Marvel, Gatekeeping and the ‘Problem’ with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

There has been an interesting response to the dominant Avengers: Infinity War this weekend as it romped home to a record-beating opening weekend in the States, and a remarkable $600 million plus global take home. Aside from the legion of critics, professional and amateur, who have all lined up on either side of whether the film is good or bad (and most reactions seem positive), the issue again seems to concern fandom. In this instance, whether Infinity War is for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A piece in The New Yorker has been widely circulated, with people criticising and defending an article which suggests Infinity War suffers for the fact it does nothing to ‘introduce’ the myriad amount of Marvel players to new audiences. Some are suggesting that it doesn’t have to, given its place as the first part of a finale to an ongoing saga—which I discuss more in my review—but some have on the other side of the fence suggested this kind of storytelling by Marvel Studios, and how the fandom have responded to it, is yet another form of ‘gatekeeping’.

That fandom are, once again, erecting a big ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and planting it firmly in the entrance of every cinema from Middlesbrough to Manhattan.

Gatekeeping is something I’ve talked about in previous discussions about the toxicity of fandom without, perhaps, directly referencing the term. In essence, gatekeeping is the policing of a particular piece of popular culture, often by fans who feel a certain ‘ownership’ of the material. Women being alienated from geek culture, for example, in particular the horrendous GamerGate saga which still continues to ripple across the online world. 

It can also include specific divides – legacy Doctor Who fans of the show between its original 1963-1989 run refusing to accept the Russell T. Davies inspired revival as ‘true Who’, or the same level of intentional ignorance aimed at the J.J. Abrams-led Star Trek original series reboot on the big screen. Gatekeeping is the opposite of inclusivity – it is all about protecting something that doesn’t really exist for the benefit of an entrenched minority, something that was never entirely theirs in the first place. It’s a bit like Brexit, basically.

This happens in almost every major fandom for a successful or popular piece of particularly geek culture, just in different contexts. The X-Files has the militant contingent who are extremely anti-Chris Carter (as I’ve also previously discussed), Star Wars especially recently has the cluster of fans who refuse to accept The Last Jedi as canon given how Rian Johnson didn’t honour mythology and characterisation they had fiercely constructed and guarded over decades. 

Examples go on and on and on and while the specifics and contexts differ, the net result is often the same – one property in which entire sub-sets of fans are locked in a perpetual Stark/Rogers situation, an ideological civil war about what people should and shouldn’t like about the TV shows or movies they love. It is exhausting as it is ultimately pointless, given how subjective art has always been. For every ten people who think Zach Snyder’s D.C. pictures are awful, I know the one guy who will defend them to the hilt. His opinion is entirely as valid as mine, even if I personally would disagree.

Gatekeeping, therefore, benefits the sub-total of no one but often serves as a way for fans to exert a level of control over work they have invested in. What’s interesting about the issue rising up out of Infinity War is that it doesn’t seem to be an internal concern about how to appreciate the work as a fan, but a point which has exposed the widening gulf between fandom and those outside of it. This is an issue about who Infinity War is *for*. 

Is it yet another tentpole blockbuster cinematic blockbuster marketed for the masses? Or is it pure fan service, deliberately designed to appeal only to those who have followed the MCU for years, or even since the beginning? Beyond that, is it even for people who don’t like, or have never read, Marvel comics, even if they enjoy the films? This is the new debate and it changes the context of gatekeeping once again. Just who is holding the keys this time? An extremist group of fans or the creatives behind the movie itself?

Before we look at this, let’s go back to that box office haul, because it could help us understand the new problem. Infinity War has taken more in four days than Justice League did for its entire, worldwide run in cinemas. Just think about that for a moment, because it both shows how deeply entrenched Marvel now is inside mainstream popular culture, and quite how badly DC’s cinematic efforts are not. Justice League, on paper, should be making billions. Batman remains the most popular, successful and renowned superhero in cinematic history, with Superman just behind him. They are also both superheroes people will have heard of even if they have never read a comic in their life.


The same goes for Wonder Woman, if perhaps to a lesser degree. Even now, can you say the same for Iron Man or Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy? Marvel have only ever had two characters who match Batman & Superman for mainstream global reach – Spider-Man and the Hulk, neither of whom are entirely central to Infinity War in the way Batman or Superman were to Justice League. Arguably the main character in a film which has made more money than anything else over one weekend is a giant, alien despot with a chin that looks like a nut sack. How can this be?

The reason is simple: Marvel have changed the landscape of how we consume mainstream cinema. They have built on a platform which was already there, established by creatives such as Steven Spielberg or franchises like Star Wars, when the blockbuster came to dominate the medium in the 1980’s onwards.

This brings us back to the central problem certain critics have had with Infinity War – chiefly that it doesn’t serve an audience without the knowledge base of years watching MCU films. Here’s the counter-point, which I talked about in my review – Infinity War is the end of a story, or at least the beginning of the end. The MCU operates, structurally, like a serialised season of television. Nineteen episodes over ten years, the only difference being audiences have had to pay to see or consume each one. 

The MCU very quickly evolved beyond the traditional Hollywood blockbuster once it introduced the most widespread level of inter-connected storytelling we had ever seen over multiple movies. Blockbuster franchises often used to operate in a three or four film pattern – the Alien saga, Lethal Weapon, Men in Black etc… but Marvel adapted that structure into their ongoing tapestry, with ‘threequels’ for characters like Iron Man, Thor or Captain America being punctuated by the Avengers films which concluded aspects or kickstarted new elements. Infinity War and its sequel are the end of that first, unified ‘season’, the drawing together of characters and threads since 2008. This is the end, and an end is not traditionally considered a good beginning for a new consumer.

The gatekeeping aspect came up for me when, in a discussion about how Infinity War shouldn’t be punished for not serving a new audience or people less au fait with the MCU, it was suggested that my argument could be considered a gatekeeping point (this person, whose opinion I value and often trust, did not call me a gatekeeper – the discussion was reasoned and fair). While we disagreed, the point intrigued me. Is this viewpoint gatekeeping? Should Infinity War have served both masters – the long-term fan and the new consumer?  Have Joe & Anthony Russo or Kevin Feige become gatekeepers of their own universe by making a film which doesn’t try and provide an entry point to this catalogue of movies? The answer, surely, has to be no. For various reasons.

The box office speaks for itself in that Marvel don’t need to consistently make their work accessible to attract a massive audience. Did thousands of people walk away from Infinity War confused because the film doesn’t work to establish who these characters are again? Or are either most people now fans and have a level of base knowledge, or alternatively did they just do their homework? It makes sense that the majority of people who haven’t watched the MCU would not decide to start with Infinity War. And even if they did, should the film be remonstrated with for that fact? Is this the fault of the film or the consumer? If we’re employing the TV season analogy, would you really decide to start watching Game of Thrones from the penultimate episode of its final season? Or would common sense dictate you will likely understand where these characters are, and where the story is after ten years of development, if you start at the beginning?

This feels like a key aspect to some of the criticism of how to approach Infinity War. Marvel have tried (and I’d argue pulled off) an entirely new approach to the cinematic franchise with these nineteen movies, some of which have worked better than others (a couple haven’t worked at all), and the honest truth is that you *won’t* as a consumer get the same kind of experience from Infinity War if you haven’t engaged with the story leading up to it. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, either. We have embraced the so-called Golden Age of Television, the rise of prestige shows which revel in unfurling TV series which take years to reach a conclusion (Game of Thrones, Westworld now), and become major cultural entertainment events in the process. 

Is this not an approach cinema should replicate? For fans of the MCU, Infinity War has been incredibly satisfying in portraying a villain they have spent over half a decade waiting to see, and the conclusion sets up a climactic beat which genuinely does feel like the universe they have bought into will never be the same. It may not be the end of Marvel’s cinematic dominance but it will be the end of this story. If film should only be for stories which tell a complete picture across two or three films, then is cinema not restricting itself? Has Marvel’s successful experiment not displayed what’s now possible?

Gatekeeping, therefore, feels misplaced in terms of Infinity War, certainly with this issue. Nobody who enjoyed Infinity War, who are engaged with the MCU, is suggesting people who aren’t schooled in the ways of Marvel should avoid this film, but those audiences might want to consider that expecting Infinity War to play by the same rules many sequels and franchises have been playing by for the last few decades is unfair. This is a new ball game. Perhaps we should refocus our energies into considering how a major, continuing narrative can be explored on a bigger canvas in more properties, as Marvel have done. The possibilities are enormous. 

Avengers: Infinity War, while not perfect cinema, proves it can be done. The only gate we’re keeping if we try and pretend these films do not matter, or are cheating mass audiences, is our own.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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  • How intellegent stan lee maker of those sumer humans or power rangers,i think if they were in real life,we would not more afraid about neuclear war.

  • Great article, I can’t imagine having seen this film without prior knowledge of the others but like you said, why would anyone start their Marvel journey with this particular film. In the showing I was at someone had taken in a young child too (somewhere between 6 and 8) and I couldn’t help thinking at the end of the movie how confused that kid must have been and if the parents were expecting the usual superhero movie.

    • Thanks Debbie. Yeah I imagine that kid just enjoyed all the spectacle but didn’t really get the story, unless he’s watched a lot of these films already. Let’s hope he did!

      • I’d like to think a memory from the film will stick with him (there were quite a few iconic moments in the film) and later when he’s a little older that hazy but powerful memory will tell him “hey didn’t I see that movie way back when?” Hopefully then he picks up the series and watches it and gets what it’s all about.

        Basically that’s what happened with me for Star Wars. Vader was such an iconic figure I had to know him. And even though I kinda knew about the whole reveal in the 2nd movie it still resonated emotionally which I think is the power of a well made film and story.

        By the way this is a well argued article and I enjoyed reading reading it. Personally though, I think of the MCU as an epic narrative and each film as a chapter in it. Which is why you can have slow chapters, filler chapters, climactic chapters, turning point chapters and so on.

        Oh, and might I reblog your post?

  • Making a Marvel film is obviously no small feat of cinematic artistry and skill; but what makes these films successful are the CGI components. Yet I am often bewildered by them, and after watching feel curiously unmoved and unrewarded. The suspension of disbelief engendered by the special effects is rarely enough. There is little in the way of psychic development or narrative complexity, even when the characters are played by our best Shakespearean actors. Too often I feel that I have wasted a good hour of my life being “entertained” by what is a very flimsy pretext. When is Hollywood going to wake up and realize that the Monomyth has been flogged to death? The Hero with a Thousand Faces is reduced to the same old formula that re-appears in different guises, script after script, film after film. The golden rule that scriptwriters abide by is never say what you can show. Yet these Superhero films would have more depth if the characters articulated things they couldn’t show. Hollywood needs more Bird Men, and less Iron Men. What are the true consequences of becoming a Nietzschean Superman? The highly talented actor Christopher Reeve fell from his horse and broke his neck. When we see a superhero stripped of their powers, human, frail and mortal, they immediately connect with our souls. A block of kryptonite is just a parody of human weakness; it does little to strip back the psyche and reveal our human condition. The real battles are fought in the realm of the human heart. No doubt this post will be deleted.

    • To be fair it’s an interesting point Nicholas. Superhero films rarely move into this area of introspection.

      I suspect it’s because it just wouldn’t appeal to a mass audience. Sure, Birdman did well critically and commercially but it cost almost nothing to make. Infinity War has a budget in the hundreds of millions so these films are geared to appeal to the widest possible audience. Joe Jones from Milwaukee just wants to laugh, gasp and see a lot of heroes knocking seven colours out of each other. If Tony Stark suddenly started playing chess with Death for two hours, Marvel aren’t likely to make that money back.

      I think there’s a place for both. The Monomyth has endured because it’s so powerful & as a species, we are still trying to figure ourselves out. We don’t have to deconstruct everything all the time. It would, however, be nice to see a few more filmmakers look inward instead of just always project outward.

      • Thank you for your reply Tony. I fully understand the commercial pressures of the studios to make a profit; and I also understand the importance of myth in our lives; because in a sense myth is not just myth, it is more than myth – it is reality itself. But what I fail to understand, (and thoroughly disapprove of) is the way the Monomyth has been used as a template “cookie cutter” without the writers/producers/directors really exploring the deeper contexts. The familiar tale of the hero leaving mundane everyday life, being thrust into a world he doesn’t understand, getting help from a threshold guardian, resolving the cosmic imbalance, achieving apotheosis, and then returning with a gift to the world he left behind, does not necessarily make a good film. Especially when commercial pressures treat the narrative in such a flippant and superficial way. And as far as the Monomyth is concerned this is a complete oxymoron. Your quip referring to Ingmar Bergman did not go unnoticed; and playing chess with Death for two hours would probably only entertain the pseudo-intellectuals. But with multi-million dollar budgets, Hollywood has no excuse; a sensitive and thought provoking exposition is not incompatible with a “Superhero” box office hit; nor is it incompatible with its chosen demographic, who are currently fed the cinematic equivalence of “fast food”.

    • interesting point Nicholas. They have explored that element in one movie at least connected in the MCU. Iron Man 3. Set after the first Avengers movie Tony Stark starts having panic attacks due to the events of Avengers. Iron Man 3 was more like a Tony Stark Adventure, there was action, yes but the core theme of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed at a thought of not being prepared for a big challenge is something I could relate to very well.

  • I have friends who quote Marvel characters endlessly and I never get it, so in the aim to educate myself, I began a simple research and thus came across your post. Honestly, the more you know. I have no experience or interest in the comic culture, but by golly, you drew me in with this one. Very interesting.

  • Loved this! Definitely not what I expected by the headline, but I agree with this. I think the charm (at least for me) of the MCU is that it is all connected. I LOVE that and it is one of the things that draws me to it. <3

  • Great article.
    Firstly, I think the ones who entered the theaters as “not Marvel fans” have certainly left as Marvel fans. Yes, they might not understand some jokes, but 90% of the people I know have watched the movie twice. And they did their homework while going for the second time. So everyone is definitely loving it.
    Secondly, well to be fair, that particular art of story telling also depends upon the story. The comics have developed the story and characters for over 30 years. MCU has been excellent in executing the movies by referring to the material i.e. the comics. Yes, a lot of people have enjoyed the movies. However, only a few give credit to the comics. At the end of the day, that was the origin. The “Golden Age of Television”, I fear, has replaced comics. But that is how technology works. The matter is same. Only the medium has changed.
    I got more interested in “the art of storytelling part” of the article. Yes, in recent times, not a lot of projects have been like MCU movies. The $600 million has got a lot to do with the meticulous planning which the officials have been doing since 10 years. I am a big Marvel fan but a bigger DC fan. And I completely agree with the points regarding Batman and Justice League. MCU has been on point with majority of the decisions. I can’t wait to see how it all ties up in the upcoming MCU movies. This is the beginning of the end certainly, for just this story-line though.

    • Thanks for reading. Some very good points there.

      I’m not sure the Golden Age of TV has “replaced” comics as much as embroidered that storytelling into its DNA. It’s helped, as has the MCU, the comic book become more accepted these days in the mainstream and I think that’s a great thing.

  • The reason marvel does so much better than DC in movies is the patience they’ve created by making us feel engrained to these characters. DC cornera the TV market, something marvel can’t compete with. Look how involved people feel about the characters in Arrow or Flash. Same goes for marvel movies. I reference it in my review of Infinity war at as well as in a discussion. Just something to mull over.

  • I can understand what some are saying, but I think there are also ways in which people can “read between the lines”.
    When the first Avengers film concluded, I didn’t “know” who that smiling character was, but I could recognize that he was a powerful villain.

    I think in many cases, while audiences may not know a character’s name, they can make inferences about the type of character someone is, and the relationship they have with others.

    In Ocean’s 11 there isn’t time to offer more than a brief sketch for most of the characters, but their mannerism and interactions reveal a great deal about who they are.

    In any franchise that spans more than 1 film, there’s room for audiences to miss things if they haven’t read/seen everything relating to that franchise, but I think it can still be an enjoyable experience, if audiences build on what they’re given, rather than focus on what’s missing.

    I tend to regard all stories as a collaboration between the author(s) and the audience. No matter how much information is presented, there are always gaps, and audiences are always filling them in, creating their own version of the story.

    • Yeah I think that’s a good way to look at it. Audiences will have been able to infer and construct from Infinity War I think, or the majority anyway, if necessary. Thanks for reading.

  • I consider myself the targeted market segment for the film, having invested myself in all the “prequels”. At this point, I will gladly be the gatekeeper for trolls and spoilers but bringing in people for a virgin marvel experience is also a niche. Take Marvel 101 series on their YouTube channel for instance.
    You smile in the movie hall watching people gasp and take pleasure in people experiencing what you did. Inclusivity is a “Marvelous” thing.

  • Such a well-thought piece! I definitely agree that common sense would normally prevail, and that people would go back to watch previous MCU films before this one, but it’s interesting that this has become a saga of films, perhaps not unlike Star Wars. Perhaps the MCU could have been better showcased as a range of TV series, but then you’d never get satisfaction of some sort of resolution that the films offer… maybe it’s all just a money-making scheme…

  • In terms of the plot of the movie, I don’t expect any new comer to walk out of the movie confused as to what happened? It is a pretty normal plot. They will walk out unaffected because they don’t know the characters surely.

    This is not gatekeeping though, definitely not. Hell I am hundred percent sure that if someone goes on twitter or tumblr and searches who is spiderman for Iron man, the entire fandom would happily tell them everything.

  • Justice League failed mainly due to very poor script and even worse acting! It had some amazing moments, but it never came together well! If it doesn’t touch hearts, it is not going to be a great one!

  • I find myself drawn between internally criticising different aspects of the MCU and just enjoying them for what they are. I have friends who are always highly critical of different films when they come out (the last jedi for one) and i find it really irritates me as they can’t just enjoy the film for what it is. Its definitely OK to have opinions and criticisms, but in the end they are made for entertainment.

    • Here’s the thing Nick with criticism: I think the best of it works when the writer has a level of neutrality and distance, when they can separate themselves from it.

      This is the problem we’re finding with fandom right now. They’re not criticising, they’re personalising. There’s a big difference between the two. Most people, honestly, don’t have the facility to truly critique – they either like it or they don’t, and that’s fine. That’s how it should be.

      End of the day, it is entertainment & good criticism is all about highlighting things from an objective standpoint & trying to examine the piece broadly. It should never be about convincing people they should, or shouldn’t, like a piece of art.

  • Yeah, I am also turned off by the practice of “gatekeeping.” There are plenty of movies like the Last Jedi I liked that others hated for not being true to the originals. I felt that Infinity War was subversive in a good way, and it wouldn’t have been possible to give enough attention to every individual character. If you want to learn more about why films like Infinity War are successful in the first place, you may want to read this article:

  • I didn’t know that gatekeeping was so widespread. I thought that it was just restricted to a few fandoms, but it seems to have bocome more of a “trend”. Anyway, great article and you’re right about Marvel, by now they don’t want need to make their movies more “understandable” to a new audience.

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