Storytelling in the Age of the Blockbuster

There was no way I was going to avoid commenting on Avengers: Infinity War, just as there was no way I was going to avoid seeing it during its opening weekend — not after having watched every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film (which is how many, 18? 19?) that lead up to this, and especially not after having been engrossed by the original comic book series as a teenager in the 1970s.

Obligatory Movie Review Rating Statement: If you’re a Marvel movie fan, you’ll have a great time. But if you’re not, take a pass — the references to previous films in the series, and the conversations that presuppose familiarity with their characters, will leave you feeling like a guest at a large party where you don’t know anyone, and everyone knows everyone else.

Obligatory Movie Review Disclaimer: If you’re thinking of seeing the film and hate having significant plot details revealed, you should probably stop reading right… about… now.

The comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back have already begun, but I wish they’d stop. If you hadn’t seen the original Star Wars film (created without the promise of any sequel), any confusion you experienced at the start of “Empire” would have been forgotten by the introduction of new characters and plot elements; “Infinity War,” however, is incomprehensible without prior knowledge of earlier films in the series. Of more significance is that “Empire” was filled with surprises, and left its audience with questions (Who was Luke’s real father? What did Yoda mean by saying, “There is another”? Was Han Solo still alive?) that had no readily apparent answers. “Infinity War,” while certainly entertaining, provided what I consider insincere surprises at its conclusion — audiences may not have expected most of the Guardians, Black Panther, and Spider-Man to disappear at the end of the film, but does anyone who knows anything about the modern film industry believe Disney would cancel the third in a series of successful films, or fail to make a sequel to the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time? Or that Sony would release its newest star from his contract? None of that is going to happen, so these characters will certainly return during next year’s sequel.

Nearly as certain is the fate of those characters who do survive Thanos’ massacre at the end of “Infinity War.” The core group of Avengers have been played by actors who will reach the end of their contractual obligations to Marvel with the subsequent film; many have openly stated they want to move on to new projects, and those who wish to carry on with their roles may demand a salary Disney no longer wishes to pay, especially with the recent success enjoyed by their more affordable colleagues.

The story of the untitled fourth Avengers film is already evident — the original team is going to play the Jesus card, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their comrades. And while it will likely be as enjoyable as “Infinity War,” which never seems to drag despite its length or buckle under the weight of so many characters, it’s still disappointing to know the outcome of a film a year before its release.

But that’s the reality of successful film series in today’s hyper-information world. Movie audiences know more about contracts and films in development than they did during the era of the first Star Wars trilogy, and that’s ruined some of the suspense. Despite our best efforts, we cannot avoid knowing how our favorite stories will end.