In trying to process my reaction to 'Avengers: Infinity War', I believe what can best be said is that this is a film that is pretty interesting almost—okay, let’s be honest, totally—in spite of itself. Every problem pertinent to a Marvel production applies in a modulated form: everywhere in the universe other than New York City persists in being devoid of life (overpopulation a losing argument already), such that sets take on a strangeplaying with toys in your bedroom quality. This is not exactly a compliment, as it plays into criticisms Max Coombes has elaborated much better than I ever could elsewhere:
"the context [of the set] is activated through fights, and the fights are justified through talking. To say that the fights are not good fights would require a discussion of choreography and editing, and both of these things are of secondary importance to the talking, which means that each blow landed or missed comes down to where 'Infinity War's' dramatic stakes need to be at that precise moment, resulting in rote bludgeonings on either side."
Take any moment from an MCU film and you’re witness to this tautological relationship between witty banter and fighting, each fuelling the other; even as sets become radically spare to maximise focus on talking and ease in painting bodiless action. Conclusion and means of arrival are pre-set. Physical skills aren’t really required when it's all digital. What matters most is construction.
It is in this sense that Marvel’s tendency to shoot and reshoot becomes palpable at times. There are, of course, the obvious changes in dialogue between trailer and final cut, as well as say the knowledge that there exists an alternative version of the film in which Captain Marvel is an active participant. Yet, what seems most applicable to 'Infinity War' is how it develops the MCU's collage and stitching approach to editing scenes, which has a lot to do with "set design" in its way. More than most Marvel entries, this gives the impression of cycling through and chopping up shots and takes from various stages of production, stitching together an end product that hadn't been fully determined on outset (e.g. the rotating coverage shot of New York City, à la Killmonger sitting on Wakandan throne, from the trailer is radically shortened and re-toned in the final product). In some ways, it's a style perfectly suited to the Russo Brothers' freneticism, in that irregularities can be disguised in a flurry of movement, handheld camera, and editing. Indeed, weird cuts between takes and shoots become weirder cuts that reuse computer-generated shots from other MCU productions (e.g. Thor swinging Rocket around as rehash of Rocket travelling through wormholes in'Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2'). However, as much as any film is a disparate collection of cuts,Infinity Warpresents as the typification of the MCU in this regard. The films are wholly bereft in their design to make efficient their manufacture as crowd-tested assemblage. Back to Max:
"[I]t's the second most expensive movie ever made because We want more, We want everything, Yes of course we do, and so an intimate and horrific hero's journey into large-scale genocide (!) is forfeited for more and everything. I remember an interview with an electronic musician who said that with new technologies the artist has every sound, every texture, at her disposal, and so freedom in the creative act only comes about through clearly defined parameters. This will obviously never happen where these films are concerned- where consumers demand and content administrators listen and then bait, generating content that exists to generate interest, interest existing to justify content generation, this toxic relationship, this carrot and stick, this perpetual trailer."
It is hard to escape the conclusion that one is witnessing a bastardised creativity wherein an environment of total media saturation is the overarching parameter that enables the film’s existence and praise. The filming schedule of the MCU and the editing process that arrives at the finished product is then entirely parasitic, and this burrows itself deep into the architecture of their work: mise-en-scène, the cut, composition, and sound design all banalised and repurposed to deepen and close the loop between commodity and consumer. These works aren’t assemblages built on narrative and visual rhythms but on the creation and movement of mass expectation and desire. Take any inane fan theory or piece of speculation post-release and you have the beginnings of the edit of the next instalment.
* * * *
Yet, as I said, 'Infinity War' almost in spite of itself is pretty good, or at least interesting, in spite of itself. It’s almost certainly the case that no artistic decisions realised what works in this film’s favour. When you’re eighteen or whatever instalments into your franchise, it’s possible furniture moving motivates curiosity by accident. So what is that garners interest? For me, as one who is a noted “panner” of Marvel films by and large, I think it has to do with there being next to nothing to do with Earth politics and the reactionary ideologies the company is paid to bake-in. It's refreshing. Character based entries elaborate all too much what is repellent about each figure: Black Panther and Thor as affable or relaxed monarchs, Captain America a hot but boring libertarian, Iron Man a sarcastic billionaire militarist, etc. etc.. Here, thankfully lacking Joss Whedon’s character wankery, we have no individual focus allowing us to experience the Avengers in true toybox style, less as people we can or should identify with and more as empty vessels doing things. Captain America and his team are basically zombies and everyone else are so instinctively reactive that A -> B movements seem to require no consideration or internal logic. – Let’s go to space? – Okay.</em>
Relatedly, 'Infinity War' also seems to boast what can be best as a staggeringly disjointed vignette structure. There’s a way in which individual scenes seemed hermetically sealed from each other, which is no surprise considering that the actors didn’t know what the hell was going on and the editing of the film is composed of scenes with utterly disparate logics. However, despite this, it's the first Marvel film that is constantly transporting you to new places. I count at least fourteen individual interplanetary spaces characters interact with, even as they don’t appear to innately interact with one another. Some of these places are cool and interesting while others are dumb and probably ugly, but it's the first film in this series that feels like it’s truly moving. Yes, the pacing is kind of wild, like it's happening at light speed with the effects of time dilation as internal to your bones; but it’s a special kind of boredom in which you become aware you’re seeing something distinctive and new.
What I’m putting forward here might appear as faint praise—it probably is—but I do actually like this film, perhaps precisely because what I’m talking about with relation to character, plot structure, and environmental design is how each work to make it all the more distant as an emotional object that simultaneously treats its spaces with some care. The conclusion of the film then becomes what is under discussion here, as all the doing and isolated and barely tethered movement come to a head in events that make one think of the 'What year is it?' of 'Twin Peaks: The Return'. It’s a fitting analogue, as the 'What did you do?' and 'Where did he go?'—articulated as reactions to a violently distant, unknowable, abstract terror embodied all too close—break the distance that’s been apparent all throughout. Bodies are dispersed as they become fully present in this space. It has the effect of the film realising itself most completely not in how this event is happening to these people but in how it could happen at all. It’s a vital presence found in the dialectical nature and incomprehensibility of the event itself, situated as it is between the immediacy of the sonics and weirdness of its space and the abstraction events and character have had up until this moment.
Sure, yes, it’ll all go nowhere, but until then: 'Where did he go?'