SPOILER WARNING: I will do my best to avoid major spoilers, but as with any review, it’s a bit buyer beware. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t get angry with me if you think I’ve spoiled something.
So, I definitely wanted to talk about Infinity War this weekend, and I was wondering what I might talk about outside of a straight review or a breakdown of my reaction to it, but I was given a great assist from The New Yorker, of all places.
In "Avengers: Infinity War," characters aren’t introduced; they just show up, and their behavior is entirely defined by the template set for them in other movies. https://t.co/meiJo0iQ4g
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) April 27, 2018
Just… the hottest of takes right there Mr. Brody.
And yes, technically he’s right, but reading through the article it’s clear that all of these things that he’s saying that are technically true (none of the characters have proper introductions, it feels like the season finale of a TV show, the ending compels the viewer to put on the next part) are, I think, supposed to be interpreted as negative. But these criticisms are rather dismissive to all the people, films, and characters that allowed this movie to be made, like Homer, The Ten Commandments, and Buck Rodgers.
Those things do fit together in this context, of course.
So, we’ll start with the Epic, because all of known literature starts with an Epic, and because there’s something to be said about a two and a half hour long movie being labeled an Epic. Now, I didn’t take any Epic-specific courses, but from what I learned about Epics there are a few things that help define the genre:
- They’re long — like, really long. Beowulf is *only* 3,000 lines. The Odyssey is *just* 12,110 lines. The longest Epic we have is The Mahābhārata, a Sanskrit epic that clocks in at approximately 200,000 lines. And people think The Waste Land is too long.
- They’re cumulative — especially in the Western literary tradition, Epics tend to attempt to build upon previous Epics. Ezra Pound’s Cantos start with a translation and reinterpretation of The Odyssey, Paradise Lost references Ovid and Horace, The Faerie Queene brings up The Aeneid.
- They all deal with a central question — Paradise Lost asks “What is the difference between good and evil?”, The Illiad asks “What is war?”, The Metamorphoses asks “What is change?”
Now, for the longest time Epics were exclusively written as Epic Poems. Mostly because that was just about the only thing you could write (I’m not entirely unconvinced that Western literature didn’t discover prose until Le Mort D’Arthur, but I can’t speak for any tradition east of Germany on that.) But literature marches on and there are several worthy contenders for being called Epic that are nowhere near poetry. But since we’re on the subject of film…
Epic films are all defined by a certain… grandness. Basically, they’re long, they’re big, and they have very large set-piece scenes. These films are your Ben-Hur‘s, your Gone With the Wind’s, your Titanic’s. But let’s take a look at an epic film series that I’m a bit more familiar with– The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, the second film, The Two Towers. Lindsay Ellis put it fairly succinctly in her video on it when she said: “Now this one had a special challenge; being the middle chapter, it had neither a beginning or an end. It was the middle.”
The Two Towers is the most episodic of the three films. (Yes, films, the books will be handled at a later date after I’ve… y’know…read The Two Towers and Return of the King…) We switch between the main plot of Frodo, Sam and Gollum/Sméagol bringing the Ring to Mordor, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meeting up with Gandalf the White and the Rohirrim and fighting Saruman’s army at Helm’s Deep, and Merry and Pippin escaping the Orcs and meeting the Ents. Now, my favorite parts of this were always the parts with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli because they had larger conflicts and more concrete stakes and political intrigue. But all three story lines are essential to moving the story forward. The function of the story is to move the characters from where they end in The Fellowship of the Ring to where they start in The Return of the King. If you cut out The Two Towers, you would know that the Fellowship had broken, but you wouldn’t have met the Rohirrim or the Ents and you wouldn’t have had a proper introduction to Gollum (unless you’d read The Hobbit) or know why he was the one leading Frodo and Sam to Mordor. You would probably figure out who Faramir was, but Eowyn would make no sense, and if you were only watching the theatrical cuts, you would have no idea why Saruman was suddenly being sidelined.
Ellis touches on something in her statement that is endemic to the way that The Lord of the Rings was published. The Lord of the Rings was written in six volumes that were meant to be published as one book, but due to the size of the work and a particularly shrewd publisher, it ended up as the trilogy that we have today. The Lord of the Rings, in any form, is an epic. It’s big (481103 words and 11:23:59 for the extended films), it is cumulative not only of all the fantasy that came before and after, but also of all of Tolkien’s research into linguistics, folklore, and mythology, and it deals with the big question of “What is the nature of power and how does it corrupt?” (there can be arguments for other big questions). While the concept of “Epic Film” can and has been applied to any big-budget, elaborately produced film, using the genre of Epic in the medium of film is a bit more specific.
So a long long time ago, they hadn’t quite yet figured out what to do with this whole “film” thing, and TV hadn’t been invented yet, so there were these low-budget, Sci-Fi serials that they would show at matinees, that would be paired with newsreels, cartoons, and other short features. They were highly popular, with some of the more famous ones including The Perils of Pauline, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy. Serials would often end on outrageous cliffhangers, with the hero sometimes literally hanging from a cliff. And that’s, incidentally, why they’re called cliffhangers. (Between the Lions, anyone?)
These serials were cheesy, not always particularly well acted, didn’t have the best special effects, and eventually, yes, were killed by the invention of TV. And while fondly remembered, they weren’t exactly blockbusters.
At least, not until 1977.
Episode IV was a stand alone film, but subsequent films were definitely serialized, and Lucas is on record that both Star Wars and Indiana Jones were based on those old serials. And given how many films are around nowadays because of Star Wars, all of those films can also claim these serials as part of their history.
Serialization has its artistic roots, of course. Le Mort D’Arthur is pretty serialized, Charles Dickens published his books chapter by chapter in magazines, and there were the ubiquitous penny dreadfuls, but the most classic example of serialized story is within a story itself– Scheherazade was a woman brought to the king, who was going to sleep with her and behead her in the morning. She started telling him a story and he was so enraptured that he couldn’t do anything else, but she stopped in the middle. This continued for 1,001 nights, and if that number sounds familiar, it’s because the story of Scheherazade is the framing device for One Thousand and One Nights which also gives us the classic stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor. Scheherazade, of course, is not beheaded and becomes the queen.
Infinity War — an Epic Serial
So it’s pretty easy to see how the MCU is a modern form of the film serial. Hell, the comic book genre was heavily influenced by pulp serials like Dick Tracy and Doc Savage. The MCU has, essentially, mastered the concept of serial filmmaking on a scale that has never been seen before. It encourages you to learn more about the universe, to watch all of the films and shows so that you don’t miss any part that might be important. And they throw in incentives to seek out the original comics, that also works as Easter eggs for those who know the comics. Isn’t that right, True Believers?
So when Richard Brody argues that Infinity War is “a big-screen, two-and-a-half-hour variant on a single episode in a television series” and that “characters aren’t introduced; they just show up, and their behavior is entirely defined by the template set for them in other movies”, it’s kind of disingenuous to the genre of film that it owes a huge debt to. Of course it feels like an episode, the whole of the MCU is episodic. Of course the characters don’t have introductions, they were introduced in the other films. Infinty War is the lead up to a finale ten years in the making, and the introductions that you’re looking for are in these other films. Hell, sometimes not even then– Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk didn’t really have an introduction, but because he showed up in The Avengers, was referred to as “Bruce” and “Dr. Banner”, and there were mentions of him “avoiding stress” and connecting him to gamma radiation and mentioning a “monster” and “the other guy”, most everyone knew who he was supposed to be. Some characters are just that iconic. And then, of course, there’s that ending, which evokes the reason why people kept going back to the old serials.
But we also need to talk about the Epic.
Infinity War is a middle chapter in an Epic. Much like The Two Towers, it follows a few different groups of heroes as they meet new characters, have interesting new interactions, and fight large battles. Much like in Homer, these are clashes between men and gods and monsters, designed by fate and showing us reflections of ourselves. And much like any epic, the MCU asks one question across all 19 of its films: “What does it mean to be a hero?” Is it standing for the ideals that your nation was founded on, regardless of what the law may state? Is it realizing the damage you inadvertently caused and trying to right the wrongs you enabled? Is it understanding that having power gives you a certain responsibility to those who do not? I recommend Kyle Kallgren’s video essay examining the heroism of the Avengers, which goes further into the ideologies of the Avengers from the 2012 film.
Brody argues that the stakes in the film seem low, because that ending seems utterly reversible. He states that “The ground rules governing the film’s superheroics are undefined and limitlessly malleable: infinite powers mean infinite dramatic possibilities, and none of the limitations by which real lives and choices are constructed and compelled.” But the reality isn’t in what people can do– could you argue that a man impervious to damage save a single spot on his heel is unrealistic? Sure. But that’s not the point of Achilles’ character. The point is that when he inadvertently causes Patroclus’ death, his emotions are realistic, his reaction is something that we can relate to. We don’t relate to Thor because he can shoot lighting from his fists, we relate to him because after everything Thanos (and life in general) took from him, he doesn’t blame Gamora for it but instead empathizes with her that “families are hard”. We don’t relate to Groot because he’s an alien-tree-thing, we relate to him because he just wants to be left alone and play Space Invaders. We don’t relate to Tony Stark because he has a robot suit and a couple billion dollars, we relate to him because despite the universe continuing to beat him down further he just wants to save the people he loves. It’s not the heroics that have to be realistic, it’s the heroes. And that is the power of the Epic– when done right, it’s real people in grand and fantastic situations, trying to help as best they can with what they have.
Overall, I thought Infinity War was a thrilling film that was heartbreaking at times, but a whole lot of fun at others. I’m looking forward to the next Avengers film, even though we do have to wait a year for it. I also think it would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t been following the MCU all these years to really get into it. Lewis Lovhaug, of Atop the Fourth Wall, often states that every comic is someone’s first, but he also acknowledges that “not every comic is the first story either“. Infinity War falls into that second category. To argue that the film should set up its characters and universe for the audience is very much missing the point of serialized and episodic fiction. Just because it’s your first, doesn’t mean that it’s the first. And most people don’t have time to go back and watch 10 years of media just for set up for the film (much less the 80 years of comics history from Marvel and DC that allows the MCU to exist), so there are things that they might miss. But for True Believers? They don’t miss a thing. That doesn’t make the fiction exclusionist, that makes it a franchise. And if you want in, here is how you play. Could the film stand on its own? Maybe, perhaps in the same way that Buckaroo Banzai does. But that doesn’t mean that they need to, or even that they should. It’s a genre convention. Don’t like it? Maybe this isn’t your genre.
So what did you think of Infinity War? I won’t promise that there won’t be spoilers in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.