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[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.]
“Two down. Four to go,” Josh Brolin’s Thanos says standing amid the wreckage caused by his securing of the space stone, formally known as the Tesseract. His satisfaction equals that of the audience, which finally witnesses the payoff of a plot element first introduced in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. There is no denying the sheer thrill and satisfaction in seeing Thanos collect the Infinity Stones throughout Avengers: Infinity War. These stones not only carry the weight of this latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the expectations of those who have followed the entirety of this franchise and recognize these artifacts in terms of both the physical threats they present and the emotional connections they have to many of the characters that populate this universe. Despite that, in the lead-up to the Russo brothers’ epic Avengers film, the stones have been one of the most criticized aspects of the MCU. These stones have been seen as MacGuffins that take away from each filmmaker’s ability to tell stories unrestrained by future plans, and have perhaps impeded on some films’ ability to put characters in front of plot, particularly on the villain front. But unified as they are in Infinity War, we’re left to wonder whether the sheer power of the whole smooths out the jagged edges of some of Marvel’s narrative flaws.
While the idea that the Tesseract and the stone in Loki’s staff were Infinity Gems was a presiding theory after The Avengers (2012), given credibility through post-credit scenes, it wasn’t until 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy that the truth behind these artifacts was fully revealed. These gems, for the purposes of Marvel’s cinematic universe, were rebranded from the comics as stones, and were explained by The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) to be perfect and all-powerful aspects of the universe. The Orb in question within that film, sought by the zealot Ronan (Lee Pace), is revealed as the Power Stone, while the space, mind and reality stones are tied to the objects in Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World (2013), respectively. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) even makes note of the fact that the Orb is a MacGuffin in one of the few times the MCU has displayed self-awareness. But even before audiences are given context for these objects and teased about the future, it’s difficult to make a case that these Infinity Stones hampered the narrative and emotional arcs for Captain America and the Avengers.
To be fair, much of Marvel Comics’ overarching narratives have revolved around items of power. The same could be said for the movies that shaped and redefined the blockbuster: Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the case of the Tesseract, or Cosmic Cube, it has always played into Red Skull’s schemes throughout his comic appearances, and Joe Johnson’s Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired Captain America film makes good use of it. In Captain America, the Tesseract creates the necessary threat for the creation of a super-soldier, and thus superheroes, to be a logical answer to this level of villainy. While the Tesseract, when used again in The Avengers, does play into the modern blockbuster trope of a world-ending beam or signal on a very tall building, it also creates a solid reason for the culmination of what had until this point been separate franchises, at least by general audience standards. At the same time, it provided a means for an alien invasion and opened up a whole other side of the MCU. In the three Infinity Stone-centric films preceding Guardians of the Galaxy, only The Dark World made poor use of this plot thread, with the Aether adding nothing of merit to the character arcs, while serving to make Malekith the MCU’s blandest villain. Now with the power of each Infinity Stone fully exposed by Infinity War, the use of the Aether, the reality stone, in this Thor sequel makes even less sense in hindsight.
The aftermath of The Dark World caused a number of groans to be elicited from some circles when the plot element of the Infinity Stones recurred in Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Doctor Strange (2016). But the use of them in these three films feels more original than what came before in that their properties allowed for more than energy blasts and created another reason for heroes to reunite. The weirder side of the MCU was showcased through the use of the stones: artificial intelligence (in Age of Ultron‘s The Vision), Celestials (the Guardians of the Galaxy movies) and time travel (Doctor Strange). And some of the MCU’s most emotional beats come from Vision, Peter Quill and Stephen Strange, in their relation to the Infinity Stones and how it changes how they see themselves and those around them. Arguably, this is what allowed these films to be seen as more than just superhero films: They are part of a cosmic epic. For as much talk as there has been about the stones getting in the way, Marvel Studios did display an awareness of where these elements would fit. No Soul Stone was shoved into Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to impede Peter Parker’s maturation, or in this year’s Black Panther, which was allowed to succeed on the strength of its diversity and carefully crafted characters, rather than on its place within the Avengers movies. The Infinity Stones have consistently shown up in the realms they belonged in, and while they were not always handled consistently, seeing them in the places we did made more sense than not. And without these prior films shouldering the burden of these so-called MacGuffins, Infinity War would not be the rousing success that it is.
The introduction of the majority of the Infinity Stones before Infinity War helps immensely with the pacing of Marvel’s latest film. Thanos‘ collection of the stones in comics preceded The Infinity Gauntlet (1991) in the storyline Thanos Quest (1990), in which none of the stones was held by characters central to that latter storyline. The Russos deftly tie Thanos‘ acquisition of the stones to the central heroes of Infinity War, diminishing doubts that his quest would be too much to cram into an already packed story. Infinity War works in a way the comics don’t because it does put the characters ahead of the stones. Thanos‘ collection of each one forms the necessary emotional beats of the film in an increasingly devastating manner. The Mad Titan’s quest becomes personal, not for himself, but for the characters he encounters and the audiences who serve as witness. But placing the stones with these characters in the previous films, rather than with cosmic beings as in the source material, Infinity War makes good on the promise that “destiny still arrives” and leaves us with the sobering reality that our heroes’ prior successes were only delays. This calls back to the Mind Stone-powered Vision’s line in Age of Ultron: “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings.” The same sentiment could be extended to all the creatives who have made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the grand, messy, beautiful entity that it is.
When taken as a whole, the MCU’s connective tissue by way of the Infinity Stones isn’t all suitably explained. The questions of why Thanos waited so long to act, and why he lent out the stones he would ultimately have to struggle to recollect are never addressed, proving to be a flaw in this massive assemblage of visions. Despite not being seamless, the MCU, to borrow studio head Kevin Feige’s line, is “unprecedented” on a holistic level, and for the most part, on an individual level as well. While this act of the MCU once concluded will remain imperfect, Marvel Studios’ future installments will have a tough task in finding something more threatening, more emotionally engaging and more graceful than this saga of stones.
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