This time, it isn’t personal. (aka How do you solve a problem like Infinity War?)

I haven’t yet seen Infinity War–understandably, because at time of posting it’s still a day away from release. I probably will see it, let’s be real, but even before setting foot in the theater I can guess the biggest problems with it.

One is a problem that I’m sure has occurred to most fans: how can a movie containing twenty-plus superheroes do justice to all of them? Granted, I don’t expect a complex character arc for Rocket Raccoon, but the more time the movie spends making sure all the secondary characters have put in an appearance, the less time there is for even a few primary characters to get the attention they deserve. And I say this as someone who loves crossovers and is still pouty that Clark Gregg has been exiled to the TV side of the MCU. Age of Ultron was already overstuffed, and that was maybe half as many characters fighting for center stage.

This review confirms a lot of my fears in that direction. Apparently even Cap barely gets his moment in the spotlight, and I’m concerned that there’s no mention of Gamora or Nebula; while the Guardians are otherwise the obvious choice for whose screentime to pare down, their personal connection to Thanos should bump them up in priority. But the review also points out another way in which Infinity War goes too big, namely in the scale of the threat:

Maybe it comes down to stakes. They’ve never been higher than they are in Infinity War, which rests half of all life in the hands of this superhero supergroup. But that’s almost too huge of a dilemma to even dramatically register; one ends up feeling nostalgic for the more relatable and comparably intimate conflict of, say, Civil War, which underpinned its globe-trotting, hero-on-hero fireworks with personal stakes.

When I read that, I was reminded of this writing advice from author Hilari Bell:

A good rule of thumb for emotional importance is: If someone asked your character Why do you care so much about saving X? can the character reply Because it’s my X. without sounding pretentious—or ridiculous? Why do you care so much about saving a dog? Because it’s my dogMy family is a no brainer. My neighborhood works pretty well. With the culture that prevails today, my country is a convincing motivation. But Because it’s my planet sounds a bit over-possessive to me and the further you go, It’s my galaxy, universe, etc. the more ridiculous it gets. Because it’s my multiverse. Sure it is.

The “make the threat bigger” mindset is a common enough failing of genre storytelling. Doctor Who has fallen into the trap time and again, saving the universe, the multiverse, and the timestream when saving the planet got too humdrum. On the other hand, I’ve also seen some good examples of tying the big threat to personal stakes. The most recent season of Legends of Tomorrow springs to mind, where the threat of the demon Mallus is intertwined with both Amaya saving her village and Damien Darhk saving his daughter. Harry Potter’s final battle isn’t just to save the entire wizarding world, it’s to save Hogwarts and his friends. On Supernatural, everything up to and including the apocalypse is really about family. Sci-fi universes that treat planets like countries can maybe get away with my planet; I was going to use Miles Vorkosigan as an example, until I realized that even when Miles is doing something for Barrayar, it’s usually tied to danger to his family or his subordinates or his mentor or his love interest. People over principles, as Miles himself once said.

In general, the MCU is actually pretty decent at abiding by this rule. Take Captain America: The First Avenger. Cap finds Red Skull’s bombs, each with the name of a city on the side–and the camera makes sure we get a look at the one labeled “New York”. Now it’s not just about lots of people dying, it’s about his hometown. (It’s not a coincidence that New York is also threatened in The Avengers, especially since it’s Iron Man’s hometown as well.) In Winter Soldier, the big goal is saving the world from Project Insight, but the emotional stakes are about Steve saving his friend. For Ant-Man it’s his daughter. For Daredevil or Luke Cage it’s his neighborhood. For Black Panther it’s his country. Even when something bigger is threatened, something personal to the heroes is front and center.

So the threat of Thanos is just too big, but that problem is compounded by the first one: the crowd of characters and the lack of time to focus on any single character. Civil War had a similar bevy of superheroes, but it was anchored by the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man; all the movie had to do was establish stakes for Steve (his friend again) and Tony (his parents, his residual murderbot guilt) and align everyone else with one side or the other. (And even then, we also had room for T’Challa’s father and Wanda’s freedom and Bucky’s freedom and everyone’s friendships, which is a whole load of personal stakes for one movie.) With Infinity War, it’s unclear how we’re going to have enough time with anyone to make this fight personal for them.

If I’m wrong and Gamora gets tons of screentime, she has personal stakes all ready to go, much as Guardians 2 made Star-Lord’s stakes my father by making his father the villain. But Gamora isn’t a central character of the MCU the way Cap and Iron Man are. She could carry the main plot of a Guardians movie, where the main characters are her friends and will care because she cares, but her stakes won’t carry enough weight to support Infinity War singlehandedly. What Infinity War needs to do, and may well fail at, is make the fight against Thanos personal for a large enough number of important enough characters that the audience will care about stopping him in more than the abstract.

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