Spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War follow.
A couple of weeks back I ran an essay about my depression, and I compared it to the Swamp of Sorrow in Neverending Story, and I illustrated the piece with a picture of Artax drowning in the swamp. A friend commented on the Facebook link thanking me for bringing back a childhood trauma they had successfully avoided revisiting for decades.
Everybody has traumatic movie experiences. Either you saw something too young and it got into the folds of your brain, or you watched a kids movie that went surprisingly hard. Lots of people carry the trauma of dead parents from any number of Disney films, for instance (and they’re still doing it! Disney and Pixar are still out here killing off the parents of their young heroes). But the mainstream blockbusters rarely seem to have those moments; they may have scenes or imagery that will be individually traumatizing depending on the individual, but they don’t tend to have plot points that will really make an impact generationally. Like, when Optimus Prime went bad did anyone actually care? Did you even remember that he went bad?
Enter Avengers: Infinity War. I’ve seen a lot of adults saying the ending left them cold, because they know all the dusted heroes will be back in a year. Fair enough. But I’ve also heard anecdotes about younger (and other less movie savvy) audiences being truly dumbstruck by the ending of the movie. I’ve read about groups of 10 year olds erupting in sobs as the heroes melt away. I saw a picture of a kid, maybe 8 or 9, face tear-streaked, sitting shell-shocked in a theater seat wearing a Spider-Man costume.
That’s kind of incredible. I don’t want to weigh in on whether it’s good for kids to be traumatized by their entertainment, but you kind of have to be impressed that a movie released by Disney features an ending all but guaranteed to leave children twitching messes.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm and Marvel there was a lot of hand wringing about the respective studios turning into family-friendly factories (as if fantasy stories aimed at 12 years should NOT be family friendly, but anyway). Yet in the post-Disney days we’ve seen Rogue One kill every hero and now Infinity War wipe out half the life in the universe.
More than that, Infinity War had teenage Spider-Man dying slowly, in great fear and sadness. If you’re a kid, he’s one of the characters you can really identify with (more than adolescent Groot, who I think sort of gets treated like a sitcom concept in this movie). It is upsetting for kids to watch heroes and authority figures die, but to watch the character who most resembles them… and to watch as the smartest adult alive is unable to help in any way at all? That’s a kick in the pants for an age group who has not yet begun exploring the inevitability of their own mortality. The idea of kids dying is intense to kids, something scary and at the edges of their understanding (see Stand by Me). It’s the kind of subject they would normally prefer to explore through Spider-Man – ie, Peter has to deal with the death of a kid at school – rather than with Spider-Man.
Maybe I will weigh on whether this is good for kids or not. I’ve come to believe that there are a couple of sicknesses at the center of our society (all of which I have festering inside my own soul). Materialism is one. Toxic masculinity is another. But our attitude towards illness and death may be the rotten thing that underlies it all. We live in a world where people who die “lost the fight,” as if this was the Rumble in the Jungle. It’s not a fight – everybody dies. Everybody. Guaranteed. You will die.
But we see death as a weakness. It’s right there in that “fight” language. We see illness as a moral failing – how else could you explain a society that doesn’t want to make it affordable to get health care (we also see poverty as a moral failing)? And so we don’t talk about death. We ignore it, we avoid the topic, we hold it back for whispered stories in the dark of night.
It’s crazy! We’re all going to die, so why not make friends with it? It’s a function of life, as certain as puberty and farting. But we hide death away and don’t bring it up in polite company, as it is seen as depressing.
Which isn’t to say that Spider-Man painfully disintegrating is some victory for the advancement of our relationship with death, but maybe it ain’t so bad a whole generation comes face-to-face with the fact that they too could die. Man, this was a weird aside.
Anyway, I quite like the way he dies. It’s not a heroic moment; Peter isn’t being reassuring to Tony as he goes. This is a real Spider-Man moment, the ultimate display of the old Parker luck, and Peter is unmoored and truly scared. It’s how most of us will probably meet our own deaths, and I think it’s fitting that the single most everyman superhero should die with the same mix of panic and regret that will wash over the rest of us as we take our last breaths.
Sometimes I think about what bad movies of today will be the classics of tomorrow. I have lived long enough to see movies that I viewed and disliked on release become celebrated cult films that have merchandise and rep screenings and dedicated fanbases (ahem, Space Jam), so I often look at the current releases and wonder how today’s 10 year olds will relate to them when they’re 30. Will A Wrinkle in Time be a cult classic? How will the kids who grew up with the Transformers movies feel about them when they’re grown up?
I’m very convinced that, on whatever version of the internet exists in 2038, in whatever passes for film fandom at that time, there will be people reminiscing about their experience watching Infinity War for the first time. Just as Artax has become shorthand for a certain generation, so will Peter turning to dust be a touchstone for this generation. Are you ready to be old and crusty and reading the cinematic musings of a critic whose mind was forever altered by watching Spider-Man die?