Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
* SPOILERS BELOW *
Avengers: Infinity War (2018) is a 400 million dollar funeral. It could have been great, but it’s not. The trouble is that it’s conducted with all the gravitas and grace of two boys playing with their action figures trying only to entertain one other. It’s a fun ride, but it’s woefully incomplete.The reason for that is because the directors weren’t only playing with action figures for their own sake, but to get a rise out of an audience. Arranging the pieces to try and get the biggest rise out of us. To watch us squirm and squeal like a little sister watching her favorite doll get tortured and tormented.
Superhero movies are generally pretty good at sticking the landing. Even the typically incoherent DCEU films can manage a competent ending. These have been helped along in recent years by post-credits sequences, little stingers that appear after the closing titles or after the final credits roll. These stingers sometimes resolve a plot thread, provide a little bit of context, or more usually point the way forward, wetting appetites for the next installment. Infinity War has a post-credits scene, and it’s certainly functional, but it falls a little flat. Never have I seen an audience more desperate for context, for resolution, than Thursday night’s and yet they did not get it. We exited the theatre in near perfect silence, as if waiting in line to pay our respects.
But the chief reason for why Infinity War ultimately fails has nothing to do with nitpicks like strange tactical decisions, sometimes odd characterizations, or even the overwrought attempts at bringing real dramatic weight to the proceedings. No, the problem with Infinity War is that its just a setup. Civil War (2016) remains an Empire (1980) without a Jedi (1983).
I’m a Marvel Studios loyalist. I haven’t been to Comic-Con, and my comics collection is sparse, haphazard, and outdated. Yet I was all-in when Iron Man (2008) was released. And I was glued to my screen when Infinity War Part 1 and Part 2 were announced. I was shocked when Serpent Society became Civil War. I caught my breath when Steve Rogers nearly decapitated Tony Stark. I was confused when Infinity War Part 2 became Avengers 4.
Infinity War is going to be its own movie, said Marvel. It was sold to us as the big deal, the ultimate showdown. Avengers 4 became a vestigial question mark far overshadowed by our excitement and interest in Captain Marvel and Ant-Man and The Wasp. But Infinity War is not an Avengers movie. This isn’t some slight against the Russos in favour of previous franchise director Joss Whedon. It’s just that, like Civil War was a Marvel movie about Captain America with Avengers in it so to is Infinity War a Marvel movie about Thanos. Thanos gets the backstory, the arc, the long tender close-ups, and Thanos is the one who wins. That’s a problem.
There may be some of you, hell, there may be many of you “blown away” by that. Who will say this is bold, unprecedented, gutsy. And it is, in a sense. It hasn’t been done in the MCU yet. But on the page villains win sometimes. Sometimes they win big. But those victories never last. Yes, we have to live with them for a bit. But they’re usually written out if existence, the vast majority forgotten forever, and perhaps a few choice pieces of particular interest get folded into canon. Sometimes Doctor Octopus steaks Peter Parker’s body for years. Sometimes the mutants are wiped out. Sometimes Captain America is a Nazi, sometimes Scarlet Witch rewrites reality. Sometimes Doctor Doom rewrites reality. Sometimes Norman Osbourne is elected president. And sometimes Thanos collects the Infinity Gems and wipes out half the universe. And if I’m right about the MCU, that never lasts. The heroes rally, shenanigans ensue, someone responsible puts on the glove, and all is righted (with some minor changes).
Once, Ragnarok happened in the comics. Odin died, Asgard was destroyed, and Thor was left the last of his kind. He eventually discovered he’d inherited the odinforce from his father. He used it to reconstruct Asgard in New Mexico and then to track down the souls of his comrades and revive them. There were some serious changes. Baldur blamed himself for what happened (his death traditionally kicks off Ragnarok in Norse mythology), Loki was reincarnated inside of Lady Sif’s corpse and was being insanely malevolent, and Thor had to defend his new home from harassment by the US government. Living with the consequences of that was beautiful because watching Thor rebuild his world was beautiful and touching and righteous. But there is no living with Infinity War. It’s a stunt.
Coincidentally, the survivors of Infinity War are all the heroes introduced prior to Avengers (2012). This means that either Marvel has decided to double-down on its highest grossing and highest paid stars while completely abandoning its burgeoning franchises and huge, exciting money makers, or it’s just a stunt. Avengers 4 is now set-up to be having the old guard of the MCU, the heroes who built this house (Iron Man, Cap, Black Widow, Hulk, and maybe Hawkeye) literally rescue and bring back into existence the new guys. Now THAT really is an interesting choice, but I don’t know that it’s a good one.
Audiences seem to have expected a big guy to die. Whether it was Tony, Cap, or Thor, someone important wasn’t going to make it and the mantle would need to be passed on. Would Shuri become a better, smarter Iron Maiden? Would it be Bucky or Sam to take up the Captain America mantle? After all, both have done so in the comics. Valkyrie could easily compellingly replace Thor. Instead, the replacements are all dead and the retirees have one last hurrah before they can be shelved and only trotted out for special occasions. Once again, Marvel is surprising us this phase.
Whether it’s showing us all how it’s done with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), moving us to tears with Guardians 2 (2017), the absolute blast of Thor Ragnarok‘s (2017) wild happy and carnage-filled ride or Black Panther‘s (2018) loud, proud, thoughtful joy, it’s been nearly impossible to not leave a Marvel movie smiling recently. Infinity War changed that, yes, but not in a way I like. I feel like I’ve been sold a hollow empty lie. If it comes to pass that Avengers 4 is the huge epic blowout we need, I will be very pleased, and Infinity War may go down as one of the best setups in cinema. But right now it’s just a setup. The only character who achieves what they want is Thanos. This film has no resolution except for his. In fact, the film’s affection for the character is a little startling.
In the comics, Thanos is literally obsessed with death, a character personified in the Marvel Universe as a feminine skeleton. She spurs Thanos’ advances, refuses to even speak to him. Desperate to impress her, Thanos spreads death and destruction, even going to so far as to try and wipe out all, or half of all, life in the universe. None of this changes how Death feels, of doesn’t feel about Thanos. He remains insane, he remains obsessed, he remains absurdly powerful, and he always ends up defeated and often judged poorly by some powerful cosmic entity like the three-headed Living Tribunal.
Thanos thinks he loves Death, and he tries to cajole, bully, and threaten Death into returning his affections. Like countless pathetic losers before and after him, Thanos is yet another impotent man-child with rage-issues fueling and fueled by deep-seated misogyny and a persecution complex so rich he perceives himself to be the so-called “nice guy”. He can be a beautiful villain when done right. An insane, almost laughable, very relatable villain.
Shades of the Thanos from the comics appear in the film. They decorate his abusive relationship with his “daughter” Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and for most of the picture it is handled well. Except for one brutal and misguided moment where Thanos is “forced” to kill her. You see, the Soul Stone which Thanos needs to complete his collection has been locked away by some cosmic force. As a brilliant cameo explains the only way to gain possession of the soul stone is to “sacrifice something you love, a soul for a Soul”. Tearfully, Thanos tosses Gamora into the pit and, astonishingly, he is rewarded.
Thanos can think whatever he wants about his relationship to Gamora. In his own twisted way, he can fully believe he loves her. Josh Brolin certainly sells it incredibly well. But as Gamora points out to his face: “that’s not love“. Normally, this would just be some sick motivation or point of disagreement, but in this film a seemingly all-powerful cosmic entity judges Thanos and actually confirms that he truly loved Gamora. That’s nuts. That’s affirmation that Thanos doesn’t need, that Thanos can’t really have without some pretty monstrous implications. As charismatic as Thanos can be on screen everything we hear about Thanos is horrifying. It’s also classically villainous. It’s difficult to reconcile the tales of Thanos’ mercilessness and genuine cruelty with the attempts to depict him as someone who is merely burdened with a responsibility and purpose.
The Russos had a lot of fun playing with their action-figures and they brought in some wonderful cameos as well as some long-anticipated and beautiful surprises. The movie was very funny, and there was a special kind of care taken on trying to ape the style of the other franchises. For example, using “Rubberband Man” by The Spinners to introduce the Guardians was an inspired choice. Many such choices helped to meld the poppy madness of James Gunn with the glum seriousness of The Winter Soldier. The combinations and collisions seem thought through and the actors carry through it fantastically. The music leans a little heavily on The Avengers theme, at times; it even chooses, controversially in my opinion, to introduce Steve Rogers with the Avengers fanfare instead of any of his themes (especially from The First Avenger). Of course, the muted piano version of the fanfare during the end titles played wonderfully in the theater. Ultimately, Marvel pulled the trigger and gave us the big consequences.
The apocalypse has just happened. Trillions have died, exactly 50% of the universe, supposedly at random. Thanos snapped his fingers and won. The Earth’s population is now half of what it once was. Steve Rogers picked up the dust that used to be Bucky Barnes. Ngoye watched T’Challa disappear right in front of her. Rocket listened to Groot’s last words. Peter Parker died in Tony Stark’s arms, pleading for his life. These are all hugely affecting moments. These are tragic scenes you can weave an entire series around. And yet, all I can do is shrug and wait for the next installment to finish the story. Like reaching the last chapter of a comic and having to wait a month for the next issue.
I’m irritated with this unfinished story not because I’m dying to know how it ends but because it’s impossible to judge Avengers: Infinity War without the context of how it ends. The movie doesn’t rest on the aftermath for any of our heroes, their reactions are all hot, fresh, and visceral. Instead, the movie gives its final moment of contemplation to Thanos which, since we are not meant to root for him, robs us of any of the needed context to process how we feel. We see the loss, we feel the loss, but these heroes that we love to watch and who sometimes inspire us aren’t defined by what they’ve lost. As Thor and Starlord eagerly point out, they’ve all suffered tremendously, to an almost comical degree, but a list of tragic events has never been what has defined these characters. Captain America is more than dead parents and a lifetime of childhood illness and bullying. He’s more than a man stuck out of time who’s watched his best friend die before his eyes multiple times. He, and all of these heroes, are defined by their reaction to these events. Captain America is the guy who stood up to bullying all his life and struggled to join the Army and be of service to his country and humanity despite his infirmity. He’s the guy who has repeatedly put everything on the line risking life, limb, and reputation just to try and help his friend. His final line in the picture is “Oh God…” and you can be damn sure that’s not where this story ends.
It’s where it starts.