The Infinity Saga. It's a fitting name for the 23 movies released by the Marvel Cinematic Universe between 2008 and 2019. Starting with "Iron Man" and closing with "Spider-Man: Far From Home," The Infinity Saga is defined by the build-up toward a climactic battle with the intergalactic warlord Thanos (Damion Poitier in "The Avengers," Josh Brolin in every subsequent film), one that eventually takes place in "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame."
Now that we've moved past that story, the MCU has officially released the newest slate of movies that will introduce Phase Four (with The Infinity Saga consisting of the first three cycles of films) in 2020 and 2021. These will include "Black Widow," "Eternals," "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness" and "Thor: Love and Thunder." There are also movies currently in development that have not received official release dates or announcements, like sequels to "Black Panther" and "Captain Marvel," as well as a list of TV series intended for release on Disney+ over the next two years, including "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," "WandaVision," "Loki," "What If…?" and "Hawkeye."
With all of this new Marvel content coming our way, it is instructive to take a look at what did and did not work about The Infinity Saga. After all, despite now being captured under a single catch-all name, the 23 movies in The Infinity Saga are in many ways quite different from one another. It includes six franchises with more than one film (the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Spider-Man series), four that were effectively standalone films in this cycle even though they may receive sequels afterward (The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel) and of course the four "Avengers" films. Some of them directly included Thanos or the MacGuffins (I'm sorry, Infinity Stones) that brought the saga to its two-part climax in "Infinity War" and "Endgame"; others are barely tied into that larger narrative at all.
So what can The Infinity Saga teach Marvel — and, for that matter, other filmmakers working on ambitious cinematic universes — going forward?
1. What makes a non-Avengers Marvel movie good? Leaning into uniquely appealing qualities while not shying away from risks
There have been very few bad MCU movies, but the ones that fell into that category did so because they were bland, uninspired and forgettable. Those that worked, on the other hand, did so because the filmmakers made a point of reveling in the qualities that people enjoyed about their property — but, somewhat paradoxically, didn't feel beholden to specific formulas or tropes while doing so.
Take "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 3." The first "Iron Man" movie worked mainly because of Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in the titular role, where his sarcastic wit and unabashed narcissism seemed like a breath of fresh air compared to the somber, introspective heroes that had graced the silver screen before him. Even when he became more complex in "Iron Man 3" (his character struggled with PTSD from the events of the first "Avengers" movie), his tongue was still planted firmly in his cheek, and the script was bold enough to include a plot twist with its main villain The Mandarin that could have been a disaster but instead gave "Iron Man 3" one of the more memorable storylines of any MCU film.
A similar point could be made about the "Spider-Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" films. The two "Spider-Man" movies, "Homecoming" and "Far From Home," both share the same basic premise: What if a superhero was also a teenager, one aiming to lead a happy high school life while going out and saving the world? For that premise to work, one needed a sweetly endearing and youthful lead (Tom Holland as Spider-Man) and storylines that keep the protagonist grounded in high school experiences even as he goes off fighting bad guys. The stakes, by necessity, become lower in those Spider-Man films — the fate of the world is never at stake and the bad guys, as I've discussed before, aren't entirely bad — and this allows the stories to feel both distinct from other entries in the MCU while still connecting to them in important ways, particularly through the subplot of Spider-Man being mentored by Iron Man.
Then there are the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, which are the closest thing that the MCU has to auteur projects. Writer and director James Gunn is perhaps the most important ingredient in those films' success (which goes a long way toward explaining why the cast went to bat for him after right-wing trolls got him temporarily fired), with each movie containing his edgy and mildly vulgar sense of humor, his penchant for telling stories about misfits and losers, his love of grotesque visuals and dysfunctional-yet-loving relationships. It's hard to imagine any other MCU movie adopting that tone — some say that "Thor: Ragnarok" did so, but that was more its own thing — and the two films work so well because they feel like halves of the same whole story.
By contrast, each "Captain America" movie feels like a drastically different film from its predecessors, although all of them are great. "Captain America: The First Avenger" is a throwback to the cheesy, uber-patriotic, morally straightforward stories that marked the early years of both that character and Marvel in general, with Captain America himself (Chris Evans) being played as a morally pure boy scout on par with Superman (who has been turned into a darker, broodier character in the new DC Extended Universe movies). While Captain America retained those old fashioned qualities of honor, courage and decency throughout his multi-film storyline (except when the writers accidentally screwed them up in "Avengers: Endgame"), "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Captain America: Civil War" worked because they found very different things to do with them. In "The Winter Soldier," Captain America finds himself in the middle of a political thriller that could have come straight out of the 1970s; "Civil War," by contrast, is a giant soap opera in spandex, with Captain America taking center stage as he deals with complex political issues that could serve as a parable about the pros and cons of government regulation for any era.
The "Thor" movies followed a similar arc, as I've discussed before. The first film was serviceable because it was directed as a Shakespearean epic by Kenneth Branagh (himself famously a fanboy of the Bard), while "Thor: Ragnarok" was a masterpiece because it broke away from the series' pomposity and instead told a trippy buddy comedy that relied on the chemistry between Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Watching "Thor" and "Thor: Ragnarok" back-to-back, it is almost impossible to imagine the two movies existing in the same universe, much less starring the same character. Yet they work because, like the Captain America movies, the Thor movies were willing to evolve if the creators had a good idea of where to take the character.
Finally there are the standalone movies, three of which were excellent: "Doctor Strange," "Black Panther" and "Captain Marvel" (and yes, each one is slated to get sequels, but in the context of The Infinity Saga they are standalone pictures). "Doctor Strange" recognized that its strength was the cerebral charisma of its star Benedict Cumberbatch, who makes the movie work because of a central performance that anchors the elaborate mythology being constructed around him. "Black Panther" is effective because it leans into the numerous strengths embedded in its premise — the lush beauty of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, the balletic fight sequences, the powerful political messages advanced not only by the hero but his nemesis, the righteous Killmonger. "Captain Marvel," meanwhile, works because of the fun chemistry between stars Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, the clever references to the 1990s, the political subtext about women's empowerment and Larson's ability to create a stoical, strong character not dissimilar from Captain America (who she seems destined to replace as the Avengers' informal leader in future films).
2. Disappointing Marvel movies lacked vision or clarity of focus
There were a couple of films in the series from the above list that I left out, deliberately so. We can start with those.
"Thor: The Dark World" is perhaps the worst movie produced by the MCU for the simple reason that it has nothing to recommend it. Even though director Alan Taylor was best known for working on "Game of Thrones," he failed to bring the sense of epic grandeur to the series that Branagh gave to the first "Thor" film. Because the character of Thor had not yet been fleshed out beyond "pompous and strong god who hits things with a hammer," the central performance was boring, as was Natalie Portman as nothing more than a generic love interest (it is encouraging that "Thor: Love and Thunder" plans on making her into female Thor). Add to that a list of unmemorable villains and a predictable plot, and "Thor: The Dark World" can only really be recommended by the compelling rivalry between Thor and Loki — although that is not enough to recommend the movie overall.
"Iron Man 2" failed because it seemed too close to being a retread of the first film. While this may seem like a counterintuitive criticism, given that "Iron Man 3" worked because it understood what made the central character so appealing in the first place, there is a difference between leaning into your strengths and becoming a carbon copy. "Iron Man 2" isn't a beat for beat remake of the original's plot, to be sure, but it seemed determined to do little more than re-establish what audiences already knew to be Iron Man's strengths and weaknesses without bringing anything new to the table. Even worse, it didn't contain nearly as many memorable lines or action set pieces as either the "Iron Man" film that came before it or the one that came afterward. That, plus its obvious Ayn Rand-ian influences, all worked against it.
These criticisms apply across the board to pretty much all of the other sub-par MCU films that weren't part of the "Avengers" series. "The Incredible Hulk," despite being the second Marvel movie to be released, has faded from people's memories because it did little more than revive attention toward the character after the flop of an unrelated 2003 film, "Hulk." It was, for all intents and purposes, a cash-in on a popular brand that seemed to have little to no desire to tell an interesting story or create three-dimensional characters on its own terms. The same complaint can be made of both "Ant-Man" movies: While supporting characters like Michael Peña add levity as the comic relief, the main movies themselves are little more than by-the-numbers action flicks, completely ignoring the heady possibilities of seeing the world from a tiny perspective despite plenty of other movies capitalizing on that premise (such as "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids").
3. Successful Marvel movies are built on self-contained stories which are enjoyable on their own terms, even as they include connective tissue to the others
This is the logical place to mention the "Avengers" movies since, by default, they are the ones where it is easiest to forget telling a self-contained story and instead get lost in a mess of plot threads and character arcs. That isn't to say none of the other MCU movies have that problem: Even though I tremendously enjoyed "Captain America: Civil War," for example, there were a number of occasions when it included elements that existed mainly to set up future movies (like "Spider-Man: Homecoming" or "Black Panther") rather than tell its own compelling story. One of the risks that the MCU faces going forward is that, in its determination to set up future films through existing ones, it will start to feel less like a series of movies than an overly-expensive TV show. It is one thing to ask audiences of a TV show to see previous episodes before watching the current one; when that same demand is made of filmgoers, one does a disservice to the artistic medium of cinema itself.
This was not a problem that the first "Avengers" movie had in 2012. Because it only had to juggle a handful of characters (Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye), it was able to keep its narrative tight and focused. Similarly, because Loki was a menacing yet oddly pathetic villain, the story was able to stay focused on the need to thwart his world domination plans in a way that was satisfying to audiences who were unfamiliar with the original Marvel movies as well as those who were deep fans of them.
The first warning sign that Marvel may not be able to maintain that balance was in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Like "The Avengers," the sequel had a good story at its core: Iron Man and the Hulk created a robot intended to protect the human race that winds up nearly destroying the planet. It's a decent premise for a heady sci-fi flick, and the parts of the movie that focus on that story are engaging, but there were too many occasions when the story made unnecessary detours to establish plot points for future, unrelated movies.
By "Avengers: Infinity War," the MCU had so many different characters and storylines competing for attention that it felt like movie loaf, an amorphous blob of storylines that lacked any distinct tone or identity — and was an incomprehensible mess to anyone who hadn't seen the nearly twenty movies that preceded it. "Avengers: Endgame" was a marked improvement because it reduced the number of characters and had a focused story, but even it was riddled with plot holes as it attempted to tie up more loose ends than could be realistically addressed in a three hour running time.
4. New Marvel movies need to have the confidence to try something different while making sure that they don't collapse under the weight of their own mythology
That, as they say, is the bottom line here. That the MCU has produced far more good and great movies than bad ones is an encouraging sign. When it comes to a certain type of bad MCU movie — the flavorless, unmemorable kind — one can take heart that most of those entries are from the earlier days of the series ("The Incredible Hulk" came out in 2008, "Iron Man 2" came out in 2010, "Thor: The Dark World" came out in 2013). On the other hand, the creakier MCU movies — those that fall apart because they rely excessively on establishing connections with other films, and depend on familiarity with those properties — tend to be more recent, particularly the last two "Avengers" movies. If the MCU does ultimately fall apart, this will likely be the reason why.
If it succeeds, on the other hand, it will be because the bold risks that it takes ultimately pay off. This could very well happen with "Thor: Love and Thunder," which will explore Valkyrie's bi-sexuality and introduce Dr. Jane Foster as the first female Thor character, or with "Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness," which is being presented as the first MCU horror movie. It will be interesting to see how "Black Widow" manages to tell a compelling story despite her character's seemingly permanent death in "Avengers: Endgame," or whether "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" will be able to do with Asian superheroes what "Black Panther" did with African superheroes.
There is much to be excited about as the MCU leaves The Infinity Saga and enters its uncharted new territory. Let's just hope that the creators won't be so drunk on their successes that they ignore the red flags.