Ten years. That should be long enough, right? Ten years should be long enough for everybody working in the world of film criticism (and those hopefuls filling Film Twitter with their hottest of takes) to get used to what Marvel Studios is doing with their Cinematic Universe, right? I mean, there are critics out there whose careers began well after Marvel started laying the groundwork for its universe, so it isn’t like they’re having to adjust to this stuff.
Fan Twitter got upset with Richard Brody’s dismissive New Yorker review of Infinity War (weirdly the review reads like he really liked the movie but doesn’t know how to cop to that fact). As always on Twitter people overreacted, but I think Brody’s review offers a good look at just how hollow the “these movies are ads for other movies” attitude is.
Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” presume that viewers have seen all the preceding films in the Marvel series but, worse, it presumes that they’ve thought about them afterward.
And for those who haven’t, there’s always streaming: “Avengers: Infinity War” may be the first movie that functions as a full-length ad for the binge-watching of a virtual series, whose episodes, having been released one by one in theatres over the course of many years, are now simultaneously and instantly available to be streamed.
What Brody calls ‘a full-length ad’ I call ‘a film requiring context.’ What Marvel did with Infinity War is almost unprecedented in mainstream cinema – it released a movie that basically says “There are no casuals” and just assumes their huge blockbuster will be consumed by the people who have the context to understand it. They’ve entered the equivalent of the phase of modern comic book storytelling wherein nobody bothers to catch readers up on events – either you know what the metal in Wolverine’s body is or you don’t, and the current stories simply don’t have an interest in explaining it.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been mainstream movies released that are incomprehensible or not audience friendly (moviegoers seeing Dune on initial release were handed pamphlets that translated key language in the movie), but I’m not sure that there has been one where the full weight of context exists so completely outside the movie itself. There’s literally no way to watch this film first and have a reasonable understanding of it, even if you’re aware of cultural mainstays like Spider-Man.
This isn’t an advertisement. Marvel doesn’t need to advertise. They don’t think you’re coming to Infinity War without some background in these movies. They don’t think this is anyone’s first Marvel film. This is a new form of cinematic storytelling. It’s certainly not a new form of storytelling – longform stories and shared universes go back millennia, and are the basis for most religious epics (forget the usual Greek myth comparison, go check out the Mahabharata and Ramayana) – but it’s new in cinema in this way. We’ve had continuing stories and we’ve even had shared universes before (see: Jackie Brown and Out of Sight), but never at this level. And as we all wring our hands about the death of cinema and how streaming is encroaching on our beloved artform, Marvel Studios has figured out a way to bring people to the movie theater, and in huge numbers. Infinity War is going to be an all-timer, which is doubly impressive when you realize Black Panther, one of the most successful movies of all time, is still playing in theaters. Marvel has two all-time successes in theaters at once.
This isn’t to say that you have to like this stuff. But to pretend like the ‘this movie is an ad for other movies’ take is interesting or new or says anything is foolish. These movies aren’t ads for each other, they’re bricks in an edifice. They’re chapters in a larger story. They’re serialized fiction spread across multiple titles. The way they weave in and out of each other isn’t some cash-grabbing marketing thing, it’s the whole premise. It’s what we want. To misunderstand this when Iron Man opened the door for The Avengers in 2008 was one thing, but to misunderstand this in 2018, after Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther both made excellent use of the interwoven nature of the MCU to tell stories that could not be told in traditional franchise formats (Thor never met Hulk in his own franchise, Black Panther has his origin and character established in another movie, allowing his supporting cast to shine), is willful ignorance.
Infinity War is the height of it all, and anyone complaining about needing to see 18 previous movies is like someone complaining there’s too much ice cream in their sundae. Guys, this is what the people are here for, and frankly any criticism of these films that doesn’t take this into account is wasted effort. It’s like going to a punk show and complaining that the band is loud – my man, that’s the point. Again, you don’t have to like it, but you probably should acknowledge they’re doing the thing they said they were going to do.
Brody has another complaint that feels similarly out of date and, what’s worse, snobby.
It comes off not even as a single drama, as a self-contained and internally structured narrative, but, rather, as a big-screen, two-and-a-half-hour variant on a single episode in a television series. “Avengers: Infinity War” would make little sense in the absence of its pack of predecessors. Its characters aren’t introduced; they just show up, and their behavior is entirely defined by the template set for them in other movies.
Again, feature, not bug. This attitude is a proscriptive look at cinema, one that defines it by a truly limited set of rules. Yes, historically motion pictures have been largely self-contained, but why is that part of what makes a movie a movie? As we walk into a new era of filmmaking and film distribution we’re going to have to re-examine our existing definitions of what cinema is, but I think we can all agree that getting hung up on whether or not cinema can be episodic is pointless.
Brody is coming at Infinity War from the point of view of the 20th century, where movies were prestigious and self-contained and TV was low and episodic (although frankly TV was super self-contained for most of the 20th century. I think the old idea of serialized TV being bad comes exclusively from the fact that soap operas were the only examples of serialized TV. There’s a whole sexist aspect to that attitude, but who has the time). That isn’t how audiences interact with their entertainment anymore; now people are willing to expend the (minimal, frankly) mental energy required to maintain an interest in longform and serialized stories, and they’re willing to do it in any medium.
I don’t even see what’s bad about this. Again, it isn’t like Infinity War was promoted as anything but the culmination of ten years of movies. There’s something perverse about taking a film to task for accomplishing its own stated goals; this is like watching an experimental feature and complaining about its lack of narrative. Somehow I suspect Brody (and other critics who complain about the interconnectedness of the MCU) could meet that film on its own terms.
Once you accept what Marvel is doing many of the other complaints begin to fall away. This is a serialized story about these characters, so yes, we can expect most of them to survive from film to film. It’s as if we decided that Game of Thrones is the only acceptable standard for serialized stories, and that all characters must be realistically up for execution at any moment. I wrote about this in my Infinity War review, but too many critics are unwilling to accept that the stakes in a shared universe/serialized story are not physical/mortal stakes but rather emotional stakes. Once you accept that this is the nature of all serialized storytelling you can actually relax a little and get what the films are giving you.
I get it, this style of storytelling isn’t to everybody’s taste. That’s perfectly okay. But ten years in complaints about it are starting to take on the same tired weirdness (although with way less racism) of people who still say hip hop isn’t ‘real music,’ forty years after the form started. It’s okay that you don’t like hip hop! But if you’re still saying in 2018 that music needs to have live guitars to be music, you’re making an argument that is woefully outdated. You sound like the classical music guy still fuming at Elvis.
The final reason why it’s foolish to keep complaining about the fact that a movie like Infinity War requires 18 previous movies to work is that it is, simply, working. These movies are making increasingly more money at the box office, reversing all trends on sequels. What’s more, these movies are centers of the cultural moment when they’re released. Marvel has created a thing that transcends the fractured niche nature of our pop culture and that unites audiences from every segment of the old demographic pie. Everybody goes to these movies. Everybody knows these characters, even people who don’t go to these movies. This is a mythology that is resonating with a huge swath of the population. That’s not a value judgment – lots of bad things are also culturally centered and make a lot of money- but rather a rebuke to the way all of these complaints are couched in terms of the movies demanding too much of the audience. That always reads like concern trolling to me – nobody but critics are out here complaining that it requires catch up to enjoy the new Marvel movie (it reminds me of TV critics complaining about Peak TV, something no human who just watches TV for fun would ever complain about. “We have too many options!” is a strange rallying cry). Brody and other film critics wouldn’t complain that season six, episode four of Mad Men is inscrutable if you’ve missed the previous five seasons.
(And by the way, Mad Men is probably the best corollary to what Marvel is doing – not in quality terms, but in terms of creating a longform narrative wherein each episode is fundamentally separate (Mad Men almost never had cliffhangers, and most episodes are set weeks apart from one another) but are part of a larger narrative tapestry, and which expected viewers to keep up with characters, relationships and attitudes, saying nothing of the way the show expected viewers to bring in the context of the 1960s from outside the show.)
It’s worth noting that I do agree with Brody on at least one Infinity War critique – the movie is actually two acts of a full film, and not a full film itself. Every previous Marvel movie has been a full film, and here for the first time they’re simply cutting a movie in two. The result, for me, is a movie that spends an excessive amount of time laying foundations for things that won’t pay off until next year. Maybe this is the next phase of cinematic storytelling as well – it has become the way comic books are written. Once upon a time individual comics, even in longform stories, contained largely whole-feeling narratives. But for the last 18 years there’s been a trend towards stories that are written with an eye for the collected edition – ie, a 22 page comic isn’t structured to give you a full experience, but is rather just 22 pages from a 132 page story. I personally like individual episodes/issues that treat the individual episode/issue as a contained narrative even if it’s part of a larger story; maybe in ten years I’ll be the guy complaining about how movies these days just feel like two hours of a six hour tale.
There’s nothing wrong with disliking Marvel movies. There’s nothing wrong with disliking the shared universe/longform storytelling model. Even in the world of comic books, from where Marvel Studios swipes this model, there are a lot of disagreements about whether longform, continuity-laden stories are better or worse than short, free from canon restriction tales (spoiler: they’re both valid and great and neither one needs to be triumphant over the other). This kind of storytelling isn’t for everybody. And, by the way, as every other failed shared universe will tell you, this kind of storytelling is actually hard to pull off. But ten years in I think it’s time to stop with the critiques that are basically “Why is there chocolate in this chocolate shake?” It’s been ten years. This is what they’re doing. It’s time to accept it already.