There has been an interesting response to the dominant Avengers: Infinity War this weekend as it romped home to a record-beating opening weekend in the States, and a remarkable $600 million plus global take home. Aside from the legion of critics, professional and amateur, who have all lined up on either side of whether the film is good or bad (and most reactions seem positive), the issue again seems to concern fandom. In this instance, whether Infinity War is for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A piece in The New Yorker has been widely circulated, with people criticising and defending an article which suggests Infinity War suffers for the fact it does nothing to ‘introduce’ the myriad amount of Marvel players to new audiences. Some are suggesting that it doesn’t have to, given its place as the first part of a finale to an ongoing saga—which I discuss more in my review—but some have on the other side of the fence suggested this kind of storytelling by Marvel Studios, and how the fandom have responded to it, is yet another form of ‘gatekeeping’.
That fandom are, once again, erecting a big ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and planting it firmly in the entrance of every cinema from Middlesbrough to Manhattan.
Gatekeeping is something I’ve talked about in previous discussions about the toxicity of fandom without, perhaps, directly referencing the term. In essence, gatekeeping is the policing of a particular piece of popular culture, often by fans who feel a certain ‘ownership’ of the material. Women being alienated from geek culture, for example, in particular the horrendous GamerGate saga which still continues to ripple across the online world.
It can also include specific divides – legacy Doctor Who fans of the show between its original 1963-1989 run refusing to accept the Russell T. Davies inspired revival as ‘true Who’, or the same level of intentional ignorance aimed at the J.J. Abrams-led Star Trek original series reboot on the big screen. Gatekeeping is the opposite of inclusivity – it is all about protecting something that doesn’t really exist for the benefit of an entrenched minority, something that was never entirely theirs in the first place. It’s a bit like Brexit, basically.
This happens in almost every major fandom for a successful or popular piece of particularly geek culture, just in different contexts. The X-Files has the militant contingent who are extremely anti-Chris Carter (as I’ve also previously discussed), Star Wars especially recently has the cluster of fans who refuse to accept The Last Jedi as canon given how Rian Johnson didn’t honour mythology and characterisation they had fiercely constructed and guarded over decades.
Examples go on and on and on and while the specifics and contexts differ, the net result is often the same – one property in which entire sub-sets of fans are locked in a perpetual Stark/Rogers situation, an ideological civil war about what people should and shouldn’t like about the TV shows or movies they love. It is exhausting as it is ultimately pointless, given how subjective art has always been. For every ten people who think Zach Snyder’s D.C. pictures are awful, I know the one guy who will defend them to the hilt. His opinion is entirely as valid as mine, even if I personally would disagree.
Gatekeeping, therefore, benefits the sub-total of no one but often serves as a way for fans to exert a level of control over work they have invested in. What’s interesting about the issue rising up out of Infinity War is that it doesn’t seem to be an internal concern about how to appreciate the work as a fan, but a point which has exposed the widening gulf between fandom and those outside of it. This is an issue about who Infinity War is *for*.
Is it yet another tentpole blockbuster cinematic blockbuster marketed for the masses? Or is it pure fan service, deliberately designed to appeal only to those who have followed the MCU for years, or even since the beginning? Beyond that, is it even for people who don’t like, or have never read, Marvel comics, even if they enjoy the films? This is the new debate and it changes the context of gatekeeping once again. Just who is holding the keys this time? An extremist group of fans or the creatives behind the movie itself?
Before we look at this, let’s go back to that box office haul, because it could help us understand the new problem. Infinity War has taken more in four days than Justice League did for its entire, worldwide run in cinemas. Just think about that for a moment, because it both shows how deeply entrenched Marvel now is inside mainstream popular culture, and quite how badly DC’s cinematic efforts are not. Justice League, on paper, should be making billions. Batman remains the most popular, successful and renowned superhero in cinematic history, with Superman just behind him. They are also both superheroes people will have heard of even if they have never read a comic in their life.
The same goes for Wonder Woman, if perhaps to a lesser degree. Even now, can you say the same for Iron Man or Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy? Marvel have only ever had two characters who match Batman & Superman for mainstream global reach – Spider-Man and the Hulk, neither of whom are entirely central to Infinity War in the way Batman or Superman were to Justice League. Arguably the main character in a film which has made more money than anything else over one weekend is a giant, alien despot with a chin that looks like a nut sack. How can this be?
The reason is simple: Marvel have changed the landscape of how we consume mainstream cinema. They have built on a platform which was already there, established by creatives such as Steven Spielberg or franchises like Star Wars, when the blockbuster came to dominate the medium in the 1980’s onwards.
This brings us back to the central problem certain critics have had with Infinity War – chiefly that it doesn’t serve an audience without the knowledge base of years watching MCU films. Here’s the counter-point, which I talked about in my review – Infinity War is the end of a story, or at least the beginning of the end. The MCU operates, structurally, like a serialised season of television. Nineteen episodes over ten years, the only difference being audiences have had to pay to see or consume each one.
The MCU very quickly evolved beyond the traditional Hollywood blockbuster once it introduced the most widespread level of inter-connected storytelling we had ever seen over multiple movies. Blockbuster franchises often used to operate in a three or four film pattern – the Alien saga, Lethal Weapon, Men in Black etc… but Marvel adapted that structure into their ongoing tapestry, with ‘threequels’ for characters like Iron Man, Thor or Captain America being punctuated by the Avengers films which concluded aspects or kickstarted new elements. Infinity War and its sequel are the end of that first, unified ‘season’, the drawing together of characters and threads since 2008. This is the end, and an end is not traditionally considered a good beginning for a new consumer.
The gatekeeping aspect came up for me when, in a discussion about how Infinity War shouldn’t be punished for not serving a new audience or people less au fait with the MCU, it was suggested that my argument could be considered a gatekeeping point (this person, whose opinion I value and often trust, did not call me a gatekeeper – the discussion was reasoned and fair). While we disagreed, the point intrigued me. Is this viewpoint gatekeeping? Should Infinity War have served both masters – the long-term fan and the new consumer? Have Joe & Anthony Russo or Kevin Feige become gatekeepers of their own universe by making a film which doesn’t try and provide an entry point to this catalogue of movies? The answer, surely, has to be no. For various reasons.
The box office speaks for itself in that Marvel don’t need to consistently make their work accessible to attract a massive audience. Did thousands of people walk away from Infinity War confused because the film doesn’t work to establish who these characters are again? Or are either most people now fans and have a level of base knowledge, or alternatively did they just do their homework? It makes sense that the majority of people who haven’t watched the MCU would not decide to start with Infinity War. And even if they did, should the film be remonstrated with for that fact? Is this the fault of the film or the consumer? If we’re employing the TV season analogy, would you really decide to start watching Game of Thrones from the penultimate episode of its final season? Or would common sense dictate you will likely understand where these characters are, and where the story is after ten years of development, if you start at the beginning?
This feels like a key aspect to some of the criticism of how to approach Infinity War. Marvel have tried (and I’d argue pulled off) an entirely new approach to the cinematic franchise with these nineteen movies, some of which have worked better than others (a couple haven’t worked at all), and the honest truth is that you *won’t* as a consumer get the same kind of experience from Infinity War if you haven’t engaged with the story leading up to it. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, either. We have embraced the so-called Golden Age of Television, the rise of prestige shows which revel in unfurling TV series which take years to reach a conclusion (Game of Thrones, Westworld now), and become major cultural entertainment events in the process.
Is this not an approach cinema should replicate? For fans of the MCU, Infinity War has been incredibly satisfying in portraying a villain they have spent over half a decade waiting to see, and the conclusion sets up a climactic beat which genuinely does feel like the universe they have bought into will never be the same. It may not be the end of Marvel’s cinematic dominance but it will be the end of this story. If film should only be for stories which tell a complete picture across two or three films, then is cinema not restricting itself? Has Marvel’s successful experiment not displayed what’s now possible?
Gatekeeping, therefore, feels misplaced in terms of Infinity War, certainly with this issue. Nobody who enjoyed Infinity War, who are engaged with the MCU, is suggesting people who aren’t schooled in the ways of Marvel should avoid this film, but those audiences might want to consider that expecting Infinity War to play by the same rules many sequels and franchises have been playing by for the last few decades is unfair. This is a new ball game. Perhaps we should refocus our energies into considering how a major, continuing narrative can be explored on a bigger canvas in more properties, as Marvel have done. The possibilities are enormous.
Avengers: Infinity War, while not perfect cinema, proves it can be done. The only gate we’re keeping if we try and pretend these films do not matter, or are cheating mass audiences, is our own.