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Avengers: Infinity War succeeds by offering no help to new fans

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Marvel made a blockbuster with dozens of characters and no origin backstories

Avengers: Infinity War characters Marvel Studios

Movie budgets are often decided by a simple formula: The more people a studio thinks will see a movie, the more money a studio will pay to have that movie made.

A movie with a massive budget needs to aim for the widest possible audience by making it easy for them to understand what’s going on ... even if they’ve never seen any other film in that franchise. Media companies will do everything they can to make sure anyone can jump in at any time; growing the series depends on it. Each movie has to have the best chance possible to become bigger than the last.

[Warning: This post contains MINOR spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.]

Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t just rebel against this attitude — it moves aggressively in the other direction, despite being one of the most expensive movies ever made. With Infinity War, Marvel not only doesn’t care whether you’re confused about who these people are and what they’re doing, but it also requires you to have seen some, if not all, of its 18 other superhero movies for almost all of the movie’s emotional beats to resonate.

Infinity War begins precisely where the post-credit scene in Thor: Ragnarok leaves off, and then proceeds to jump from planet to planet, character to character, with little more than a single word on screen to tell you where you are. It’s dizzying, even if you know the past movies very well.

There are a few things you can pick up contextually, but nearly every line of dialogue or joke references another movie or relies on knowledge that can’t be acquired through watching Infinity War by itself. It’s part of the reason why the movie feels like the latest episode of a TV show instead of a true sequel. But even most TV shows with persistent storylines start with a brief recap to set up the current episode. Infinity War drops you straight into the deep end and never looks back. It feels like one long breath out.

This is a very good thing

I’m not writing this to criticize the film. A movie with this many characters would end up being only exposition if relationships were re-explained, or context was provided for why Captain America suddenly showing up is a very big deal indeed. Part of the reason the dialogue can move so fast and the script can keep so many plates spinning at once is that Marvel doesn’t need to spend time reminding fans of what’s going on. The studio has to trust the audience for Infinity War to exist at all.

Infinity War even assumes you remember a lot about those past Marvel movies, and it rewards your study of them. Gags and references that seemed random six movies ago finally pay off, but you’ll only be able to make these connections if you remember the scene where Rocket Raccoon, for some reason, asks someone for their eye in Guardians of the Galaxy. It felt like a non-sequitur at the time, but now Rocket just happens to bump into a character who needs an eye.

And this sort of thing doesn’t just happen once or twice. These callbacks and payoffs make up the vast majority of the script. All of it feels like a victory lap for Marvel, because no other studio would dare do something this audacious, especially when everyone’s goal is to make its series’ next movie be bigger than the last. How can you succeed with all those references when you aim something so squarely at people who have seen not just one movie, but 18 others?

The answer is, of course, that you don’t have to get all the jokes and references to enjoy the movie. Many fans are going to be introduced to characters through Infinity War and then go back to watch the movies they missed. Marvel isn’t only releasing something that’s building on what came before; it’s also hyping the movie to such an extent because it knows Infinity War will make a lot of people more interested in its back catalogue afterward. The ripples are going to move in both directions.

All that being said, Infinity War is a triumph of confidence and planning. A movie likes this could only work if the previous movies had absolutely dominated pop culture for the past decade, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has. Forget Thanos — Marvel launched this movie as if it had already put together all the Infinity Stones, and Infinity War is what happens when the company snaps its fingers.