Review: Endgame

I didn’t really like Infinity War. I had some not-too-kind things to say about it and the state of the MCU at the time. If my neighbor hadn’t asked if I wanted to join him for Endgame, seeing the sequel to a movie I so maligned wouldn’t have been a priority, and certainly wouldn’t have happened so relatively soon.

But I’ve seen Endgame, only a week late to the conversation, and I found that I mostly liked it. It was a satisfying cap to not just Infinity War but virtually every MCU film that came before it. It provided a swan song for the original Avengers team, and it was a promise for new generations of heroes and new iterations of heroic legacies. And it tried its best to patch up some of my biggest complaints with Infinity War. The single biggest improvement: this film finally allows for genuine dramatic stakes with permanent repercussions. We see a lot of Infinity War‘s bullshit cliffhanger ending undone, though not so cleanly as I had thought, and not only do the characters deal with a lot of trauma and change, but not all of them make it through–and there shouldn’t be any redoes this time. (It’s refreshing to see that the MCU is finally doing what the comics won’t, acknowledging the passage of time and actually allowing an ending for at least some characters.)

Best of all, Endgame offered the best performances to date for the core Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic and really leans into the grief, trauma, and heroism of his role–though his characteristic snark seldom departs him. Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner both pull everything they can out of the platonic bond of soulmates that their characters share; frankly, I’ve never cared much for Renner or his character, and yet Hawkeye’s arc in this film was one of my favorite things about it. Mark Ruffalo expresses a smug confidence that was so uncharacteristic and reflected how much Bruce Banner had changed between films. Chris Evans is sterling as ever as the always optimistic, pure-hearted Captain America. And Chris Hemsworth brings a lot of quirky neuroticism to the role of Thor, to mixed results, but my qualms are more with the script than the acting.

The movie was a whirlwind of an experience, and it was surreal to realize that three hours had passed as the credits rolled. I was engaged from start to finish. I can’t say that this would necessarily be a good movie on its own, but as heavily as it relied on the decade-plus of Marvel movies, and as many characters and events as it referenced, I never felt lost or confused. The payoff found in this movie was definitely earned. And while I was incredibly annoyed by the end of Infinity War, I loved how heavily the film leaned into allowing the characters to experience and process grief (well, almost all the characters–as I mentioned, Thor got a bad deal in his portrayal).

I do have some complaints, but to get into them, I have to discuss plot beats. I imagine anyone reading this has probably already seen the movie…still, SPOILERS FOLLOW.

 


 

First and foremost, I really didn’t like that the Soul Stone once again claims a female sacrifice. I actually thought that the tender moment between Hawkeye and Black Widow was lovely, and the fight to see who could self-sacrifice first was a fascinating way to work out the deep love and protectionism both characters share for each other. But first Gamora, and now Natasha. And both of these deaths are quite permanent.

Relatedly, while I liked that Gamora came back in some form, it felt like a cheap workaround of the permanence of death associated with a Soul Stone sacrifice. I’m not too bothered by it, though–a past version of Gamora on the loose in the present galaxy, with her sister and her lover holding feelings for her that she does not share in return, offers some interesting narrative possibilities down the line.

I also really didn’t like the depiction of Thor. I think this Tor essay by Sylas Barrett sums it up better than I ever could, but I didn’t like that his grief and trauma, and his associated weight gain, were used as recurrent gags. The other heroes all seemed to be annoyed by his mental illness, as though they felt that he should just man up and tough it out, as though everyone processes things the same way–as though Thor hadn’t lost all his family individually and then failed in stopping Thanos in such a way that he could feel directly responsible for it all. If nothing else, I’m frustrated that Marvel can’t seem to figure out what to do with Thor, and all the great character development and tonal shifts of Ragnarok continue to be undermined by what has followed. Still, I’m excited to see Thor join on with the Guardians of the Galaxy; his interactions with them in Infinity War were a highlight, and the quirky and colorful space opera of Ragnarok shares more than a little in common with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

To get really petty, I thought it sort of pathetic when, in the final battle, Marvel shows a shot of the female superheroes all rallying to help Captain Marvel get across the battlefield, only for their plan to fail in a couple minutes. It felt like Marvel desperately crying out, “Oh we have female characters, lots of them, we care about women for real!” And yet over Infinity War and Endgame, they killed present Gamora, past Nebula, and Black Widow, and they didn’t really give any of the female characters much to do. (Captain Marvel was great when she was present. Scarlet Witch had an excellent five minutes against Thanos. I’ve already mentioned how Black Widow shined in her scenes with Hawkeye. Nebula had a great heroic arc, even if she didn’t get as much focus as many of the other survivors. But for the most part, this was a movie focused on men.)

Finally, I found some of the patches for Infinity War to be rather weak. I know that Infinity War mentions that half of Asgard was killed, implying that half survived, and I’m glad to see that most of the characters I loved in Ragnarok made it through, but how exactly did that work? Weren’t all of the Asgardian refugees on board the ship attacked by Thanos? How come we saw no indication that they escaped when the ship exploded? Where did they go? If there were escape pods or something, how come Thor didn’t look for them? How come the Guardians didn’t detect them? And how did the refugees get to Earth? So it’s nice that many of them made it after all, but there’s no effort to explain exactly how that happened. That’s nothing compared to my frustration with Doctor Strange’s decision to turn over the Time Stone. Okay, so it leads to the only path that he sees where they win, and it allows for the Ancient One to trust the Hulk when he travels in time to collect it. But how, exactly, could that be the only way to victory? If Strange had let Tony die, and kept the Time Stone tucked away in whatever pocket dimension he held it, how exactly would Thanos have acquired it? Okay, so Tony gets five years of marriage and a daughter. But he still ends up dead in the apparently only win condition, and a lot of people suffered for those five years, and a lot of people will find themselves displaced after winking back into existence after five years. Just in general, the time travel mechanics and alternate realities rely on the audience trusting the filmmakers and putting doubt out of mind, not scrutinizing anything too hard, and I wasn’t willing or able to do that.

On the flip side, there were a lot of things I loved. I loved the arcs for Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. I loved Rocket’s reunion with Groot on the battlefield, as he dives on top of his newly recovered friend to shield his body from the falling missiles. That scene, along with Tony’s death and funeral scenes, brought tears to my eyes. I loved the arrival of all the heroes, old and new, on the battlefield. I loved the passing of the mantle from Steve to Sam, I loved Pepper in her own Iron Man suit, and I loved Black Widow’s time as the head of an Avengers team consisting of (if I recall correctly) War Machine, Okoye, Rocket, Nebula, and Captain Marvel. And I loved that most of the characters got at least a couple good moments in the film, even outside of the core cast of the original Avengers plus Rocket and Nebula plus Ant-Man.

This film was fun to watch and offered a final, and mostly satisfying, conclusion for many of the characters who have been around for the longest. It also offers the potential for a lot of exciting new stories to tell. I hope that we now see Marvel movies take more risks and break away from the Marvel formula (though of course, we already have examples like Guardians of the GalaxyAnt-ManBlack Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and even Captain Marvel that offered something different). Time will tell if Marvel follows through on that potential. For now, we’ve reached an Endgame.

Captain Marvel continues Marvel’s excellent reinvigoration of space opera

As usual, I’m behind the conversation; over Avengers: Endgame‘s opening weekend, I went to see Captain Marvel. I had no particular interest in seeing it, but it was the end point of a leisurely walk along the White River and through downtown on a personal day. I don’t get particularly excited about Marvel movies anymore, and I have minimal familiarity with the Captain Marvel character. The trailers didn’t do anything for me, either. But this film was a surprising joy for me, and I’m glad I saw it.

There are many things to like about Captain Marvel. I like its refreshingly pure-hearted and good-willed protagonist as portrayed by Brie Larson. I like the introduction story here, less an origin (though it contains that, in flashbacks) and more a recognition of one’s true capability and the overturning of years of built-in cultural indoctrination. I liked the appearance of young(ish) agents Coulson and Fury. I liked the sci-fi story, and I liked the big twist, and I liked how it wasn’t just a big twist but actually helped with Carol Danvers’s character growth and full acceptance of her new, heroic, independent identity. I even liked how the potential display of how Fury lost his eye becomes a running gag and ultimately a solidly landed brick joke.

I especially liked that Captain Marvel leaned into being its own thing. Set in the nineties, with a hero character unfamiliar to the existing superhero community of Infinity War and with events that couldn’t have an obvious impact on the state of the world (because why wouldn’t we know about it already?), Captain Marvel seemed like it would be an exceedingly unnecessary and pointless film in a franchise already full of such unnecessary productions. But while Captain Marvel does actually have some nice connective tissue to the Avengers films and draws a direct path to Endgame, it largely succeeds because it focuses on big a good movie instead of another tangle in the web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the connections were there, but you could go into this fresh and enjoy a great superhero sci-fi story.

The sci-fi elements were especially fun, and I hope that this serves as a sign that Marvel will continue to incorporate more and more wild space opera into its films. We saw the faintest glimmer of what was to come in the original Thor, but Captain Marvel feels like a sibling of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok in being so wildly, ridiculously over-the-top in its depiction of galaxy-spanning empires and alien cultures. It also feels like a movie that has spiritual roots in the eighties or nineties, with the premise of an Earth-born human hero clandestinely becoming entangled in an intergalactic conflict echoing Flash Gordon or The Last Starfighter.

I hope that Marvel continues to release wild, wacky, cosmic epics. I’d love to see a sequel to Captain Marvel that details her adventures taking down the Kree empire. But I also hope that we can see some other, original, high-quality space opera films come out. It’s a rare treat, and the plots are often a little half-baked, but I love the colossal scale and alien settings, and when these things have the budget for a decent cinematic experience, it’s truly wonderful.

A week’s worth of movies

I’ve watched more movies than usual in the past week, and my wife suggested I write a post to summarize my thoughts on each. Many of these films wouldn’t normally get mentioned on this site–though I admit my criteria are somewhat arbitrary, shifting, and unclear.

So, here you are, Sam!

We started the week with Ant-Man and the Wasp. It was fun but unexceptional. I wouldn’t really mention it except for this post. Lots of humor, lots of heart, and a surprising amount of cool ’60s pulp sensibility, but not a lot of purpose. It actually annoyed me that a mid-credits scene tied the film into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking a largely whimsical film and inserting the illusory stakes and high death count of Infinity War. Special mention should be made of Michael Peña’s performance; he’s just incredible, and nothing highlights his range more than the jump from lighthearted and lovable sweetheart Luis in the Ant-Man films to the angry, bitter, aggressive, and courageous DEA agent at the heart of Narcos: Mexico.

Next up was American Gangster, and I had originally planned to write a post on this film alone. I might still do that. It instantly became one of my favorite crime movies, on par with something like Goodfellas or Casino–and the accelerating pace of the film as it progresses over the rise and fall of Frank Lucas’s criminal empire invited further parallels. I was therefore not at all surprised to see Nicholas Pileggi listed as an executive producer (though this was written by Steven Zaillian). Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were absolutely mesmerizing as Lucas and detective-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts, respectively. And I was surprised to see Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Idris Elba pop up in significant background roles (many other great actors and performances here, but those were the ones that immediately stood out to me). A film directed by Ridley Scott is a little bit of a wild card, but American Gangster definitely stands among the good ones. It was interesting to read afterward how far the film deviated from actual events, and it probably warrants a discussion about how far true events can be stretched for dramatic purposes, especially if the film will still be marketed as a true story. Either way, Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article, “The Return of Superfly,” which was the basis for the film, has been bumped near the top of my reading list.

Then I watched The Incredibles 2. I liked that the sequel seemed like a movie with new ideas to explore using the setting and characters from the original. It was the rare sequel that felt like it had its own purpose for existing, and it built on the original film in fun and clever ways. I enjoyed it a lot, and I especially appreciated the added tension between husband and wife, the slick retro-futurist setting, and the still-interesting dynamics of this superhero family. I don’t know if I have much to say about it now, though. It was fun, but I don’t know that it will stand out much in my mind even half a year from now. (Ironically, Sam suggested this post in large part because she wanted me to write out my thoughts on this movie in particular, and yet it’s the one that I have the least to say on now.)

The best animated film I watched this week was Coco. This movie was so pure and beautiful. It would have been easy to do a movie that was about the young protagonist following his dreams despite his oppressive family situation; it would also have been easy to have a movie where family love and support is more important than chasing ambition. This movie very carefully found a middle ground, in the process developing rich themes and a complex cast of characters who all had room to learn and grow. I cried a lot, both out of heartbreak and joy. All that said, at the end of the day, the afterlife scenario laid out leaves some questions for me. Why do some of the deceased not only seem surprised but scared of the presence of a human boy? Why is there a second life after death that in turn leads to a second death? Do people have to work to have a decent afterlife? Is the relative affluence of a person tied to their remembrance by the living, and if so, how? Can people choose to appear any age? Do kids stay kids and the elderly stay elderly? To be fair, these are the sorts of problems inherent in many common conceptions of the afterlife, but the realm of the dead seemed fully realized and yet left ample opportunities for this sort of fridge-logic concern.

In other Pixar news, I also watched the new short film Kitbull, which similarly prompted a lot of crying for a lot of reasons. I have a lot of feelings about Kitbull. It hurt me and it made me feel really happy. It’s sweet. It’s touching. And the artwork and animation are great. With two Pixar feature films and this short, I guess I had a fairly Pixar-heavy week.

So after Coco was In Bruges. A dark comedy of two idiotic assassins camped out in the eponymous city while waiting for instructions from their benefactor, In Bruges started slow for me, but its ending was bittersweet, tragic, and ultimately ambiguous. I found much of the film crude, and Colin Farrell’s younger assassin character is excessively vulgar, often making ugly comments about race, sex, gender, and dwarfism (a dwarf actor, who is also a racist drug addict, serves as the center of a very bizarre B plot throughout the film, tying into the conclusion in a startling way that is ridiculous and kind of funny). The ugly humor, plus a proud ignorance and practically manic energy boiling over into child-like impatience, makes Farrell’s character difficult to like, and liking him and wanting to see him live become pretty central to the latter part of the film. Thankfully, Brendan Gleeson’s older mentor figure is sort of sweet and charming, and his faith in and love for his partner provides enough of a push to keep me invested. The best part is that the film’s twists and turns were genuinely unpredictable; the movie kept throwing me off course every time I thought I’d figured it out. I like weird films, and I like crime films, and I’m a little surprised that I never got around to this one before now.

To keep mixing things up, I watched All Work All Play next. This is the film I would least expect someone to recognize. It’s a documentary about professional esports, tracking the 2015 “season” of the IEM professional games. This was the only film I watched this week that I didn’t like. There were a lot of interesting individual stories, but nothing really got focused on. The team that had the most focus, set up as underdogs, was Cloud9, which was crushed in the championship and largely dropped from the film’s concern after that. The American team that won the championship, Team SoloMid, was injected intermittently throughout. Team WE, a Chinese team that seemed to actually be interesting underdogs, barely appeared at all. The personal life, ambition, and struggles of championship organizer Michal Blicharz represented the closest to an emotional core for the film, and I could have watched a whole film about him, his wife, and their child, but they were ultimately de-emphasized in favor of the tournament players (still, Blicharz serves as our guide throughout the events of the film). There were so many faces and names, and there was not enough focus. Curiously, the rules of League of Legends are explained, but then we barely see any coherent game footage. Additionally, the film felt overly defensive of esports as a real sport. I actually felt less inclined to view professional gaming as a legitimate sport by the end–certainly there’s a lot of skill, and the professional level of gaming is impressive, but I can’t help but wonder if “sport” is overused as a descriptor, if we shouldn’t come up with new descriptions or categories for tasks that aren’t strictly physical. Additionally, esports seems like a fundamentally flawed product that is ultimately bad for its players. The film almost unintentionally observes players acting like immature children, with at least one parent expressing concern about their emotional well-being. Plus, pro gamers are considered “old” before they hit thirty, yet their potential earnings appear to be considerably less than that of professional athletes. This seems like a situation setting these players up for doom in later life, especially since many of them are college dropouts who are probably too young to be making responsible financial decisions. The cheery optimism about the profession, and the attempt to combat negative stereotypes of pro gaming, results in the dodging of several thorny issues. Basically, every decision made by the documentarians, and the resultant lack of focus, made for an underwhelming narrative and uninteresting presentation. This documentary, if nothing else, helps to showcase how much of an art the genre of documentaries can be. When things go wrong, a documentary fails to be a good story worth watching, even if the subject matter should be interesting.

I closed out my week’s viewings with a solid choice, though: The Graduate. Dang, I know it’s a classic, but I didn’t realize just what a brilliantly neurotic dark comedy it would be. Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the insecure, depressed, aimless college grad Ben who is seduced and exploited by the predatory yet tragically broken Mrs. Robinson, played to perfection as well by Anne Bancroft. It’s in many ways an intriguing psychological study, and a scandalous presentation of upper-middle-class life, but it was the comedy that stuck with me the most. The dialogue was hilarious, the delivery impeccable, and The Graduate is loaded with strikingly absurd visuals, like the backyard pool scuba session or Hoffman’s swinging of a cross to ward off enraged wedding attendees. The cinematography in general is brilliant; I loved how Ben was often small and distant in the frame, overshadowed, if not surrounded, by Mrs. Robinson in the foreground, and I loved it even more when the film reverses this dynamic in a key moment. I only wish that Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) was given a little more purpose. She’s ultimately an object used in the power struggle between Mrs. Robinson and Ben. Sure, Ben loves Elaine and Elaine loves Ben, but it’s not clear why; I suspect that the intention was that Elaine is in many ways a younger version of her mother, someone who has yet to be broken and twisted by the world. Still, Elaine is mostly acted upon, and even in the wild ending, it’s unclear if she’s yet to make a decision that she truly wanted for herself.

Infinity Saga

I’ve never read very many comics. That’s definitely true for the main-universe Marvel stories. I was reading about Thanos on Wikipedia, and I saw this:

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Ugh, fine, Marvel. I didn’t forget that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post-credits scene.

For the record, this doesn’t change my opinion about Infinity War at all. It just means that comics fans probably could have predicted the final act of the film and probably already have a good idea of how it will be resolved in the next film.

That’s the same old Marvel bullshit for sure.

Review: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War declares a firm commitment by Marvel to the same old entertaining bullshit.

I enjoyed myself for most of the film. Our many, many superheroes are iconic figures played by A-level talents who have all had at least a couple attempts now to hone their performances in their respective roles. Meanwhile, the supporting, non-super-heroic cast is sprawling, such that, while I detected no standout bad (or good) performance, this may have more to do with the relative lack of screen time of any specific character. The dialogue is great, full of that predictably witty and sarcastic Marvel formula. No matter how serious the movie gets, we have a lot of really fun banter, especially from post-Ragnarok Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy (some of my favorite lines are when Mantis, attempting to sound serious, proudly announces that the Guardians are about “kicking names and taking ass,” and when Thor at another point in the film responds heroically to a threat of being killed by saying that it’ll only happen if he dies). And a very special treat for the first third or so of the movie, before everything becomes so seriously world-ending, is that film score, visuals, and dialogue combine to give little tastes of the respective mood/feel of each superhero franchise. Our first glimpse of the Guardians, for instance, is delightfully refreshing and even a little silly–down to the bright white location card that pops onscreen, pointlessly declaring that we are in “SPACE.”

The Russo brothers-helmed film has a lot of pulse-pounding excitement, some surprises (including one minor jump scare), and plenty of tension to keep one’s eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. We have yet another Marvel movie here in the new trend of actually defining an interesting and engaging villain; in fact, the whole film revolves around giant-jawed, purple-skinned Thanos (sympathetically portrayed by Josh Brolin) in his quest to collect all the Infinity Stones to “save” life in the universe by cutting it in half. It’s a sociopath’s superheroism, and Thanos truly believes in the rightness of his cause. His hulking brute strength combined with a crafty wit and ferocious dedication to a twisted, apocalyptic ideology remind me, of all things, of Tom Hardy’s turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

It’s a slick production with a good deal of pathos, and yet the end left me feeling very little more than minor annoyance and reflected all of my worst thoughts about this franchise.


Big spoilers follow. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I hope you’ll come back to read the second part after you have, as I have some strong thoughts about the ending and about the film’s apparent central theme.


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By the end of the film, we see Thanos succeed. Half of the universe’s population is wiped out, at random. This includes a good deal of Marvel heroes. By my count, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Bruce Banner (with a Hulk too angry or embarrassed to come out anymore), War Machine, and Rocket the Raccoon of all people are the ones who come out alive (Hawkeye and Ant-Man accepted house arrest after the Civil War fallout, we are told, so we don’t know what happened to them). We lose all the other heroes. This could be a darkly powerful ending, but with so many character deaths and in such a magic way, it is all too obvious that those deaths are meaningless. They will be reset. There’s plenty of evidence to support this.

Exhibit A: Dr. Strange knows that Thanos can never have the Time Stone. He tells Tony that he’ll let anyone die rather than hand the Time Stone over. When Thanos prepares to kill Stark, Dr. Strange relents and hands the Time Stone over. He later tells Stark that this was the only way, before being eradicated from existence. We know that Strange saw millions of futures, and there was only one in which they succeeded against Thanos. This strongly suggests that Strange knew the only desperate way to defeat Thanos was to let him win for now. (We also know that Stark and Thanos share some sort of mental connection, some sort of knowing, and so Iron Man could be critical to finally defeating Thanos.) The Time Stone can reverse events that have already happened and change the outcome; altogether, the Infinity Stones have a lot of strange magical properties. It would not be surprising if there was a way to reverse even mass-scale outcomes.

Exhibit B: Peter Parker is one of the ones who are killed by Thanos’s death wish. This was the one death in the finale that truly moved my wife and I–Tom Holland is a great young actor, and his final moments in the film are those of a too-young soldier fearful of death yet determined to be heroic and honorable even in the end. He’s pathetic and sweet and endearing. It’s a death that lingers long enough to kick you in the teeth. Here’s the thing, though: Tom Holland is already coming back for another Spider-Man movie. And we know that the next film starring Peter Parker will mark the beginning of the new phase of Marvel movies. If Peter Parker isn’t dead for good, then it would seem that any other character death is just as reversible.

Exhibit C: While still rather speculative, there should be a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 around 2020. This despite the fact that all the Guardians but Rocket are dead. I doubt we’ll see a whole new set of Guardians to fill out the final film in a very Star Lord-focused trilogy, so this suggests that they’ll make their way back somehow.

Exhibit D: The surviving characters are mostly the older, iconic film characters whose actors have already been around in way too many movies. Some of these actors, at least, have to be ready to move on. Meanwhile, new fan favorites like Black Panther are killed off. There’s no way that Disney would let T’Challa slink off forever in the five-second ending he had in this film.

In short, the ending just doesn’t feel right, doesn’t give enough dramatic emphasis for the deaths of so many characters (especially since some are still relatively new to the screen), and is contradicted by Marvel’s release schedule. Marvel’s too damn greedy to let audiences believe for more than the end of the film that these characters are dead. And frankly, I think it’s somewhat of an insult to audiences’ intelligences that the filmmakers thought that anyone would be fooled by this for any length of time.

This is the true Marvel bullshit. They want to tell big, dramatic stories with serious consequences–without having to hold to the consequences (hm…having consequences, but…without the consequences?). Comic book events, including big crossover stories in the style of Infinity War, of course often have characters die to stir up sales. But this crass drama-generation shouldn’t have been adapted into the films. Every time a character dies and returns later on, it cheapens the use of death in the narrative. Comics need to keep going and constantly have shifts in creative direction, so it is a little more forgivable in that format. But on film, we have only so many titles coming out in a year (even if that number seems to be ever-increasing), and movies have the benefit of being self-sustaining stories. They should be self-sustaining stories, evaluated on their own merits, even if part of a larger arc or franchise. Let this universe, let these films, at least have consequence!

Instead, Infinity War is already obviously just one more link in a larger chain. All the movies inform each other and become dependent upon each other. All the movies just set up the next link in the story. All the movies are fundamentally safe. (This is frustrating to me because nothing about a shared universe requires all stories to be dependent upon each other. It’s a shared universe–other shit can be happening! We can just have small connections; see, for example, Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle.)

I see two major deaths staying permanent in this film: Loki and Gamora. Both are killed not by the power of the Infinity Stones but in key moments earlier in the film. Loki’s death is repeatedly emphasized as likely permanent, and we are given time watching him die and observing his body such that it most certainly does not seem reversible (unlike every other Loki death). Gamora’s death was in exchange for a Soul Stone, and while I could see her return to life being part of how everyone gets out of the current predicament, she dramatically serves as a motivator for Star Lord (and surely will continue to serve as such once he gets re-materialized) and a symbol of the sacrifices that Thanos will make for his cause. (Yes, I’m uncomfortable with Gamora becoming a sentient MacGuffin to motivate male characters and to be bartered for yet another MacGuffin.)

More generally, I also think that the entire Asgardian refugee population is gone for good. Which is really a damn shame and disrupts all that happened in Ragnarok. It’s like how Alien 3 killed off Newt and Hicks in its opening moments, thereby subverting the dramatic impact of Ripley’s development over the course of the previous film (interestingly, the Aliens franchise is explicitly referenced by Spider-Man in this installment). It also means that Heimdall is killed off in the blink of an eye, and characters like Valkyrie and Korg apparently die entirely off-screen, without even a mention in Infinity War. Argh!

Other than that, I suspect that all deaths caused directly by Thanos’s Infinity-Stone-powered final wish will be reversed. Maybe they’re not dead at all, just in another universe now. Maybe the death can be reverted or set back. Maybe there’s some other option to undo what has been done. But that’s what will happen, and I’m fairly certain: there will be an undoing. A lessening, or even cancellation, of the horrible cost.

Not that I want the characters to be dead! But don’t kill off all the characters just to get audiences to hopefully stick around for yet another movie, especially if that death won’t mean anything lasting. Let the movie be its own thing, its own film. This ending means that Infinity War will always be dependent upon the next Avengers film, rather than its own story. It’s not a cliffhanger so much as a colossal failure with resultant mass loss of life that could only be “fixed” if what happens at the end is changed.

I’m not overall opposed to many of the creative choices that were made in this film. I really liked Thanos as a villain, which I wouldn’t have guessed. He’s a sociopath, but he believes that he is morally right, making hard choices in an uncaring universe. He explains mid-film that he once realized his own people were depleting their resources, resulting in inequality and eventual self-destruction without a course correction. He offered to the leaders of his world a random genocide, where citizens are executed at random, across all classes and all backgrounds. The resource load would be eased, and survival of life on his planet would be ensured. But his people rejected his plan, and the doom he foresaw came to pass. Seeing this as his failure to achieve his first destiny, he pursues his plan on a galactic scale. The Infinity Stones will see the completion of his work, instantly halving the populations of all inhabited worlds. It’s cruel, but it’s essentially a controlled kill-off on a galactic scale, and Thanos seems to have the motivations of Jor-El and Zod by way of Man of Steel, the Reapers of Mass Effect, and the leaders of the simulated war in Star Trek‘s “A Taste of Armageddon” episode from the original series.

Most interestingly, Thanos recognizes that he has to be willing to sacrifice everything close to him to achieve his goals. The superheroes are not quite so willing to do that. They are heroes because they fight for the weak and the innocent, because they value human life, because they’re willing to sacrifice themselves but not others. This leads to something that feels like a plot hole but is really just a telling weakness of the heroes. Vision is powered by an Infinity Stone. If the Avengers destroy the stone, they stop Thanos, but they kill Vision. Vision is willing to make the sacrifice, but the Avengers insist that they are not willing to just take his life, even with half the galaxy at stake. Instead, they try to remove the stone, and they put off destroying it (and killing Vision) until the last second. By doing so, they are undone; Thanos sees where and how Vision is killed, and he is simply able to walk up to the spot and reverse time the few moments necessary to recover the stone and kill Vision himself. In contrast, when Thanos must sacrifice one he loves to obtain the Soul Stone, he mournfully gives up Gamora without hesitation. He believes in the moral goodness of what he is doing and so knows that the loss of one, even one that he loves, is balanced by the greater good that he will do in ending resource scarcity and avoiding the total extermination of human life.

That’s an interesting theme. In all the explosions and banter, it ends up as a nagging thread in the background. But since we know that the end of the film lacks true consequence, all the deaths seem incredibly cheap and trivial. Since we know that the heroes will find another way to restore balance, Thanos’s sacrifices seem pointless. The heroes will find another way, a third option; they’ll do so even though the first Avengers was meant to show them (and the audience) that sometimes the only option left is sacrifice or failure.

Disturbingly, the choices of the Avengers also mean that the advanced society of Wakanda is decimated, its already weakened armies suffering heavy losses in the fight to protect Vision. Where Black Panther was wonderfully post-colonial in its messaging, Infinity War asserts the spectacle of the bloodshed of black people on behalf of one android (who chooses to appear as a white man). If it was the Avengers alone fighting for their friend, that could be justified. It’s harder to see how they can view sacrificing a nation for one man as a moral act. They knowingly sacrifice dozens of lives, maybe even hundreds, for that one man, just as a mere delaying tactic. That’s pretty gross and hard to reconcile with the film’s dominant theme or with what a hero should be.

That leaves one final thought for me, though: why not use the Infinity Stones to merely increase available resources? One could say that life would just continue to expand to deplete those resources, but the same could be true of life in a galaxy where half of it has been wiped out. In years or decades or centuries or millennia, we could end up back at the status quo. I suspect that the answer is that Thanos believes (or knows) that the Infinity Stones can only alter the universe, but cannot add to it. They cannot make something out of nothing, perhaps. If that’s the case, maybe Thanos hopes the second problem (that resource depletion will arise again) will be so far off that he will be viewed in a favorable light and that someone else will take up his mantle. Or maybe he just wants to kill people and feel good about doing so.

I suppose that Infinity War did make me think. But it made creative choices that I must earnestly disagree with. And rather than leaving the theater with a strong reaction–of joy or grief or anger–I left with only mild, blank irritation, which is probably the biggest condemnation that I could level against this film.

Infinity War: More Marvel, More the Same, Forever.

Phase Three Fatigue

I accidentally caught up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend. That doesn’t include the entirety of the continuity of this extended universe, since I’ve seen very little of the television shows and don’t really care to change that.

Because I’m caught up, I think I will see Infinity War. But it’s less that I’m excited about the movie. I feel a sad, pathetic impulse to see it because, hey, why not? I’ve seen the other ones, and it’ll play at the Indiana State Museum IMAX. That’s enough of a reason, I suppose.

This Phase Three of the MCU is a bit of a wash for me. I’ve said before that I have superhero fatigue, and Marvel is the leading culprit. But these movies get talked about enough that it’s hard to ignore them–and whenever I do ignore them, that seems to be just when an actually worthwhile new film comes out. There were some really great films in this cycle, but I don’t feel rejuvenated or excited about the future of this franchise or of superhero films in general.

These movies, no matter what they do to their characters, feel safe and locked in stone. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells Loki that “life is about growth and change. But you just seem to want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief. But you could be more.” It’s as though Thor is commenting on the state of the superhero genre. With each new Marvel movie, we get more and more tricks but very little lasting change or impact to the characters or the world.

There are two interesting exceptions to this general static nature. The first is to Thor himself. He appears to permanently lose his hammer, and an eye, and ends up with a new look and a new focus and a new manifestation of his power. Ragnarok shifted the positions of all the characters, killing off some franchise figures rather quickly and even shuffling Odin off the board. For the moment, Loki even seems to have grown and rethought his motivations–though the Infinity War trailers do seem to suggest that his turn to Good is not very long-lasting. Even Asgard itself is “changed” quite dramatically by film’s end.

The other example is the actual state of the world, as evidenced by Spider-Man: Homecoming. We see the rise of a new breed of criminal, reacting to the fallout of the age of superheroes, taking advantage of the collateral damage left behind after the great battles of previous films. Homecoming, in many ways, is about how the third-act, depersonalized chaos of the previous films has had a profound impact on the people on the ground (to be honest, it’s covering a lot of the same thematic ground of Batman v. Superman, not to mention the street-level superhero approach of the live-action Marvel TV shows).

But most of the heroes are still just reacting to a string of events, not truly evolving or being marked, physically or emotionally, in lasting ways. In Phase Two, we saw a lot of growth for Iron Man and Captain America, as they questioned alliances and as Tony Stark in particular was affected by his experiences in The Avengers. While this led to some explosive interpersonal conflict in Civil War, we see the characters as the archetypes they’ve always been. Tony in particular seems to always bounce back into the roguish scoundrel whenever convenient–for all his paternal efforts in Homecoming, he still feels a little removed, distant, selfish. As much as we are supposed to believe that Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility and maturity, I would say that Homecoming really highlights Tony’s failures at honest communication and mentorship.

And while Tom Holland is an excellent Peter Parker / Spider-Man, the existence of yet another Spider-Man film where Peter must balance personal life versus super-heroics is mostly yawn-inspiring. At least it wasn’t an origin story, and Holland is better in the role than Garfield and might exceed Maguire’s early performances in the role. But a Spider-Man film seems bound by particular narrative expectations, and there was little fresh here (the most memorable moments, as is so often the case in a Marvel film, were the many gags and one-liners).

Doctor Strange was even more by-the-numbers: yet another origin story, incredibly boring in comparison to the similarly done-before beats of Ant-Man but lacking the humor and charm. Where we could have had a weird film that examines spiritualism and the occult and truly challenges perception, we have pretty light shows and special effects tricks that haven’t been cool since Inception.

Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious and self-aware and had some awesome nods to metal and fantasy; Black Panther I’ve written glowingly about before. But Ragnarok‘s flaw is that it is so dependent upon the net of the existing continuity–while willing to burn down expectations and kill off previously important characters, it didn’t really do anything so narratively risky as to disrupt Thor and Loki’s ability to bounce from project to project, and it required at least passing knowledge of events in Dark World and Age of Ultron to fully process what was happening. In other words, Ragnarok was not so much a standalone film as a really funny link in one chain of this sprawling franchise.

Shockingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seemed to have the most original storytelling vision, focusing on developing Star-Lord’s crew. But I also found that more original story more flawed, a little looser and maybe too slow. More experimentation invites more risk, after all. But this film was neither too experimental nor too risky. (This mini-review could be used almost verbatim for The Last Jedi‘s place in the Star Wars franchise, as well).

In sum, it’s all fine. It’s fine and forgettable, and the franchise is sure to continue making millions of dollars. There is pathos and humor and action in each film, all measured out in more-or-less the right portions per the old recipe, a formula only modestly revised since that first Iron Man a decade ago. But I think anything these films might actually have to say is crushed under the weight of franchise perpetuity and creation by committee.

The most unpleasant thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the constant reminder that most of our pop culture loves are slickly designed to continue to sell, not stories in and of themselves with intrinsic value but instead utilizing extrinsically valuable intellectual property to continue to push out product that apparently plenty of people still find desire for. It’s not just Marvel, but Star Wars and classic monster movies and classic sci-fi television (ironically including the plucky, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek) and anything else that can be rebooted or resurrected or impersonated.

Maybe what really kills me about this is that I’m detached from Marvel. I don’t have the childhood nostalgia. I didn’t really get into comic books until college, and I didn’t stay invested for very long. And my college years paralleled the start of the MCU. So I can see the trappings of this franchise juggernaut more clear-eyed than if I were personally invested. And so I can see how much that franchise development resembles the development of the Star Wars franchise, especially post-Lucas. And as much as I’ve loved (most) of this new era of Star Wars, it’s too easy to see as more of the same, with the same bloat and continuity creep and constant churn of product. And where I could otherwise blithely ignore the rotted element of my own fandom, I’m forced to stare it in the face in the mirror image of Disney’s other adopted child.

Part of me wants to insist on drawing a line. Value the works of original creators, and keep looking for new original content by new creators telling new and meaningful stories for our time. Stop investing in a product merely because of nostalgic familiarity and safe name-recognition. Stop with Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter and James Bond and all the rest of the bullshit.

But the ugly side of me, the side that sighs and shrugs and continues to “invest” in the next film and the next one and the one after (as though I’m gaining any equity in doing so), will win out. It’s too tiring to keep watching and it’s too tiring to quit. After all, I might as well keep up on the current pop culture conversations. After all, there’s Infinity War to watch. And these franchises sure feel infinite.