The Bloated Excess of ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

The glowing stone orb in Avengers: Infinity War is blue. And green, yellow, red, purple, and orange. There are six of them, called ‘Infinity Stones.’ Having six stone balls should make Avengers: Infinity War six times more ballsy than all the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where there is usually only one dumb glowing rock. In 2018, nobody fights over a chest of gold or a bag of cash anymore. We don’t even get a mysterious suitcase. Instead, we’re treated to glowing jewelry, with more bling than a Kardashian whore. Apparently, the glow-balls work their dark magic when lodged in a special metallic glove — the Infinity Gauntlet — that was forged by a giant dwarf. This reminds us of the special fashionista gloves worn by Prince and Michael Jackson, two other lovers of the color purple. Bad guy Thanos is a towering purple Tiki statue who wants to kill fifty percent of the universe for ecological sustainability, and yes he’s a “madman.” The thing that is most infinite in Avengers: Infinity War is the determination to keep this franchise going at all costs. It will take another four Marvel movies just to prep the groundwork for the sequel, untitled now but possibly called: Infinity Two: Twice The Ticket Sales. As the title aptly implies, the Marvel universe goes on forever. Enduring it is a draining experience, unless you are a powerful alien yourself.

In her 1984 essay Viewing Television: the Metapsychology of Endless Consumption, film critic Beverle Houston argued that television was different from cinema because television was designed to be consumed over and over again, whereas movies were singular experiences. Not anymore. Her then-groundbreaking theory of television consumption explains Avengers: Infinity War in a candy-coated nutshell.

No doubt fanboys will thrill when they see their favorite superhero on screen once again and again quipping snarky dialogue and devouring scenes, but this is cheap amusement, the same buzzing tingle a junkie experiences when he mainlines a fix of heroin, the same rush of energy and excitement a sugar addict enjoys gobbling down another giant bag of Skittles. Infinity War, like all the films in the MCU, is not a movie, it’s a drug. A silly narcotic designed to activate the light-color-noise dopamine receptors in your brain and dole out jolts of pleasure while ensuring the ongoing consumption of all products Marvel. They want you to be a baby nursing on junk-food and hooked for life. So far, they’ve succeeded. They are the OxyContin of film. They might be enjoyable in the moment but they offer no real hope.

Infinity Bloat War needs the deft directorial touch of Joss Whedon, who wrestled the two previous Avenger films into enjoyable, intelligible entertainment with coherent plots and discernible characters. It also needs the wit of his writing. Instead, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo are at the helm of the latest Avengers incarnation with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely vomiting out the screenplay and the film suffers for it as they try to pack twenty pounds of movie into a teacup.

The tone shifts wildly from scene-to-scene and location-to-location. It goes from hokey to deadly serious to juvenile humor to lame pop culture references that have to be explained so younger members of the audience can understand them. At one point, we’re actually told Aliens (1986) is a “really old movie.” Some jokes are funny. Others are trying so hard to be funny, they’re cringe-worthy or worse. This is an ominous sign for blockbusters based on comic book characters. The canary of charm and wonder is dying in the coal mine of routine. The strain of producing fresh and lively movies in the MCU is showing. Once a genre has to resort to making fun of itself to keep its films engaging, the decline and ultimate death of the genre is near. Comic book superheroes need to be presented as real heroes tethered to the real world, yet with extraordinary powers. In Infinity War, we get self-deprecating men trapped in identity crises caused by skin-tight costumes.

When you collide eighteen storylines, you get too many characters so thinly sketched we feel nothing for any of them. Thanos, as the villain, gets the bulk of the screen time. Because so many storylines are woven together, the characters are written in shorthand. We’re supposed to remember each character’s quirks, backstories, and emotional debris from previous films. Most people can’t remember what they did last weekend let alone what Paul Bettany did in a movie two years ago in a supporting role as Vision. Unfortunately, this means the cavalcade of characters charging across the screen are largely defined by the clothes they wear, not their actions or dialogue. We know Dr. Strange is Dr. Strange because he has a strange cape. And Tony Stark has his Iron Man suit, now updated to use magical nanotechnology. Disturbingly, Steve Roger’s iconic red, white, and blue Captain America bodysuit and shield has morphed into the black uniform of a fascist stormtrooper. Such a dark transformation doesn’t bode well for the future of the world, but is fitting for Trump’s America where fascism is more fashionable every day.

Worry not. There is more to Infinity War than just evolving costumes. There are glorious battles breathtaking in scope with armies of thousands and tons of stuff flying around and all sorts of spacecrafts and alien creatures exploding to bits. But these battles, instead of pumping us full of fist-pounding adrenaline, highlight a major flaw of the movie. On one hand, the filmmakers want Infinity War to be an epic tale akin to Braveheart (1995) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003). They want us to feel the weight of death and the moral complexities of sacrificing one life to save many. On the other hand, they constantly trivialize the movie by expecting us to laugh at Chris Pratt’s masculine insecurities and Thor calling a mutant raccoon a bunny. You can’t have it both ways. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) didn’t seek to lighten the mood about the harsh realities of desert warfare with nerdy humor.

Central to the plot of Avengers: Infinity War is Thanos’ assertion that the universe is overcrowded and thus half its population must be eliminated. This concept is so laughable it’s moronic. There are an estimated 19,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe similar to the sun with at least one Earth-like planet. So in a science-fiction movie, we’re expected to believe that the universe is too crowded for life to continue? The staggering stupidity of Thanos’ motivation erodes the entire structure of Infinity War and demonstrates the shallow comic book thinking of the writers. Why should we care about what happens when the filmmakers themselves clearly haven’t put any real thought into their own movie? Maybe Thanos is airing our own anxiety about an over-populated resource-depleted Earth. If so, the writers haven’t given us much hope. Magic stones won’t save us.

The filmmakers want us to be awed by the sprawling grandeur they present and provoked by false moral dilemmas. But they don’t work hard enough to earn any respect. Their dark, moody ending isn’t earned, either. It’s as satisfying as being masturbated to the edge of orgasm for two and a half hours, then told to go home and come back next year for the cum-shot. The movie doesn’t end, it just stops, focusing on the triumph of the one character we care about the least.

And therein lies the biggest problem: Marvel movies in general, and Avengers: Infinity War in particular, are not about storytelling nor the cinematic experience. They’re not about the movie we’re watching, they’re about the movie that’s coming next. They’re ceaseless, bloated advertisements for future films. They’re about endless consumption. Always promising, never quite delivering. It goes on and on, and we’re so addicted to their glowing promises, we continue to watch whether we want to or not, hoping that one of these days we’ll get to a satisfying conclusion that really is ‘the end.’ This is the one place comic book narratives really fuck up filmmaking. In the history of comic books, the Marvel print universe had decades of interwoven stories with mashups and cross pollination. Marvel claims to own storylines to “a proven library of over 5,000 characters.” Holy hell. You can do that kind of dense, up-your-own-bumhole writing when comic books are twenty-five cents and fans will reread them a hundred times. But when a film budget reaches $300 million you can’t just keep inflating the balloon endlessly. Instead, they shovel us the collective ‘fan favorite heroes’ in relentless splashy featured films. Incessantly baiting and appeasing fans is a shitty way to run a universe, though, even if it’s just the cheap but colorful Marvel universe.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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