This contains complete spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War, and begins spoiling right from the first sentence.
There will likely be more from me about this movie in the days ahead, but I think that the structure and the form of the film make it hard to write about properly before the sequel is released.
This is your last chance to turn around.
Avengers: Infinity War is about November 8, 2016.
I mean, not really. The story of this movie was being broken before Donald Trump was even a serious candidate. But the feeling of despair that falls over the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the end of this movie – the image of shell shocked Captain America sitting by the corpse of the Vision, having watched many of his friends suddenly disintegrate – recalls the night of November 8, 2016 when what had seemed like an easy victory for Hillary Clinton had turned into a profound and shattering national defeat. The feeling that the good guys lost, that nothing makes sense and that everything is totally fucked – that’s a really familiar feeling for us right now.
As a lifelong Marvel Comics nerd I knew where this was all going. The seminal Infinity Gauntlet miniseries laid the groundwork for this movie, and in that comic, written by Jim Starlin and featuring art by the legendary George Perez, Thanos wipes out half the universe on page 27 of ISSUE 1. And there were still FIVE MORE ISSUES to go. So that Thanos succeeds is, for us comic geeks, no news at all. But one of the triumphs of Infinity War is that it takes this fait accompli and it sells it, makes the enormity of it land.
There is a lot of talk about stakes in the wake of the end of this movie. When Spider-Man and Black Panther melt away it’s pretty clear that these guys are for sure not staying dead. They have sequels coming up, after all. We know that they’re coming back. But I’ve written about this before – when we’re watching longform serialized storytelling like this, the stakes are not life and death. This is something with which comic fans have long ago made peace – everyone will die in these stories, and they will eventually also come back. Everyone. Even Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben will one day return from the dead, I’m sure, just as previously unresurrectable characters Bucky and Jason Todd have come back from the grave.
No, the stakes in these stories are only emotional. In fact by making these stakes only emotional longform storytelling like the MCU gets to use death and resurrection as metaphors for the things we experience in our own lives, reflecting the hard times and the good we all experience, the cyclical nature of our own ups and downs. You don’t have to believe Spider-Man is dead forever to find Peter Parker’s frightened final moments powerful and moving. What’s more, you don’t need to have been dying yourself to understand the fear and pain that Peter is experiencing in that moment. You’ve felt it too, if not on this heightened level (but then all the emotional stuff in these movies are heightened. Nobody among us has ever hitchhiked a ride into deep space, as Tony Stark does here, but we have all had to disappoint our loved ones in the pursuit of what we thought was the right thing). And you’ve probably felt the agony that Tony feels watching someone else suffer and being totally unable to help them in any way.
The emotional stakes are all about how these events impact our heroes. That’s all that matters in these films. Nobody walks into an Iron Man movie truly expecting Iron Man to die at the end – we know that he will win. This is why Rogue One is one of the more anomalous blockbusters ever made (it’s so anomalous that I feel like people don’t talk about it a lot because there’s no good frame of reference for a mainstream toy-flogging film that features ALL of the heroes dying), but we all know that 9.9 times out of 10 our heroes will win. But I always think the real question is less “Will the heroes win/survive” but rather “HOW will the heroes win/survive.” Think of it as an emotional version of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre tagline, “Who will surviive and what will be left of them?” Yes, Captain America will certainly survive the events of The Winter Soldier, but at what personal cost?
That said, I’ve been impressed by the way the end of this movie impacts the mainstream audience, ie, the people who don’t have gripes that the In-Betweener has been excluded from the storyline. Audiences went in expecting characters to die, but they went in expecting them to die in triumph. Instead Infinity War hinges entirely on failure, and the finale is not heroic sacrifice but meaningless death. The Scarlet Witch kills the Vision for no reason, because Thanos turns back time to restore the Mind Stone and then kill him all over again. But like I said, it’s about emotional stakes – Wanda made that choice, did that thing, even if it is immediately undone (and redone), and so the emotional impact remains (or would, if she didn’t disintegrate immediately). People are shaken by this – it goes against everything that they expect from a movie of this size. They go to the blockbusters to have certain beliefs reinforced, not undermined. Rogue One, despite all of its death, does reinforce our beliefs, saying that there is such a thing as heroic sacrifice and that a death can be meaningful and make a difference. But Infinity War is two and a half hours of the heroes wasting their time and effort; it would have been easier on everyone if they had simply handed over the stones to Thanos at the beginning and resigned themselves to their fates.
Maybe it would have been for the best, as Thanos is the latest in the MCU’s series of villains that make you say “Hey, this guy might have a point.” Zemo was the first of them, a villain whose point of view was all too understandable. Then came Killmonger, whose grievances were so real and tangible and relatable that a lot of people have spent time convincing themselves he’s a Punisher-esque antihero as opposed to a murdering villain. And now Thanos, the cosmic arborist. He just wants to trim some branches so that the tree of life can continue to flourish. Who looks at the gardener pruning the hedges as a maniac, when all he is doing is ensuring the larger plant can flourish in health?
It’s a big change from the Thanos of the comics, where he wants to wipe out half the universe in order to win the love of the anthropomorphic personification of Death. There’s a tragic relatability in that motivation, but it’s more John Hinckley than Romeo, you know? The change made to the character for Infinity War deepens him, and while I think it’s hard to really identify with Thanos, there are a couple of scenes where what he’s saying makes some sense, especially in a world overrun by human beings who are currently destroying their own ecosystem like a virulent virus killing its host.
Thanos is certainly the very best Marvel movie villain to date, in that he is ridiculously effective (a huge turnaround from how lame he has been since being introduced at the end of The Avengers) but also in that he is so human. He is written well, and Josh Brolin’s performance is actually extraordinary and nuanced. We’re well past the time when performance capture was like being trapped under a pound of rubber, forcing actors to go very broad to get any emotions across. In Infinity War Brolin often speaks softly, in almost a whisper, and many of Thanos’ great moments come in the form of flitting emotions dancing across his big purple CGI face. There’s actual sadness in the character, true grief. The smartest decision that the Russo Brothers and writers Markus and McFeely made was to turn Thanos away from joy – he takes no pleasure in his quest to wipe out half the universe. He feels weighted by purpose, like the only man who has the vision to see the radical treatment the sick patient needs. Thanos’ scenes (once he gets done killing the Asgardians) play out like he’s the hero of the movie, the unlikely protagonist who must sacrifice his soul and his love in order to save others. In fact they have Thanos’ victory come not in killing half the universe but rather being able to retire to a small hut, his armor hanging on a scarecrow, and take in a peaceful sunrise. He doesn’t want to be god, he doesn’t want to kill (he almost goes out of his way to not kill), he just wants to accomplish his act of cruel mercy and then go live quietly.
Again, what a turnaround from the doofus who showed up in the first Guardians of the Galaxy and who has been unable to get his hands on a single stone until the beginning of this film.
All of this said – all of these things to admire, to like, to respect – I’m not sure how I truly feel about Infinity War. I probably need to see it again; I’m so wed to the way it goes down in Infinity Gauntlet, where Thanos personally kills each Marvel hero one after another in the greatest showdown in comics history, that it was hard to accept a weirdly more gentle Thanos in the movie.
Beyond that I think there’s an inevitable jankiness to the film; it’s so epic, has so much breadth, that it would be almost impossible for it to NOT be disjointed at times. It’s the kind of movie where it’s quite easy to second guess how the intercutting between storylines is handled, and depending on your level of interest in each group of heroes it can be frustrating to be stuck in one place for too long. I think the movie underserves Captain America (I suspect that’s because the next movie is going to be very heavy on Cap), and I think that undercuts his emotional devastation at the end of the film (I actually think the movie could have lingered on that a little longer – Cap losing all hope is probably the greatest gutpunch possible in the MCU).
It’s not that any of the stories were bad – each of the five interweaving narratives could have supported their own movie – but rather that with so much happening you’re always kind of interested in getting back to somebody else. And I’m not sure how much of the interweaving is in the script and how much was found in the edit – there are not many moments of truly elegant intercutting. As a result I found the pacing of the whole movie to be just ever so slightly off.
Part of that comes from Infinity War being an incomplete movie. At one time the film had a Part I in the title, and I think they should have kept it. This is, frankly, not an entire movie – it’s the first two acts of one enormous epic. That’s not even a complaint, it’s simply a statement of fact – the movie ends on what would be called Plot Point II in your academic three act structure, and is what leads into the rising action that goes to the climax. It’s the hardest moment for the heroes, the moment of ultimate crisis when everything seems fucked.
You can see that Infinity War is the first two acts of a movie because it’s laying so much groundwork for the sequel, as opposed to laying groundwork for its own resolution. Doctor Strange giving the Time Stone away after seeing the future? That’s groundwork for the resolution of the next film, not this one. Captain America going on and on about how we don’t trade one life for another? That’s groundwork for what I’m guessing is his ultimate sacrifice in the next movie. Gamora being traded as a soul for a Soul Stone? That’s likely setting up Gamora being inside the Soul Stone in the next movie and thus opening the door to defeat Thanos from within his own Gauntlet. There’s more, but those are some of the most basic examples – this movie is end to end setup for payoffs that won’t happen for another year. This is, functionally, a season finale of a television show. It’s structured in exactly the same way.
That’s not a complaint, but it does lead the film to have a strange sense of not being finished, even moreso than previous movies in this shared series of ongoing franchises. Each of the previous stories felt, within their own movie boundaries, finished, even as new doors were opened for sequels. But if you watched Winter Soldier the larger plot was completed by the end – the Hydra infiltration of SHIELD was resolved – even if smaller plots – Bucky has his memories back but is not yet healed – remain open-ended. The main plot of Infinity War is sort of finished, but it’s only finished if we accept Thanos as the protagonist of the movie.
This isn’t to say that there’s no version of a movie where the heroes all just lose and we cut to credits, but rather that this is not that movie. The Russos are playing fair, so they’re erecting a lot of scaffolding here, and when viewed as a whole it becomes clear how much of the scaffolding erected had little to do with this movie (hi, Nebula, you’re only here to be set up for the next film). This isn’t unusual for TV or comics, but it’s almost unheard of in the movies. Lord of the Rings has elements of that (I’ll never forget opening night of The Fellowship of the Ring and, as the movie goes from Sam and Frodo walking towards Mordor to the credits, a guy in the back of the theater yelled out “It’s OVER?”), but those films don’t try to have the appearance of finality. Part of what Infinity War is trying to do to the audience is make them feel like this is the end, even though we know there’s an Avengers 4 next year. It’s part of the emotional goal of the movie, to leave us with the wind sucked out of us. Emotionally it’s like ending Empire Strikes Back with Luke falling into the depths of Cloud City (structurally it’s more like ending Empire with Han and Leia being captured by Vader, although Empire has an unusual act structure, so it’s not an ideal comparison).
It’s effective – just look at reactions online to see how effective it is – but I think the fact that this is not a whole film adds to the jankiness. Arcs don’t complete. This, I think, is going to become more apparent on home video rewatches… and then be solved when Avengers 4 comes out, which is going to give us a five hour single movie, more or less.
Man, I am really getting nitpicky on the structure here, which is something I don’t love doing. But part of the problem is that I think Marvel tends to be incredibly strong on theme, and by having incomplete arcs Infinity War has incomplete themes. Even if we accept Thanos as the protagonist, the resolution of his arc – and thus the resolution of the theme of making hard, terrible sacrifices for what you perceive as the greater good – is so rushed as to make it not land. It has to be rushed – the movie can’t end with a few minutes of Thanos living his life, examining whether the decisions he made were worth it – but that doesn’t stop it from giving us thematic blue balls.
But of course Thanos is NOT the protagonist. The entire end of the movie is predicated on us feeling destroyed by Thanos winning. Again, Infinity War is “about” November 8, 2016. It’s a movie that brings us to the same emotional space we inhabited that day. It does it well by playing on the same assumptions that we had on Election Day, that the status quo is going to win, that no matter how weird and tough shit gets it’s all going to be okay, or at least return to the equilibrium that we all know (your definitions of “okay” may vary. Many of you may not find a “neoliberal” presidency “okay,” just as you may not find the status quo of the MCU “okay”). The movie does a nice job of setting us up for that, allowing the heroes to get pretty triumphant in Wakanda before the big snap. I mean, we spend A LOT of time with Thor as he goes off on a quest to forge the ultimate weapon, one that is capable of actually killing Thanos. We know how that plays out in the movies – all the time our heroes spend in the mud is just getting them ready to rise into the sun. Except here they never rise.
There’s something cathartic about seeing our heroes lose. It’s why we like the second acts of our movies so much, because it’s when things are toughest for the good guys. We see our own struggles represented there. While I have my quibbles with the two act structure of Infinity War, I have to say that ending where it does is brilliant in that it allows us to internalize the low point of the narrative in a way that we can’t when watching a movie. It reflects the world in which we live right now, in that we are staggering from an almost unthinkable bad turn of events, an unimaginable loss for the side of the good guys, and we have to live with it. It’s not getting resolved immediately.
That said, we know it’s going to get resolved. We look at the midterms and Mueller and we hope and we imagine an outcome that is good. Having Avengers 4 on the horizon allows the same hope; there’s catharsis in reliving the trauma of an unexpected defeat with the larger understanding that in the end it will all turn out well. God willing the political landscape looks different between now and next year, but even if it doesn’t Avengers 4 will, by the nature of the storytelling tropes it MUST follow, offer us healing as we look towards 2020.
I think it’s really important for the good guys to lose once in a while. It’s why we love Empire Strikes Back. We don’t usually win in our own lives, or if we do the victories are often superseded by new defeats of one kind or another. There’s inspiration in seeing heroes laid low in act two and come back in act three, but I think there’s even MORE inspiration in seeing heroes utterly defeated and yet not giving up. That’s a rare story point, and it’s the kind of story point you can really only get in longform storytelling (otherwise you just end up with a bummer ending, ie the ending of all the good 1970s movies).
Like I said, I’m sure I’ll write more about this film in the days to come. I’m definitely seeing it again this week, and more thoughts will come as I do. There’s certainly a lot to talk about, and it’s interesting to see the way many long arcs – stretching back to 2008 – are on the verge of getting finally paid off. But again, none actually do, because nothing will pay off in full until next year.