It’s been a decade since Tony Stark first made a scrap metal suit of armour with a fancy pacemaker to fight terrorists, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no signs of slowing down, even with their Magnum Opus AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR just around the corner. What follows are six trains of thought on what makes the MCU what it is (for better or worse), loosely based on the six infinity Mcguffins this whole hullabaloo has been about…
1. Space (use of) Aside from the obvious fact that some of Marvel’s best offerings have been set among the stars, the series has used space in-camera consistently well too. From complex, multi-tiered action blocking exemplified by THE AVENGERS‘ Battle of New York to the more recent films’ Bond-esque globe-trotting (or Trek-esque planet-hopping). Each new instalment and director also tended to bring a distinct aesthetic tied to whichever subgenre the superhero movie is being spliced with this time. What visual influences Infinity War will draw on remains to be seen, but surely it can’t just be bigger, can it? We could all do with a few less explodey sky battles in modern blockbusters, so here’s hoping the vast team-up offers something a little different to keep things fresh.
2. Mind (and motivation) I’m not going to claim that the MCU movies are dumb (OK, IRON MAN 2 is pretty dumb) and I’m not someone who thinks superhero movies are nothing but irrelevant escapism, but I will say that the Marvel films tend to have serious problems with their villains. In the vast majority of cases (Killmonger and Zemo being the exceptions for having layers, Ronan and Kaecilius for being entertaining) their evil plans and/or reason for being doesn’t make sense and carries no weight. Apply any level of scrutiny and things start to crumble: I’ve always had many, many problems with the end of WINTER SOLDIER and I still don’t really know what Malekith or Red Skull’s end games were supposed to be. After being teased for so long, Thanos better be compelling and his masterplan needs some dark majesty.
3. Reality (marrying of many) While each Marvel film works on its own internal logic (within reason), the problem with the concept of a “shared universe” is that sooner or later when characters meet their respective realities also have to merge, and it’s not always a comfortable fit. The worlds of Thor and the Guardians will marry well, having been cut from the same space-operatic drapes, ditto for the tech-enhanced Iron Man and Spidey, post-Avengers Cap and Widow doing the old gritty espionage thing etc. But with Infinity War, Hulk-smashing together so many competing styles and tones could very easily overwhelm it, and it’s not something they can get past with quips alone (though past examples of characters making fun of each other, such as “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” have been highlights).
4. Power (levels and distinctness) Movies of the MCU pride themselves at inventing new ways to represent superpowers and the clashes between heroes and villains and heroes and heroes. With super-strong, super-gadgety and super-weird characters aplenty, everyone needs their own way to stand out from the ever-swelling crowd. Some of the most “wow” moments of the series so far have come from unexpected displays of power (Vision casually handing Thor his hammer in ULTRON, Thor weilding lightning with his bare hands for the first time in the Rainbow Bridge battle in RAGNAROK) and I’ve no doubt that the Russo Brothers has a fair few surprises for us in Infinity War on that score.
5. Time (lines and consequences) For all the effort in constructing this vast and varied universe, the MCU timeline is a bit busted isn’t it? IRON MAN 3 firmly established the time frame of Tony’s story, and we obviously know when Cap went on ice, but the rest is anyone’s guess. Stephen Strange gets namechecked as a person of interest in Winter Soldier but this is pre his own origin story, so why would he be on a spy agency’s watchlist before he had his powers? Maybe it’s a timey-wimey infinity stone thing, but I think this kind of thing mostly comes from Kevin Feige giving each director a long leash; great for creativity, but not so good if you’re avoiding contradictions in continuity. While it’s also been criticised that we haven’t had any significant (permanent) deaths in the MCU, collateral damage to the world has always been in evidence (it was the non-Bucky reason for CIVIL WAR, after all) and those ultimate heroic sacrifices are coming, I feel.
6. Soul (emotion and drive) I’ll be fascinated to see how the final infinity stone manifests itself as soul really does take us back to what makes the MCU work. Whatever pyrotechnics and genre play each film puts on for our amusement, the only real reason this mega-franchise is still going so strong after a decade is that we care so much about these characters. They can do amazing things to save the world, but they still go through very human experiences, from embracing their responsibilities, going through severe PTSD, finding their place in a new and changed world, choosing between absent parents and present surrogates or simply learning not to be an ass, these heroes are us. Everyone answers the call to save the day for variations on a theme (it’s the right thing to do) but the whys are ever-changing and evolving in response to the state of the world and where the characters find themselves. Except for Cap, who still does all this because he doesn’t like bullies, which is something simple we can all root for.
See you on the other side of Infinity, the Marvel Cinematic Universe may (hopefully) be forever changed. SSP