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A photo of the Milky Way, where presumably at least some of the cosmic Marvel battle for the ‘infinity stones’ takes place. (Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash.)

The manipulative storytelling of ‘The Avengers: Infinity War’

How formulaic scenes, jokes, and a stunning finish distract from the blockbuster’s narrative deficiencies

So it has come to this. The conclusion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story that began with Afghan militants abducting the military industrialist Tony Stark ends with a two–part mega–finale across time, space, and Norse–inspired dimensions. Long criticized for a ‘lack of stakes,’ the Marvel movies have finally become bold, dark, and imbued with emotional resonance.

That’s at least what Marvel wants you to believe, and what some critics are saying.

And yet—I’m not so sure about that.

I think the marketing ploy that this is the first Avengers movie with “real stakes” deserves serious reexamination.

I was interested in The Avengers: Infinity War to see what lay in store for Iron Man and Cap, but also for the obvious scale of the enterprise. Here was a blockbuster with about 25 ‘main’ characters, and a great deal more ‘minor’ characters, who might have been considered major players in any other context. Since the D.C. universe’s competing Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad struggled to field four and nine ‘superpeople,’ respectively, I was curious how Marvel’s screenwriters would handle the unenviable task set before them. After all, as the eye-rolling Internet meme goes, “Infinity War is the most ambitious crossover event in history.”

As far as Marvel movies go, there was a lot to like in Infinity War—it was still far and away superior to most of the recent D.C. fare—and it hung together relatively well, given the grandiose narrative ambition—perhaps even making more sense as a cohesive movie than The Last Jedi ever did.

But while I watched Infinity War, I couldn’t help but notice that the events that were logical in the moment were resting on shaky foundations, like an elaborate house of cards perched on the San Andreas fault.

Like in some of my other reviews, I don’t mean to antagonize the story creators, such as directors Joe and Anthony Russo—I only intend to observe the strengths and weaknesses of their storytelling decisions.

My chief observation is this: namely, Infinity War quite necessarily relies on the character work of earlier entries, and when the screenplay hits a narrative roadblock, it resorts to what I call the ‘formula of surprises’ to advance the action—and actively prevent the audience from analyzing too closely the flimsy architecture of the story.

Let me explain.

Many spoilers ahead, so be forewarned.

Trailer for ‘The Avengers: Infinity War.’

Story beats, not arcs

Several long-running storylines come to a head in Infinity War, but they’re more like check-ins than full-fledged ‘arcs.’

Some of these arcs are as follows: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) balances his desire for settling down with the dawning realization that Thanos is the enemy he’s long been preparing for. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) realizes his return to Earth after a long self-imposed exile in space. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) grapples with the death of Loki, the annihilation of the Asgardian refugees he worked so hard to save in Ragnarok, and even humorously discusses these struggles with the Guardians of the Galaxy, a gag that mocks the bloody royal politics for what they are, the plot of a Greek (Norse?) tragedy/soap opera.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) realizes his ambition to become an Avenger. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) opens Wakanda up to the world, just not in the way he or Okoye (Danai Gurira) expected (BP: “What did you imagine?” Okoye: “The Olympics, maybe even a Starbucks.”)

As for Captain America (Chris Evans) — well, he has a beard now. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, has bleached her hair. The list goes on and on, and on!

There’s so little time for a deeper exploration of these plot-beats on these Marvel characters’ long-running trajectories that the movie expects us to fill in the gaps ourselves—something, of course, that some art-house directors do all the time, but typically more adroitly.

As Alex Abad-Santos of Vox intoned in his review of Infinity War:

“Most of the Marvel superheroes appearing in Infinity War, particularly Black Panther and Captain America, are compressed, concentrated versions of themselves… Instead of showing us why these characters are so beloved, the Russo brothers employ a Marvel shorthand of sorts, relying on past movies to do most of the work. And that’s not an unreasonable instinct: Captain America’s first onscreen return in Civil War is awe-inspiring in large part because he’s the Captain America who’s lived in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the past seven years.”

The truncated story beats are forgivable in that to attempt such a movie with full-fledged character arcs is in all likelihood impossible. Instead, the film focuses on gradually unfurling Thanos’ motivations and his relationship with Gamora. Like a mystery story in which the detective is an unchanging archetype (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe)—the superheroes, by this point, are mostly crystallized within a particular mode of character traits, with little room for further evolution. “We’re in the endgame now,” Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) declares in the movie, as if to emphasize this point.

Thanos, by contrast, is an unknown quantity at the beginning, and a very-much-known quantity by the end. On a macro-level, the shorthand vision of the heroes and the mystery-structure of the villain is a solid strategy for the structure of Infinity War. When we get down to each component scene, however, the precariousness of the whole thing is revealed.

The formula of surprises

While I watched Infinity War, I quickly picked up an over-reliance on a particular scene structure. Whether it was in The Village, Scotland, outer space, or Wakanda—the structure was usually the same. A small group of heroes would banter for a few minutes, and then one of Thanos’ curiously–elven warriors would launch a surprise attack.

As A. O. Scott of The New York Times articulated in his Infinity War review:

“People talk for a while, sprinkling jokes and morsels of personality into the heavy dough of exposition. Then they fight in the usual way, by throwing giant objects (and one another) and shooting waves of color from their hands.”

This scene structure was repeated several times over the course of Infinity War’s whopping 149-minute runtime. As soon as the audience knew enough information to understand what would come next, a CGI brawl would break out to prevent the viewer from deeply considering the content of the exposition—whether it all, in fact, added up.

But the distractions didn’t just come from the ambushes of Thanos’ henchmen. It came from a strategy of surprises and jokes that made you forget that what you were watching really didn’t make that much sense.

When Red Skull makes his surprise cameo—the audience in my theater gasped. Personally, I was thrilled—finally, the Red Skull’s mysterious death in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) had an end point; his appearance enhanced a kind of rote Faustian-bargain scene into a storytelling payoff we’ve been waiting 7 years for. But then I realized that I was forgetting the main thrust of the scene—Thanos and Gamora’s relationship. The same went for Peter Dinklage’s ironic cameo as a gigantic dwarf, as well as Spider-Man’s Aliens joke in his rescue of Dr. Strange. In these cases, I was so impressed by the gags that, for brief moments, I was distracted from the main story.

Intentional or otherwise, these revelations keep the story moving by opening up new questions and directions that lead you further away from plot points that might seem too convenient—right off the bat, Thor knew exactly the kind of weapon that would be able to kill Thanos? What is the point of the soul stone’s mystery location if it’s just another random planet in a movie filled with them?

And though Infinity War is reliant on this formula of surprises, it is also reliant on fundamental multi-plot blockbuster structure—the Star Wars set-piece.

‘Star Wars’ set–piece structure

You’ve seen it before. To defeat a villain’s ambition, one group of characters sets about doing one thing, while another group of characters tries to accomplish another thing, and a third group of characters attempts yet another thing.

While not totally originating with the original Star Wars films (it’s seen a lot in heist movies), the space saga certainly popularized a cinematic narrative device in which various groups of heroes simultaneously attack a different component of a problem, the success of each scheme knocking over dominoes that each in turn contribute to defeating the villain. This has been done most recently and successfully with the final act of Rogue One, in which a group of Star Wars rebels engage in different fronts—land, air, and within the Imperial base—to find and transmit the Death Star plans.

Knowing that it cannot possibly have all the characters in the same room without straining credulity (imagine all 25 characters listening to each hero talk in turn, like some sort of Quaker meeting house), Infinity War does what is necessary and splits the groups up. Thor’s rescue divides the Guardians into two groups, and the remaining Guardians join forces with Iron Man/Dr. Strange/Spider-Man. Vision/Scarlet Witch follow Cap and the former New Avengers to Wakanda. Thanos takes Gamora (and takes care of Gamora).

This makes the finale a toggling between the giant Wakanda battle, Thor’s ‘axe-crafting-project,’ and the battle between ‘Tony’s space gang’ and Thanos. The fact that the Wakanda battle borrows more than a little imagery from Star Wars: Episode I makes the influence all the more clear.

Each quest has to finish for another to be able to finish, like clockwork. In a typical heist/Star Wars set-piece — each individual action sequence informs and suspends the other.

But in this case, the jumping back-and-forth seems to have a different purpose—either to distract from the banal action of a scene, by jumping to another scene—or to build suspense, an effort that eventually backfires.

In fact, I think, after a point, the juggling between Thor’s axe-making, Wakanda, and the Iron Man contingent facing Thanos somewhat undermines the suspense. When Thor arrives in Wakanda and uses his new axe and lightning powers, it seemed like the Wakanda battle should be over. Instead, it continues—and Thor’s arrival ends up not really having an impact on the battle at all. After a while, the battle feels boring — while Tony is in peril, I don’t really care to see Bruce Banner fight a giant orc.

Still, the sum of all these Star Wars-esque set-pieces was exciting to watch in that most of the component quests seemed to work out—until they failed, in devastating fashion. And that disquieting climax is the key to the film’s final sleight of hand.

Sweeping conclusion that quashes questions

In a conclusion that will feel surprising to anyone but an avid watcher of HBO’s dramatic series The Leftovers—Thanos snaps his fingers and half of the universe’s population vanishes.

(In The Leftovers, 2% of the world population suddenly, inexplicably vanishes and leaves survivors with various personal crises. Personally, I would love to see a version of Infinity War II in which Iron Man, Cap, Thor, Hulk, and Black Widow move to a town in Texas miraculously unaffected by the tragedy and grapple with the traumas of their post-Infinity War lives.)

Thanos’ horrifying act was effective in the moment — in the the theater I attended, the greater audience gasped. A few people behind me started crying.

Story-wise, the outcome of Thanos’ victory is two-fold. One, it eliminates all the newer Avengers, and left the core cast intact. Two, it stuns the audience in this sweeping annihilation, a fade-to-black so sudden that the audience can’t really question what just happened. For a franchise that has only so far killed off villains, mentors, and, well—Quicksilver—the decimation of the Avengers’ ranks seems like a major statement.

But Black Panther, Spider-Man, and most of the Guardians can’t stay dead for long (Spider-Man and the Guardians have sequels on the wayand Black Panther should get a sequel eventually). And so the film’s epic ending already feels like a false twist of the arm rendered to halt the juggernaut of half-baked action sequences with an immense tragedy—and thus gives the film a false sense of permanent dramatic weight.

Similar to the effect of Red Skull’s appearance, Thanos’ victory is the ultimate surprise, perfectly designed to distract from the movie’s tedious middle sections. It causes the audience to ask a very different question—namely, what will happen next?

The right movie for our time?

Screenwriting quibbles aside, The Avengers: Infinity War does do something right, and it’s in watching our heroes powerless to stop the unstoppable advance of Thanos’ grisly victory.

Despite our expectation that the heroes will come up with a plan and prevent catastrophe, the villain manages to repeatedly brush off their challenges, and does so with confidence and assurance. That’s where The Avengers reaches into something fundamental about the cultural moment. Thanos’ invincibility, despite his moral crimes, reflects a certain political reality, where certain corrupt leaders in America remain untrammeled by legions of scandals. (At the very least, Thanos is a little self-aware of the emptiness of his achievement.)

The as-of-yet untitled follow-up to The Avengers: Infinity War arrives in May 2019, after the midterm elections. The question of whether voters can start erasing the real-life Thanos’ victories is still a cliffhanger.