First of all - geek culture as we know it owes a tremendous deal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; normalizing C-list heroes like Iron Man into not only geek culture, but popular culture in general. Being a fan of comics, previously a stereotype linked to poor hygiene and a lack of social grace - has now become something that can be discussed at virtually all levels of society, and has bound together multiple generations - everyone loves Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, from my parents to the students I teach.
It is a storytelling undertaking the likes of which have never been seen - with more money and talent thrown into the mix than could even be imagined even 20 years ago - and while Iron Man was a marked success - no one could have predicted the worldwide, cross-cultural appeal the MCU would eventually generate.
Endgame, while not the end of the MCU, does feel like the end of what we have been building towards for over 20 films - and while it has had numerous glowing reviews and undeniable commercial success - I want to dive into what makes it tick. We’ll explore the moments that are exceptionally effective, as well as those that might have fallen a bit short, and we’ll do our best to understand what made those decisions practical for the brilliant writers and directors.
Obvious spoilers ahead - so let us dive in.
Part 1: A Proven Track Record
I should begin by confessing that the initial reaction after seeing the original Avengers was “I cannot believe how they pulled this off - how did they manage to make so many characters each feel pivotal and important and interesting and all their dynamics and arcs flowing together so well!” Joss Whedon blew my mind with his script and directing - balancing humor with gravity and brainstorming moments that left me giddy with a delightful combination of surprise and satisfaction. Surprise because so many moments caught me off guard - and satisfaction because the story felt authentic - the characters acting in ways that made sense for their character arcs, motivations, and conflicting interests.
While I enjoyed the vast majority of the MCU Phase 2, it was Captain America: Civil War (which is essentially an Avengers film itself) raised the bar even higher. That film introduced dynamic new characters and gave us payoff for all the characters we already knew. Even more importantly - it balanced surprise and satisfaction on an entirely new level - our heroes fighting against each other felt authentic - it felt true to what we knew about each of them going forward. You understood who was fighting and why, and the stakes felt enormously high. The central conflict was so pivotal - individual freedom vs collective security - and the friendship of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark was the emotional core of it. That was what cinched the deal- it gripped us even more than the dazzling fight choreography. It was, and in my opinion still is, the greatest of the MCU films to date.
As we entered into Infinity War - our heroes were fractured. It made it easier to write- having scenes with only groups of 4-5 to deal with, instead of having the entire collective of Avengers all bickering in a room. That’s the reason Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Spider-Man get beamed up. It’s the reason the Wakanda-based Avengers start off separately from Vision and Scarlet Witch, and why Thor couldn’t go straight to Earth. Well, that, and he needed a new weapon (even though the entire character arc of Thor: Ragnarok was him realizing he didn’t need a weapon to be the God of Thunder… I suppose you could argue that by having Thanos defeat him in the first scene, you give him motivation to seek out Stormbreaker. I guess that works.). The film works by weaving together separate plot threads and attempting to have them converge all in one climax.
The issue, I felt, was that our separated storylines split our attention in two. We go from the attack on Titan (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Star-lord, Drax, and Mantis) almost winning to the fight back in Wakanda. Our characters aren’t communicating with each other - and while it’s handled artfully, split focus is, at least in Aristotelian terms, less-than-optimal storytelling. Still - I felt Inifinity War was a tremendous success. Again- each character acted like themselves. Thor got a bit more serious than he was in Ragnarok, actually being challenged and driven to defeat Thanos due to personal stakes. Tony’s relationship with Peter gave him a nice emotional depth that previous iterations of Iron Man might have been missing out on. Even Hulk, traditionally a difficult character to write, had an interesting dynamic going on with the whole, “Hulk-won’t-come-out” challenge.
The “emotional cores” of the story were something like:
And while those did cover a decent chunk of characters, it certainly didn’t include all of them. Several sidekick-level characters have virtually no lines and just show up for the fight scenes - a necessary concession, I know. Once again, to the writers’ credit- they balance emotional core (what I might term “true storytelling”) with all the delightful flash and flair of the superhero genre.
The real clincher of Infinity War- the thing that set it apart from all that had come before, was the villiain’s arc. Thanos, like all great antagonists, doesn’t cast himself as a bad guy. He has conviction, he has a plan, he has his own justifications for what he is thinking. He has emotional depth explored by his relationship with Gamora and at the end, he gets what he wants. He saves the universe, by his own definition, at great personal cost.
His victory - watching heroes we’ve known and cared about for years fading to dust, was emotionally wrenching, and his cathartic solace at the end, having fulfilled his task, was terrible and also carried with it a strange type of beauty. Thanos was compelling because as much as we despised him for what he did, we could almost, almost imagine he was right all along. We could understand what he wanted and why, which made the catharsis (by definition, a mixture of fear and pity for our heroic characters) all the more poignant.
Part II Next Week!