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Infinite Heroes

The return of the Avengers
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The return of the Avengers

A CORNUCOPIA OF SPANDEX superheroes has arrived on our cinema screens (and invariably in our social media and real life feeds) to a humongous opening that has left nobody surprised. The latest Avenger movie, Avengers: Infinity War could possibly become one of the most successful films of all time.

For whatever good or bad it is worth, what Disney has managed with its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is no mean feat. At a time when TV has all but replaced cinema as the topic of water-cooler conversations and the image on our T-shirts, it has churned out a new cultural product for changing tastes—a hybrid TV-cinema show. It has adapted the serialised-comic-book- format and made this men (and women)-in-tights genre of commercial entertainment today’s most dominant.

Infinity War is the MCU’s 19th film, a part of a multi-hour narrative that started some 10 years ago with the first Iron Man. Each new film, while it stands apart as a film by itself—with a conflict and a tidy resolution in the end—is really just one episode in a long-running show, each new installment moving the plot a little ahead, tastefully and sometimes awkwardly, but making sure we are always following the sequence. Taken together, this is the longest TV show running in cinema halls.

Marvel films also yield the most successful merchandise across product types. They are engineered and manufactured to resonate with every real- world conversation of the moment and please all quarters. Black Panther, earlier this year, might have been just an enjoyable film, but it managed to imply much more, a landmark moment with an almost all-Black cast, a Black superhero, and written and directed by a Black director. It was marketed as a subversive film, all about the politics of representation, yet it never really touched racism in any meaningful way and was careful not to discomfit its White audiences. Next year, in this moment of the #MeToo conversation, we will get Captain Marvel, the franchise’s first female superhero in her own solo film, something MCU has been criticised for not doing in the past, and which its rival comic-book universe DC did effectively with its Wonder Woman film. There is everything in an MCU film—female and Black superheroes, Asian characters (although for now in the sidelines), bossy alpha males (Iron Man, Captain America, Guardian of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt as Star- Lord), cute millennials (cue Spiderman). It does not just present us viewers with its idealised universe, through its two or three films per year, MCU also makes us inhabitants of it.

The plot isn’t the most essential part of an Avengers film. This time we have Thanos, a Titan, who does not want to destroy just earth, which other villains were satisfied with, or a galaxy, but half the life in the universe. And facing him isn’t just the entire lot of Avengers, but also a vast array of other heroes who have never crossed paths.

There is everything that we expect of a Marvel film. Yet, it is being promoted as something different. Done in two parts, Infinity War isn’t just bigger, it is also—as its trailers and filmmakers have been suggesting—a kind of climax of the films offered over the past decade. Several plotlines from several galaxies collide in this one film.

Yes, some characters do die, as one might expect of a climactic film. Does this mean that the biggest franchise in movie history is set to conclude? Yes and no. While some characters die, more films will surely follow. The Marvel universe is now bigger than its individual inhabitants, larger than the superstars who inhabit their superhero costumes. Avenger fatigue is setting in—James Cameron recently said so, although he is making Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5—and the studio heads are borrowing that old trick of the TV industry they have so effectively emulated. They are killing off favourites to revitalise the storyline. New characters will then be introduced, new films will follow, and the first cultural product of its kind, the Marvel universe, will roll on.