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With Avengers: Infinity War, the MCU adds insult to DC's injury

Commentary: These simple differences explain why Avengers: Infinity War soars where the DC's Expanded Universe has yet to succeed.

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..L to R: Wong (Benedict Wong), Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)
Marvel Studios

No one wants to kick DC heroes when they're down. But the release of Avengers: Infinity War provides the most extreme example of just how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come in the past 10 years. 

We've gone from Iron Man referencing MySpace unironically to a formerly B-list hero becoming even bigger than the biggest of superhero team-ups and, now, to a legitimate culmination of the MCU's space and Earth-based conflicts.

Meanwhile, the DC universe kind of appeared on screen, then made money even while being savaged by fans and critics, and seemed to get its act back together with Wonder Woman only to commit its worst injustice yet with Justice League. There have been some keen moments, gorgeous stills and amazing not-mustaches, to be sure. But if a film combining the Justice League, Suicide Squad and who knows who else (maybe Blackhawk?) was announced tomorrow, its hype would pale in comparison to Infinity War. And there are three big reasons why.

Now be warned, true believers. If you haven't seen Infinity War yet, it's a film that thrives on surprises, so make use of a bookmark and come back later. Otherwise, carry on!

spoiler alert

Thanos, crushing heroes and Marvel's villain curse all in one movie.

Marvel Studios

The more heroes, the greater the villain

Even when his big purple mug is nowhere to be found, Thanos is felt throughout Infinity War. His fetishistic pragmatism, as ridiculous as it may be, is a stark contrast to the rah-rah teamwork espoused by the Avengers and their allies. Gamora will ask for a Thanos-like sacrifice of life for the greater good, but Star-Lord is unable to commit until it's too late. Doctor Strange will pledge himself to this tradeoff, but realize it's a road to ruin in the long run. And Steve Rogers is unable to even accept the possibility.

At the end, the remaining heroes find themselves in a situation similar to the one that drove Thanos to destroy half the universe years ago. Having failed to prevent tragedy, they're faced with a choice: stick to their failed tactics, or twist their morals to avoid another loss. The MCU is notorious for its villain problem. Strong lead performances have buoyed otherwise flat films, but with attention split between so many groups of heroes, the villain had to possess immense gravity. And Thanos, if nothing else, forces everything to orbit around his actions.

In Batman vs. Superman, there was no effective external force driving the action. The risk of fascism is the villain for most of the film, as weird as that sounds, with a misplaced distrust in Superman ebbing away only at the climax. Lex Luthor lurks in the background. Doomsday is a burly zombie muppet that's a glorified Test Your Might game. Wonder Woman worked when our heroine fought against the norms of war, not the God of War.

And Justice League exacerbated matters by deciding one villain and a glorified boss fight was too much -- they just needed a mini-boss defeated by a quick-time event. It was a joyous QTE, but Steppenwolf stood for nothing beyond collecting stuff. He served no greater ideological master. (Yes, there was a reference to Darkseid. But that isn't the same as Darkseid being being in the movie.) So the heroes travel along listlessly from one charmless scene to the next.

No one wants to watch humorless rocks for 3 hours

Unlike Thor: Ragnarok, which undercut what little seriousness the film had with ill-timed humor, Infinity War recognizes that its humor and heart are a chisel, not a hammer. The film frames our comfort so it can be shattered by shock. It endears us to characters only for them to crumble before our eyes.

Tom Holland's Spider-Man has had a bit more screen time than Henry Cavill's Superman, but even though we know another Spidey movie's on the horizon, his death was much more of a heartbreaker than Superman's. We made a place for him, for T'Challa, for Drax and Gamora, because as hokey as it is, they were afforded warmth.

Batman v Superman obviously had no interest in presenting warm characters. And Justice League was so lost it's impossible to know what the intent was beyond salvaging intellectual property. So it should in turn surprise no one that Infinity War is likely to drum up more business in its first US weekend then Justice League did in its whole run. The 10 years of history the MCU has built up certainly helps, but so should the 80 years of Superman and the 75th anniversary of Batman and Wonder Woman.

Marvel lets Iron Man be Iron Man

Or maybe it's because the respect for those characters' histories isn't what the DCEU was founded upon. Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman deviated from fan expectations, undermining what we expected and wanted from these characters. Pa Kent was a jerk. Superman showed little concern for bystanders. Batman sent a dude to his death. Flash was introduced as a time-traveling armored dream.

Characters need a fresh coat of paint from time to time, but Marvel films offer tweaks that leave the core of those characters the same. An Iron Man movie, but this time he's more sad than usual. A Captain America movie, but this time he's fighting the government. Thor, but we're ignoring everything beyond jokes.

That expectation has been hammered into audiences over 10 years, so when Infinity War goes into peak character whirlwind, juggling 8 million characters, we at least know that even though he's all bearded, Cap is going to be Cap. Tony's in space but he's still Tony. 

Meanwhile, in Justice League, Batman's more quippy because... Superman died? Wonder Woman's way less proactive because... reasons? Superman actually becomes Superman at the end because... replacement director Joss Whedon had a quip quota? Just rewatch the first Man of Steel trailer, which managed to stick closer to its hero than any DCEU material outside Wonder Woman.

Knock it as shallow or simple, but that combination of humor, effective villainy and consistent character treatment is a hallmark of Marvel's success. The DCEU certainly doesn't have to emulate that to succeed. After all, this is a time when an R-rated sophomoric superhero flick, a horror twist on coming-of-age tales and a Jumanji sequel can find wild success. And so can a 20-plus-hero cacophony filled with gems, unpronounceable locations and a decade of intricate lore. But all those movies have one thing in common: The heroes found their strengths and stayed true to them.

Trying to emulate the MCU without understanding its formula isn't going to work. Infinity War is one more nail in the coffin for DCEU films.

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