Warning: Contains cryptic spoilers.
In 2012, when The Avengers hit theaters, I was a third-year film student holed up in a 300-level course watching the 1956 John Ford classic The Searchers. I missed out on all of the films that composed Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but I was well-versed in the worlds of Bergman, Godard, and Antonioni. This past weekend, that all changed. I was coerced into seeing the latest Marvel installment by a new romantic interest who explained everything I’d missed in the last decade over brunch.
I’ve never been in a packed movie theater — at least not since Titanic (I had the entire house to myself for Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight), but when we ambled up to buy matinee tickets for Infinity War, we were told that only the front row seats were available. I didn’t take issue with this until I found myself staring skyward in 3-D glasses, craning my neck from side to side to take in explosions and fast-paced fighting on either side of the screen. In addition to the neck-muscle workout, the entire picture was warped, rendering Don Cheadle as a giant three-dimensional triangle with a tiny head. I couldn’t help but think that this wouldn’t have been a problem had we seen Chappaquiddick.
I nearly spat out my mimosa when I first learned that the movie’s running time was 2 hours, 40 minutes. I’ve seen the 5 hour, 12 minutes-long Swedish drama Fanny och Alexander more than once, but I felt that this star-studded blockbuster would be eating up too much of a sunny day. The time actually passed quickly. I enjoyed the film despite the poor viewing conditions. I was particularly awestruck by the stunning special effects. Computer-generated imagery had come a long way since my last theater viewing of a superhero flick, 2007’s Ghost Rider, which is in the running for all-time worst superhero movie.
My lack of thorough superhero knowledge wasn’t the setback I thought it would be either. Of course, I haven’t been living under a rock for the past ten years: I knew that Iron Man was a smug billionaire, Spider-Man a naïve teen, and that Thor was portrayed by People’s 2014 Sexiest Man Alive. For the first time, however, I felt a part of the collective experience of following their stories. I was involved — not as involved as the man in the audience who shouted “No!” when a fan favorite was stabbed — but involved nonetheless.
These superheroes aren’t so different from the cowboys of the old westerns: larger-than-life characters battling their own faults and a villainous outlaw. In the case of Infinity War, the stakes are much higher than the average western, but one can picture the callous-faced Thanos in a ten-gallon hat smoking a cigar.
Richard Brody and Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker, took stabs at reviewing the epic sequel over the weekend. After reading their thoughts, I suspected they were each as unfamiliar with the current cult of superhero fandom as I was. Brody lamented that Infinity War “presumes that viewers have seen all the preceding films in the Marvel series” and Lane “felt like a mourner at the graveside of cinema.” Twitter’s reactions to the prestigious critics’ reviews ranged from “you suck” to “delete this.” What may have eluded the reviewers is that Infinity War, as a film, doesn’t exist on the same cinema plane as The 400 Blows or even Birdman. The Avengers sequel could be better compared to an episode of an interconnected streaming series, with no time for redundant characterization or tidy resolutions. It makes sense that cinema audiences would demand pure episodic storytelling in the age of the blockbuster television show.
Given the exhaustive list of Marvel heroes appearing in Infinity War, the title of Brody’s review has a point: “The Latest Marvel Movie Is a Two-and-a-Half-Hour Ad for All the Previous Marvel Movies.” If that’s the case, I suppose I’m buying it. I foresee a long-time-coming binge of Doctor Strange, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger in the near future. That kind of background isn’t a necessity though; superhero neophytes can show up to Infinity War armed only with casual cultural literacy and still have fun watching some familiar faces kick ass.
As the film drew to its shocking conclusion (I won’t give it away, but it isn’t unlike The Shootist), I was aghast. The disappointment and anticlimax of the ending seemed more akin to a film directed by Michael Haneke. “Is that really it?” I said. My date turned to me: “There’s going to be a sequel.” Of course there is.