Marvel Is Still Trying To Solve Its Villain Problem In ‘Avengers: Infinity War’


The age of the franchise film has turned moviegoing into a sort of Fantasy Movie Exec game, where we discuss each installment mostly in terms of what it means for that franchise. How are this brand’s optics? Love it or hate it, it’s largely an inescapable rubric if you want to discuss the state of cinema in 2018. Never is that more true than in Marvel’s latest, The Avengers: Infinity War, a triumph of continuity, which makes little pretense of being anything but a bullet point on Marvel’s grand outline. Who is the real star of this film? Josh Brolin? The Russo Brothers? The 17 guys named Chris? Clearly, it’s Marvel.

And so we talk about Infinity War largely in terms of what it means for Marvel. Is it a too-long movie that consists mostly of special effects doing special effects at each other? Of course it is. You mostly know what you’re getting with Marvel Universe movies, and it’s perfectly understandable to not care about them. But it’s also undeniable that franchises are where most of the film industry’s best filmmakers, talent — and above all their time, energy, and resources — are going right now. To opt out of them is to opt out of contemporary film, to some degree. Not to mention, if you skipped them completely, you’d miss out on occasionally great fare like Black Panther.

Infinity War is not Black Panther, which had artistic reasons for existing beyond the commercial ones, and where the CGI battles represented a compelling battle of ideas in addition to pew-pewing. That’s admittedly a lot to ask of movies being released on as consistent a schedule as Marvel does, and with as consistent a house style. And being less inspired than Black Panther doesn’t make a movie terrible. In fact, as effects-heavy as it is, Infinity War is much more visually interesting than the Russo Brothers’ last two Marvel movies, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, which were pretty dull outside of the admittedly great airport fight scene in Civil War.

Still, Infinity War is a return to being more about the Marvel brand than anything else. The movie discussion becomes less about what the movie is about and more about what’s next — where is it going, what does it set up? Especially so in Infinity War, which has an ending that might be Marvel’s most “to be continued” yet. (The ending is also the most interesting part, and by far the ballsiest one in the Marvel Universe. Especially so if they stick to it. Which they almost certainly won’t, but we can enjoy it for a few minutes).

Infinity War is largely an exercise in figuring out how to get every character in the Marvel Universe, even the pointless ones, like Black Widow and Cobie Smulders (but not Ant-Man or Hawkeye for some reason, not that I’m complaining), onscreen at some point during the same movie. It took them two and half hours, but they managed it. And in a movie that’s not a disaster. That feels like a win. The question you end up needing answered is whether crumbs of art can even survive under commercial limitations this stringent. I watch it more as a parlor trick than for some communicated emotion, and leave at least as much impressed as I was exhausted. I could watch a whole documentary just on how they decided to order the names in the closing credits (bring a book to tide you over before the post-credits scene, you’ll get through a few chapters).

From a #brand perspective, one of the main things Marvel needed to pull off here, beyond just being able to juggle this many cameos without boring us to tears, was fixing their villain problem. Marvel movies have traditionally been great at a lot of things — jokes, synergy, giant portals — but by and large they haven’t been particularly strong on villains. How good a superhero movie is mostly comes down to the villain. We love to love the heroes, they make us laugh, the more obnoxious among us clap when they’re onscreen, and the desire to simply see them together is basically this entire franchise’s raison d’etre (pardon my French). But villains are what make the team-ups into actual movies.

The heroes’ motives are usually simple — save the world, save the universe, keep people from dying, blah blah blah. Usually a little obvious, a little boring, and all in all not enough to hang a movie on. The villain, on the other hand, needs to have a reason for wanting to do something dastardly (kill your dog, kill the world, destroy the universe, etc), and that tends to be a little more interesting. Ideally, he or she doesn’t think of herself as the villain. That’s just “plausible conflict” 101.

The Dark Knight set the superhero movie back somewhat in this regard, giving us a villain who’s just sort of a sociopathic wild card and having it be spectacularly successful. As always, there are a lot of things Christopher Nolan can get away with that no one else can. For the most part, the most interesting, most nuanced villains make the best superhero movies — Dr. Octopus, The Mandarin, Killmonger.

Infinity War is a snapshot of a brand that has come a long way but still has a ways to go. And we have to hope they do, as they’re the biggest game in town. Thanos isn’t their best villain, but he’s above the mean in a medium promising way, assuming the next film doesn’t force them to cram in every hero they’ve ever created (and signs point towards no).

Every Marvel villain outside The Mandarin and Killmonger, it seems, wants to destroy the Universe. That’s basically true again here, though Thanos (“played” by Josh Brolin), a giant purple militiaman with a squid goatee, first has to collect all six Synergy Stones and hope that they don’t spell out “drink your ovaltine.” I kid, but the Infinity Stones, which grant a host of narratively inconsistent, visually fun powers, like pausing time and turning your foes into noodles and making the previous plot point irrelevant, are mostly a Macguffin to ensure that each hero gets their chunk of allotted screen time. Thanos’ ultimate goal, however, is to kill off a bunch of people, to save the galaxy from overpopulation. And he needs the Infinity Stones to do so, for some reason.

As far as villain motivations go, “killing people to prevent overpopulation” ain’t bad. It even makes a bit of sense, according to Prince William. It’s just that we don’t find out until midway through the movie that that’s what drives him. Until then, Infinity War just sort of rests on our assumption that Thanos is bad and wants to destroy the universe — scary villain first, explanation later. He’s not as visually interesting as Hela from Thor: Ragnarok, though he’s arguably more nuanced. And he’s no Killmonger, but again, who is.

Infinity War doesn’t entirely succeed in connecting the idea of the Infinity Stones to Thanos’ goal of depopulating the universe, but we accept it, and Thanos turns out to be more interesting than you’d assume. More interesting than I assumed, at least. Sure, he’s still a giant purple guy who wants to destroy the universe, sort of, but he gets just enough nuance that he doesn’t feel quite like the same old deal. It helps that he’s more morose than cackling, that he seems more tired than wired about being the only one who knows his dastardly deed is the only way to save the universe. He acts the way I imagine most spree shooters would.

His henchmen, on the other hand, get no introduction. Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), are the bad guys, according to IMDB, though watching the movie you may know them better as Lizard Wizard, Ram Skull Lady, Giant Horned Toad Guy, and Sex Positive Skeletor, respectively. I’m not saying each of them needed their own training montage and hype reel, but if they’re going to be characters we could probably do better than just leave the audience to assume a standard ugly = evil formula (a problem with Disney characters on the whole going back probably 80 years). Turns out eye black is the ultimate predictor of evil in the MCU.

You get it. Infinity War isn’t particularly inspired (commercially it is, but not artistically), but it’s reasonably competent. The best thing about it is that the ending feels like it could potentially be a new beginning. The beginning of a Marvel Universe where the villain doesn’t have to be so grandiose and the stakes of every story don’t have to be the entire universe. And now that we’ve seen all the superheroes together, maybe we don’t have to anymore? I’m not counting on it, but we can dream. Continuity is overrated. Nontheless, Infinity War succeeds in an era of lowered expectations.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.