Marvel's Lack Of Conviction
While both of the previous concerns are the commonly-cited issues with individual Marvel movies, it's not where the MCU has most struggled on a grander scale. Everything discussed creates the formula, but that predictability is only enabled by a bigger ethos: Marvel's lack of conviction. They play it safe with such predictability, keeping things within a clear-defined franchise box that is at once comforting and unambitious, to the point the studio has essentially created an artificial ceiling to what they can do.
Most often, we talk about death. Ten years and eighteen movies, yet while plenty of mentors and villains have bit the dirt, the only noteworthy hero to fall in that time is Quicksilver, a character created just so he can be killed. Along the way, the likes of Nick Fury, Pepper Potts, Loki (twice), Groot and Bucky have all "died" only to be brought back, often in the same movie. All of this erodes the sense of any fatal threat, making death expectation something of a fool's speculation. In part, this comes from fans over-theorizing on films - especially ones based on a medium where death it notoriously impermanent - but is still fed by Marvel, who have shrouds of secrecy that usually hide nothing major.
This goes wider and really comes from a reluctance to commit properly to an idea. Despite being a storytelling medium, it often feels like everything in the MCU exists in service to the universe, which means movies often don't have the lasting ramifications or purpose they need to pull off what they're attempting. Take Thor: Ragnarok's destruction of Asgard, which not only suffers heavily from comedy and "fun", but is so abstracted it lacks the sense it matters or lasts. You get this tonally too, with movies often said to be evoking a specific genre yet really only ever providing lipservice (the only real exception is Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a 1970s espionage thriller, and that still cast Robert Redford to cover over the cracks).
It's all rather disheartening, and when applied to characters can be weakening. The consistency of its heroes is Marvel's real ace, allowing them to brush off narrative and timeline problems with ease, but because the Avengers must always return, arc closure is impossible. As great as Tony Stark's journey may be, his flip-flopping on destroying and making more suits across Iron Man 3, Age of Ultron and Civil War is confounding and despite the handwaved explanation in the latter (by way of his fractured relationship with Pepper Potts) feels the product of wider story mandates.
Avengers: Infinity War Show Marvel Can Commit
Avengers: Infinity War effortlessly corrects that. The film obviously has Thanos' finger snap, which in spectacular fashion puts paid to the restrained approach to death and defeat. The heroes lose because they do not - cannot match - the villain. Sure, there are complaints it's somehow lacking in true stakes because we know the vanished heroes are returning - just as we had with everyone before - but that's not the real point; the cliffhanger is intended to provide the villain with victory, removing any illusion of fun and making him more menacing for Avengers 4. For all the context that can be applied, it nevertheless shows Marvel fully committing to a bold idea where story consideration is key.
But to hone in on just the ending is to do a disservice to the rest of Infinity War. The entire movie is driven by a conviction comparable to that of Thanos. That is, to tell a big, unprecedented ensemble sci-fi epic that connects up the characters of the previous 18 movies. It's by design ambitious, but the greatness comes from the handling. It makes a giant CGI foe collecting magic MacGuffins feel thematically weighty and of much greater importance than any description suggests. There's no sense of worry in it being ridiculous, or even of the undertaking being too difficult; Benedict Cumberbatch in a sentient cape giving up a green rock to a mo-cap Josh Brolin is one of the most earnest and moving experiences you'll have in a movie all year.
Avengers: Infinity War gets so much right by itself, but it's far too aware to simply let that be it. It's cleared up plot holes, brought back long-dead characters, pretty much fixed the timeline, and so much more. The Marvel formula remains, yet it's been shown just how far the envelope can be pushed.
- 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