One of the most remarkable things about Avengers: Infinity War is that it works at all. There are plenty of things to criticize about the movie, should you want to, but a muddy chronology is not one of them: Despite having dozens upon dozens of characters, the movie never collapses into a mess, and it’s always clear about why each character is doing what they’re doing, even if you might not buy individual emotional beats in the moment.
Some of this is thanks to a smart choice by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to collapse as many characters as possible into as few storylines as possible. As such, Iron Man ends up hanging out with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and some of the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Thor hangs out with the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Rather than trying to give every individual a story arc, the writers try to give collections of characters story arcs.
But this narrative clarity is just as attributable to the editing of Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, as well as the secret weapon directors Anthony and Joe Russo have always brought to their Marvel films: They understand intuitively how to structure a big blockbuster movie like a season of a TV show. And it’s that episodic structure that saves Infinity War time and time again.
Infinity War sometimes feels like binge-watching a much longer TV series version of itself on Netflix
The mode of blockbuster filmmaking in America typically involves cross-developing a handful of storylines, then bringing them all back together for the movie’s climax, thus allowing the movie to cross-cut between those storylines at a more and more frantic pace, until the final showdown is freely leaping among them.
For instance, The Last Jedi, the latest Star Wars film, splits its three younger protagonists — Jedi-in-training Rey, would-be Rebel Finn, and ace pilot Poe — into three different stories that converge again at the end. There’s a reason it works so well in Last Jedi, which is that the original Star Wars pretty much invented this blockbuster storytelling template that we’re still using today.
And, truth be told, Infinity War doesn’t diverge from this model that remarkably. It still cross-cuts between storylines, gradually increasing the speed of its cuts, and its climax leaps from one location to another (often across the bulk of the galaxy) as it builds to its big final moment. But what’s most notable about the film is how much time it spends on its individual storylines. Every time it cuts to a new one, it does so with the intent of essentially telling a full mini story within that locale, before moving on to another mini story.
As an example, take the story of Thor, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon going to get in touch with the dwarves who built Thor’s now-shattered hammer Mjollnir. One sequence involves them exploring the ruins of the dwarven planet, only to come across the lone survivor. The next involves finding plans to build Thor a mighty ax. Another involves Thor having to restart a dead star to heat up the flames of the dwarven forge. And so on.
In another movie, any of these moments might have been the entirety of a storyline. You can easily see how just getting the forge reheated could have taken up much more screentime. But Infinity War collapses these stories into sequences because it knows that if it stretches the story out too far, we might lose interest in any given storyline when we’re spending so long away from it. Thus, every time we cut back to Thor and company, we’ve moved on to another episode of The Thor Show.
The Russos had fewer characters to work with in their two Captain America chapters — The Winter Soldier and Civil War — but they used similar structural tricks there to maintain viewer interest (vital in the long, slow portions in the first half of Civil War). And Infinity War is the foremost example of how this kind of storytelling can work on the largest scale imaginable.
Every time I found myself thinking, “Hey, we haven’t checked in on [insert character’s name here] in a while,” the movie would cut over to them and spend a good five to 10 minutes with them. I didn’t time the movie or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of these smaller segments ended up being roughly equivalent, making the movie feel all the more like a shortened version of a much longer (probably less fulfilling) binge-watch of a Netflix series version of the story.
This kind of storytelling also apes big comics crossovers
Of course, a story based on comics will always be able to draw from the comics themselves, and Infinity War is maybe the closest any of these big crossover movies have come to how it feels to actually read a superhero comic book. Just when something big is happening to Tony Stark, the movie cuts away from him to see what’s up with Thor, or with Thanos, or with Captain America.
It’s not unlike racing to the comics store every week to pick up the latest issue of the big Marvel crossover event to find out what will happen next. You know you’ll get back to Tony eventually, in the next issue of Iron Man, but for now, you’re just happy to read about Steve Rogers facing overwhelming odds in the pages of Captain America. And later, when it’s all collected in a big book, those individual issues will bump up against each other in a way that makes it all feel like one big story — at least if the construction is elegant enough.
I will admit that I was deeply skeptical Infinity War could tell any sort of character-based story, and it mostly doesn’t, choosing instead to go for big and bold spectacle, leaving the more character-based storytelling to the various standalone movies within the Marvel universe. (It’s telling, I think, that the most successful Marvel movies of late — Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther — have bothered the least with tying into the Marvel Universe as a whole.)
But it also knows that big and bold spectacle can work if it’s not afraid to keep pushing for wilder and weirder moments, and especially if it can find a way to keep its storytelling crystal clear. Infinity War is far from my favorite Marvel movie, but it also shouldn’t work. That it mostly does is something others wishing to craft blockbuster movies should study long and hard, to see which of its tricks they want to steal.
Avengers: Infinity War is playing in theaters.