been establishing. Brody is on to something, but the issue with the Avengers is not necessarily that the characters are not introduced. Even for someone unfamiliar with the all previous Marvel entries, this film very clearly establishes who to root for, who to root against and how to navigate between those two worlds. The more pervasive issue is that all the narrative stakes for the heroic characters in the film depend on material that exists outside of the film. All of them. But does this matter at this point? It did not for the audience around me who cheered at the appearance of at least seven characters, just for showing up.
If you like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the majority of persons flocking to see these films do, you will like “Infinity War” for the way it rewards and appreciates you, its specific audience. In this way, even the best critical review of the film becomes diminished because the film does not function in any way as material for criticism. The phrase “Rorschach test” gets tossed around too often when it comes to art but “Infinity War” is definitely that in immeasurable ways. Anyone who sees the film will have some personal, completely subjective relationship with it before the credits roll. I doubt that there is anyone who will see the film, at least in its first weekend, who is not familiar with the mythology or lore behind at least ONE major character. The film rewards your attention and it rewards your commitment by providing you with in-jokes, and even if you are not all caught up on the knowledge, it rewards you for your interest. The film, then, is very much a competently put together choose-your-own-experience-adventure.
The true end of the film is a post-credit sequence, a staple of the Marvel universe, which sets up events for a future film. Anyone who has googled “Marvel” in the last ten months knows a “Captain Marvel” movie is on the horizon, so the revelation of her insignia as the last shot elicited knowing cheers from the audience around me of the “I knew it!” variety. While shuffling out of cinema at the end of the film, I overheard two patrons discussing the earlier, pre-credits, ending which is marked with an occasion of multiple deaths that has elicited both gasps and eye-rolls. But these two fans were not discussing the potential “Captain Marvel” film or even the actual elegiac ending with any note of sadness or uncertainty. Rather, they were excitedly comparing notes as to how accurate their predictions had been, and making future projections for how the future films would “fix” the dilemmas it ended on.
Their response to, and unbridled enjoyment of, the film was rooted in their receiving it not as realistic in any degree, but as a game to be played and enjoyed. And it occurred to me perhaps that this is what persons get out of the Marvel films. They are not looking for a complete world. They are looking for something which rewards their commitment, a film that you can come to years later and wrap yourself in like a familiar blanket. It’s the comfort that makes television so popular, and saying Marvel is leaning into this serialised mode that’s familiar for television is not a knock on the film’s quality but an awareness of how it has created a call-and-response relationship with audiences. Last year I wrote about the way that Marvel films, and their ilk, have projected a world of constant anticipation – never giving anything like closure, always projecting forward as to what will come next, always changing the rules. When “Black Panther” opened a few months ago, flooding the cinema with patrons, many in Guyana pointed to the new ground for black fantasy as the reasons for the success. But as I squeezed into my seat in an almost uncomfortably packed cinema, I realised it was not about the Afrocentric entry, it was about Marvel. They are doing something to elicit enthusiasm and support where the traditional narrative is that film is losing the battle to other art forms. Its anticipatory thrills, suggesting new outcomes even as we watch the now, is a genius move. The very central narrative arc depends on it. In a moment so ridiculous even I smiled, Thor regains the eye he lost in his last film.
In the film’s two most emotional scenes two characters prepare for death. You’ll know them when you see them. In both cases, we are not meant to – or allowed to – dwell on the idea of mourning because the film is projecting what will come afterwards, deliberately. Anticipation works as a sensory experience in the cinema, but it does not really sustain for long when the lights go up. And, in many ways, this is peak Marvel. It’s a case where even as the film’s directors (the Russo brothers) have urged fans to see tragedies at the end of the film as finite and irreversible, any casual assessment of Marvel films lined up for the next five years tells us which characters we should expect to see again making their varying fates at the end of the film markedly hollow, but also markedly comforting. Your response will vary depending on your appreciation for the Universe. And, if you are a fan of Marvel, wouldn’t the comforting likelihood that tragedies are only temporary in this world be especially soothing in these uncertain times?
Avengers: Infinity War is now showing at cinemas in Guyana.