I don’t think it is a secret that I am slightly burned out on superhero movies. If I never had to watch another dreary-looking, CGI-heavy third-act fight scene in which a major world city is threatened, or even seriously damaged, but saved from annihilation at the last minute — or at least, if I could get a two-year break — I would be immensely happy. It’s not so much that I dislike the essential ingredients in modern superhero movies — people with powers facing highly-consequential questions where the right answer isn’t always clear — it’s just that there is no dish I love so much that I’m excited to eat it constantly.
But when I watched the last trailer for “Avengers: Infinity War” (which Marvel released on Friday) more out of a sense of obligation than enthusiasm, I found myself surprised by a flicker of interest. It wasn’t so much the trailer rekindled my enthusiasm for special-effects-heavy villains, or the sight of yet another mysterious object hanging over the Manhattan skyline. Rather, after spending so much time in these characters’ company, I realized that I’m actually looking forward to seeing them get to know each other.
Marvel has never show a great deal of willingness to let the successive installments of its unfolding movie franchise be truly different from each other. “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” and the other Marvel Netflix shows may get to play at noir, while the Marvel-FX collaboration “Legion” is a trippy, uncategorizable celebration of mid-century modern interior design. But the movies are always fundamentally going to be superhero movies, with all the spandex, collateral damage and with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility they imply.
What the Marvel company has been willing to do, though, is to give us a set of characters whose personalities, and sometimes values, are often in tension. Sometimes, its movies are about seeing those personalities come together, as was the case in “Guardians of the Galaxy“; and, sometimes, the movies thrive on the inevitable tension between them, as was the case in “Captain America: Civil War” and “Black Panther.” The promise of the “Avengers” team-up movies, and in particular, “Avengers: Infinity War,” which gets gangs from different galaxies together, is that we get to see a lot of those personalities together on screen. It’s like a really high-powered dinner party (literally and figuratively) where the guests also happen to be exceptionally hot, and they’re probably going to have to break off in between courses to punch some monsters.
Of course, there’s a fair amount of monster-fighting in the trailer for “Avengers: Infinity War,” too. But the glimpses of banter suggest some real promise. After watching Peter Parker (Tom Holland) get jerked around by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” who wouldn’t enjoy watching Stark get taken down a peg by the blithely confident Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)? Of course it takes someone from another galaxy with no access to American media to tell the infinitely confident, self-proclaimed “Genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist”: “Let’s talk about this plan of yours. I think it’s good, except it sucks. So let me do the plan, and that way, it might be really good.” And for all the mystic elements of “Doctor Strange” that were an enjoyable break in tone and visual style, it’s fun to see the titular magician (Benedict Cumberbatch) come up against Parker’s cheerful enthusiasm.
Underlying all of this, of course, is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe serves as a brief for the value of crafting characters who are genuinely likable. The idea that characters must be likable can become a sort of artistic tyranny, of course. And that is especially the case given the demand that female characters — and actual human women — be constantly likable has a way of limiting the stories we can tell about fictional women, and imposing restrictions on the opportunities and chances granted women in the real world. But over the last decade, it has sometimes seemed as though directors and showrunners think they can make their characters unpleasant, dour, or simply not that fun and automatically get credit for doing something interesting.
By contrast, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at its best, feels like an illustration of all the different ways to make a character likable.* Among other options, you can find straightforward decency, as evidenced by Captain America (Chris Evans); wayward pilgrims in search of redemption, like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan); rakes, including Stark and Quill; talented people of privilege learning to carry the mantle of responsibility, including Doctor Strange and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman); goofballs such Ant-Man (Paul Rudd); and promising young people, including Peter Parker and Shuri (Letitia Wright).
Good doesn’t have to mean boring. Hopefully, “Avengers: Infinity War” won’t be, either.
*Notably, the current DC Comics movies, with the exception of Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” have largely failed to do this. In last year’s “Justice League,” it was agonizingly clear that DC was so eager to put its superhero team together that it forgot to show us why we should be excited to see these characters on screen together.