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Credit: Marvel Comics

After a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is bumping up against comic tradition

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Nov 11, 2019, 1:51 PM EST (Updated)

After 10 years and 19 movies, Avengers: Infinity War is finally here. Everything Marvel Studios has done since Samuel L. Jackson put on an eye patch and told Tony Stark he had become "part of a bigger universe,” has been leading up to this. Years of expectations, rumors, fan theories, and teases of a giant purple man are over.

When the initial reactions from the world premiere started arriving on Twitter, they were full of hyperbole and exclamation points. This was the greatest superhero movie of all time, the single greatest achievement in cinema history, the best thing since sliced bread!

There were, however, quite a few comments proclaiming the movie to be half a story, and comparing it to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. For as serious as the film felt, the truth is that anything that happened can be undone in next year’s Avengers 4. And therefore, the movie ended on a cliffhanger.

Let’s look at that first point, shall we? That there are no emotional stakes because by introducing the Infinity Stones, the filmmakers basically gave us instant knowledge of a deus ex machina that can magically turn everything back to normal. If that’s the issue, then why don’t comic book fans complain when the exact same thing happens every time there’s a giant crossover? In the very first superhero team-up, the Justice Society of America, the heroes only got together to tell individual stories, fight a common villain, and once again go their separate ways. Ever since then, comic book readers have grown used to crossover events threatening the very fabric of reality but ultimately being wrapped up in a nice little bow.

Marvel’s 1984 crossover event Secret Wars was the first massive event to happen in continuity, meaning that it actually affected the solo titles of the characters involved. Instead of shelving all titles and waiting for the crossover, they jumped ahead in time, so Spider-Man suddenly had a black symbiotic costume, and readers had to wait until the end of Secret Wars to know how he got it — knowing full well that he survived the event since they were reading his future stories.

Today’s biggest superheroes live in a perpetual state of “middle of the story” and no matter how dangerous the situation, or even if they appear to die, we know they will be fine by the end. When I was growing up, the animated TV show The Fairly OddParents always ended with the protagonist literally wishing for things to get back to normal. Even in the made-for-TV movies with big catastrophic events, you knew everything would return to normal, yet the audience didn’t mind, just as comic book readers don’t mind either. What, then, makes Infinity War different?

Avengers: Infinity War

Credit: Marvel Studios

While comic-book readers are fine with knowing that a crossover will result in a lot of things — if not everything — returning to the status quo by the end, Infinity War robbed audiences of that reset button.

Why do we feel like that? Well, some people consider the ending a cliffhanger because the film doesn’t offer a “satisfying” resolution, as classically expected. In his review for Forbes, Scott Mendelson compares the latest MCU entry to a season of TV and mentions that the movie “ends in a place so incompatible with market demands that there is no emotional reaction to what transpires.”

Here lies the key to the whole thing. When we learn about narrative structure, we learn that every story can be divided into three acts: setup, confrontation, and resolution. The third act is meant to resolve the main conflict, and Infinity War fails to do so, at least until you remember that there’s a new movie coming out in less than a year. This makes you consider what you just saw as the first half of a whole. If audiences don’t see a clear ending, they don’t feel the emotional stakes.

Think back to other movies about cataclysmic events threatening to destroy all of existence. Even within the superhero genre, movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past got resolved, and everything went back to normal by the end. Movies in which the heroes don’t win at the end are usually based on chapters of an established story – not to say that all movies end with the heroes winning; there are many examples to the contrary, but at least you know that the mission had an ending with no way of returning to the status quo.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Deathly Hallows, Part 1 are movies that feel devastating because the characters don’t necessarily win by the end, but there is still a promise that there is more to the story. By comparison, Infinity War was originally going to be titled “Part 1," but that was ultimately changed. If you don’t give the audience a clear indication that the main story will not be resolved until later, they will feel robbed of a clear ending.

When it comes to comic book crossovers, they are also split up into chapters, building up the story over the span of months. The difference is that you know in advance how many issues there will be in the crossover. You didn’t expect Batman to figure out how to defeat Barbatos and the league of Evil Batmen in the first issue of Dark Knights: Metal because you knew there were six more issues coming out. If a movie gets the subtitle “Part 1,” you expect a cliffhanger, but if it doesn’t indicate that, then you can be frustrated by the open ending.

Perhaps the issue lies in the translation of one medium to another. In trying to adapt the decades of ongoing stories and regular resets in comics to the movie installments, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is fundamentally at odds with the finality required at some point by movies. While there is no clear end in sight for the MCU, the same actors can’t play these characters forever, so at some point, all of your favorite Marvel heroes will either die or get recast. Therein lies the question of how to properly tease an ending while also doing marketing for your upcoming slate of 10 films. If Infinity War wasn’t the clear end to the current MCU we thought it was, then what is?

Unless we consider another option. (Heavy spoilers below!)

Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos and Gamora

Credit: Marvel Studios

If we consider the ending of Infinity War a cliffhanger because the story doesn’t get resolved and the heroes don’t defeat the villain and go home, maybe we are looking at the wrong protagonist.

For months, the Russo brothers and producer Kevin Feige have said that Infinity War is “Thanos’ story." If we go back to the classic three-act structure, then look at Thanos’ arc in the movie, it tells a complete story. The giant purple Titan actually accomplishes everything he set out to do in the course of the film. He sets out on a mission to get the Infinity Stones, fights the people guarding them (the Avengers), almost loses in an epic battle, and ultimately fulfills his dream of erasing half the people in the universe. This is his movie. The reason we see the movie as incomplete is because we are looking at the wrong side of the story.

If you are cheering for the Avengers, then you only get half of their story to save the world. But if you view it from Thanos’ perspective, it all gets wrapped up nicely. There’s a reason it says “Thanos will return” right at the end.