Avengers: Infinity War is not a movie

The small screen has taken over as the biggest moneymaker in the entertainment industry. Movie theater attendance hit a 25-year low in 2017. Meanwhile, Netflix’s subscriber base is skyrocketing, surpassing 117 million users last year. A recent study found that 2016 was the first year consumers spent more on Internet video entertainment than at the theaters, and that dominance is expected to grow. Things look bleak for the movie theater industry.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the shining outlier to this trend. There have been 19 films in the sprawling franchise thus far, and each has grossed more than $250 million. Five have grossed more than $1 billion. The MCU does not just do big money; it has created an entertainment empire where each new installment is a must-see-in-theaters event. So how has Marvel overcome the home entertainment trend? Well, as the cliché goes: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The MCU has sustained its success for a decade by turning its movies into television episodes. Avengers: Infinity War may be marketed as the culmination of a ten-year franchise, but it’s really just another episode.

Infinity War finds the Avengers uniting to stop Thanos, a titan whose goal is to wipe out half of the universe’s population (there are already new Marvel movies plotted out every year for the next four years; I can’t fathom how the stakes will get higher than this). Thanos is more utilitarian than bloodthirsty monster: the resources in the universe are finite, he says, and there are simply too many of us to use them comfortably. Because of the universe-wide implications of his mission, every single Marvel hero manages to get pulled into this fight, from the Guardians of the Galaxy crew in outer space to Black Panther on Wakanda.

It’s the same formula as most of the Marvel episodes: all-powerful bad guy, internal bickering, clever one-liners, coming together to fight for what’s right. Infinity War has the same visual indistinctiveness as the rest of the Marvel installments, which is probably necessary when you need to meld 19 of them together. Thanos, at least, is much more interesting than many of the bland villains in the MCU universe. He gets a surprising amount of solo screen time in Infinity War, and those scenes are mostly effective. Thanos is a morally conflicted villain with a clear motivation: get the Infinity Stones, control the population.

That clear motivation proves to be essential, because the rest of the movie is a bloated mess. There are simply too many characters to fit into one movie, even at two and a half hours. The Russo brothers, directing their third Marvel installment, do an admirable job balancing it all, but it’s pretty easy to lose track of what certain characters are up to as we move away for them on screen for 20 minutes. And some of the best characters are hardly in the film: Captain America and King T’Challa have very little screen time.

The need to fit all these characters together leads to a product in which every scene is either exposition or CGI-dense battle. There are one-liners abound to break up the slog of introductions, and many are funny (Dave Bautista as Drax is a highlight, with the two funniest moments in the film).

And then there’s the much discussed ending. I won’t say what happens, but I will say this: someone dies (if you have any familiarity with MCU or the discussion around this film this should not come as a surprise, so I don’t consider this a big spoiler). It’s a bit of a jolt: we’re used to everything being fine at the end of these movies. So why didn’t I find that twist to be refreshing, or an exciting choice, at all?

I think it’s because of how this overgrown network of Marvel features functions: not as standalone films, but episodes in what is essentially a big-screen television series. The movie industry, of course, is no stranger to sequels. But a movie sequel takes the same characters, and the same world, and gives them a new, complete story. Each MCU installment, meanwhile, it less a fully formed work than a precursor to the next one. They’re episodic, and in that sense any individual feature in the series is devalued as its own work of entertainment. A sequel tells a new story; a television episode tells a piece of a story. And that is what the MCU features do.

The episodic nature of the franchise also renders the stakes of any individual movie meaningless. Things don’t look too rosy for our heroes at the end of Infinity War, and theoretically, it should be shocking. But I felt no suspense, no sense of dread. The ending is abrupt, and it’s pretty clear whatever danger is apparent at the end of Infinity War will work itself out in the next few episodes.

The Marvel features that work best tell their own story, away from the burden of the rest of the universe. Two of the most recent installments, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther, were given room to breathe. They existed in their own worlds (aside from some annoying Iron Man cameos in Spider-Man).

Speaking of which: I revisited Iron Man, the first (and still the best) of the MCU, after watching Infinity War. The film was released 10 years ago this Wednesday, and it is so much more free-spirited than the installments that followed, completely unburdened by the stories of 25 other characters. It’s dirtier, more rugged, and less refined. The first 45 minutes, culminating in Tony Stark’s escape from a terrorist camp, are the most exciting and emotionally rewarding scenes of any Marvel feature, and they tell a much simpler story.

Watching Infinity War, I couldn’t help but think of the Harry Potter franchise. Each of those films does exactly what I so desperately wish Marvel was able to navigate: they told a complete story. The only one that acted more as a set-up, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, is my least favorite of the films.

I’ve long had the quibble that each Marvel feature feels like a setup to the next one. The response from defenders of the series has always been: ‘yes, but it’s leading to all these heroes coming together!’ Well, now we’re here, and it’s just another episode.

The other problem with Infinity War is that even if the death is true, I don’t really care. Each character gets so little screen time that when we lose any one of them, it fell flat. The emotional punch is entirely dependent on an investment in the other 18 episodes.

This year will bring two more movies in the MCU; 2019 will bring another four. The ones I’m most excited about, Venom and the Spider-Man sequel, appear to have enough breathing room to escape the weight of the entire MCU. I sure hope they’re able to exist on their own terms. In Infinity War, Thanos wants to wipe out half the universe’s population. Given how bloated the Marvel universe has gotten, I wouldn’t mind wiping out half of these franchises, too.

Avengers: Infinity War: 2.5 stars