Some of the biggest buzz from D23 surrounds the attendees only screening of a trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, and while the descriptions coming from the event sound incredible, it just may be a little bit too much of a good thing.
Disney’s live-action panel included actors representing characters spanning the entirety of the Marvel cinematic universe including the Black Panther (Chadwick Bozeman), Drax (Dave Bautista), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillian), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Thanos (Josh Brolin), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Those that have seen the trailer also report that the remaining Guardians of the Galaxy, Loki, Captain America, and the Black Widow are present in the trailer. That’s a lot of characters to pack into a single movie, and there’s a good chance more of Marvel’s finest will appear in the film that we haven’t seen or heard of yet.
While a bounty of fan favorites and beloved heroes like that can’t help but make for a fun movie that fulfills all kinds of childhood dreams, the sheer volume of characters becomes problematic in the context of an action movie. The audience isn’t going to Avengers:
Infinity War just to see their favorite characters on the big screen, they’re going so they can see those characters looking awesome on the big screen. And that means looking awesome in combat.
Combat choreography can be tricky enough, but is manageable with a small number of characters. In a well choreographed battle, no character is wasted and everyone is part of the action. When an onscreen fight is choreographed poorly, it’s noticeable; we’ve all been baffled by henchmen that refuse to gang up on the hero and prefer to get pummeled one at a time. When combat choreography is well done, the aesthetic for the viewer is beautiful because interesting conflicts are happening everywhere on the screen at the same time.
Super hero action scenes add another layer of difficulty, because we’re watching people with superhuman abilities. Not only should every character involved in the combat have a purpose, but it becomes distracting to the audience if they aren’t utilizing their full abilities. The geek in us emerges with righteous fury when we realize that a character seems to have conveniently forgotten to do something they’re capable of at just the right time for them to do that thing.
While combat choreography involving multiple super powered characters presents unique challenges, it can be done effectively. Brian Singer’s X-Men from way back in 2000 serves as a great example of how to handle multiple uber-powerful characters all battling at once, first by partitioning its characters into smaller on-screen combat pairings, and then uniting them back together for the final fight against Magneto.
Here’s how it goes down: the X-men are separated almost immediately after Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey and Wolverine arrive at Liberty Island to fight the bad guys, pairing first Wolverine and Mystique, then Jean Grey and Toad, then Storm and Toad, before confronting Sabretooth and Magneto. Magneto traps the X-Men by binding them using the metal inside the Statue of Liberty, and after Magneto leaves the X-Men to carry out his evil plan through Rogue’s ability sapping power, Wolverine is able to free himself from Magneto’s metal trap thanks to his claws and healing factor. After a skirmish with Wolverine, Sabretooth is then defeated by the combination of Jean Grey’s telekinesis and Cyclops’s optical blast. Storm’s weather manipulation and Jean Grey’s telekinetic powers next launch Wolverine towards Magneto and Rogue. Magneto takes control of Wolverine’s body (thanks, adamantium!) and Wolverine is only able to free Rogue thanks to a blast from Cyclops directly to Magneto’s back. Once a depleted Rogue is freed, she uses her ability to take on the powers of other mutants to steal Wolverine’s healing factor, and the good guys win the day.
That whole final scene is nice and tidy, and it works so well for some pretty specific reasons. The one-on-one fights allow each character to showcase their abilities at their peak. Each of the X-Men is given just a little bit of screen time to do what they do best, and because the fights are one-on-one, there’s nothing else happening that distracts from their moment. Once we’ve seen them at their best alone, we’re treated to seeing them at their best together. They don’t overcome Sabretooth and Magneto without each X-Men making their unique contribution, which also happens to be the optimum use of each X-Men’s powers. Nobody is wasted, and nobody is under utilized. When every character is both a) essential and b) at their best, the audience experience is a whole lot of fun.
And that’s what worries me about Avengers: Infinity War. If the formula that works involves including only those characters that are necessary while still giving each character the opportunity to be at their best, there just won’t be much time to make everybody matter with such a sheer volume of characters, to say nothing of the story glue that has to give those moments purpose. How will Marvel portray so many iconic heroes at once in a way that doesn’t betray their stature?
It’s not an impossible task, and if anybody has shown that they can find a way to make things work, it’s Marvel. The airport battle scene from Captain America: Civil War hints at their ability to handle just the conundrum of making every high-powered character on the screen feel important and undiminished. It’s just that we’ve never seen it done before at the scale Infinity War proposes.
Maybe that’s the point. Marvel isn’t afraid to be pioneers and take on challenges where others have failed. Whether Marvel pulls off a coherent film with such a large cast of characters or fails spectacularly, it will be entertaining. I have faith in Marvel, but I am a little worried.