Warning: This article discusses major plot points of Avengers: Infinity War.
Like seemingly every third person in America, this past weekend I went to see Infinity War. I quite enjoyed it, but even if you weren’t fully won over by its charms, it’s hard to deny that the ending is one hell of a gut punch. Seeing these heroes you’ve come to know—and in some cases, have a real affinity or fondness for—turn to dust in front of your eyes is upsetting. The Spider-Man death in particular, with young Peter Parker pleading to live as he’s being erased from existence, is traumatic in a way that has lingered in my mind. (I can only imagine the conversations some parents had to have with their kids afterward.) When it ended, the theater was quiet, save for a few sniffles.
We watched the credits, everyone around me sharing a kind of stunned silence, and processed the film, on through to that post-credits stinger where it appears Nick Fury has summoned Captain Marvel, with the sense of collective shock and sadness continuing to hang heavy in the air. And then, the person with me turned, and with an ironic, spritely air, chirped, “So! Who’s ready for the wacky adventures of Ant-Man and the Wasp?” And that, in a nutshell, is what strikes me as so ridiculous about Marvel’s phase-three strategy. (I’m about to take this superhero film a little too seriously, but the entire ending of Infinity War depends on us taking it seriously, so Marvel invites this critique.)
What the hell is wrong with Marvel? It just unleashed its biggest film ever, involving every single character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it ends with the horrifying deaths of almost everyone save for the original Avengers, and now the filmmakers are going to make us wait an entire year to get to the second part of the story? That’s already sadistic enough (even Harry Potter only made us wait eight months between Deathly Hallows 1 and 2, and that wasn’t remotely as brutal a cliffhanger), but the problem really involves the next film on the studio’s docket: Ant-Man And The Wasp, coming out a few months from now. To again quote my associate, “Does Marvel honestly think I give a fuck about some lighthearted crime movie involving people who can shrink when they just murdered all the characters I care about?” I need a resolution to this story, and instead, Marvel is giving me a jaunty version of “It Takes Two” and some yuks about the size of Ant-Man’s embiggening abilities? Pardon me while I don’t give a shit.
Look, I understand the reasoning behind this tactic. As io9 put it in an assessment of the very entertaining trailer, “The New Ant-Man And The Wasp Trailer Is The Perfect Infinity War Antidote.” Marvel doubtless assumed that after all the heaviness and tragedy of the third Avengers film, fans would be eager for an upbeat tonic, something to take their minds off of what just happened and allow them to share in some good old-fashioned laughs, heroics, and super-powered derring-do. I certainly enjoy bright diversions when I’m feeling down; taking your mind off of stuff that upsets you is one of the best things about escapist fare.
Unfortunately, that assumes we’re done with the heavy stuff. And wow, are we not. Thanos may be sitting back and watching the sun rise, content in the completion of his genocidal mission, but the rest of us are left here asking how the remaining Avengers are going to save the day. Yes, it’s just another superhero movie, but when you commit to a shared universe and do as good a job as they have at making it all feel of a piece, you also commit to an audience that expects stories that don’t just meander about, dropping one narrative and picking up another to wave in our faces, assuming it’s all the same. It’s not. This was a huge decision, and it’s the only thing people invested in the Marvel universe have on their minds, for obvious reasons. To expect us to go, “Well, sure, nearly everyone we care about just crumbled to dust, but whatever, let’s see what this shiny thing in the corner is!” assumes that we don’t actually emotionally invest in these films. It’s a betrayal of precisely what movies should do, even ones that are manufactured to be four-quadrant popcorn entertainment.
There’s nothing wrong with a filmgoer not caring enough about these heroes to need resolution; you may have no real investment at all, and are happy to go check out Ant-Man And The Wasp in July. It looks fun! I liked the first one! But the people making these movies should damn sure care, and programming the lineup in this manner conveys the message that they don’t—that all Marvel stories are equal and interchangeable, and audiences shouldn’t worry about it. That’s not a way to inspire confidence about how you treat these characters people around the world look up to and take inspiration and comfort from. If you’re not serious about treating your fictional worlds with emotional honesty, whether it’s high art or a Transformers flick, then you shouldn’t be making them. (Which is why the people currently making Transformers movies so obviously shouldn’t be.)
I’m willing to accept Captain Marvel coming in between Avengers 3 and 4. As that stinger suggests, Brie Larson’s hero is going to presumably play a key role in the next movie, and we’ll be much happier to see her arrive if we’re already invested in what happens to her. (There’s that pesky need to invest in character and emotion, again.) So a backstory to the character, set in the ’90s and far removed from the current predicament, doesn’t require audiences to abandon our desire to see a conclusion to the bleak catastrophe of Infinity War. If anything, it serves as a reinforcement that we’re right to care about our heroes. “Fear not, help is on the way” is the message it sends. What’s the message Ant-Man And The Wasp sends? “Eh, shit happens, let’s move on and go look at some cool stuff”?
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss all of this as taking the Marvel universe far too seriously. But that’s what a good movie should make you do. It should make you invest emotionally, and care about the characters, and want to know what happens next. For 19 films now, Marvel has done just that, with one of the most extraordinary experiments in cinematic history. Dropping Ant-Man And The Wasp in the middle of this heaviest of stories implies we shouldn’t care. Marvel should be glad we do—and then, it should bump up the damn release date for Avengers 4. It won’t get me to return to the present day of the MCU and suspend all investment for the duration of Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly’s antics, but it might at least signal that Marvel cares about its heroes as much as its audience.