Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Infinity War.
Avengers: Infinity War is an epic payoff for a decade of onscreen comics fandom. Over the past 10 years, Marvel Studios has released 18 films that lead up to the plot of Infinity War: The Incredible Hulk, three Iron Man movies, three Captain America movies, two previous Avengers movies, three Thor movies, two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther. All of them have plot threads that collide in Infinity War, and Marvel’s clear expectation is that people walking into the movie will have seen all the previous films.
But that’s a significant buy-in for a film. And as long as Infinity War is the most popular movie in the world, some people are going to walk in without being fully caught up. What happens to fans who have only seen a few of those previous films? Do they just sit slack-jawed through Infinity War, shaking their fists at the screen because they find the story incomprehensible?
“I already give Infinity War an A+ based on my limited knowledge,” says Anthony Baldini, a senior account executive in San Jose, California. “I’m fine just accepting that the Marvel Universe, like Earth, is huge, and you’d have to really hardcore nerd out to know every detail about every character.”
Fans like Baldini have their own ways of surviving Marvel’s complex in-jokes. Through some combination of phoning a friend, Googling, or reading the Marvel wiki, fans with varying degrees of superhero trivia knowledge have all prepped themselves to enjoy the film without fully knowing the backstory. And they’ve responded to Infinity War in a variety of ways: frustration, ambivalence, or amusement at the gags and references they don’t follow.
“I didn’t associate Dr. Strange with the Avengers because he just wasn’t established in my mind as part of the main group,” says Meiling Li, a school teacher in New York. “Only when I saw him in Thor: Ragnarok did I realize he was part of the franchise.” Like other casual fans, she caught up on the two previous Avengers movies, and assumed other movies in the franchise were skippable.
Other viewers may have realized Infinity War required more preparation, but that doesn’t mean they had time to catch up. At a Brooklyn critics’ discussion and cocktail hour get-together in early May, Slate movie critic Dana Stevens brought up the backlash on social media she received for not having seen all 18 Marvel films. She’s still not convinced by readers’ criticism that she needed to see all the films in order to discuss it.
The judgment casual fans face from more hardcore adherents is one reason people who aren’t already intensely focused on comics have avoided some Marvel movies. Some expressed their discomfort at the idea of watching or discussing Marvel films with friends who are comic-book buffs.
“I’ve got a friend [named Chris] who has a legit Captain America shield backpack. This is a grown man with children.” says Chris Bryant, a creative director in New York. “He’s got an army of those weird-looking, big-headed action figures that look like they could be bobbleheads. I feel pretty confident with my fan knowledge, as long as I’m not in the room with Chris.” Sao Mir, who’s studying computer engineering and computer science in New York, says if his friends start discussing Marvel films, he outright changes the subject to something he knows more about. “I’m a bit more domineering when it comes to conversation, so we usually talk about what I talk about,” he says.
But some people see these fan friends as resources rather than conversational competition. “I have a good friend, Hector, who is super into Marvel,” says Meghan Daly, a recent college graduate in New York. “A couple weeks before Infinity War, he literally sat me down and gave me an entire lesson on all of the Infinity Stones and where they all currently were. So that helped me during the movie, and prevented a lot of gaps.”
And for those who come out of the film with questions, there are endless online resources to help them catch up. “If I’m confused, I [read the] wiki after, and that really clears things up,” says Derek Chen, a software developer intern in Toronto who hasn’t seen any of the Thor films, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 3, or Avengers: Age of Ultron. Since he hadn’t seen Ragnarok, he didn’t understand the start of Infinity War, which closely follows that film’s ending. “The only part I didn’t get was who was the guy that sent Hulk to Earth. I didn’t know who he was,” he says. [He’s thinking of Idris Elba’s character Heimdall.] “But I figured Loki switched sides in one of the Thor movies and their home got destroyed… I don’t know what happened exactly!”
Chen says his gaps in knowledge don’t particularly frustrate him, though, and don’t subtract from the experience. He saw the movie with his girlfriend, who has seen all the MCU films except the Captain America trilogy. Chen found it funny when she asked him who Steve Rogers was, during the scene when Bruce Banner calls him. Even so, Chen says “she loved it and didn’t really get confused. I think it’s because we watched all the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and those were some of the best ones.”
For others, the nagging sensation of missing Easter eggs and getting lost during the character banter was strong enough that they’ve already made plans to return to the MCU and catch up on films they’ve missed. “There’s just so much packed into every Marvel movie that it encourages you to watch them a few times, which I like,” Daly says. While she’s only seen a third of the MCU movies, she says she’s returned to favorites like Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther several times because she’s curious if she’ll ever “pick up on a detail that went unnoticed the first time.” She adds, “It feels like a mini-accomplishment when I can piece together details by myself without having to look it up.”
Some MCU films are more significant lead-ups to Infinity War than others. Bryant says he hasn’t seen Black Panther, among several others on the list, and that it’s just a matter of time and convenience. Black Panther is still in theaters in some cities, and isn’t yet on streaming services, but Bryant says, “I pretty much never go to the theater anymore. I just wait for it to come out at Redbox or Netflix.”
His gap in knowledge became apparent during the Infinity War scenes set in Wakanda. “I felt I was missing the weight of certain characters’ presence and lack of presence,” he says, “Like Erik Killmonger… was he killed in Black Panther? Crap, I really need to see that movie.”
Some MCU films are less crucial to understanding Infinity War specifically because their protagonists have made it into crossover films like Captain America: Civil War. People who didn’t see Thor: The Dark World can still get a sense of the character from the Avengers movies, for instance. But even though Black Panther first showed up in Civil War, Black Panther reveals a lot about his world that’s key to Infinity War. “The only time I recall Wakanda being mentioned was in Captain America: Civil War,” says Vincenzo Landino, a film director and co-founder of an Ohio creative studio. “The chants and other characters really made zero sense, and I didn’t feel connected to them as my moviegoing counterparts did. People were crying [at one character’s fate]! I just figured it was another Wakandan.”
Above all, casual viewers don’t always go into Infinity War knowing that it’s part one of a two-film arc, with the second one not slated for release until 2019. As much as that ending blindsided MCU loyalists, it was even stranger for viewers who expected a satisfying conclusion. Junior Jimenez, a glasses salesman from Brooklyn, considers himself a superfan who avoids watching trailers for fear of spoilers. “I had accepted the ‘good guys always win, for the most part’ cliché, so for me to see most of the Marvel characters turn to ash really left me speechless.” He adds, “It actually took me coming out of the theaters to realize it was only part one of two films, like ‘Marvel can’t end its movie franchise like that.’ That ending was mind-blowing.”
In spite of all the in-jokes, callbacks, and payoffs for past setups, though, Infinity War does tell its own story. At its heart, it’s an alien-invasion, save-the-world tale. “I enjoy these movies for what they are,” says Landino. “I’m not going in expecting some indie flick with amazing story and character development. You walk into this understanding, ‘Okay, there’s a superhero formula they’ve got going. The parts that don’t make sense, you piece together by virtue of just understanding the formula.’”
And Mir says Infinity War provides enough conversation and context that he can find contextual clues about anything he’s missing: “Infinity War walks a fine balance between referencing known characters, their attributes, and events from other movies, and developing them just enough in the two and a half hours so that their actions are meaningful.”