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‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Disrupts the Marvel Ritual in Epic Fashion

We are habitual animals. Even the most spontaneous people have rituals, big and small, woven into the structure of their life. Whether running before work or Communion each Sunday, we appreciate the steadiness and orientation rituals offer amid life’s unpredictability. Rituals remind us we’re a part of a larger story, like worshipping at church or singing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve.

Over the past decade, Marvel films have become a ritual for thousands of filmgoers, and often, that ritual has spoken right into our present moment. The Avengers echoed our post-9/11 desire to be saved from disaster. Captain America: The Winter Soldier allegorized our suspicions of a government willing to invade our personal freedom. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok offered us escapist moments to roll in laughter. And of course, Black Panther drew attention to the suffering and the beauty of black communities.  

The MCU has become a cinematic ritual for all types of viewers. In this world, we can be our idiosyncratic selves, right alongside our favorite characters and their huge world-hopping narratives. The theater has become a space where disasters, social or natural, don’t have the last word. Instead, they’re the spaces where we watch stories about people who, despite their selfish natures, always choose self-sacrifice.

Avengers: Infinity War, however, threatens to bring this ritualistic cinematic journey to a screeching halt. We knew this day would come. The ruthless titan Thanos seeks to collect the infinity stones in order to bring balance to an overpopulated universe, and his destructive mission also threatens the cinematic universe we’ve all grown accustomed to. What would a world without Wakanda’s wisdom look like? What would we do without the Guardians’ mixtapes reverberating through the galaxies? Infinity War has promised to flip all we’ve come to expect (and need) from the MCU on its head, ending our moviegoing ritual. Only the universe’s mightiest heroes have a chance at stopping it.

Without spoiling anything, Avengers: Infinity War wastes no time establishing itself as a Marvel film like no other. We’re denied even the smallest formal aspects we’ve seen and heard for the last decade, such as the triumphant Marvel Studios title sequence or the customary feel-good opening scene for our beloved heroes. An eerie tone casts a shadow over what follows. This is something much different than the ritual we expected.

Despite the hilarious quips and banter throughout the film (and there are some good ones!), you won’t be able to ignore the gravitas of Thanos. The titan’s rhetoric on balance and rhetoric is disturbingly familiar—we’ve heard this before, from real-life leaders advocating isolationism and nationalism. Thanos is proof (along with Eric “Killmonger” Stevens from Black Panther) that Marvel Studios can develop an emotionally complex, empathy-worthy, fear-inducing villain. Performance capture tech is at its best in this film, never losing the humanity of Josh Brolin’s acting, especially when Thanos is at his most vulnerable.

Besides Thanos, the most compelling element of Infinity War was—and this isn’t a typo—its third act. Marvel’s notorious, bombastic, CGI’d finales always end a little too clean, with little resolution for character arcs. But without saying too much (#ThanosDemandsYourSilence), Infinity War offers a multifaceted conclusion that will rip you across the emotional spectrum. It is no less CGI’d and no less bombastic, but it gives special attention to character development and resists the neat ending we expect. For the first time in a Marvel movie, I wanted more of the film itself, not the mandatory post-credits scene.

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It’s one thing when a ritual becomes rote because it’s still possible to change it up and make it more meaningful the next time around (with these movies, we could always wait for the next one). But what if the ritual produces the adverse result you were seeking: disorientation instead of orientation, hopelessness instead of hope, isolation instead of connection. Infinity War compels us to ask: What if our ritual intends to implode?

Despite some imperfections, Avengers: Infinity War deserves the modifier of epic. It denies filmgoers the ritualistic orientation and escape the MCU usually brings. If this is the penultimate ending of the Marvel universe and the characters we love, then I can’t (maybe don’t) want to see what the final Avengers film will bring.  

The space between rituals is a cold and confusing place, and Infinity War is leaving us in that place over a year before telling us if it’s possible to move forward. That’s uncomfortable, but not all habits are healthy. Sometimes our rituals need to be broken in order to see a different part of our reality.

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