There was an idea.
I have very clear memories of seeing Iron Man in 2008. I was in Year 4 at Primary School. I don’t remember much from Year 4 (except being top of the class for Maths, a hilarious achievement in comparison with my later mathematic incompetency) but I do remember asking my friend if he wanted to go to the Odeon on Saturday to see either Iron Man or Speed Racer. Iron Man was the logical choice, given my years-long obsession with all things Marvel – even if that obsession was mostly relegated to Spider-Man – but the flash-bang colours of Speed Racer were proving somewhat tempting. Rest assured, we both chose Iron Man, a decision which was to have lasting ramifications for the rest of my life.
The film was intoxicatingly good. I giggled along with all of Tony Stark’s jokes, studiously watched these new and exciting Marvel characters grace the big screen, and felt utterly drawn into the slick, CGI mechanics of the Iron Man suit, which sparked a cornucopia of developments within my imagination. Sometime after watching the movie, I came up with my own superhero: Firefly, who was, funnily enough, also a billionaire tech genius who builds a red-and-gold metal suit to fly around in. What was his name? God knows – it’s lost in the annals of my brain – but he was most certainly played by Ioan Grufford, better known, at that point, as Mister Fantastic.
When I got my hands on the Iron Man DVD at the local Sainsbury’s, I soon got to burning through this MARVEL (heh) again and again and again. At least, I think so. I only remember one viewing distinctly. My mum had friends over, so I was forced to watch Iron Man on the tiny box TV in her bedroom (not that our main TV wasn’t also a tiny box back then). It was then, as Tony Stark uttered those iconic final words and the animated credits rolled, that familiar AC/DC song rocketing through the room, I had a thought. What if there was more to this movie? What if there was… an end bit?
[‘The end bit’ was the scientifically accurate term we gave to post-credits scenes, an exciting treat which only occasionally greeted a film viewing. Might as well check, I figured. I had nothing better to do. I was 8. 8!]
The credits rolled, and rolled, and rolled, before finally reaching a black screen. And then it lit up with colour once more, and my whole world changed.
Ten years later, I sat down with my good friend Ryan to watch Avengers: Infinity War in IMAX 3D at Empire Leicester Square. A lot has changed in those ten years. Within the world which came to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the arrival of Iron Man sparked an intergalactic arms race of superheroism and villainy: gods cracked open the skies, aliens poured through New York, the government was infiltrated with neo-Nazis, an entire country was decimated by an insane robot, the world put their faith in a band of plucky heroes to defend them from evil, then watched on as those same heroes tore themselves apart. That description is barely denting the surface.
Outside of the MCU, however, is where the greatest change has occurred – changes we never thought imaginable. During the span of the MCU, we have seen the election of the first black U.S. President, and the subsequent denigration of his legacy at the hands of a mad reality TV star; the transition of science fiction to science fact through the birth of smartphones and artificial intelligence; a global collapse of faith in politics, leading to resurgent political extremism; the rise of social media, and the unexpected, consequential harm it has caused to the very fabric of human society, and so much more. Within Hollywood, it is the MCU which prompted unimaginable changes: the American studio system evolved from a varied yearly output to one which focuses primarily on building franchises. The dominance of Netflix and Amazon Prime has redrawn the map of cinematic consumerism, as has the newfound strength of Disney: its emphasis on intellectual property recently saw the demise of 20th Century Fox, one of the biggest and oldest entertainment corporations in Hollywood. Culturally, the popularity of sequels and established franchises have rhymed with a global societal frustration with modern developments, and a puristic yearning for days which once were.
There is no better avatar for these distinctly 21st Century feelings than the strongmen and women of superheroism. People have lived, loved, died, all over a world which can’t keep up with its own pace of change – and amidst that turbulent ocean, one thing has stayed put, telling the same old story.
In those ten years, I have grown taller, wider, hairier, dumber, smaller, shorter, smarter, weirder, dumber again, and into all sorts of other things. Most of the people around me have come and gone, newer generations displacing their predecessors, and so forth. I do that ‘work’ thing which seemed so far away once upon a time. And I got new glasses. Throughout it all, the MCU has gone on and on.
It is reductive to consider Infinity War without the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before it, and it is an even worse offence to consider the MCU without taking into account the context in which it was made. Never before, in the history of popular narrative, has long-term, planned serialized storytelling occurred on such a scale. Never before has a blockbuster film studio had such an unbroken run of critical and commercial success, eclipsing even Pixar. Never before has there been such an attempt to create a living, breathing universe on film, with as many tones and tales as our own. This leads us down two paths: for some, the unprecedented, climactic nature of Infinity War is enough for us to love it. For others, the weight of the burden must result in higher, insurmountable critical standards.
I don’t think it was possible for me to watch Infinity War and not love it. I have issues with it (how it brushes over many established plot points and character arcs, for one), and, in isolation, this film is a fucking mess. Several characters barely register, entire scenes make little sense, motivations aren’t explained, and for some reason, these people all seem to know one another. Of course, as all sane and rational people know, Infinity War is not meant to be viewed in isolation: it is the 19th episode of a 22-movie-long story, with the entirety of the emotional and narrative legwork already done by films past. Those who cannot see this are very silly, as many people on the internet have pointed out.
The serialization vs individualization argument obscures a more difficult question to answer for me. Do I love Infinity War because of what it is, or because of what it is a part of?
I think an undervalued element of film criticism which the MCU has truly popularised (building off of Star Wars before it) is that of emotional investment from the audience. The success of Infinity War reflects the good side of that investment – and the ugly was shown off all over the world when The Last Jedi hit cinemas, the film (allegedly) bastardizing a decades-long story. Despite the many attempts to ape it, no studio has yet cracked Marvel’s serialization formula, but there will no doubt be someone who does eventually and many more who fail. As a new and, besides the MCU, relatively untapped resource of cinematic storytelling, long-term emotional investment is going to become more and more important to making films and critiquing them. This is not the equivalent of brazen fan-service, nor that of rushing to indulge in the shared universe bonanza: DC have already done a very good job of showing that neither of those approaches works.
It is what compels me to overlook some of Infinity War‘s flaws and look at the wider cinematic picture. To see it as a sort of life experience, rather than a mere film viewing. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and each time I was consistently struck by the sheer amount of time which has passed since Iron Man, and how I have literally grown up alongside these films. These characters serve to root our ever-changing lives into something tangible. They connect us to the people we once were a decade ago. Think back to 2008. Think where you were at that point in your life.
Indeed, They have informed and guided my life in more ways than one. I would not have pursued online journalism if it weren’t for my passion for superheroes, and I wouldn’t have many of the storytelling characteristics I do now without the MCU. It has been a staggering journey – yet my story is just one of millions. There are people who weren’t even alive to see Iron Man who is now old enough to enjoy the MCU with the rest of us. It’s this kind of cross-generational, uniting storytelling that Marvel has perfected. Time is intrinsic to Infinity War, and it will be even more relevant to Avengers 4.
It is illogical to even think about Infinity War without also thinking of the “bigger universe” Nick Fury first spoke of ten years ago. It is a new kind of cinema – Avengers on ‘roids, more akin to a TV series than a film franchise. One where viewers’ individual relationship with the film, one fostered over many, many years, is equally as important as the themes and characterization funnelled in by the filmmakers.
I can’t help but not love the MCU. My interest has excelled and waned periodically over the years; I think many films which are adored are suitably average, and the homogenous tonal and cinematographic style has left more than a little something to be desired. As I already said, my big issue with Infinity War is how many key developments in Phases II and III were simply discarded or overlooked in favour of the necessary plot.
Those issues, though, are microscopic within the grand scope of the bigger picture. I count myself lucky that, out of every conceivable timeline, in every possible universe, in every age that has ever passed, I was born into the one that got to experience the Marvel Cinematic Universe.