Avengers: Infinity War ★★½

One of the first questions I was asked after seeing Infinity War by someone unfamiliar with the comics, was “how was it as an adaptation?” To which I gave a pretty stock answer: about as close as it could possibly be, considering how different the MCU is from the comics. Which is to say, not great. It pulled elements from various Marvel events to be sure, but didn’t really adapt a specific story.

Honestly, I’m not concerned with how accurate a portrayal superhero films provide, so I kind of brushed off the question. But then I got to talking about the movie more, and my big takeaway is something I’ve been stewing on for a while. Infinity War, and the rest of the MCU, for that matter, is the ultimate superhero comic adaptation.

Not because it features a bunch of recognizable heroes fighting iconic villains. Not even because, like most superhero comics, MCU films are predominantly kind of bad. No, the MCU adapts the structure of comics more so than the content of the comics. And, as a result, these films adapt many of the structural problems with big-two comics.

More Marvel than DC these days, but both are guilty of similar failings.

Nowhere is this clearer than Infinity War, a movie which demands the viewer has watched 17 other movies. And not only watched them but parsed out all the little references and hints at the future. As with the comics its adapted from, Infinity War demands knowledge of the entirety of the universe. How else will you understand Spider-Man’s pop culture references?

The point is, you can’t go into Infinity War blind. To which many people will say: of course you can’t, it’s a sequel. But a sequel to what? To the 17 other movies? I hate to be the one to say it, but, that’s not how sequels work. This is the culmination of an entire universe, and that’s a lot to ask of an audience.

Now you have an accessibility problem on your hands. Sure, most people have seen Avengers, but based on box office numbers, not everyone came back for Doctor Strange or even Civil War, films which are integral to the plot of Infinity War. I guess, thanks to the internet, you can just read plot summaries and get a sense for what happened.

Honestly, I think you would be better served reading a wiki than actually seeing Infinity War, for what it’s worth. After all–and this also comes from the comics–there are no actual consequences to the movie. It ends on a cliffhanger, sure, but so does every superhero issue. It’s a cheap tool in the writer’s arsenal to keep people reading.

I’ve definitely fallen victim to this–just one more issue, I tell myself. And then I buy or read that issue, am disappointed with the comic, but feel obligated to finish this one arc at least! What the last couple years of struggling through an increasingly mediocre output from Marvel and DC have taught me is that there is no end. There can’t be. After all, it’s the characters that sell. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine. Those names move books, and very little else.

As such, no one can ever stay dead forever. No relationship can be permanent. Characters can’t age, except in the context of an elseworlds story. The world has to remain relatively static in order for characters to continue to exist and have stories told about them. The result is a bunch of derivative ideas, because writers can’t do anything that lasts.

So when about half the cast is killed off at the end of Infinity War, I rolled my eyes. I’ve seen this exact trick before in the comics! Guess what? It ends with time getting rolled back. At least Infinity War has the decency to convey the device through which everything will be undone.

For the record, I’m not going to justify the decision. It’s poor storytelling, plain and simple, designed to evoke a false emotional response from unscrupulous viewers. I realize I’ve made a bold claim, so let me back it up.

If characters are to change in meaningful ways, their status quo has to change with them. I do think some MCU films have accomplished this. Thor Ragnarok, despite my qualms with it, actually moves Thor’s character a few steps forward. Ditto Black Panther, which sees the titular character admit he was wrong. Those developments required the characters to grapple with real events.

If, for instance, the end of Black Panther revealed everything T’Challa had learned about Wakanda and the outside world was wrong, there would be no impetus for him to change, would there? Similarly, by undoing a bunch of character deaths, the universe cannot actually progress. The surviving cast won’t really have to grapple with it either. In the end, everything will work out, and there will be no need for characters to work through their pain.

Hell, even arcs set up for characters in other movies can be completely forgotten about if the studio sees fit. The time stone could allow them to literally undo the entire universe, which is a cute way to kick off a soft reboot, but then the MCU would just be exhibiting another systemic issue with comics.

Back to the main point, though. Much like superhero comics, the MCU really can’t be allowed to change in tangible ways because, also like superhero comics, the MCU won’t end any time soon. As it turns out, the executives at Marvel really like making money.

The MCU isn’t going to stop until the money does, which makes it difficult for meaningful change to occur. Audiences may no longer come back if their favorite characters are killed off for good or forced to–heaven forbid–actually change.

And so, to my friend who asked whether or not Infinity War succeeds as an adaptation: yes. Spectacularly. Though perhaps not in the way you may have thought. The Russo brothers didn’t read Jim Starlin’s eponymous comic and adapt it word for word. Hell, they didn’t even bring over many of the plot beats.

What they and the every other individual involved in the MCU did, however, was perhaps an even more impressive feat. They managed to translate superhero comics to the big screen, bringing all the poor decisions made by major publishers with them. In some ways, it’s genius. But mostly, it’s just another reason to stop getting mad when people critique the thing you like.