Infinity Stones: the MacGuffin at the Heart of the MCU

Curator's Note

"The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing." Alfred Hitchcock

As anyone who has ever studied film narratives knows, a MacGuffin is an object that sets a film's plot in motion. It has taken the shape of a microfilm containing explosive top-secret information, a code that unlocks an enormous vault, a briefcase with seductively glowing contents, or anything else that a set of chracters is determined to obtain at pretty much any cost. But at the same time, as Hitchcock pointed out repeatedly, this MacGuffin is fundamentally meaningless to the movie's audience. We may be interested in how much specific characters are willing to do for it, but the actual nature of the MacGuffin hardly matters to us. As Tarantino understood so well in Pulp Fiction, that famous briefcase is much more interesting when we don't even know what's in it.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, the Infinity Stones have been the obvious MacGuffin. Establishing the six various Infinity Stones as Sources of Ultimate Power has been the narrative glue that has (somewhat precariously) held the overall story together. As recap videos like this one insist, the most important aspect of the movies to date has been the laborious table-setting that can now be read as a decade of narrative prep work for Infinity War and Endgame, where these stones finally become truly central to the story.

But when re-watching all the MCU films as a lead-up to Endgame, the scripts' constant insistence that the Infinity Stones are hugely important is simultaneously the franchise's greatest weakness. Hitchcock's basic insight that these MacGuffin's are ulimtately "nothing" holds true in complex superhero franchises as much as it does in ancient spy thrillers. And even post-Infinity War, when non-comic book nerds are thoroughly aware of their importance to the overall narrative, it remains almost impossible to care about them even a little bit. 

It's no coincidence therefore that the strongest entries in the Marvel film franchise have been the ones that mostly ignore the series' tedious world-building by constantly reminding us of the whereabouts of these Infintity Stones, and focus instead on emotional stakes that are actually worth caring about. Here's hoping in any case that the next phase of the MCU takes a page from Hitchcock's book and moves away from the franchise's reliance on MacGuffins. 


Could not agree more.  Marvel Studios has had to learn how to negotiate serialized continuity in relation to the individual plots of the films, receiving criticism when the former overpowers the latter; here, I'm thinking of the Thor subplot in Avengers: Age of Ultron or the Collector's "PowerPoint" presentation in Guardians of the Galaxy.  Unsurprisingly, and to your point, both of those examples stop their respective film's narrative progression dead in order to build continuity for the infinity stones.

While the stones have been handled poorly in terms of plotting, the video you shared with your post makes me wonder if they have not been successful from another perspective.  Jeffrey Brown has written about "Comic Book Fandom and Cultural Capital" previously, emphasizing the "autodidact" value of fandom and that makes me wonder if the stones appeal more to a fan serive purpose.  Their continuity plays into exactly the kind of thing ScreenCrush is doing in the video, the sort of fan discourse that involves recounting the history or making listicles of "10 Things You Didn't Know About the Infinity Stones."  It seems like the stones offer a lot of potential for fans to accrue subcultural capital by tracking and sharing their knowledge of these MacGuffins.

Reading your post, when you noted the tedium of Marvel's world building around the stones, I immediately thought of the very beginning of Thor: Ragnarok. Thor directly addresses the audiences, and really quickly addresses the Infinity Stone question saying something like: "I went looking for Infinity Stones, didn't find any," essentially then creating a space to allow the movie to go any direction it wanted to. Ragnarok personally is one of my all-time favorite MCU entries, and I think it is specifically because it diverges from universe continuity and instead focused on creating a really sharp, if irreverent, buddy comedy. 

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