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.
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.