If I’ve learned anything from nearly 20 years of writing about movies online, it’s how I appreciate movies that defy expectations. It explains my Marvel movie malaise with everything from “Age of Ultron” through “Captain America: Civil War.” I was bored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe onscreen because it wasn’t doing anything different. They were delivering “good” to “marginally entertaining” movies with a lot of polish, but they were painfully redundant and formulaic.
The formula gets reconfigured in the latest Marvel blockbuster, “Avengers: Infinity War,” which features characters from a wide variety of superhero movies. They come together in one galaxy-spanning adventure to stop a mad galactic despot named “Thanos.” It is the same principle that propelled the original “Avengers” to record-breaking box-office and crowd-pleasing excitement; however, I’d be lying if I said I was excited to see “Infinity War.” At this point, it seems more like an obligation than a must-see cinematic event.
I remember when we weren’t drowning in superhero movies and comic-book adaptations. There was time between them to build up anticipation. Yet, Disney bought Marvel and “Star Wars,” and so they are attempting to keep everyone in a state of perpetual frenzy by releasing familiar franchise films at a pace matched only by a coked-up Tazmanian Devil.
“Black Panther” came out just two months ago. Now, on the heels of massive success, comes another Marvel movie to consume attention.
The plot is ridiculously simple: Thanos (Josh Brolin) is a big, scary purple alien who believes the key to bringing order in the universe is eradicating half of the population. In order to do this, he needs to assemble six ancient stones to allow him to wield unfathomable power. The only thing standing in his way are heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the Avengers, Doctor Strange, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and Spider-Man. Thanos’ quest spans the galaxy and leads our heroes to forge alliances and work with new allies in order to stop him.
“Avengers: Infinity War” has a lot of things working in its favor. First of all, it’s fun. The movie achieves a nice balance between high-stakes action and character-based humor. There are payoffs throughout the movie, based solely on a decade of character development and world-building. The movie is brimming with great actors, playing a dynamic range of characters and personalities. Sometimes the film feels a little too reliant on every character being capable of a well-timed quip. Goddamn, does Marvel love their quippy heroes. The movie also moves at a breakneck pace (a plus). There are no pauses or slow moments; the idea the universe is about to be donkey-punched is introduced in the first 90 seconds of the movie. Then it blasts off like a pair of rocket-powered shoes toward the massive action-packed third act.
Still, the movie isn’t perfect. I’m getting a little tired of movies never really having a satisfying ending. It seems like I’m watching the world’s most expensive television series, which only puts out two or three episodes a year. Ten years into the Marvel movies, and I still don’t feel any sense of completion or closure. I’m fine with serialized storytelling, but after a decade it might be time to start tying up some of the loose ends. Much like the comic books they’re based on, the stories seem to go on and on in a perpetual story cycle.
Like “Black Panther” or “Thor: Ragnarok,” there is a lot of entertainment value packed into the movie. Honestly, “Infinity War” is a sound-and-fury sandwich with McGuffin meat. It’s a tasty treat but I never felt sated. Marvel movies are the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food. For the most part they’re enjoyable, but after an hour I’m hungry again. I suppose that’s both a compliment and a sleight. There’s nothing wrong with leaving an audience wanting more, but I’m starting to wonder if the films are capable of delivering anything other than surface thrills.
Last year saw Logan take the comic-book movie genre to a deeper place. It would be nice to see some of that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.