“It’s a long story, but basically, I’m a bit of a hero,” explains Thor—god of thunder, pride of Asgard, wielder of a big-ass hammer—in a casually pompous monologue at the onset of 2017’s excellent and very silly Thor: Ragnarok. “You see, I’ve spent some time on Earth, fought some robots, saved the planet a couple of times. Then I went searching the cosmos for some magic, colorful, Infinity-Stone things. Didn’t find any. That’s when I came across a path of death and destruction that led me all the way here into this cage.” Soon, Thor, as played by Chris Hemsworth, is out of the cage and sassing a gigantic, buffoonish, fire-demon guy, dutifully making his long story longer still.
This movie is worth revisiting before you subject yourself to Friday’s Avengers: Infinity War, just as a reminder of why it’s worth subjecting yourself. Directed by Taika Waititi, Ragnarok was the 17th movie in the now decade-old Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first of the three solo Thor installments to do the character justice by realizing that he’s Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China and not King Lear in King Lear. It’s a comedy, defiantly so, and it derives most of its comedy from the fact most of the preceding films in the MCU pretended to be dramas.
Jeff Goldblum, as a cornball trash-planet dictator who describes his primary weapon as “the Melt Stick,” rolls his eyes at Thor’s attempt to explain his motivations—“I’m sure there’s a big history”—and literally refers to Thor’s home world as “Ass-Guard.” Thor likewise fails to convey the intensity of his relationship with his hammer to a friendly rock-monster who finds the whole thing awfully homoerotic: “Oh my god, the hammer pulled you off?” And Thor and the Hulk have a series of arguments about the gravity of Ragnarok’s specific plot, which the Hulk regards with a contemptuous fatigue.
Thor: We must prevent Ragnarok.
Hulk: [Listlessly biting into giant gourd.] Ragnarok?
Thor: The prophesied death of my home world. The end of days. It’s the end of everything.
Thor is no more convincing when the Hulk turns back into an alarmingly wizened-looking Mark Ruffalo, here channeling Larry David at his whiniest and most disoriented:
Thor: Listen, my people are in great danger. And you and I, we have to fight this really powerful being who also happens to be my sister.
Hulk: OK, that is so wrong on so many lev—I don’t wanna fight your sister, that’s a, that’s a family issue!
Thor: No! She’s an evil being!
Hulk: I don’t care how—what she is! I’m not fighting any more beings! I’m sick of it!
As the MCU nears the climax of what is earnestly described as “Phase Three” (which will also encompass the fourth Avengers movie in 2019), this should logically be the dominant sentiment: I’m not fighting any more beings. I’m sick of it. These movies will outlive us all, and so will their inevitable setups: We must defeat [new villain, usually related to the hero somehow] before he/she/it causes [terrible thing, usually the destruction of the universe somehow]. You know the drill; probably, you still love it.
Regardless, the details don’t matter: They are merely a pretense for allowing our superheroes to resurface, and wield new weapons, and crack new jokes, and battle new enemies, and (maybe, for some of them) die. Infinity War, for example, concerns itself with those “magic, colorful, Infinity-Stone things,” which is to say that an all-powerful being called Thanos, who has already been meme’d half to death, will get all the Infinity Stones and kick some ass right up until the point (probably in 2019) when he gets his ass kicked.
This is no ordinary one-off comic-book-movie MacGuffin: Individual Infinity Stones have driven the plots of Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and various other MCU joints. Their awesome power has long been established; we have been warned, at great length, that one villain laying hands on all six would be catastrophic, even if that villain looks like a talking thumb. This is the big one, the last and most terrible thing, the end of days. That this tale is called Infinity War is, of course, a clue as to how, exactly, it will end, or more to the point, an admission that the whole point of this universe is that it never will.
One notable quirk of the MCU is that as its formula has gotten staler, its individual movies have gotten better. Thor: Ragnarok proved the value of mocking the whole soap-operatic enterprise entirely; 2017’s winsome Spider-Man: Homecoming and this year’s absurdly dominant Black Panther triumphed by telling (relatively) smaller-scale stories with (relatively) less grandiose stakes. “Get bigger by going smaller”: It’s a fine mantra that lets our various heroes take a few deep breaths before Going Big again.
Black Panther, for its part, perfected the “estranged family member as arch-enemy” angle and sketched out an Afro-futurist mythology so rich, dense, and rewarding that it’s almost a shame to submerge it within the larger Avengers melodrama at all. Who cares what Hawkeye thinks about Wakanda? Do you really want to watch Robert Downey Jr. flirt with Letitia Wright? As the MCU expanded, the goal became to tell different and (relatively) smaller stories, and at their best, those stories make an argument for seceding from the Union entirely. Even Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, as utilitarian and universe-indebted a Marvel movie as you could ask for—Tom Holland is your third multi-film big-screen Spider-Man in the past 16 years—managed to reinvent, or at least vastly improve upon, the wheel. Until Black Panther, at least, the single best superhero vs. supervillain showdown in the MCU took place entirely via tense conversation in a car outside a high-school dance.
The Avengers movies, as the tentpoles within tentpoles, are inevitably saddled with bigger expectations and more apocalyptic stakes and laughably oversized casts. (I wince whenever the Guardians of the Galaxy show up in Infinity War promos; the space-hopping and astral-plane wing of the MCU is very hard to contextualize within this universe, loopy as it already was. Doctor Strange does not play well with others.) The most affecting scene within the chaos of The Avengers is the death of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (played by Clark Gregg), a character you may have totally forgotten about who uses his death soliloquy to spell out the movie’s desperate need to Mean Something: “This was never gonna work if they didn’t have something ... to … [dies].” (Naturally, Coulson was somehow resurrected for the ABC show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., now in its fifth season. MCU’s gonna MCU.)
These films have also extensively ruminated upon—and attempted to solve—the problems plaguing the larger realm of comic-book movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron, from 2015, climaxes with the usual disquieting amount of mass destruction, albeit in a much more thoughtful manner than 2013’s garish and Manhattan-leveling Superman reboot Man of Steel. Subsequently, the villain of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War turns out to be a disgruntled survivor of Ultron’s destruction, and a neat little commentary on the MCU’s infinite loop of chaos begetting more chaos, heroism begetting new villainy.
But the fundamental issue here—these movies need an imperiled group of civilians that the superheroes can dramatically save, but establishing The Stakes usually requires that 10 times that many civilians die offscreen in the process—is intractable. This is the danger of making comic-book movies too gritty, too dark, too “real”: The dissonance of grafting adult concerns onto what at least used to be kids’ movies is too great. Push the envelope just far enough and sure, you might end up with something as prestigious as The Dark Knight. Push it any further, though, and you get Suicide Squad. We’re about to find out how far Marvel is willing to go. For starters, the solution to the civilian issue, based on Infinity War’s poster alone, is to fill the screen with so many stars from so many other movies that there’s no room for regular people at all. There are worse solutions.
The big question going into Infinity War, of course, is Who’s Gonna Die. In the Avengers’ case, these inevitable superstar casualties, and the emotional wallop they inspire, will have more to do with the actors than the characters, serving as multimedia letters of resignation from the likes of Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans. Verily, Infinity War is likely to end with Thanos wielding all those “magic, colorful, Infinity-Stone things,” and several famous actors finally freed from the shackles of their most famous roles, and the fate of the universe left in doubt, but not really in doubt, of course. That’s the way all movies like this operate, of course; within the MCU, only the likely cliffhanger ending is new. The only thing that makes it all tiresome, and a little worrisome, is that this’ll be the 19th time we’ve gone through this. The stakes are higher than ever, sure, fine. But the only real catharsis we can ever feel is if Marvel stops making these movies entirely. And the studio, certainly, doesn’t want that to ever happen. And neither, grudgingly, do you.
The movie-biz subtext of Infinity War—it’s Black Panther’s world now, and Iron Man’s just dying in it—is way more dramatic and rewarding than its actual text, which will involve, as always, Thor and his buddies fighting some robots, and chasing after some colorful stones, and saving the planet. Like the new entries in the Star Wars franchise, it’s all about passing the baton to younger, less jaded, and mercifully more diverse new stars while giving the old stars a chance to die with dignity. If that dignity is spectacular and cathartic enough, maybe one day one of these caped crusaders will even snag an Oscar, a.k.a. the Infinity Stone of Hollywood. We are all, on screen and off, chasing our own MacGuffins, and there is emotional value—or, at least, a whole lot of shareholder value—in never quite getting enough of what we want.