I remain heartened months after its release that the internet spent a good few weeks desperately trying to shoot some adrenaline into cinema’s most deeply tiring franchise by convincing the world that Avengers: Infinity War was an experimental film of sorts, and how do I wish that little gambit provided more real food for thought than it does. It certainly does distract us from the actual film, which, as the claims of “avant-garde” suggest, only tenuously clings to that signifier “film,” or at least more tenuously than any blockbuster film is supposed to these days. But while, I don’t know, Speed Racer (all the way back from the inaugural year of the MCU) feels divinely inspired to dismiss the rules of blockbuster filmmaking as a moral and ethical statement, and an incendiary display of personal conviction, Infinity War isn’t a conventional “movie” out of some combination of laziness, failure, necessity, or simply because it can’t be bothered. That’s more or less interesting, and probably more fascinating to think through than an 18th entry into any franchise should be. But I can’t resist the sensation that I and the internet are playing head-games with ourselves to privately amuse ourselves, semi-ironically meditating on the norms of cinema with Infinity War as a catalyst just to pass the time searching for something, anything, to say about the most milquetoast cinematic franchise of the 2010s. The MCU has held modern blockbuster cinema prisoner for almost a decade, but, as if the delirium of no escape is kicking in, the voices of the internet refuse to give in. They resist.
Which is either a heroic display of viewership or a positively deluded marker of entrapment, for Infinity War certainly does not resist in any meaningful way. It’s certainly the case that directors Joe and Anthony Russo stage something quite a bit more akin in flavor and spirit to the television sitcoms that bred them than to a conventional three-act cinematic structure, a decision – nay, a requirement – which is by turns liberating and truly tiresome, as though the nominal heads of the franchise have simply abdicated the throne of narrative cohesion and essentially given up any sense that this ought to function like a real movie rather than a glorified cinematic hang-out. That said, while this particular film is so self-evidently reliant on a television-style familiarity with characters, imploding the illusion of cinematic self-containment, Infinity War does not disrupt these cinematic norms toward any purpose, or with any wit. Which is to say, it doesn’t experiment with narrative so much as concede its lack of one, and it does so without the self-amused meta-critical gags of something so neurotically nefarious as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, where any pretension that we are watching real people and characters who exist off-screen is ceremoniously shot, stabbed, poisoned, and demolished almost immediately before being run over in the infamous final act Julia Roberts bit.
Compared to that blissful bit of post-modern cinema, Avengers: Infinity War still, occasionally, has to pretend that it is invested in its characters, and that’s truly unfortunate. It’s still slightly bracing simply how lacking in any attempt at a pro forma narrative Infinity War is, but this somehow makes the film both conspicuously crafted – too careful – and essentially unthinking – too absent deliberation – to truly question anything. Its narrative indiscretions are flagrantly obvious to anyone with even one film class under their belt, but the film’s attitude toward itself is that of a soldier guarding an important monument, not a renegade cheerfully defiling one. It doesn’t actually wish to forge a new kind of narrative structure, nor does it wish to dismiss everything that came before it; it simply recognizes that it doesn’t need anything resembling a coherent structure to justify itself and forge ahead into the money-pit it has clearly assembled for itself.
And forge ahead it does, albeit in a sideways manner, new characters wandering onto set by the scene. Again, the film’s sheer glut of characters, not to mention its disinterest in exploring them, would seem free-wheeling if it weren’t so grotesquely sacrosanct about the whole affair. It’s actually quite bizarre on that front, never once falling prey to the clear screenwriter’s objection to most blockbusters of this sort: they force their characters’ into the narrow corridors of a plot rather than allowing them the full gamut of human idiosyncracies. There’s really no plot to speak of here: every moment is clearly designed to highlight a character, the plot only barely present, entirely subservient to Tony Stark’s raffish narcissism or Peter Parker’s boyish insouciance. It’s an oddly post-modern film, refracting its drama across many perspectives which, in point of fact, are seldom present in this film, treating the icons on screen – and the scenes featuring them – less as ideas cultivated by screenwriters than mirrors meant to reflect whatever we already think about these characters, here more or less devoid of the kind of internal development that classical Hollywood narrative would dictate they be bestowed.
The result is a trap: characters who are, on one hand, essentially entirely iconographic and devoid of complication and, on the other, essentially hard to pin down, ciphers for whatever we bring to them, almost as though fracturing the illusion of self-contained cinematic reality and humbling itself before the arbitrariness of its characters. In other words, a film that is all about character, as it were, but that has none to speak of, that reveals – quite like Ocean’s Twelve but more accidentally – the limits of the Hollywood consciousness, as well as the opportunities to explore within and with it.
In fact, it isn’t really much of anything, defined entirely through its absences. Sure, its intermittent presences are sometimes pleasurable enough. It’s essentially absurd that any film in this loosely-clung anthology could meaningfully qualify as a game-changer, so the ending of this film was always self-evidently a ruse. But it’s an effectively mounted ruse as it goes, although the real pleasures of Infinity War are essentially more minor. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely clearly enjoy shuttling us from the retro-futurist metal album covers of Thor’s world, to the kindred spirits down the lane worshipping space westerns, the Guardians of the Galaxy, to the mystical quasi-surrealism of Dr. Strange which bristles with whatever cosmic implication Marvel can allow. Sure, the latter “surrealism” is the kind that Bunuel would laugh off on his way to a genuine adventure of the mind. But you take what you can get. But Infinity War’s halting, hesitant motions toward real personality are overwritten with a heaping, screenplay-clogging dose of critic-insulating, audience-ennobling solemnity, the kind which pats you on the back for your ability to watch legitimately “serious” blockbuster films, supposedly better than the wayward years of the genre in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the wild west of the genre which produced worst but more personal, more sincere, and less calculated films like, oh, I don’t know, Batman and Robin. Avengers’ committee design would scrub out bat nipples on a first board meeting.
Sure, it would be hard to argue with the removal of that particular head-shaker, but at what cost? Do we really want to live in a world where eliminating the risk of terrible superhero cinema requires a careful managing of the countervailing possibility of reaching unchecked, exploratory personal heights? Rather than superhero films which tease and test and play and buck and bristle, Marvel’s cinema has become the most risk-averse franchise in the world, with a decade’s worth of films under their belt and a quality-spread as thin and marginal as any company in the book. Maybe I’m wrong, but even the wiliest alley cat – Iron Man 3 – and slipperiest slide – the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and the better bits of Thor: Ragnarok – in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t compete with, say, Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man dyad for sheer comic brio and youthful inebriation. The MCU has produced nothing as awful as, say, Elektra (nothing even close), but if the cost is the impossibility of seeing that train-wreck in action, is it worth it?