Warning: Major spoilers ahead. Major! You’ve been warned.
Ten years and 19 movies into the ever-ballooning Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fabled Avengers have left their respective dwellings and greeted the interplanetary crusaders whose storylines haven’t yet interacted with their own. “There’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?” Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, asks incredulously in one of the more relatable moments from “Avengers: Infinity War,” which opens this weekend to an expected $225 million intake.
At last, all our friends ― the ones whose disparate adventures have yielded “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Black Panther” and other assorted tentpoles ― are acquainted. How special. Naturally, there’s no better time to kill most of them off.
Except that’s only sort of what happens at the end of “Infinity War.” After more than two hours of wham-bam chaos, the movie slows to an emotional lull. The culminating battle royal results in the deaths of Black Panther, Spider-Man, Bucky Barnes, the Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, Star-Lord, Groot, Drax, Falcon, Mantis, Nick Fury and Maria Hill, each of whom dissolves into a pile of dust at the hands of a purple colossus named Thanos. The how and why hardly matter. What matters is that the final 20 minutes are meant to be a gut punch, testing the tear ducts of Marvel disciples who’ve waited so long to see the OG Avengers collaborate with the franchise’s rookies. Their wishes are granted and denied in the same fatal breath.
What matters even more, though, is that none of this really matters at all. You see, Marvel Studios is a business first (owned by Disney) and a story factory second. And because it’s a business, we know how many movies certain actors are contracted for and which ones have sequels already in development. That includes some whose characters supposedly went bye-bye.
Take T’Challa, for example. His is easily the most shocking of the “Infinity War” deaths, given the ongoing cultural fervor surrounding “Black Panther,” the best film Marvel has made. Seeing T’Challa’s brawny body disintegrate is, in no short order, heartbreaking. But wait. Isn’t the studio “actively” negotiating a deal for Ryan Coogler to return to direct “Black Panther 2”? (Yes.) And hasn’t Chadwick Boseman only completed three of the five movies in his Marvel contract? (Yep.) T’Challa, in other words, will rise again, one way or another.
And what about little Peter Parker, who joined the series in 2016 and graduated to leading lad in last year’s jocular “Spider-Man: Homecoming”? Acting-wise, Tom Holland lands the finest moment in “Infinity War,” pleading with his mentor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), that he is not ready to die. But we needn’t think hard to connect the dots on this one: 21-year-old Holland will reportedly shoot the next “Spider-Man” movie this summer, even though his web-slinger just perished.
For kicks, here’s one more. Sebastian Stan, who plays the well-coiffed Bucky Barnes, is reportedly contracted for nine Marvel joints. (Nine?! Who has the time?) So far, he’s appeared in six ― and that’s only if we include his uncredited cameos in “Ant-Man” and “Black Panther,” which probably don’t count toward Stan’s tally. After the movie that will join “Infinity War” in concluding the principal “Avengers” saga next year, Stan will have at least two to go. What can we conclude from this information? Bucky Barnes will be back, as will the Guardians of the Galaxy, who are slated to conclude their standalone story with a third installment due out in 2020, according to director James Gunn. (Chris Pratt, otherwise known as the “late” Star-Lord, has already discussed “Vol. 3.”)
And so on and so forth. Most of the Avengers left standing at the end of “Infinity War” hail from the first phase of Marvel’s big-screen ambitions. Chris Evans’ and Mark Ruffalo’s contracts are nearing their end, and Robert Downey Jr. has long operated under a picture-by-picture arrangement that does not guarantee his presence in any future entities. Those guys can cede custody of the series to the presumably resurrected generation of superheroes in the aforementioned “Avengers” conclusion, whose title has not been revealed because it would constitute a spoiler that probably concerns these deaths.
Or something! Again, I’m less concerned with how the Great Rebirth will happen than I am with the idea that we have ample cause to assume it will happen. Which brings us back to my original point: Fundamentally, the Marvel machine is not about storytelling. It’s about commerce. These films cost a fortune ― with a reported $300 million to $400 million budget, “Infinity War” may be the most expensive movie ever made ― and must be negotiated years in advance. That only leaves so much room for narrative mystery. When we know which characters are slated for which future installments, death is relatively futile. In keeping, the entire third act of this movie is a manipulative ploy. All those tears shed in multiplexes this weekend? The only real point they served was to ensure you’d hand over another $12 next year to see what comes of your favorite swashbucklers.
But we already know, more or less. There are no stakes.
Even the baton-passing sometimes seen in the corresponding comic books ― a nurse named Jane Foster becoming the new Thor, for example ― can’t override the business transactions made public in this otherwise tight-lipped franchise. Sure, perhaps Shuri, T’Challa’s whiz-kid sister, can don the Black Panther suit next. But then how will Boseman fulfill his contract? (Here, fanboy theories are beside the point.)
No matter what happens in the comics ― crisscrossing timelines, cape-swapping plot devices, whatever ― Marvel’s movies must function as, well, movies. “Avengers: Infinity War,” and anything else that grosses close to $1 billion, is pitched at anyone and everyone who is or isn’t familiar with its literary origins. But as the franchise progresses, the chronology of its events departs further and further from the order in which movies are released. That alone is inane. Historically, sequels, prequels and spinoffs clearly demarcate where an individual installment exists on a series’ grander timeline ― but Marvel makes little effort to do so. Audiences shouldn’t need a guidebook to figure out which plot technically occurred first, and they shouldn’t have to suspend their disbelief by pretending characters committed to future installments are dead. I don’t want to hear anything about how “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3” could maybe, possibly, actually occur before “Infinity War,” despite hitting theaters two years later.
For comparison’s sake, when the “Star Wars” galaxy hopscotches between time periods, each movie’s title clearly contextualizes its placement in the series. Trilogies are numbered by episodes, and one-offs are given the subtitle “A Star Wars Story.” There is no confusion as to how the plots ― or individual characters’ involvement ― fit together, even when the movies are released in a non-chronological fashion. So, from one overlapping Marvel pageant to the next, we should be able to assume that the ensuing movies’ events have a logical through-line. That is, after all, how sequels work, dammit. Just because Marvel is a so-called “cinematic universe” doesn’t make it any different.
To kill off so many vital players in “Infinity War” is a cheap reflection of Hollywood’s bloated franchise infatuation. Disney knows you’ll be back for more next year. Hell, you might even be back for more next weekend. And as someone who just wants to see clever (and sensical) storytelling, I’m tired.
Someone save us from this capitalistic catastrophe. Someone who isn’t a superhero.