One of the reasons that Captain America: Civil War managed to dazzle was the sheer breadth and depth of its cast. Twelve superheroes divided along a central fault line and duked it out, meaning that all but three of the main characters – not including the Guardians of the Galaxy, that is – from the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were present and accounted for. (Of the three MIA heroes, we’re getting two – Thor and the Hulk – later on this year, in Thor: Ragnarok, and the final one, the Wasp, next summer, in Ant-Man and the Wasp.)
However, the sheer amount of individuals featured in the two-and-a-half-hour film was also something of a detraction; having such a huge cast all crammed into such a short runtime resulted in some characters barely getting any screen time in Civil War, and many of them getting shortchanged to one degree or another in the overarching narrative. While neither of these points is necessarily considered to be a fatal flaw of the movie, they do illustrate the difficulties of juggling so many protagonists in a single MCU film.
Civil War, of course, is just a short trial run of what Avengers: Infinity War is going to be next year. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have joked that the film is going to feature some 67 characters, but the thing is that, when everything is said and done, that may not be quite as much of an exaggeration as it first appears to be. The challenges will be immense, and while the possible rewards are, as well, so too is the possibility of failure with Infinity War.
This then leaves us with just one simple question: is Infinity War’s lineup too crowded?
Just Who’s in the Movie, Anyway?
Before we can dive into any sort of hypothetical answer – “hypothetical” because we don’t yet have any concrete information on the movie’s story, let alone a full accounting of its cast – we’ll need to first take stock of just how many characters have already been confirmed to be in the next Avengers installment. Here it is, in easy-to-read list format (which is presented in alphabetical order, to boot!):
- Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)
- Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
- Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
- Captain America (Chris Evans)
- Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)
- Drax (Dave Bautista)
- Gamora (Zoe Saldana)
- Groot (Vin Diesel)
- Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
- The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)
- Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)
- Mantis (Pom Klementieff)
- Nebula (Karen Gillan)
- Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper)
- Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)
- Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
- Star-Lord (Chris Pratt)
- Thanos (Josh Brolin)
- Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
- Vision (Paul Bettany)
- The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)
- Wong (Benedict Wong)
That’s 22 characters right there, which doesn’t include the few that we’re pretty sure will also be making an appearance (Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury among them), the several that are rumored (such as Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts), and the brand-new faces (which may or may not include Eitri, who may or may not be played by Peter Dinklage).
Yes, Let’s Thin the Marvel Herd
With at least a few dozen characters making an appearance to some degree or another, there’s just no possible way that the Russos – or any filmmaker, for that matter – can hammer them all into a cohesive story; either Infinity War will turn into a check-the-next-item-on-the-list exercise, or it will function as a normal Marvel outing that just so happens to feature big-name individuals in the background, standing around with little to say, instead of the typical extras.
Either scenario is unflattering. The first is what many routinely criticize Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice of being, with the suits at Warner Bros. working double-time to squeeze every last reference to future DC films in there, while the second would grossly undervalue the stunt nature of the crossover event – and most likely frustrate or otherwise disappoint many viewers in the process. Since it has already been announced that many of the characters may not actually share scenes together – Infinity War will consist of several different storylines edited together under the same name – the latter seems much more likely, at least at this still-early juncture.
There’s actually another, even-more-likely possibility floating around here, as well. Let’s return to Captain America: Civil War to use as yet another example: Hawkeye receives a small part in the film, just enough to shine but nowhere near enough to explain why he has abruptly ended his recent retirement and walked away from his family, including his infant. The audience can obviously surmise that Clint Barton is risking it all for a cause that he feels is bigger than any single family, even his own, but if enough of these fill-in-the-blank moments of characterization make it in, the final product will suffer for it.
No, It’s Exactly What It Needs to Be
There’s a not-small line of logic leading into the third Avengers, one that is rather rock-solid and hard to ignore, regardless of its implications: in order for Infinity War to be exactly what it needs to be – the grand apotheosis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the capstone to 18 previous films – it must collect all the characters, plot points, and thematic motifs from all its predecessors and put them under the same narrative roof. To do otherwise would be like composing a season finale for a television series and only including half the cast or a fraction of that year’s various storylines.
In this context, how, exactly, each of the characters is handled – or whether most of them will ever even meet one another – is ancillary, at best. And this, in turn, will require our perceptions of films to similarly change, as well; this is less a movie and more a true sliver of a shared cinematic universe. The transition in our cultural understanding will be similar to when television shows went from being purely episodic (say, the original Star Trek) to fully serialized (Westworld) – not many individuals are left complaining that the latest installment of an HBO or Netflix series is insufficiently complete in and of itself and, therefore, poorly constructed.
And, even, a rather compelling argument can be made that Marvel Studios isn’t including enough of the other MCU denizens in the latest Avengers. What about Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the rest of his team from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or the Defenders from the Netflix corner of the meta-franchise, or the soon-to-arrive Cloak and Dagger over on Freeform? There are still short films and webisode series to consider, to boot – if Marvel is going all-in on a grand climax to the MCU as we know it thus far, then it may as well go all the way in.