Avengers Infinity War makes no sense – except at the box office

Mega-grossing Avengers movie shows the nerds – or maybe the superfans – have won

Avengers: Infinity War - official trailer.

 

There was no point in writing this column. There is no reason for you to read it. 

All criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is futile. Last week, Avengers Infinity War broke the worldwide record for the highest-grossing opening weekend ever. In Ireland it took 17 times the amount grossed by the film in second place. Seventeen times!!! (Excuse the exclamation points, but we are in a comic-book universe.) Around 83 per cent of tickets bought domestically were for that apocalyptic showdown. The Ba’ath Party would once have been happy with such figures. Meanwhile, Black Panther, way ahead of the 2018 pack with $1.3 billion, sits restlessly at number nine in the all-time charts.

Nonetheless, a few voices have dared to question the Marvel approach. What do we make of the fact that Infinity War makes little or no sense if you haven’t seen the previous 18 films? This is not the case with all Marvel films. The initiate may wonder a little at certain turns in the recent Thor Ragnarok, but that film still functions well as a standalone romp. Black Panther crosses over with companion pictures, but you won’t feel like a complete dope if you haven’t seen Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2. Infinity War, however, will leave most Marvel virgins in a state of bafflement. 

Richard Brody of The New Yorker, a Godard expert in no way averse to more light-hearted romps, got much kickback for wondering why nobody bothered to tell us who these super-things were. As ever, the objections were as much to the headline as to the substance of Brody’s piece. “In Avengers: Infinity War, characters aren’t introduced; they just show up, and their behaviour is entirely defined by the template set for them in other movies,” the magazine’s Twitter account explained.

You can imagine how this went. Many argued this was akin to complaining that you couldn’t understand the last episode of Breaking Bad after tuning in untainted by any previous Walter White action. Somebody else invited Brody to begin his reading of, say, Pride and Prejudice at the penultimate page. How would that work out? Huh? Huh?

Homework

But Avengers Infinity War isn’t a television series or a novel. It is a feature film. To this point, we have expected such things to show some tolerance to those in search of a self-contained story. It is, surely, reasonable, when selecting an evening’s entertainment, not to worry whether you’ve put in the necessary homework over the previous decade and a bit. A film isn’t a late-stage boss in a video game. (Well, maybe the Marvel films are a bit like video games. But that’s an argument for another day.)

Infinity War  is a giant exercise in fan service that defies all traditional criticism

Moreover, it’s not as if television series were always that way. Until relatively recently, most popular shows inclined towards the self-contained episode. The strict serial format was the preserve of soap operas and literary adaptations. While flicking through the channels, nobody much minded if they dropped in halfway through a season of The Rockford Files, Law & Order or Columbo. Ancient shows such as Upstairs, Downstairs did fit themselves to series arcs, but each episode remained a neat self-contained yarn.

Les Charles, a co-creator of the mighty Cheers, which ran from 1982 to 1993, takes some responsibility for altering the climate. Any of that show’s episodes can be comfortably watched in isolation, but, as it progressed, Cheers did take on the quality of an extended comic soap. “We may have been partly responsible,” he said years later. “ You have to wait until you can get the whole thing on DVD and catch up with it. If that blood is on our hands, I feel kind of badly about it. It can be very frustrating.”

Fan aesthetic

The result is to impose a fan aesthetic on all affected culture. The hectoring attitude that demands you read the comic, listen to the podcast and watch all previous episodes before properly appreciating the latest entertainment has made nerds of us all. 

Yes, Charles Dickens published his novels in instalments. True, Marcel Proust – creator of the Marcel Comics Universe – published Á la recherche du temps Perdu in individual novels. But those writers were involved in the composition of works that, once completed, stood as discrete (if weighty) entities.

The more-interconnected films in the Marvel universe are something different. Gathering the majority of the super-people into one, hugely baggy package, Infinity War scarcely has time to tell us a coherent story. It’s a giant exercise in fan service that defies all traditional criticism. If the picture weren’t set to become one of the 10 highest-grossing of all time, one might be tempted to call it militantly exclusionary. The numbers tell us something different. 

Maybe we need to find a new way to talk about these things. 

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