It’s been a decade since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, and for nearly that long, fans have been discussing Marvel’s “formula,” or the structure they use to tell their stories. Many have claimed that forcing Marvel’s writers to adhere to a rigid narrative framework has hindered creativity within the MCU, causing the films to feel increasingly as if they came off an assembly line. Others would argue that Marvel movies have actually been getting more creative as the MCU has progressed, taking bold risks and overlapping genres that the straight-up action movies of Phase 1 never dared to touch.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller, Ant-Man was a heist film, Spider-Man: Homecoming was a John Hughes-esque high school romp, Black Panther was a socially conscious commentary on race and privilege, and Thor: Ragnarok was… well, it’s hard to say, exactly, but run-of-the-mill, it was not. Sure, they all still stuck to Marvel’s tried-and-true structural framework, but saying that all films with the same structure are the same feels a little like saying that any two cakes baked in a 9×13 pan will taste alike. You can change the flavor without changing the shape, and Marvel has proved itself to have a seemingly endless supply of tasty recipes.
However, I’ve long suspected that Marvel’s formula doesn’t just apply to the individual films that make up its cinematic universe, but to the MCU as a whole.
Any student of storytelling craft can probably tell you that most screenplays (yup, I said ‘most’; it’s not just Marvel) tend to fit a three act structure of Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution, which seems like it should line up perfectly with the three phases (so far) of the MCU, but it’s actually not a perfect fit.
Despite its self-imposed segmentation into three phases, both the individual Marvel movies and the collective MCU actually tend to adhere closer to a Shakespearean five-act structure than a traditional three-act, consisting of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. This makes sense when you consider the massive scope of the MCU. The stakes and drama were already Shakespearean, so why not the structure as well?
When you filter the entire MCU through the lens of a five-act structure, it’s easy to see which movies fit each into each act. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger are all Exposition. We meet the main characters, learn their origin stories, and establish them individually as heroes.
The Rising Action of the MCU spans the end of Phase One and most of Phase Two, including The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters come together as a team, and begin to play off of one another, their worlds intersecting a little more. Side plots and secondary characters are introduced, the world-building is deepened, and we begin to understand a little more about what each character wants and needs, as well as the inherent sources of tension within the group.
Next we have the Climax, or the turning point of the story. In the MCU, this is Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. These are the films that shake up the status quo, upending what we know to be true, and propelling both the characters and the narrative into previously unexplored territory.
Act Four is Falling Action, in which we deal with the fallout of the Climax and begin to lay the groundwork for the finale. Old threads are tied up, final twists are revealed, and the heroes must reinvent themselves in order to face their greatest challenge yet. In the MCU, the Falling Action movies are Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War.
The final act is Resolution, in which ultimate lessons are learned, seemingly insurmountable obstacles are overcome, and the characters, galvanized by their trials, emerge permanently changed. And while we haven’t yet gotten to this point in the MCU, it’s a safe bet that Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and the as-yet untitled Infinity War sequel will function as its Resolution.
What is my point in breaking this down, and what does this have to do with Avengers: Infinity War? Well, the thing about following a basic storytelling structure, whether it’s three acts or five, is that within those acts, a plot needs to hit specific story “beats,” or narrative landmarks, in order to propel the pacing and define the shape of the story. Many writers have mapped out what these individual beats look like, with one of the most popular versions being Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat.” In Snyder’s beat sheet, the last beat before the Resolution is what he refers to as the “Dark Night of the Soul,” in which the protagonists have lost everything, the antagonist appears to have won, and all hope feels lost.
This is the moment when Marty McFly begins to fade from existence, when Elliott has to face E.T.’s dead body, when Woody and his fellow toys are dumped into the junk yard fire. It’s Luke being tempted by the Emperor’s offer to turn to the Dark Side. It’s Frodo refusing to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, while Aragorn’s army is surrounded by the forces of Mordor.
And, in the MCU, it is the entirety of Avengers: Infinity War.
Unlike every film that came before it, which hit one or more beats in the larger MCU narrative while also adhering to an internal five-act-structure of its own, Infinity War is only concerned with the role it plays in the wider MCU, and not at all with telling its own self-contained story. It is a film with zero setup, zero character arcs, and zero turning points. Every (surviving) character is, at the conclusion of Infinity War, exactly the same person they were at the beginning, and wants the exact same things, even if they have no idea how to get it. The entire film is falling action, a slow-motion tumble down the stairs that, when it’s over, may have perfectly set up the Resolution of the MCU, but didn’t actually provide any resolution for itself.
This isn’t just to say that it ends on a cliffhanger (although it does), or that it’s dark (which it is). Many films, especially series films, are darker in tone than their predecessors, and end on cliffhangers, while still advancing their characters and telling a self-contained story, such as The Empire Strikes Back or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (both of which I’ve seen numerous reviewers compare to Infinity War, although I think that neither is a very apt comparison).
The truth is that Infinity War doesn’t feel like any film we’ve seen before, because there’s never been a film like it before. Never in the history of film has there been a cinematic crossover event of this scale, with dozens of characters from eighteen different movies joining together for one massive event. But that’s not to say this sort of thing is entirely unprecedented; there is one medium which is perfectly suited to sprawling crossover events with world-defining stakes, and has, in fact, been churning out dozens of these sorts of stories for decades.
That medium, of course, is comics.
And that’s what Infinity War feels like: more than any other MCU movie — really, more than any other superhero movie, period — for better or for worse, Infinity War truly captures what it feels like to read comic books, throwing the audience right into the midst of a cataclysmic conflict, pulling in scores of characters from multiple properties, and upping the stakes to previously unfathomable levels. Yes, every Marvel movie has been based on comics, but up until now, they’ve all still functioned, first and foremost, as movies, telling self-contained stories that all had a degree of serialization, to be sure, but could all still be viewed and more or less understood in isolation. If you’ve only watched The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, you’ll probably be able to mostly keep up with Civil War. If you’ve only seen Thor and The Dark World, you’ll likely be fine for Ragnarok.
But if you haven’t seen all eighteen preceding MCU movies, you probably should skip Infinity War.
Like most comic book events, Infinity War doesn’t bother catching its audience up on past events before plunging straight into conflict. There is no “Previously in the MCU” recap to help us get our bearings. The opening scene picks up right where a previous movie left off, with no explanation for how those characters got themselves into that situation, then promptly hurtles ahead with an almost baffling level of confidence that the audience not only remembers where we last saw each and every character in the MCU, but also who they are, what they value, and what they’re capable of.
For some, this won’t seem like a tall order. After all, this is the same degree of familiarity that comic fans have had to sustain for decades. But in a franchise that has spent ten years building a universe in which it’s never been necessary to see the Thor movies to understand the Captain America ones, it’s jarring to realize that it’s suddenly vital not only to have seen both, but also Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther, as well as pretty much every other MCU film except for The Incredible Hulk (which I think Marvel is kind of hoping we forget) and, well, Ant-Man, although that one will probably become much more relevant after this summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Instead of spending any time setting the stage for what’s to come (I almost wrote “wasting time,” but honestly, I don’t think it would have been a waste; Infinity War may be 160 minutes long, but I’m still not convinced that skipping the entire setup did it any favors), Infinity War comes flying out of the gate already in full conflict mode, and doesn’t let up until the credits roll (and beyond — be sure to stay until the very end). Characters are flung together as they are relentlessly pummeled with one antagonistic onslaught after another, charging from one gigantic set piece to the next with startling ferocity. There is almost no downtime in this movie, no place to catch a breath (forget having to pee; there simply aren’t three consecutive minutes in which you can leave the theater and not miss something important), and no opportunity to get your bearings. Come into this movie already well oriented, or don’t come in at all.
For the first time, in Infinity War, the MCU seems far more focused on the larger, eleven-year saga it’s spinning than its individual components. This isn’t a film that’s concerned with furthering individual character arcs or deepening relationships. It is the Dark Night of the Soul, and only the Dark Night of the Soul. Its only aim is to pound its protagonists down, strip away their hope, and set the stage for their final showdown (currently scheduled for May 3, 2019. Mark your calendars).
This isn’t to say Infinity War is bad, or even that it isn’t fun. Despite its darker function in Marvel’s overall narrative, it’s still full of the type of quippy humor and quick-witted dialogue that has always defined the MCU, and there are multiple moments throughout the film where my theater laughed, cheered, and applauded. What’s more, despite its daunting runtime, Infinity War never feels ponderous, with the pacing moving along at a pretty aggressive clip. The action is intense (albeit choppy; the beautiful choreography of Black Panther or the Captain America films is nowhere to be found in Infinity War, which favors explosions, visual chaos and rapid-fire cuts over intricately staged fights), and for once, the score is actually effective, using Alan Silvestri’s main Avengers theme to its full potential. (Although, after Thor: Ragnarok, I think the Russos missed a prime opportunity for an “Immigrant Song” needle drop, which we can all just agree is Thor’s theme song now, right?) And while the onus is on the audience to show up fully versed on every character’s name and backstory, if you are up to speed, it’s pretty enjoyable to see them all interact with one other, especially since Infinity War makes a point of pairing up characters who have never previously met, which leads to some truly delightful moments.
Still, don’t go in expecting Infinity War to taste like anything Marvel has dished up before. The characters and MacGuffins may be familiar, but the way this particular story unfolds is uncharted territory, both for the MCU and for films in general. Like the comic events it’s meant to evoke, Infinity War feels ambitious and game-changing, with stakes so high they seem almost unimaginable and an ending that poses far more questions than it answers.
If superhero movies were bikes, Infinity War doesn’t just take off the training wheels, but sends us careening down a mountain without a helmet. And all I can say without spoiling anything is, brace yourselves. There are rocks at the bottom.