My review of Avengers: Infinity War was not glowing. That troubles me. One does not have to like every movie, but I fear my reasons for not liking last summer’s release are, if I can say this, invalid. One of those reasons is simple frustration. I see superheroes as an omni-present part of our culture: as figures that much of the population probably has some degree of positive associations with. Growing up, for instance, I loved the idea of drawing and reading comics, playing with Batman, Superman and Spiderman action figures, and watching the cartoon depictions of their associated villains. Therefore, as one example of a person who exists on the continuum of superhero fandom without being an all-out fan, I had hoped that I could enjoy the all-star fest that was Infinity War without having religiously seen most of the previous Marvel films.
I was wrong. The film relied on the ability of fans to recall secondary details (such as the presence of the tesseract and infinity stones) set up in previous movies. Furthermore, had I seen the previous films I would have better appreciated the subtle personality difference between the various comedic-cocky-heroes (Thor, Iron Man, Star Lord, etc) as well as the less subtle difference between them and Captain America. I also would have been less distracted by the presence of less recognizable Avengers like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Vision.
This “invalid” reason for disliking Infinity War is not entirely misplaced: it just would make for a better critique of the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach to filmmaking as a whole, rather than as a critique of an isolated film.
My other reason for disliking Infinity War, however, feels worthier of discussion: my general dislike for action movies. It feels foolish to go into superhero movies only to critique them for containing too much action; for being what they are. I will nonetheless continue to attend superhero movies for the reasons describe above. As such, I would like to sharpen my analysis and learn to critique them in a way that is not simply dismissive of their defining logic.
Over the past few weeks I have been catching up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies I haven’t seen. Below are criteria I’ve established for differentiating what I like from what I don’t. While I don’t wish to close my mind I hope this will help give me a vocabulary for evaluating Infinity War’s sequel End Game.
Does Every Character Feel Like They’re There for a Reason?
Marvel’s The Avengers was not my favourite of their films. None of its funny moments really stuck with me, nor did its aesthetic. Nonetheless, it made for a fairly enjoyable viewing experience since it gave each member of its ensemble cast ample screen-time and substantially different personalities. This quality was less true of Avengers: Age of Ultron, however. In addition to throwing in Iron Man and Captain America’s sidekicks War Machine and Falcon, Age of Ultron also brings the Maximoff twins and Vision into the fold. While Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch has the potential to be an interesting character, her being thrown into a chaotic plot (alongside her less relevant brother) makes her someone we have to consciously realize we are invested in: that investment is not drawn out naturally.
How Good is the Humor and is it There for its Own Sake?
Humor is not just about its content, but also how it is delivered. I regularly hear Guardians of the Galaxy described as one of the M.C.U.’s funnier products. While indeed it stars an eclectic set of wisecracking characters, much of the film’s humor is delivered in the context of its parade of action scenes. The effect of this is that the jokes don’t feel like jokes, but just another weapon in the fighters’ arsenals. I only embraced Guardians in its final moments when a security official played by John C. Reilly has a friendly-awkward exchange with Drax and Rocket. By contrast, I quite enjoyed Guardians Volume 2 . That film is also rife with character-eccentricity driven humor, but unlike with its predecessor (save for the John C. Reilly scene) that humor comes out through relationships: particularly those between Drax and Mantis, Rocket and Yondu, and Groot and everyone. Its humor is about heart, not mere sass-battles.
How Intimate is the Action?
Perhaps this is simply the bias that stems from what I was raised with (and what I wasn’t), but my disinterest in action sequences isn’t all encompassing. I enjoy watching Star Wars fight sequences, for instance, particularly those with light-sabres. Another example that comes to mind is Pokémon battles. The reason I find these fights are more enjoyable than the typical Marvel sequence is two-fold. One is that these fights resemble games. As children at play, one can harmlessly recreate the idea of clashing sabres or giving orders to magical creatures. The same is not true of hyper-powerful people viciously throwing each other at concrete and setting off explosions. Therefore, fighters such as those in Star Wars connect more intimately with their audiences, than do fighters in Marvel. The intimacy of these fights, however, is also between the characters themselves. Star Wars light sabre battles are the products of great will and training and bring enmities to their climax. While perhaps there is no equivalent one-on-one battle in the M.C.U. to Anakin vs. Obi-Wan or Vader vs. Luke, Thor and Loki’s brief clash in Avengers easily struck me as more entertaining than the film’s many more-violent, big-budget encounters.
Is there a Disproportionate Amount of Action?
This is the criteria I admittedly feel shakiest about applying since “too much action” for me, is probably too low a threshold to reasonably hold superhero movies to. That said, there are undeniably some Marvel movies where the inevitable presence of action is used in place of storytelling. Age of Ultron for instance opens with a fight scene, and has many more along the way. In a film rife with characters (including major new ones), these fights offer a poor replacement for character development
How Good is the Film as a Standalone Movie?
The fact that Marvel films exist in a shared universe isn’t all bad. Black Widow’s presence as a freelance sidekick is not unjustified in Iron Man 2 and is very effective in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Still, while watching Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron I couldn’t help but feel the inclusion of references to Thanos and infinity stones (setting up Infinity War) would have either confused me or been details I dismissed entirely had I not gone into them knowing the Infinity War story. This is particularly true of Guardians of the Galaxy where no one villain (a group that includes Ronan, Thanos, Nebula, the Collector and Yondu) gets consistent screen-time.
Admittedly, some movies deserve to be critiqued on these grounds more than others. Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron really should have been standalone movies, whereas the undeniable raison d’être of Infinity War and End Game is bringing worlds together. Still, if Endgame aspires to feel like a classic movie, and not just a resolution to a series, it should strive to have a memorable opening and conclusion and a logically satisfying bridge between those two. If that basic quality is compromised in favour of making speedy references to other elements of the M.C.U., I shall be disappointed.
Does the Film have a Memorable Villain?
Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, Source
I regularly find myself counting villains amongst my favourite characters in Marvel movies: Loki (particularly in the underrated Thord: Dark World), Killmonger, Yondu, etc. Because villains have done such wrongs, they are inevitably more complicated and thus more compelling than heroes. Of course, for such complexity to come out it has to be allowed to come out. Too often Marvel cloaks its villains in black and gives them a forgettable objective. Thanos so far is one of Marvel’s deeper villains, but its certainly possible that since his motives came out in Infinity War his function in End Game might end up being more generically-action oriented.
Does it Make an Interesting Philosophical Point
Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johanson) discover not just a villain, but a systemic injustice in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This last quality is less of a requirement than a bonus. That said, as someone who has recently taken to writing about Marvel in terms of its political thought (as well as its tendency to retreat from the ideas it raises), I have no doubt that End Game will at least in some tangential way be worth analyzing in this regard: its villain after all is a violent Malthusian. So far my favourite Marvel movies have been Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both of which offer political ideas well beyond what is required for the construction of a superhero movie. Based on this precedent, I hope End Game will not disappoint.