As someone who’s criticized the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the prospect of sitting through a 31-hour marathon of these movies was daunting, to say the least. But I knew that the ordeal would be a prime (if very stupid) opportunity to raise some money for a good cause. So this week, I joined a few hundred diehard Marvel fans for an Infinity War of our own.
Would the experience break me? Would it force me to see the light and embrace my inner Marvel fanboy? Would I understand why the hell I’m supposed to care about Bucky?
This is my diary of my 31-hour trip to Thanos.
Wednesday, April 25th
1:15pm: I arrive at the AMC 25 in Times Square, the Stark Tower of multiplexes. Fresh from an emergency supply run to the Duane Reade across the street, I have a large box of granola bars; an even larger bigger box of painkillers; a giant can of sugar-free Red Bull; an iPhone charger; a sleep mask for “Captain America: Civil War;” and a few precious memories of the outside world.
I feel relatively well prepared, at least until I spot a man going up the escalator with a suitcase.
1:25pm: A long line forms as they wait to take our tickets. People tentatively introduce themselves. Many — perhaps even most — are decked out in some form of Marvel paraphernalia, and we’re all about to get some more of it: Every marathon attendee receives an Avengers pin, a plastic-sealed poster, and a shiny badge that must be worn around our necks at all times, to ensure everyone feels the proper level of embarrassment.
1:28pm: Good news: AMC 25 has several theaters decked out with leather recliners, perfect for sleeping! Bad news: Our marathon isn’t playing in one of them, because it’s organized by some of the world’s most twisted sadists.
Auditorium #17, our home for the next 31 hours, is about as comfortable as an episode of “Nathan for You.” Seats are stiff, legroom is nonexistent, and the cushions are made out of the most fart-absorbent material in the galaxy. It’s like sitting in the last row of a 31-hour flight that never leaves the ground.
1:30pm: Lights go down at 1:30pm sharp (all movies started exactly on time, the marathon scheduled down to the minute so that “Infinity War” can begin at 6pm the following night and AMC can clear the room in time for a 9pm show). The crowd cheers.
People also cheered when the Titanic set sail.
1:32pm: “Iron Man” is so old that it takes place in a world where Maxim is still a thing.
1:36pm: Tony Stark is introduced through the lens of his attitude towards weapons and power — his lucrative belief that fear and violence are the surest means toward peace. “It’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we got,” he caws. “I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.” As one character points out a few minutes later, the first MCU movie has a mass murderer for a hero.
1:40pm: It’s amazing how fully formed Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was right out of the gate. The quick-tongued arrogance, the withering sarcasm, the poisoned moral righteousness — “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” has a lot of blood on its hands.
1:50pm: The kind-hearted Yinsen dies after imploring Stark not to “waste his life.” Everyone seated for this 31-hour marathon of Marvel movies begins to shift in their seats.
1:55pm: Agent Coulson makes his first appearance and the crowd explodes as if Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé dropped in for an impromptu jam. Hooray for middle management!
2pm: Dum-E, the fire-extinguishing robot in Tony’s lab, earns the MCU’s first deep laugh. Honestly, this little guy might be the reason Terrence Howard was fired. I picture Kevin Feige at the premiere and being all: “Is it just me, or does that droid whose face is an empty metal tube give the second-best performance in the whole movie?”
2:40pm: By today’s Marvel standards, this movie is mumblecore: 70 minutes in, and the biggest action sequence is Iron Man dominating a rabble of terrorists. It’s almost quaint.
3:15pm: Stane is a useless villain (anticipating a franchise full of useless villains), but I like the half-assed final fight because Stark — in his battle against an Iron Man prototype — is effectively fighting his former self. So many MCU heroes are defined by their struggle to reconcile the people they were with the people they’re empowered to become.
3:45pm: What a nice little movie about a powerful man who learns that the world might be a better place without weapons of war on the streets.
3:40pm: There’s a 30-minute break between each film, but most people stick around for the post-credit scenes. I am not most people. I need coffee and I need it now.
3:42pm: The lady at concessions stand tells me, “The coffee machine has decided to stop working.” This is the bad place.
3:45pm: Wait, I just Googled it and it turns out that Maxim is still a thing! That’s insane.
4:00pm: “The Incredible Hulk” begins before anyone can figure out why they’re forcing us to watch it.
4:13pm: Did Edward Norton accidentally kill Stan Lee?
4:20pm: CRASH! You know those plastic-covered posters they gave us on the way in? They’re now sticking out from underneath everyone’s seat, turning the narrow aisles of this cramped room into a veritable slip-and-slide. Not that I’m complaining: Someone falling on their ass is easily the most entertaining thing that will happen for the next two hours.
4:35pm: I like how Norton’s take on the Hulk was pretty much: What if a guy with no discerniblepersonality did everything in his power to avoid growing one?
5:25pm: Watching two hideous CG blobs clobber each other across the streets of Harlem, it occurs to me that “The Incredible Hulk” might be more of a DC movie than it is a Marvel one.
5:42pm: There’s a giant “Tully” stand in the lobby. At the moment, my big plan for the night is to knock it down and sleep inside of it.
6:15pm: “Thor” starts, and the theater is half-empty. It’s like revisiting “The Incredible Hulk” made a roomful of Marvel obsessives question some of their life choices.
6:40pm: I snap awake after my body involuntarily shuts down. Thanks to the rigid structure of all these origin stories, it’s all too easy to reorient myself.
7pm: That Loki sure loves genocide, huh?
8:05pm: It’s pretty remarkable that the MCU survived “Thor” and “The Incredible Hulk,” and that “Iron Man,” Chris Hemsworth, and the promise of the Avengers was enough until this franchise found its legs. Of course, it was a more innocent time.
8:10pm: You can condition people to sit through the credits, or you can play some awful new Foo Fighters song over the credits. To do both is probably in violation of the Geneva Convention.
8:12pm: Three movies down, and Tony Stark’s fire-extinguisher robot is still by far the best character in the MCU. Fingers crossed for a standalone movie in Phase V.
8:30pm: Standing in line for chicken tenders, the only source of protein on AMC’s menu. I meet a woman who drove up from Maryland for the marathon. The teenage girl behind me frets about finding time to do her homework. (“Maybe during ‘Guardians of the Galaxy?’” she asks a friend.) There are whispers that someone flew in all the way from Utah.
8:42pm: Survival instincts start to kick in. People get territorial over power outlets. A kid with fluffy blond hair loudly contemplates if this is the right time to pop an Adderall (“It’s extended-release,” he explains to no one in particular). It occurs to me that 24 hours from now I will still be sitting here watching spandex men fight computer people.
9:07pm: “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a few minutes old, but it’s clear that the MCU has found its groove.
9:15pm: “I can do this all day,” Steve Rogers says to the bully who’s beating him up behind a movie theater. Too soon, Steve.
9:24pm: Steve Rogers is injected with a super serum; I eat an entire box of Red Vines. Two great Americans with unstable chemicals swirling around our veins.
9:35pm: I love that Captain America has a comic book written about him before he becomes a superhero — the identity comes first, and Steve Rogers is forced to live up to it. The U.S.O. tour sequence is an inspired way of expediting character development. Joe Johnson rules.
10:04pm: For the first time in my life, I actually hear a Wilhelm scream. Is it possible that sitting through nine consecutive hours of Marvel movies has somehow sharpened my senses? Or is the smell in here so rank, my eyes so dry, my tastebuds so defeated, and my touch so unused that my ears are picking up the slack?
10:05pm: I break into another box of Red Vines.
10:30pm: Maybe it’s the Stockholm Syndrome talking, but this movie is phenomenal. It’s playing like gangbusters; listening to this audience, you’d think everyone in the room was seeing it for the very first time.
11:04pm: “I had a date.” Oh good, I can still feel things — I haven’t quite gone full Gollum yet. Hands down the best ending of any superhero movie this side of “Spider-Man 2.”
11:30pm: “The Avengers” starts. It’s so weird to watch this movie without commercial breaks.
Thursday, April 26th
12:20am: Tony Stark invokes “a terrible privilege.” With great power comes great responsibility. This is the heart and soul of the MCU: human(oid) weapons fighting for peace, and trying to pave the way toward a world that doesn’t need them in it. It’s a matter that subsequent movies will confuse as they try to pick it clean.
12:40am: Agent Coulson’s death was sad when I first saw it in 2012, but now that I know the character was demoted to network TV, it’s devastating.
12:45am: Nick Fury motivates the Avengers by showing them the bloodied Captain America trading cards that were in Coulson’s jacket when he died, only for Maria Hill to reveal that the cards were in Coulson’s locker. Which, if I’m following this, means that Fury went to Coulson’s locker, took out the cards, and … slathered them in blood he found dripping from one of his freshly slaughtered colleagues on the airship? Or, being a true professional, did he go back to Coulson’s body and dunk the cards in the chest wound that killed him? Either way, I think this dude might be a bit more damaged than we’ve been led to believe.
1:10am: Harry Dean Stanton!! The crowd goes wild, and — for the first time — I’m cheering right along with them. Maybe these are my people.
1:40am: The Chitauri definitely voted for Trump. [I don’t know what prompted me to write this down in my notes, but I’m gonna roll with it]
1:30am: The Battle of New York is still the most fluid, operatic, and flat-out spectacular action setpiece in this entire franchise, and nothing else comes close. It’s no wonder the rest of the MCU is so hung up on it.
1:55am: Enter Thanos. Or, the purple concept art that would become Thanos. Our first glimpse of the MCU’s big bad reminds me of the shots we see of Gollum in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” when a movie is forced to introduce a CG character before its franchise has figured out what it’s going to look like. That’s Hollywood, baby!
2:05am: The rest of the theater is closed for the night, leaving us to roam the towering multiplex at our leisure. There are sleeping bodies strewn about the building, some on inflatable mattresses but most lying on the floor.
2:09am: I head to one of the auditoriums I know has recliner chairs (there are perks to being a film critic who’s spent a lot of time in this building over the years). I make a little bed for myself, but it’s so creepy listening to the pre-show in an empty room — Meghan Trainor songs mixed in with chirpy popcorn propaganda from Maria Menounos. It’s even creepier when the music abruptly shuts off.
2:50am: I head back into the theater about 40 minutes into “Guardians of the Galaxy,” hoping that all the flashing lights and smooth ’70s tunes of Peter Quill’s maiden voyage might lull me to sleep.
2:52am: They don’t.
3:13am: Every Benicio del Toro performance is 50 percent more fun once you realize that he’s playing himself.
3:30am: Alien John C. Reilly says “I don’t believe anyone is 100 percent a dick.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the middle of the night, but this feels like a profound statement that could be applied to the entire MCU.
4:30am: Nothing says “carpe diem” quite like a 4:30am “Age of Ultron” screening.
4:31am: Captain America throws a motorcycle at someone.
4:45am: There’s a seductive ASMR vibe to the scene where Ultron becomes conscious and starts chatting with Jarvis. I immediately pass out.
5:40am: Jarvis is an Irish lady now.
5:50am: Captain America says a naughty word, and Nick Fury replies: “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Which, like … dude, if anyone is aware that Captain America’s mom has been dead for 100 years, it’s you. That’s just insensitive.
Walt Disney Studios
7:30am: “Captain America: Civil War” begins. We’re technically watching it, but it would be more accurate to say that the movie is just sort of happening, indifferent to our presence. I think about Quentin Tarantino’s comment about digital projection being like “watching TV in public.” Celluloid is harder to ignore, but the real difference is the passivity. We’re waiting this thing out like a rainstorm.
7:45am: Why is this a Captain America movie, anyway? There are more Avengers than there were in “The Avengers!” Poor Steve. It’s like being ignored at your own birthday party.
7:50am: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve hit rock bottom. This movie is the worst. I think that’s because it should be the best. Here’s a film that forces the various Avengers to confront their conflicting ideas about power and its proper application, but refuses to dramatize their disagreements. Instead, it’s lots of blank philosophizing interrupted by poorly choreographed fight scenes.
On the other hand, at least someone with power is putting real thought into America’s foreign policy.
8:18am: Dreaming up a supercut of moments in the MCU when there’s no music playing — it’d be about 25 seconds long. I’ve been trying to put my finger on the sameness of these films, how such a grab-bag of candy can taste like the dominant flavor, and the wall-to-wall scoring is a major factor. The movies were always going to blur together by this point of the marathon, but our current fugue state is enhanced by the sense that we’ve been listening to one long, sustained note since we got here.
9:45am: I’m sitting outside an early-morning screening of “A Quiet Place” and using the jump-scares to jolt myself awake. So that’s where we’re at right now.
9:49am: I’ve been holding on to a can of sugar-free Red Bull for the last 26 hours, saving it for my most desperate and pathetic moment like that bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc Paul Giamatti drinks out of a styrofoam cup at the end of “Sideways.” Cheers.
10:00am: Time for Tim Burton’s “Inception!” Wait, no, sorry [squints at notes], “Doctor Strange.”
10:20am: One of the things I like about this movie is how it hones in on one of the ideas binding this entire franchise together: That our perspective on the world is the sum of our own experience, and our empathy for the experiences of others. A character whose path runs parallel to Tony Stark, Stephen Strange is a self-centered prig who learns that the universe contains realities separate from his own. Only by internalizing that is he able to use his powers for good.
10:45: “Shamballa” is the wi-fi password. Still funny! Also, I’d say somewhere between 85 to 95 percent of the jokes in the MCU hinge on humanizing superhuman characters. Every punchline amounts to “Superheroes: They’re just like us!” But hey, it works.
11:05: “We never lose our demons, Mordo. We only learn to live above them.” No one is 100 percent dick, and no one is 100 percent hero. It’s why Doctor Strange and Iron Man are such compelling characters, though they both grow tiresomee: They’re always at war with themselves, even when they’re saving the world.
11:50am: “Doctor Strange” is in the books, and the books are in some old Tibetan library or something. It’s hard to watch a movie about the meaning of time when you’re nearly 24 hours into a marathon that has stripped time of all meaning.
11:54am: Sitting on a throne of granola bar wrappers like a mad king looking over a ruined world, I experience a profound epiphany:
11:57am: People are sleeping in the aisles, absorbing the MCU through osmosis. Where we’re going, we don’t need fire safety codes.
11:59am: I don’t think a single AMC employee has so much as popped their head in here since the marathon began. It’s “The Lord of the Flies” in theater 17, and they’re just gonna let it happen. Send in a HazMat team when it’s over and let them deal with it.
12:32pm: They’ve scheduled a lunch break, but most people are too broken to venture into Times Square. The younger ones only remember the outside world through the stories the elders tell around the ICEE machine (the one that a kindly AMC employee left on and unattended all night long).
12:51pm: “Spider-Man: Homecoming” time. Someone cheers at the first appearance of Murph, the bodega cat.
12:52pm: The guy at the bodega says that Aunt May is hot.
12:55pm: The kid from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” said “Penis Parker” and I laughed.
12:59pm: Those hilarious instructional videos are enough to make “Homecoming” a better Captain America movie than “Civil War” ever was. I’m not sure if there’s a stronger testament to MCU’s world building: Not only does it milk laughs from our collective understanding of Captain America’s character, it also articulates how the Avengers function in their culture.
1:10pm: Tony says Aunt May is hot.
1:12pm: Tony says Aunt May is hot, but with different words.
1:16pm: A waiter gives Aunt May some free larb because he thinks she’s hot.
1:25pm: Tony is legit about to dump Pepper Potts, abandon the Avengers, and start a new life with Aunt May.
1:30pm: If Marvel hired Nancy Meyers to make a straight-up romantic-comedy about Aunt May looking for love (and maybe finding some danger), it could single-handedly save the genre.
2:20pm: I’m impressed and delighted by how the fictional technology tracks across the various stories. The turbines in the Vulture’s wing suit recall the flying aircraft carrier from “The Avengers,” the reactor cores that power his guns connect to Tony Stark’s Arc Reactors, and someone — I can’t remember who — fires a gun with a corrugated barrel that looks like the Destroyer from “Thor.”
2:50pm: The last five seconds of “Homecoming” are perfect.
3:10pm: I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s very purple. Everyone is buzzing. All that’s standing between us and “Infinity War” is “Black Panther,” and we’re about to watch the movie as it was truly meant to be seen: In a boiling cauldron of farts.
3:26pm: T’Challa namechecks Zemo, and I am outraged that fucking ZEMO is momentarily invoked in a future Best Picture nominee.
3:50pm: Klaue’s mixtape is real, and I want to hear it.
3:52pm: “Guns. So primitive.” Okoye gets it.
4:15pm: As if the need for better representation wasn’t obvious enough, watching 12 of these movies in a row really hammers it home. That’s true for race, and it’s very true for gender. Nearing the 29th hour of the marathon, it’s impossible to ignore that I’ve mostly been staring at various white dudes named Chris — even the team-up movies push everyone else to the side. It’s not a matter of being woke; hell, I’m barely conscious right now, and I still can’t unsee it. “Captain Marvel” can’t get here soon enough.
5:50pm: An unseen AMC employee has abandoned a cardboard box outside the theater. We tear it open, wondering aloud about what treasure might wait for us inside: “Infinity War” swag? Signed Thanos autographs? Tear-stained letters from the partners and children waiting for us back home?
It’s 3D glasses. A box full of 3D glasses. It’s like the first scene of “2001,” fits of anger and confusion before our hard cut to space. After 29 consecutive hours of eye-straining insanity, this seems like a cruel joke. At least, I hope it was a cruel joke, because if anyone at AMC thought we wanted this, those people understand their customers even less than I thought.
5:57pm: It’s pandemonium in theater 17. Almost everyone who was there at the start came back for the end. A big guy up front commands our attention and requests everyone stay quiet for the Stan Lee cameo so that “we can hear what the old man has to say.” There are shouts of agreement.
5:58pm: This happens:
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) April 27, 2018
6:00pm: “Avengers: Infinity War” starts. Well, not the movie, but five minutes of corporate branded content. The glasses were not a joke. They’re a cookbook. Soylent Green is made out of people, etc.
6:05pm: It starts for real this time. Except the 3D isn’t working. It’s like the last 30 minutes of “mother!” in here. I see my entire life flash before my eyes, and it looks an awful lot like a supercut of Marvel movies.
6:07pm: It’s fixed! The shouting stops in time for Thanos’ first line. I start wishing that the 3D would break again.
6:19pm: Stan Lee gets his cameo. People yell at the top of their lungs.
6:25pm: It occurs to me that the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is the story of Tony Stark trying to figure out faster and faster ways of getting dressed.
6:50pm: “After 11 years and 19 movies, let’s end it by stranding all the characters together in nondescript pockets of outer space so they can joke about Kevin Bacon and shoot lights at each other for three hours.” The bigger these movies get, the smaller they feel.
8:55pm: “Infinity War” is pretty much everything I don’t like about superhero movies, wadded into one epic bore. All the same, there’s no denying that I watched it with the right crowd. When you see the film, you’ll know what I mean.
9:01pm: And just like that, I’m on the A train home.
Did the experience enhance my appreciation of the MCU? Hard to say. On the one hand, it definitely clarified the thematic conversation between them, however garbled it gets. It also forced me to awe at the connective tissue, and the architecture required for such an astonishing feat of world building.
On the other hand, I left the theater even more disenchanted with the way these characters have been subsumed into the spectacle around them, and fear that next year’s “Infinity War” sequel will be more of the same. One thing’s for sure: I’ll be watching that movie on its own.
Oh, and I still don’t understand why I’m supposed to care about Bucky. Sorry, guys.