Infinity War: Laws and narrative

Marvel’s most recent superhero movie, Avengers: Infinity War, is as overstuffed as you’d expect the climax of an 18-movie saga to be. It’s also consistently entertaining because directors Joe and Anthony Russo boldly assume audience familiarity with their characters’ backstories and leverage that to juggle a massive cast without getting bogged down in exposition.

That’s what passes for a review on my part — I liked it and would watch it again. But what I want to spend time on is a particular aspect of Infinity War: how it illustrates author Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Spoilers for Infinity War follow.

Sanderson’s First Law is basically a guide to avoiding deus ex machina. Magic — which includes super powers or advanced technology or other abilities beyond the mundane assumptions of day-to-day modern life — can be portrayed in a lot of different ways. It can be left mysterious and alien, or it can be explained in rigorous detail. Both have their advantages, but from a storytelling perspective, the approach a writer takes limits what they can get away with.

Unexplained magic can create problems for characters with no problems whatsoever. A strange wizard or a mystical artifact or an ancient tome can mess a character up. But if an author tries to solve a problem with magic that the audience doesn’t understand, it seems like authorial cheating — all of a sudden, the problem is suddenly solved, as if by a god descending from the sky and making everything better.

On the other hand, if the audience knows what a character’s powers can do, then those powers can be fairly used to solve problems. YouTube user Shadiversity explains this in the context of an earlier Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, which handles its literal magic according to Sanderson’s First Law:

They had rules, and they established those rules by showing how the magic worked and remaining true to it. For example, one of the rules they established: big spells or magic can only be held within artifacts… What it means, then, is that magic users should not be able to whip out huge spells out of their butts. No, they need to be able to rely on objects, like the rings that make portals… You actually need to be holding it to make a portal. If you lose the ring, you cannot make portals. That makes a significant limitation, and also it creates a rule that can be satisfied. Now the hero can’t just teleport away from the bad guy whenever he wants. He needs to be holding the ring… There’s a part in the movie where they’re actually fighting over holding one of these rings, so they can make a portal.

Another rule that the Doctor Strange movie established, Shadiversity notes, is that its protagonist — a novice magician — “only has a limited number of spells”, including creating whips and shields out of magical energy and using the Eye of Agamotto artifact (and the Time Stone it contains) to reverse time.

But by the beginning of Infinity War, set some time after the conclusion of the first movie, Stephen Strange is no longer a novice and knows a great number of spells. However, this has happened off-screen, which means that while Strange knows those spells, we as the audience don’t.

So as Sanderson’s First Law would predict, Doctor Strange is unable to resolve any major narrative dilemmas with his magic. Near the end of the movie, Strange battles the villain Thanos in conjunction with Iron Man, Spiderman, and several other characters. Strange routinely pulls out new tricks to attack and trick Thanos, an assault the nigh-omnipotent Thanos acknowledges by calling Strange the most dangerous of his opponents.

But Strange can only ever almost defeat Thanos with his magics, because their powers and limitations haven’t been established. The result is a kaleidoscopic array of cool magical attacks that prove ultimately futile. If Strange had beaten Thanos by pulling a powerful new spell out of his butt, we’d have rightly felt cheated.

Compare that with Thor a scene or two later. The Asgardian flies at Thanos and almost kills him with a magical axe we just saw him forge. As it happened, Thanos survived, and executed his terrible plan, but unlike with Strange there was no storytelling rule preventing Thor from killing Thanos here (though he was literally a god descending from the sky). It had been established that Thor’s axe was forged specifically to kill Thanos, so if Thor had gone for the head instead of the chest, Infinity War could have ended with the heroes triumphant.

That’s what made the movie’s twist ending all the more effective. Under the narrative rules encapsulated in Sanderson’s First Law, Thor could have killed Thanos. The fact that he didn’t meant many viewers were blindsided by the villain’s victory. Infinity War’s creators knew how to play with the audience’s expectations — that problems won’t be resolved with a deus ex machina and that the good guys usually save the world — to tease us with fights we know the heroes will lose but then pull the rug out after a fight we think they’ll win.