Almost 10 years ago, “Iron Man” was met with great critical and commercial success. The film ended with the now well-known “post-credits sequence,” in which an eyepatch-wearing Samuel L. Jackson (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”) arrived on the scene and mentioned something called the “Avengers Initiative.” The rest is history. Ten years and 18 movies later, we are now one month away from “Avengers: Infinity War,” the ostensible culmination of the sprawling superhero saga and the capstone to all that has come before. I don’t particularly care for these Marvel movies, but I am hopeful about “Infinity War.”
I have long argued in this column that ending defines meaning. For a story to have a point, it has to have an end. Without an ending, a story isn’t a story at all, but merely a continuous series of events that goes on and on and on. Even the most elementary of storytellers could tell you that everything has an arc, a beginning, middle and end. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), that idea of smashing different franchises together into one super franchise, in its quest to continue expanding ad nauseam, has utterly failed in its attempts to tell an overall story. “Infinity War” is its final chance.
In broad strokes, it would be easy to say that the MCU has told a story. In the films leading up to “The Avengers,” we saw The Avengers form. In “Captain America: Civil War,” we saw them fall apart. And now, in “Infinity War,” we will see them come back together to fight Thanos, the evil alien who is after all of the MacGuffins from previous films which, when collected, can be combined into the ultimate MacGuffin that he will use to take over the universe. That’s the story. But it hasn’t been told. Or at least, not told well. Oh sure, the events have happened, more or less. But the fatal flaw of the MCU has long been that the idea is much cooler than its actual execution.
Almost every single film in the series begins with the status quo and ends with the status quo. A major character has never died. Over the course of almost 20 movies, we have seen the Earth be saved from complete destruction almost 20 times. Never once has any of it seemed to mean much of anything. The story of a team coming together, falling apart and having to come back together again is a classic one and one that should not have been that hard to tell. But the problem is that the MCU has worked almost entirely in bullet points, without the connective tissue needed for such a story to work. At the end of the original “Avengers” movie from 2012, the heroes all go their separate ways after fighting one battle together and meeting each other. At the beginning of 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the group is now best friends that have clearly been working together for months or even years. Two of them are suddenly in a previously never-mentioned relationship. Tensions exist that were nowhere to be found in the original. The Avengers are now a family, but we never got to see them become one. The films elided the part where the characters actually got to know each other. The audience is left to assume that there were a bunch of adventures off-screen in which the characters developed. It doesn’t work.
Something similar happened with “Civil War.” What on paper is the story of our heroes disagreeing about whether or not superheroes should have to be held accountable by the government in actuality turned out to just be a conflict about whether or not Iron Man can get over the fact that Captain America’s buddy Bucky Barnes killed his mom (never mind the fact that Bucky did it while under mind control, because the film never seems to care about it). The central conflict of hero versus hero, of a family torn apart by a fundamental political disagreement, is sidestepped in favor of a story that boils down to miscommunication. “Civil War” wanted to be the dark middle chapter of the franchise, the “Empire Strikes Back” of the saga so to speak. But it misses its chance by both undercooking the central conflict and leaving its heroes in a pretty good place with each other at the end. No one dies. No one is truly hurt. The closest thing we get is Don Cheadle’s War Machine breaking his legs. He’s up and walking again by the end of the movie. You want to come out of this, a film called “Civil War,” feeling that there is no way the Avengers will be able to handle what is coming to them. In the end, you get the sense everything will be just fine.
And now comes Thanos. The big baddie to end all big baddies. The thing that all of this has been building towards. Or has it been? You’ll notice Thanos has barely been mentioned thus far in this article. That’s only one or two times fewer than he’s appeared in all 18 films. J.K. Rowling did a better job building up Voldemort as the ultimate villain in the pages of her first Harry Potter book than Marvel has done in 18 feature-length films. What does Thanos want? Where does he come from? Who in fact is he? If you haven’t read a ton of comic books, it’s doubtful that you have any idea. Has he had any real impact on any of the events that have come before? If he has, it hasn’t been made clear. And if all he wants is to take over the universe using a magic power MacGuffin, what makes him more dangerous or more threatening than the countless villains we’ve seen before who wanted to do the exact same thing? In the end, despite all of the bluster and popular cheer, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has operated far too much like a comic book, and not enough like a film series.
I said at the beginning of this piece that I had hope for “Infinity War.” I do. I’m not naïve enough to think that there won’t be more MCU films after this. But many of the original actor contracts expire with this film and it seems this is the closest thing to an ending we will ever get. It’s the series’ final chance to prove that it is more than just a giant advertisement for toys and comic books. It’s the final shot for the series to decide to actually be about something. For it to give the characters arcs that last, for Tony Stark to finally make the ultimate sacrifice, for Captain America to decide what it truly means to be a symbol, for The Hulk to come to grips with his affliction, for Hawkeye to do something, anything, this is the last chance. Stick the landing, and you can make it all worthwhile. The Ant-Mans and Doctor Stranges and forgettable Thor movies and rebooted Spider-Man — it can all be made to have lead to something great, like how the original pre-Avengers movies were raised up by the quality of what they led to. It isn’t too late for the MCU to prove that it’s actually telling a story, rather than just trying to print money. The alternative is that “Infinity War” will turn out to merely be the lead-in to “Avengers: Ultimate War” or “Avengers: Eternal Battle” and then we will get three more “Iron Mans” and six more “Thors” and 17 “Black Panther” spin-offs and on and on it will go forever and ever and ever. On April 27th, we will have reached “Infinity.” Please just for once, let us not go beyond.