The most shocking thing about Avengers: Infinity War, the nineteenth film in the all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), is that it is, for the most part, coherent. For the bulk of its two-and-a-half hour runtime, Infinity War operates as if it’s just another movie — one with clearly sketched characters, some of whom have arcs of their very own, and a plot that builds to a climax befitting the movie’s overwrought title. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but just clearing that low bar of coherency is something to celebrate. Considering the vast amounts of capital (of both the narrative and literal kinds) invested over the past decade into the MCU by its owners at Disney, it was always more likely that Infinity War was going to be a mediocre, focus-grouped-to-death product that muddled through its contractually-obligated crossovers with all the joy of negotiating a corporate merger.
Instead, the movie is a movie, and a good one at that — Joe and Anthony Russo, the duo of brothers who directed the past two Captain America movies, direct a surprisingly resonant story about sacrifice, ambition, and fanaticism. Yes, sure, the central figure of the movie is a 10 foot tall purple alien with an unfortunate looking chin named Thanos — I never said that it wasn’t a ridiculous movie. But it leans into the ridiculous splendor afforded by the MCU, never feeling dreary or dragging. It even breaks from some of the bad habits entrenched in the MCU after more than a dozen homogenous entries — gone are the tepid bits of shoehorned romance and unmemorable, motivation-free villains, replaced with Josh Brolin’s Thanos, who manages to avoid categorization as yet another generic intergalactic conqueror.
Infinity War even has a genuinely shocking ending — Thanos wins, breaking from the stasis of eternal heroic victory that the MCU seemed comfortable to remain in, and gets to enact his plan of reducing the universe’s population by half with the snap of a super-powered finger. Even more shockingly, the Russos don’t sidestep the issue or cop out by killing only side characters — the movie’s main cast is cut in half in the final seconds, killing everyone from Tom Holland’s Spider-Man to Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. It’s a devastating and unique narrative move, leveraging the goodwill and character development built in entirely separate movies like a hammer through audience expectations. The sheer force of that ending is perhaps the best argument for the entire foolhardy enterprise of building the kind of cinematic universe Marvel has.
And yet the ending of Infinity War falls flat when considered in the context of the corporate empire it dwells within. The deaths, shocking and seemingly permanent, go from tragic to lightly comic upon the realization that Tom Holland is signed on for at least three more movies, or that the sequel to Black Panther is already in the works. The problem, then, with Infinity War can be found in the very force that allowed its ridiculous and glorious existence. The failure and success of Infinity War is wrapped up in the very design of capitalism, in the insatiable hunger of capital and its standard-bearers for more. More surprising twists, more superhero movies — but most of all, more profit, no matter what it does to the art-product that’s supposed to be generating that profit.
Disney, just like any corporate steward of a beloved media franchise, does not really care about its art-product. They care about it, but in the sense a farmer cares about their livestock — regardless of any residual affection they may feel, the only thing they really care about is extracting as much profit as possible in the short-to-mid-term. And in the case of Kevin Feige (the president of Marvel Studios) and the rest of the corporate heads at Disney, the option that brings them the most future profit is also the one that involves bulldozing a path through the narrative coherence of their current work. Yes, of course Infinity War would make more sense and be a better movie if we didn’t know that the fate of the universe is guaranteed by the existence of a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming. But Infinity War was going to guarantee profit for Marvel regardless of whether it was coherent or not, and so Disney sacrificed its own narrative strength for the sake of keeping their cash cow alive.
Because the truth is, in commercial art or in any arena, capitalism can’t let a good thing end. The ethos required for the maintenance of the system of industrial capitalism is one of extracting all possible surplus value out of a commodity — be that a simple product, a worker, or an idea. In the eyes of capital, there’s no real difference between a conventional commodity good like a coat and a commodifiable idea like a superhero movie; they’re both just things to be sold, to be iterated upon and made into seamlessly commercial products. In the case of the movie studios, this focus solely on the extraction of value encourages conservative creative thought. Why take a risk on a new, unproven idea when you can, with much less effort, make more money off the 6th Mission: Impossible movie or another generation of Marvel spectacles?
Yet this purely profit-driven calculation overlooks that a creative idea does not behave quite like a normal commodity. For one, narratives and creative concepts have lives all their own, unbound from the strict accounting of supply and demand lifecycles. A story runs its course on its own — once it reaches an ending, extending it beyond that point harms the integrity of a narrative as a whole. Gazing upon the annals of Hollywood history, you can see the distorted corpses of dozens of spent ideas — from the overloaded body of the western, weighed down by the sheer mass of the hundreds of cowboy films made in the 50s and 60s to the last gasps of modern franchises like the Transformers movies, by now barely profitable excuses for merchandise sales.
Which brings us back to the hollow triumph of Infinity War. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps not as exhausted as the franchises of yore. But every creative enterprise under capitalism can pick one of two ends — to die when it runs out of ideas or when it stops making profit. With the ending of Infinity War, the creative minds of the MCU make a compelling case for ending a story where it deserves to end, at its logical narrative conclusion. It is unfortunate, then, that the corporate reality of Marvel Studios will never let that happen. Instead, the only fate possible for the MCU is to be drained of all possible value through a conqueror’s march of uninspired sequels.
It’s just good business, you know?