THE MOVIE “Avengers: Infinity War” is breaking box office records, having sold $1 billion worth of tickets worldwide in just 11 days. Those numbers don’t include China, the world’s second-largest film market, where “Infinity War” opened on May 11.
What the filmmakers call the MCU — the Marvel Cinematic Universe — obviously has a universal appeal. So what kind of universe is it?
For starters, let’s not overthink this. Walt Disney, which owns a lot of the Marvel franchise, threw almost every known superhero movie star into “Infinity War,” and then some. The movie assembles tentpole posses, e.g., the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Iron Man & Co., the Black Panther and the nation of Wakanda, any one of which could fill theaters.
Not only are stars such as Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Pratt internationally famous, this is an action movie, thus: action. “Infinity War” doesn’t stint on crazy/superb special effects, nor on clever/ironic/tired repartee that passes for wit in an eighth-grade hallway.
The juddering plot features a misunderstood bad guy named Thanos, who really just wants to make the universe a better place (don’t we all?) but needs to kill superheroes to do so. Good vs. Evil; it worked for the Book of Genesis scriptwriters, and it works for the fraternal directing team Anthony and Joe Russo of “Infinity War.”
There is even a superhero tree (Groot) and an aviating animal (Rocket Racoon), in case you want to bring your pets or houseplants to the theater.
Now let’s overthink this. The MCU cross-markets different characters and movies, effectively rewarding frequent viewers; the more Marvel movies you’ve seen, the richer the viewing experience. The African paradise of Wakanda is fresh in our minds from “Black Panther,” so a lot of “Infinity War” action takes place there. In “Infinity War,” someone reminds Captain America that he died 70 years ago, which is a somewhat esoteric allusion to the plane crash that ended “Captain America: The First Avenger,” set in 1945 but released in 2001.
More overthinking: Marvel’s cinematic universe sits atop the much richer lode of the Marvel comic universe, populated by every character dreamed up in the company’s 58-year history. For the moment, the movies don’t have a gay superhero, but there are plenty of candidates waiting to be promoted from the comic world. Marvel’s marketing mavens will monetize them when they deem the universe is ready, and not before.
To sell into world markets, Marvel keeps its movies ideology-free. There is no “Stars Wars”-like Rebellion or Evil Empire, because plenty of those nasty empires, e.g., China, have paying theater-goers. Religious or spiritual messages are generic/universalist in the extreme; see Good vs. Evil, above.
If politics is downstream from culture, as the cliché says, that means that the purported arc of history is bending in Marvel’s globalist/multicultural way, and not in the direction of nationalists and xenophobes such as Donald Trump. There is alas, an alternate reading. “Infinity War” ends with Thanos triumphant, and almost every known superhero – OK, except for Ant-Man, who has a movie coming out in July – vaporized.
“There will be no resurrection,” Thanos promises the soon-to-die Loki in “Infinity War,” reminding viewers that Loki, like Captain America, bought the farm once before in this magical universe. But there is every indication that there WILL be a resurrection in 2019, at the hands of an even more powerful superhero, the female Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson.
To paraphrase another oft-resurrected action hero: “They’ll be back.”Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.