When I was still a kid and started my long, tumultuous relationship with superhero comic books, one particular issue loomed large for me. X-Men #137 was a double-sized offering with a story entitled “The Fate of the Phoenix!” It was the culmination of an extended storyline that found long-time character Jean Grey manipulated into evil acts against her teammates as her Phoenix-force-enhanced powers swelled to cosmic levels. The import of the comic is expressed bluntly by the words emblazoned across the bottom of the cover: PHOENIX MUST DIE! By the time I got my hands on it, the shocking turn was well-known. It didn’t matter. This was major, major stuff.
Fans possessing hearty backgrounds with comic books have been quick to assuage the fretting of those whose familiarity with Marvel’s lineup of superheroes is limited to the cinematic. What appears final on screen likely isn’t, they insist, probably with a steel mesh underlay of cynicism. The most dire outcomes might not be evaded, but they can be erased with greater ease than one might reasonably expect. In the Marvel Universe, mortality is a social construct.
Avengers: Infinity War, the latest installment from the rampaging and relentless Marvel Studios, is laden with burden. It isn’t quite the culmination of ten years of storytelling. That arrives one year hence, with the release of the fourth Avengers film. But the big, grand ending is revving up. And it feels like it. Practically every toy has been pulled out of the chest and strewn around the playroom, as if sugar-high toddlers have been told they can have one more afternoon of fun before everything is loaded into cardboard boxes and carted off to Goodwill, gone forever.
The burden is also apparent in the self-defeating insistence on raising the stakes ever higher. The intergalactic marauder Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a motion capture performance) finally moves forward with a plan he’s been stewing over since the big screen bow of Earth’s mightiest heroes, collecting a half-dozen celestial jewels, plugging them into the tasteful settings on a clunky metal gauntlet, and using the resulting omnipotence to implement a plan that at least half the citizens of the universe would decisively vote against. Once just a couple of baubles are in place, Thanos has robust enough abilities to manipulate time and matter that felling foes is as easy as a waggle of his fingers. But there still needs to be a movie, packed to the edges of the frame with rock-’em-sock-’em battles, and so the devastating effects of the enchanted metal mitt are highly variable.
Given everything loaded into Avengers: Infinity War, co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo are required to perform the equivalent of a quintuple Axel. There’s a little wobble to the execution, but it’s amazing that they’ve tried it at all. The filmmakers impressively make space for far more major characters than any one piece of cinema should be expected to bear. Working from a screenplay by fellow Marvel regulars Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russos mix and match well, developing joyful, clever interplay between the heroes, including those who commute in from feeder films with distinctly different tones.
Like the sprawling team-up comics of days gone by, the appeal lies in the sheer volume of the proceedings. Save perhaps galaxy guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana), none of the characters is granted an arc of any real substance. Instead, the film is often the equivalent of superstars in the “We Are the World” recording studio, stepping forward for their moment then receding into the mass. And as with that bygone charity single, an understanding of the preceding, outside work of the assembled is necessary to extract any enjoyment out of the experience. We’re long past the point at which there’s any news flash quality to observations about the Marvel film’s inability to stand alone, but the expansiveness of Infinity War heightens the usual flaw. If a character has a simple hook — like the comic literalness of Drax (Dave Bautista) — they fare pretty well in the movie. For those figures of greater nuance and depth — Captain America (Chris Evans) or Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), for example — there’s no time available to give them their due. It creates an inversion of how this is supposed to work, with the least well drawn characters proving to be most impactful.
All those years ago, “The Fate of the Phoenix” was important to me because its sense of finality felt real. It was a reasonable belief. Yes, characters that seemed to meet their maker would often return several issues later, recounting an improbable tale of escape. The most cataclysmic twists of fate, however, weren’t overturned on appeal, and it seemed likely that Jean Grey would be in that number. That assumption proved quite incorrect. Brand, as it happens, overrules the emotional integrity of narrative. The Russos can declare, “All in,” but the release schedule of Marvel Studios calls their bluff. Avengers: Infinity War is fun and raucous, but it’s bereft of deeper feeling, undermined by the very model of interconnection that makes it possible.