Marvel's Comedy Problem Is Really About "Fun"
But what's a good villain if they can't truly be menacing? Early on in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the eponymous android presents his chilling view on life to the Maximoff twins: "Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers." And then he fumbles. "People create... smaller people? 'Children.'" He laughs, adding "I lost the word, there." before jumping back into his speech. It's a jarring moment that challenges our understanding of the character - he's connected to the internet and all of human knowledge, yet doesn't know the word "children" - and undermines the threat he poses going forward.
This type of almost self-deprication was always part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Iron Man's improv-heavy production creating some incisive comedy, but didn't take off fully until Joss Whedon entered. He packed The Avengers full of quips that mostly worked in grounding what was then a highly-ambitious team-up, but over Phase 2 it became the norm and in the hands of less skilled screenwriters and directors more generic, hampering films like Thor: The Dark World and the entire character of Ultron. And while Marvel's addressed many of its formula elements in Phase 3, this aspect has only got worse, from the Cloak of Levitation undercutting Doctor Strange's hero moment to just about every emotional scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 forcing in a cheap yuk. Humor has a place - Thor: Ragnarok, for better or ill, is a straight-up comedy - but far too often jokes are misplaced (even in the more grounded and serious Black Panther).
However, the talk of comedy and it undermining scenes is really just systemic of a bigger problem. "Fun" is the real enemy. It's the most common word typically used when describing new MCU entries, present in nearly every review you can read. The problem is that "fun" used on such a mass scale is scant praise; it's at best diverting, an admission that a film is moderately enjoyable but not enough to describe as actually "entertaining" or even "good". Really, it's the best you can hope for when anything more is followed up by a gag; bar Civil War and Black Panther, every Phase 3 has fallen into this trap, giving the sense that Marvel is mostly content providing a rather superficial action adventure that doesn't go much further.
Avengers: Infinity War Is Perfectly Balanced
Fun was a key fear with Avengers: Infinity War: how can it balance the now-inherent comedy and the bigger stakes? The trepidation was doubled by the cast, with the Guardians and Avengers bringing their own uniquely comedic tones that didn't immediately gel. When Thanos was shown in the trailer saying "Fun isn't something one considers when balancing the universe, but this does put a smile on my face", it looked like we were in for another "fun" time.
Thankfully, in the finished film, everything is - as would impress Thanos - perfectly balanced. Grand, universe-threatening beats sit right alongside quippy meetings without clash. The individual sequences set in New York, Space, Edinburgh, Wakanda and beyond each intercut between each other mostly well - the only exception being staunch traditionalist Okoye wishing she could have a Starbucks a minute after Gamora's death - and when characters collide it's played realistically; Tony Stark even gets an exasperated long take at the Guardians, almost acknowledgement on Marvel's part at how ridiculous things can be.
Crucially, emotion is allowed to happen unincumbered. Heart-wrenching beats, especially those relating to Thanos, play out without any attempt to add levity. The Soul Stone sequence is slow and torturous, and after Doctor Strange gives up the Time Stone it's reality, not gags, that come crashing down. That "fun" line doesn't even make the cut. This means deaths, sacrifices and personal anguish have the required gravitas, leaving audiences shook, and also make the moments of levity stronger as they're sparser and better integrated as a result.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019