It's barely a spoiler (although it is one, so watch out) for me to tell you what happened at the end of Marvel's latest hit Guardians of the Galaxy, because it's a third act you've probably seen before. Our heroes chase after the evil Ronan (Lee Pace) once he gets his hand on an infinity gem, because he's going to use it to blow up a planet. They stop him, the gem is secured, and put in a safe location. Does this sound familiar? Maybe that's because almost the exact same scenario played out in The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World, which also revolved around the all-powerful ingots, which when united will play some larger role in a future Marvel movie, maybe Avengers 3.
This is the problem with a shared cinematic universe, especially with the particular crossover event Marvel has picked to point all its movies toward. The various comic-book sagas of the infinity stones center around their terrible power when they're united, usually in a big golden glove. To get that to happen, we're gonna need Thanos (check) and we're gonna need six stones. By anyone's best estimate, we've encountered four (here's a nice inventory from Kate Erbland), and it's starting to make the over-arcing plot of every Marvel movie depressingly formulaic.
Don't get me wrong: I really liked Guardians of the Galaxy. It does a fantastic job keeping the energy up and the one-liners flying even as we slog through the final battle. The idea of the team linking hands to deal with, and ultimately reject, the power of the infinity stone was wonderfully cheesy in the best kind of way. But I can’t imagine another way to put a fresh spin on things.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, we're introduced to the Tesseract (or Cosmic Cube), a mysterious artifact that Nazi scientists are using to create futuristic weaponry. The Avengers centers its final battle around Loki using the power of the Tessaract to open a portal and unleash an alien invasion on New York; eventually, the Tessaract is negated and taken away to Asgard by Thor.
Thor: The Dark World revolves around the Aether, another all-powerful instrument of destruction that, if used at the right time by dark elf Malekith, can zap every dimension into darkness. Once again, our final battle sees everyone trying to get their hands on the infinity stone (rendered this time as an inky red cloud). Once again, it is reclaimed and contained, handed off by Asgardians to The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) so that it isn't in the same place as the Tessaract.
By Guardians, we know for sure that Thanos is trying to get his hands on the stones. As ScreenCrush editor Mike Ryan pointed out on Twitter this weekend, he's not doing a very good job of it.
We are ten Marvel movies in and Thanos has collected a grand total of zero infinity stones.— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) August 3, 2014
But still, Thanos probably has an idea of where all the stones are and will seek to unite them in one fell swoop. Once he does, he'll be all-powerful…and our heroes are gonna have to get the stones away from him. Again. I have a lot of faith in Marvel's creative process, but I don't know how you render this battle in a way that isn't just everyone pushing and shoving each other out of the way to get to the magic floating item. I can tolerate a certain level of video-gamey plotting from a superhero movie, but where will dramatic tension even arise from if Thanos has all the stones? How on earth do you depict a battle between a dozen superheroes and an omnipotent god-villain that's not just a big overwhelming light show?
It's too late to turn back on the infinity stone plotline by now, I understand that. But can we just have Thanos get the last two (by Erbland's count, the soul stone and the time stone) off-screen, maybe? I dread that one of Marvel's two confirmed new heroes, Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, will trip across the universe in pursuit of another glowing MacGuffin. There has to be another way.