Warning: spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War ahead.
“Fun isn’t something one considers when balancing the universe,” Thanos says in the first Avengers: Infinity War trailer. “But this does put a smile on my face.” He isn’t alone. When screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were plotting out the film, they certainly put a lot of thought into how to use humor to balance the story, and to shore up some of the most difficult plot obstacles Infinity War would inevitably face. Humor has been a signature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the franchise launched with Iron Man in 2008. And humor is especially important throughout Infinity War — not just to distinguish Marvel movies from Warner Bros’ grim DC films, or Fox’s dour X-Men movies, or to shape heroes who are interesting because they can experience more than one emotion. It’s used strategically to address the film’s inherent problems, and ease viewers through them.
Problem: The number of key characters is dauntingly high.
Solution: Make the introductions hilarious.
Dedicated MCU fans who’ve seen all the leadup movies and remember them well enough to get the callback jokes will certainly get the most out of Infinity War. But Markus and McFeely didn’t want to entirely alienate viewers who mostly just check in for Avengers flicks, or skipped out on Thor 2 or the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Luckily, Infinity War is a crossover event where many of the heroes are meeting each other for the first time, which gives them a convenient reason to explain who they are and how they can help prevent Thanos from killing half of the universe.
The endless reintroductions could easily feel like exposition-dumps, but the hilarity of these huge personalities engaging each other instead provides some of the movie’s best moments. It’s absolutely no surprise that scientist Tony Stark and Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange wouldn’t get along, and their clash is a delightful snarkfest, particularly when Bruce Banner and Peter Parker are also involved as awkward witnesses. Poor Peter can’t even keep track of all the new heroes he’s meeting, making him a nice proxy for audience members who might feel the same way.
Likewise, Thor being found by the Guardians of the Galaxy lets each of the misfit crew define themselves based on their reaction to the ailing Asgardian. Drax’s deadpan awe, Star-Lord’s childish jealousy, and Rocket smugly accepting the title of captain are all telling character beats. They’re funny because they’re outsized and exaggerated, but they also reveal a lot about the fractious crew. Synopses of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok are tucked into that first meeting in a way that works so much better than the forgettable summary of what’s been happening since Captain America: Civil War, and why Hawkeye and Ant-Man aren’t appearing in Infinity War. With the franchise’s comedic heavy hitters off-world, the best the Earthbound crew can really manage by way of a funny introduction is Rhodey duping Banner into bowing to King T’Challa.
Problem: It’s hard to make CGI supervillains seem scary.
Solution: Acknowledge it and move on.
Fans have been attacking Thanos’ visual design since he was first revealed as the MCU’s biggest threat in The Avengers’ post-credits scene. In Infinity War, the writers decided they might as well lampshade that by having Star-Lord compare him to McDonald’s purple mascot Grimace, and insult his “nutsack of a chin” during a particularly blustery rant. Thanos takes the insults, tests Star-Lord to see if he’ll actually kill the woman he loves, then proves he has his own twisted sense of humor by using the Reality Stone to make Star-Lord’s gun fire bubbles. Thanos might not look scary, but he proves that he deserves to be feared — and that he doesn’t care whether people find his looks comical.
Problem: Audiences are demonstrably tired of weightless CGI-on-CGI fights.
Solution: Find a funny way to avoid them.
Infinity War uses a comedic subplot to avoid the kind of CGI-loaded final showdown that fans and critics bitterly complained about in films like Wonder Woman and Justice League. Fans who wanted to know who would win in a fight between the Hulk and Thanos get their answer in the film’s opening scene, where the strongest Avenger gets beaten so soundly that he refuses to manifest out of Bruce Banner for the rest of the film. That setup produces some great gags, as Tony Stark expresses his frustration that Bruce is embarrassing him “in front of the wizard” when he faces his first bout of superhero performance problems. It continues as Banner enjoys the pleasures of fighting in power armor, only to watch his protection torn apart. The film doesn’t include a second fight between the Hulk and Thanos, or even a sequence with the Hulk rampaging through a swarm of monstrous Outriders, and that’s probably a good thing.
Problem: The stakes are impossibly high.
Solution: Laugh about it.
The MCU has been ramping up the threats heroes face in movie after movie, having them fight off alien invasions and prevent extinction-level events on Earth. Now the fate of the entire universe is on the line, and it’s easy for the heroes to feel like they’ve seen it all before. Case in point: when Peter Parker notices one of Thanos’ spaceships hovering over New York City, he asks his buddy Ned for a distraction so he can sneak off the school bus. Ned gives him that distraction by pointing out the spaceship and screaming “We’re all going to die!” Given that most of Infinity War’s action takes place in outer space or Wakanda, and solely among heroes and villains, it’s useful to have at least some acknowledgement of how normal people would react to these events.
Infinity War could have tried to ramp up the seriousness of the situation by having the characters sit down for talks about how this threat is different than anything they’ve faced before. Instead they approach the challenge just as they always have — as a family that comes together when pressed, but still takes time to jab at each other and puncture each other’s egos. Rocket wants to help Thor get a mythical titan-slaying weapon, but he’s also going to make it clear that he’s sick of teen-Groot’s shit. When Thor is a literal deus ex machina in the battle for Wakanda, he and Captain America use the brief reprieve to poke fun at changes in their hair, faces, and otherwise.
Infinity War’s fights are different from anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen before, not only because of how many heroes must come together to try to fight Thanos, but because of how often and how badly they lose. But the laughs keep coming right through the post-credits scene, as Nick Fury shares his displeasure with events in a foul-mouthed way only Samuel L. Jackson can. Infinity War isn’t a perfect movie, but it does prove that humor may be the Avengers’ greatest power.