Author’s Note: This is my first piece here for Observer and I’m delighted this is going to be my new regular home. For those unaware, I tend to write long, multi-component essays that frequently go beyond the scope of a movie itself, in order to have larger discussions about storytelling and dramatic function. I do this for many reasons, but really it all comes down to the following: I do not think the job of criticism is to simply tell you what my thoughts are, I think the job of criticism is to help you make sense of your own.
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- State of Love & Thrust
We do not give the Marvel movies enough credit for being weird as hell. Not just in terms of the clashing maelstrom of contradictory subject matter, but the fact they have actually come to operate against the grain of most of the established “rules” of filmmaking.
I mean, there’s a reason everyone in Hollywood thought they were nuts to try shared-universe world building in the first place. No, it’s not so much about the logic of throwing billionaire inventors in with aliens and wizards, as many argued. It’s that it doesn’t quite make much sense on a storytelling level. Not just because of the fear of taking on a back-breaking load of continuity, but because, when it just comes right down to it, the most compelling reason to put character “A” next to character “B” is the mere thrill of doing so, not because it offers the best dramatic and thematic choice for the narrative.
But, if you’ve read comics, you understood that the “mere thrill” is powerful enough to afford the MCU a certain opportunity. Marvel believed in themselves. They believed in the material. And they swung for the fences, conventional wisdom be damned.
Now, here we are, 10 years and 19 films later, and it’s now the most popular and financially successful movie series of all-time, en masse. And it’s not even close. Moreover, after all the continuity worries, audiences are on board with these characters popping in and out of each other’s narratives with the hip casualness of regulars at your local bar. Which perhaps just highlights the achingly simple reason these films have been successful: we really, really like the characters within them. After all, this was a series founded on Robert Downey Jr.’s rapscallion charm. Deepened by Chris Evans’s inherent earnestness. Strengthened by Chris Hemsworth’s hunky, irony-laden comic bravado. And ultimately cemented with Mark Ruffalo’s “awww shucks” hangdog counterpoint to the punchy fun green guy inside.
As the series has gone on we’ve filled out that supporting roster with an embarrassment of riches. And now, most of the in-the-moment joy of these films comes as we watch two dozen characters bounce off each other with half-cocked smiles at the ready. Over the course of the last 10 years, the MCU has put a lot of smiles put on my face.
I also feel somewhat exhausted.
Please understand, I was excited as anyone a decade ago. My chosen pseudonym is not happenstance. I grew up loving Marvel comics. I watched good old Bill Bixby after school. But since then, I have also become enamored with the notions of dramatic storytelling and worshipping at the altar of cinematic function. And after 19 films, I can admit that Marvel has gotten rather good at spooling these two-and-a-half-hour interlocking blockbusters that often manage to be both charmingly entertaining and yet disjointed slogs all at once.
Sure, there was some solid character building in phase one (along with the first entries for other characters), but free from the “burden” of origin stories, they’ve only managed to master the art of endless stasis—the art of rearranging the pieces on the board while teasing out the nature of their “grand story.” There’s a constant promise that they’re building to bigger moments and crescendos that will surely be of grand importance! Which just means we have extended a lot of good will to the MCU, in part because it’s always putting the carrot on a stick and leading our lumbering tortoise ever forward.
In the defense of such tactics, many to claim that we can’t really think of these movies as movies, but as a whole big season of television. The problem with that logic is that good seasons of television actually know how to move things forward and evolve along the way, they don’t just keep stacking characters and promising they’ll eventually tell you the real story later. These are definitely movies, just made with tenuous interlocking connections that often don’t matter to each one’s success. But I understand I cannot call this a “fault” within these films. It’s clearly working. The hardcore fans are eating it up and are right to do so because it’s all charming as hell.
But I can’t help but wonder what this means in terms of the larger questions of identity and how we are supposed to talk about them. Because, seriously, what are these movies, anyway? Are they series of interlocking exhibitions for those fans who have only seen the rest? Are they a brand that offers a certain kind of genial likability? Are they mere showcases for talented actors and pre-vis of action? But even as I ask those questions, I understand that they are distractions from the one question everyone seems to forget to ask…what really is the singular story they are trying to tell here, anyway?
Well, Infinity Wars is both the lovely and unfortunate answer.
- Danger, Danger!
It’s been labeled greatest crossover event in movie history (a fun claim that was over met by the internet with bevy of lovely memes). But it certainly is the culmination of all the efforts of single every movie they have made thus far. They have told us this ad nauseam, all while trying to build to a powerful critical mass. And as I finally watched, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself a pesky question: “What if someone wandered into Avengers: Infinity War and they had never seen a Marvel movie before?”
Don’t worry, I’m not saying the movie should cater to that. I fully understand that the movie is not “for” them, but for the fans who already love these movies. But it’s not an insane question. Not only because it’s really something that happens, but because it also exposes the pesky reality that these films have a whole group of “mid-range” fans who have probably only seen about half of them. So I can’t help but wonder what the newbie’s experience would be like, and more importantly, what we could glean about what it’s like to just “fall into” these stories.
To wit, I think back to how many movies I used to just randomly find while channel surfing on television and started watching half-way through. And before DVDs there would be TV shows you would just have to pick up halfway into the run because there was no other choice. Yes, I know those days are long gone, but this was incredibly common. And the reason it worked is not because the stories were constantly updating viewers, but because you could always glean the basics based on the way the story was unfolding. It was things like, “oh that person has a crush on so and so” and “this is why their relationship is in conflict right now.” There’s no mystery about why this is possible: we were really getting drawn into the basics of dramatic storytelling.
But while watching Infinity War, you can’t help but notice how much of the movie is simply not interested in those basics; which is not necessarily a problem for it. It trusts their memory of the fans and thus engages in the most rapid fire short-hand I’ve ever seen in a studio offering. And it’s all moving so fast and furious with these established characters running from threats that you barely have time to think about it.
Again, I’m not trying to say “this is bad!” All I really want people to acknowledge is how truly different this is from “normal” sequel storytelling. Yes, I am absolutely saying it’s different from Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings and Star Wars, which move with their own momentum as contained stories. No, this is the constant amalgamation of 19 random, overlapping movies, all of which have different directors, with a major “build-up” that mostly came in the form of easter egg details and narrative diversions. That is a downright weird way to go about storytelling—one that almost makes it feel like 31 hours of homework.
And so it is incredibly unfair to treat movie-goers like that weird build-up is some simple story math they “aren’t trying” to perform. Heck, I see every one of these movies opening night and even I had a hard time remembering where everyone left off and who was doing what and why. And yes, this truly does help render it dramatically impenetrable to someone who doesn’t already love these films and characters. But many of us do love them, and thus this criticism simply does not seem to matter. Infinity Wars is playing by its own rules. We could debate the good or bad of this intention, but there is no denying that it increases the gap between the casual movie-goer and the hardcore fan, along with the potential resentment between them.
And ultimately, Infinity Wars is really, really good at catering to the hardcore fan.
I honestly watched most of the film with a smile on my face, even during action scenes. I’ll admit that I’m not always enamored with the Marvel pre-vis machine, but Infinity Wars has a lot of nifty beats that are craftier than the usual proceedings (it’s fair to say the powers of the infinity stones add for a little bit inventiveness in that regard). But, of course, the film’s tangible delights mostly come in from the usual source: the likable characters all coming together and spitting barbs at one another. After all, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing Dr. Strange call Tony Stark a douchebag. Same with seeing Chris Pratt’s Starlord being really intimidated by / jealous of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. They even understand how to work in a good reference when Lil Baby Spider-Man cites “that really old movie, Aliens.” Yes, they’re mostly a bunch of smart alec-y white dudes (which the MCU is finally starting to change), but there is no doubting Marvel is quite good at that smart alec-y method.
Only Robert Downey Jr. can sell that plain-faced status update on how they need to go chase an “alien that stole a necklace from a…wizard.” He can’t believe what he’s saying, either, but he still sells us on the moment completely. But please notice this moment is not a wink to the audience. No, this is gloss. And it’s basically with this gloss that these talented, charming actors push us through the entire moment-to-moment beats of Infinity War. I’m not exaggerating when I say that 60 percent of the movie’s run-time is reunions, where characters we already like show up at opportune or inopportune moments to punch things together.
This may sound like a slight, but it’s not. Especially given that Infinity Wars finally introduces a surprisingly powerful wrinkle to the MCU: a credible threat. For so long, we’ve long been teased that Thanos is the biggest baddest of all, and from the opening frame Marvel is dead set on backing up that notion. It may sound ridiculous to say that “legitimate tension” is a new thing in these movies, but it really is. And in finally loosening the reigns, Infinity Wars now gets to act like every other movie on the planet. To MCU fans, this certainly feels different. By merely introducing the stakes of possible death, it’s able to turn the screws on the audience and finally craft a deeply visceral experience (which some of us wanted from the beginning, because that’s the advantage of movies). And when you’re constantly tense and laughing and engaged? It’s not very easy for an audience member to sit back and think about what’s really happening in the film and why. You’re simply too worried. And so you can’t help but say that Infinity Wars certainly has “the feeling” of a great movie. And I’m not here to debate whether you had a good or suspenseful time while watching it. The problem is that despite that engagement, I can’t help have deeply troubling questions about it. For as the final title card plays, it’s possible to realize the essential problem with all of it…
The film is, effectively, a ruse.
- Death & Textures
A lot will be made of the opening scene of Infinity Wars, and for good reason. We enter the story in media res to find Thanos destroying the Asgardian refugee ship. He’s there for the tesseract, his second infinity stone, which will give him more power. He’s already beaten our heroes. He then proceeds to beat up the Hulk, and kill two beloved MCU characters, Heimdall and Loki, before scattering Thor and the rest of the ship to the depths of space. The simple dramatic intent of this is to throw down the gauntlet and declare to the audience, “We’ll kill anyone! The stakes are higher than ever before!” which is simply to say the stakes are now, you know, real.
From there, the movie operates on a pretty simple dramatic methodology where, for the next two and a half hours, it repeatedly takes a character you like and puts them directly within the line of sight of that same danger. It’s like they lined up 50 kittens, pointed a gun at them, and shot a few more for good measure. But it all harkens back to the old writing philosophy of “kill your darlings,” right? This is how you create stakes and such! Well, it’s certainly effective. But it brings up the question of what the purpose of the story is beyond “the creation of tension upon an audience.” Because, in dramatic context, the purpose of “stakes” are actually far more complicated than the mere threat of looming death.
Because the truth is that within narrative, “death” is often cheap and easy. I mean, you’ve seen every other action movie. Murder is catharsis. Scores of bodies pile up and no one cares. Even dead family members are used as motivation so frequently there’s a tropey name for it called “fridge stuffing.” And even a lot of blockbuster movies will throw it around with recklessness that doesn’t seem to show much care or understanding for what “death” means in real life. I always think of that scene in Star Trek Into Darkness where Kahn murders Carol Marcus’s father right in front of her, literally crushing his head. It’s grisly! She screams! It’s horrific! The only problem is I literally know nothing about their father-daughter relationship at that moment, and then this murder 1) has no discernible effect on the characters and 2) is literally never referenced again. All these things are, essentially, tricks for “momentary affectation,” and it absolutely cheapens the notion of death itself.
Sure, it can make us fret, fear, and emote—but the simple truth is that death only matters when it matters to the characters. And more importantly, when that death serves to have some kind of impact on the character and story. In Captain America: The First Avenger, you may remember the clear image of Bucky Barnes falling from that train, but it’s actually Professor Erksine’s death that affected me more. Not just because of Tucci’s great performance and the emotion of the scene, but also because of the immediate story impact it had on the events that follow. And as he struggles for life, I remember him pointing at Cap’s chest, highlighting the exact message of remembering the person he truly is inside. It’s powerful, resonant stuff, which highlights how cinematic death is not so much about the danger, nor the fretting, but the about the sense of loss and the grief that ensues in its wake (just like life). Coulson’s death works so well in the first Avengers film—not just because it’s surprising and comes against a little character we couldn’t help but love, but because it ends up being the rallying call to get the characters to change their behavior, put aside differences, and come to one another’s aid. Like all stories, it’s the interaction of meaning between cause, effect, and consequence.
So it’s no accident that to me, one of the most affecting scenes in Infinity War is where Thor ends up trying to stifle his mournful cries to Rocket, who just so happens to be one of the least empathetic heroes in the MCU. There are all sorts of little signifiers of PTSD and how Thor still seems in shock as he rattles of the list of all that he’s lost. But even then, you can’t help but notice how he talks about the fact that he’s seen Loki’s “death” so many times now even he’s not sure, but feels like it might be true. But the real problem isn’t the “boy who cried wolf,” nature of this dynamic, it’s how the opening of the film strikes whole-heartedly against the beautiful ending statements of Thor: Ragnorok, which goes on and on about Asgard being a people, not a place, and the power of the refugee story. And now they’re all dead. It’s not the simple fact that they’re dead. It’s the fact that the narrative steamrolls over it like this isn’t a really important thing to acknowledge. Again, it was the literal point of the entire last movie and now it’s been steamrolled over just like Carole Marcus’s father. It’s literally never referenced again. Death, both in terms of the danger and the cost, cannot be told or assumed. It must always be dramatized to have impact.
Which brings us to the ending…
The second Thanos snapped his fingers, my hair stood on edge. “Oh shit they’re going to do it!” As Bucky fell to dust, I sat terrified, transfixed, witnessing what could be the most audacious decision in movie history: to kill off half the MCU. The idea of doing something so absurdly ballsy as this, after all the half-hearted feints, would indeed be confirmation of the grim and dire consequences that 10 years of egotistic belief would bring. The idea readily pops, taking away some of the most beloved characters and setting the stage for the future. Which of the main four will go? Tony? Cap? Thor? Hulk? It could be anyone! And then…they took away Black Panther and you realized exactly what they were really doing…I grimaced immediately.
This is where the sprawling interconnectedness that empowers these movies also comes back to bite them in the ass. Because we already know that Black Panther, just as we know little baby Spider-Man and many others, are going to be coming back for more of their own movies.
And that, narratively-speaking, was just a tactic meant to put our main heroes on the ropes, before they find a way to bring back all their new young friends. There is simply no way around this conclusion, no way I can buy into the belief that this is what they will do. And why wouldn’t they be able to pull it off? If all it takes is a magic glove to make it happen, then a same snap of the fingers can undo the same damage, as we literally saw just moments before with the death of Vision. Sure, I can make some guesses that there will be sacrifices made along the way, but they’re going to come back, which turns the entire scene into a weird exercise of cognitive dissonance. I can feel all the emotion of Peter Parker snuffing out in Tony’s arms, full of all the sadness in the world, but all the while know it’s just temporary…while even I would have been crying if those two roles were reversed. Which bring us to the crux…
Infinity Wars makes the exact right choice in the exact wrong way.
If you’re going to kill half the population in the universe, then kill them. Right now these other tertiary characters are “dead,” but dramatically-speaking, they may as well have just been kidnapped. But what else should I have expected? These movies have always been about “the texture of consequences” without any real commitment to them. So now phase one heroes are going to have to rally together or go save phase four heroes, and maybe sacrifice themselves, blah blah blah. It’s always been promises and deferment. Which means that the MCU has ultimately belied what was the greatest hope for these movies: to use the unique medium of film to tell full stories, full of big, bold, lasting choices in a way that had become impossible within the cyclical bloat of comics. And that’s when it hits you. The simple, obvious answer to what the MCU “is.” Because these are definitely not movies. And despite all the arguments, they’re definitely not a season of television either…
They finally just became comic books.
After 10 years of unparalleled success they’ve managed to inherit the same exact problems of critical mass that plague that industry. Endless cycles. Confusing timelines. Continuity issues. Basic bloat. Feints of death. This isn’t the infinity war; this is the infinity loop. And the MCU had the opportunity to avoid all that. But thanks to its unparalleled success, they took on the same exact problems of comics instead. But that’s how fear tends to work. You cannot rock with the idea of making billions and billions in profit. It takes willpower and believing in the message of the loop (like Nolan, who made his trilogy and got out). And it’s there, and actually with the lessons of comic books as well, that you re-find the answer to the problem. You have to remove those burdens and simply concentrate on telling a contained, meaningful story therein. And that’s where we get into my real problem with a lot of these movies, and this one in particular…
Infinity War isn’t really about anything at all.
- Philosophy Vs. Psychology
The most frustrating moment in the entire MCU comes during a late, pivotal moment of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Right until that point, the film is telling a clear story about Tony Stark’s hubris: how he was acting out of fear to invent a super protective A.I. robot entity thingy that went rogue and started wreaking havoc on all their lives. It’s a clear lesson about how fear begets more violence. But then the problem becomes two-fold. 1) Tony does ultimately not actually lose anything or suffer a great cost, especially given that Jarvis is not actually dead but about to be revived in a moment of cheating death. And more problematically, 2) Tony’s way of ultimately “learning” to solve this hubris is to literally do the same exact thing and put A.I. into another robot. His fellow Avengers literally scream at him, pointing out this exact flaw, and Tony can only yell back, “trust me this time!” because this is literally the only argument he has. There is no other grander point to highlight. He’s just stubbornly doing it again…and it works. Vision comes into the picture, Jarvis is restored, he proves he’s a good dude, and no matter what beautiful a gloss they put on learning to trust him (and him casual picking up Thor’s Hammer is the best moment of the film), it’s all just a distraction. One that comes back to that inescapable problem of these films: Tony didn’t learn anything. More importantly, he really just doubled down on his hubris and it paid off. And if you haven’t noticed, this behavior has started happening all the damn time in the MCU, which brings us to the devastating realization underneath all the charm, tension, and gloss:
Nobody changes and the lessons don’t matter.
Last year, people thought I was surprisingly tough on Spider-man: Homecoming, but I got to the crux of the issue when I wrote “When did [Peter] psychologically learn this lesson in terms of the dramatic action? Even Peter’s moment of looking at the reflection in the
Again, even on the character arc level, this just speaks to the MCU’s affinity for “the texture of change” as opposed to the scariness of actual change. It’s all making something seem like a big deal in the moment, but it really has no effect on anything, especially the endings. For instance, this film makes a huge deal of Peter wanting to remain a “friendly neighborhood Spider-man,” before Infinity Wars thrusts him to an alien planet to fight a guy who can literally beat up the Hulk. Sure, Peter Parker tries to make some kind of defense about there being “no neighborhood,” but then the film hangs its hat on the fact that it literally doesn’t make sense. There’s no actual lesson learned here by either of them (worse, at literally any point, Dr. Strange could portal him home to safety). Things simply have to move forward because it’s time for them to move forward within the MCU machine, rendering these themes mere impasses in pursuit of the obligatory. So Tony “knights” him as an Avenger. It’s a funny moment, but it only exists because the alternative is that Spider-Man is not in the movie, which is as cynical a narrative choice as I can think of.
But it’s utterly par for the course in these films. Again, nobody really changes and the lessons don’t matter. People railed on me when I pointed out that Captain America: Civil War basically ends with a half-hearted “undo” gesture and they argued, “don’t worry, this will have a huge consequence in Infinity War!” I knew it wouldn’t because I know these movies. And yeah, the only consequence amounted to a slight moment of awkwardness where Tony didn’t want to make a phone call so someone else did. That’s literally it. Even Rhody’s injury means nothing because he still gets to walk around on magic robot legs and still be War Machine. And what were the dramatic personal consequences of Hulk leaving Black Widow at the end of Ultron? Well, they stare at each other awkwardly for five seconds in this film and then it’s never referenced again.
Any time I point this stuff out, people exclaim, “they’ll deal with that in the next one! The next one!” And if I have to hear that one more time about any of these damn movies, I’m going to lose my mind. Because I’m not arguing for “answers” or anything so insipid. I’m arguing that the movies still absolutely need to create meaning and change within a single narrative. A narrative that needs to be dramatized. Because what happens when you defer that? You’re just playing a rigged game, one that will go on forever if you keep assuming the next one will address it. And I’m sorry, but the only way to win a rigged game is to realize you’re being had and stop playing. The characters (save a few) have become completely static. And that’s where you realize one of the uglier hypocrisies about these movies…
For films that are so insanely great at crafting likable characterization, they’ve become so bad at the most important element of writing characters: meaningful arcs and psychology.
Which brings us to one of the central problems of Infinity War: it’s portrayal of Thanos. It’s worth noting that he is effectively the driving force of the story…which is cool! There’s nothing wrong with the villain being in the pilot seat and this is actually the case with most films, here it’s just a little more clear. Moreover, I actually like what Brolin’s doing with it a great deal. He brings weight, gravitas and surprising emotion to his performance. And because the character is genuinely allowed to be dangerous, this automatically shoots Thanos up the ladder into becoming one of the handful of solid villains in this series. But the not-so-little problem underneath it is that his character makes no sense whatsoever.
“But how could that be? He explains exactly what he believes!”
Ah yes, the whole “villain explains their philosophy,” trope. Thanos tells us all about his belief in balance and how it’s the only way to save the universe from depleting resources and extinguishing itself. It is, of course, a hooey philosophy that doesn’t actually mean anything and which nobody really relates to on a psychological level. Heck, Kingsmen already blew the lid off that psychology to show it’s nothing more than a thinly-veiled belief to justify naked self-preservation. Which highlights the exact truth of characterization: it’s never about the philosophy, it’s the psychology behind it. To wit, Marvel’s phase one was so successful because it understood how much psychology mattered with the main characters. It tackled Tony Stark’s hubris and belief that his actions could have impact on other people and how consequences would change him. It showed where Cap’s utter willingness to put others before himself came from. It explored Banner’s depressive fear that his actions could have an effect on others. And no one underwent more of a psychological change than good ole’ Thor (just as no one’s evolved more since). These were real people going through real things that human beings can relate to. And now, with Thanos, we get the idea that’s he’s emotionally affected by things…but there’s no expressed psychology underneath it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with Gamora. I know that Thanos loves his daughter because he tells us so. I just genuinely have no idea why he does. And neither does Gamora. It comes as a complete surprise to her. But of course it’s a surprise. There’s no dramatically expressed reason for it. We’ve see them interact, but there are no real specifics to their relationship. No psychology between them. No story. Just expressed feelings about how he hoped for better from her and that she always hated him. Even in their flashback scene, he picks her presumably because she “stands up and asks him a question,” but it’s not actually playing at anything within psychology. The scene, along with everything else, is an example of the writers trying to engineer an affectation, but not a story. And as a result, it doesn’t matter how good Brolin and Saldana are acting, it can only evoke our sympathy, not empathy.
So we may understand how Thanos makes us feel: scared and threatened, but we truly don’t understand what makes him him. I know we get a quick flashback to the glory of Titan and how it’s all gone now, but it can’t help but feel so damn perfunctory. And as a stark counterpoint, compare him to what made Erik Killmonger the most compelling villain in the MCU. We not only understand exactly who this person is, but why he is, and how he directly relates to the experiences of so many who have been left outside the fortunate glory of super-heroism. It was all psychology and impact. Heck, it’s a movie that literally portrays his “inner child” and how that affects his behavior. And it all cascades into thematically-rich, deeply-meaningful stuff, which ends up being completely dramatized. It’s the kind of character work that is coherently worked right into the story and conflicts, which is absolutely critical for a movie like this.
Think back to most maligned villain of the MCU, probably Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. Now, there’s the obvious reasons for this in that he’s sort of just a static bore with no real human expression within the story, but it’s worth noting he is actually given a baseline psychology that makes sense. His people lived in the world before “light” was born, then they were displaced, banished into a prison world, and now they are back to take what is theirs. This makes “sense” because we are literally told all this. But we don’t care because we never see it dramatized. We never see his sense of loss, or emotion, or much of anything. We never get the specifics that haunt him or how it all comes to tie into the overall story. There is no “psychology as story” here.
And it can’t help make me think of Thanos’s story from the actual comics, which is far more compelling from a character perspective. “Cursed” by a disease that makes him look different, he suffers great abuse from his mother, to the point that she wants to kill him on sight. But rather than this having an immediate effect, Thanos spends his childhood running from his pain, wanting love, trying to please as most children do. He essentially becomes a love-craving pacifist child who thinks this will bring him what his heart wants. But by the time he grows up, the consciousness of this pain of abuse and neglect come to fruition. And so he turns to nihilism to cope. And to cope further, he falls in love with “death.” But Death is not a mere concept in this world, you see. It is actually a cosmic entity personified by a god. And he tries so desperately to please her by killing more and more and more, all in her name.
Yeah, this is big time resonant psychology stuff. And you wouldn’t have to look far into the news to see the way this could play into a commentary on misogyny and the creepy and possessive stuff men do “in the name of” women and love, all to get what they feel they are “owed.” It could be deeply powerful and resonant to today’s world. But why not go with it? Too hokey to be in love with a god? In a story that’s already full of gods? The grim truth is it’s just “safer” to go with a blind commitment to a vague philosophy (that no one actually believes in real life) and put in some nice textural scenes that make it seem like there’s something deeper going on, even though there actually isn’t. And thus, the fulcrum of Infinity War and all the pain in the universe ends up resting in the fact that some nonsensical dude likes balanced daggers…you’re just not supposed to think about it.
Perhaps it would matter less if something was actually going on with literally anyone else. Yes, I understand that characters are made sad and angry within the events of the film, specifically Starlord. But the closest we come to story is one scene of Thor expressing his feelings of loss, but there’s no time for that, he’s gotta go build a god weapon! Meanwhile, Banner can’t Hulk-out for reasons we do not yet understand. Tony issues some lip service about a wedding before rushing off to trouble and it’s barely referenced again. And Cap, the heart and soul of the franchise, is literally doing nothing but showing up. But I get it: everyone’s too busy running around trying to die. And after all this build-up, it’s a genuinely scary and visceral experience to have. And I even fully understand that if you squint, you can make out a little lip-service about how the film is really about not trading lives and giving into despair (which is exactly what Thanos does). But I can’t help but care about how little of the story is brought to forefront of the dramatized text, to the point that it feels like it’s “about nothing.” Within that realization, we come to a deeply irrevocable problem of semiotics…
Something always means something.
- Prometheus Wins
These movies can be brilliant. You know that, right?
After I watched Black Panther, I start writing passionately for a good 12 straight hours because my brain couldn’t stop finding things to talk about. Not just because of the remarkable social moment the film’s very existence seemed to create. Not just because of the way it seamlessly put character arcs into coherent drama. Not just because it had the brazen audacity for its hero to be wrong. But because the film, at almost every moment, had something on its mind. There’s direct social and psychological commentary woven into every little story and design detail, whether it’s the usurping of black culture, class within racial intersections, or the effect of violence upon society. And in the end, it forms them all into a deeply powerful, coherent, singular statement. People were floored. And it’s the reason why the biggest cheer in my audience came when the word “Wakanda” popped on screen. It is a testament to everything these movies can possibly be. But Marvel’s run lately has featured some of this same thematic strength. Ragnorok showed actual late-period growth for Thor and sneaks in a resonant message about the ghosts of colonialism. Just as Guardians 2 has the dignity to create a coherent extended metaphor about fathers—found, abusive, or otherwise. All three of these films prove that Marvel movies can be more than the visceral feeling they evoke.
And this is why Infinity War can’t help but feel like a step backwards when it comes to the evolution of storytelling in the MCU. I understand if you might feel a little defensive about that. Especially given that this is the first tense film in the canon. You might even be tempted to argue “It would be too much to fit that kind of theme-driven story into it! There are too many characters!” Well, the first Avengers took the time to do it right, but it doesn’t matter: this is always the challenge of ensemble films. You’re creating meaning from the net effects of the system. The Wire juggles 100 characters not because it’s merely “good” at doing that, but because it’s committed to having them add up to a coherent sociological commentary that tells “one story” about how a city works. Is it unfair to compare these films to what is probably the greatest show of all time? Of course. But I’m not comparing quality, I’m comparing the willingness to engage in purpose, just as Black Panther did. And so when I look over the course of these 19 stories, I will ask again: what is the one story being told?
What are all these movies really about?
Which brings us to the one true sin of the MCU, which is that the meaning of the movie comes from the combination of all the points I have been making and how they have to operate in interlocking, faux-change perpetuity. No, it’s not as lazy as some anti-capitalist screed about how they keep wanting to make billions and billions of dollars (though it’s worth mentioning). It’s how all those things come together to create a certain a dire thematic statement within the story about the heroic and human condition.
When you look back at Greek myth and its treatment of “superheroes,” all with their own gods, half-gods and titans, you realize how many of the stories are just fables; morality tales with lessons of hubris and pain and suffering. They’re parables meant to inform us about our own human shortcomings. You know the stories, Icarus flying too close to the sun; Achilles and that pesky heel. But the one I always think about is the Prometheus myth, in which the protagonist steals fire from the gods to give power to man. There’s no other myth that so captures the story of what “superheroes” are about. To be given power far beyond measure and to put us on par with gods? Greek myths are always metaphors for power. And the point is that Prometheus is, of course, punished for this action and in a pretty grizzly way. But note that in Greek myth, the gods aren’t so much about challenging authority, but challenging fate itself. Particularly in the notion of what happens when you try to cheat death. This is precisely why The Wire got so much mileage out of using the structure of greek drama. It was comparing the lumbering bureaucratic nature of our modern institutions to “challenging the fates,” the consequences of which show our powerlessness and how we learn to cope in human ways. Like all stories, it was about our faults and failures.
But modern superhero movies have a completely different notion on their mind, largely because they’re about the empowerment fantasy. You’ve stolen fire from the gods and now you can do things beyond your wildest imagination! Isn’t it so cool!?! This is all part and parcel of why the messaging of “with great power comes great responsibility” has to matter the more than ever. Just as consequences and growth really have to matter. Which just makes me cringe when it comes to how insanely irresponsible some of the MCU movies have gotten when it comes to these fronts. It’s not the lack of death and “stakes,” but the lack of consequence and depth they represent. For if you can always stubbornly press forward and just yell “trust me this time!” If you can always hit “undo.” If you can never, ever truly suffer, nor spend time examining it, then you are lying about the consequences of stolen fire. And it’s the reason the best superhero stories are always about cost. They’re about how truly difficult it is to do the right thing; not how hard it is to defeat someone.
And so when I look at Thanos, the MCU’s own mythical mad Titan, I can’t help but realize that Marvel’s got it backwards. For it is Thanos who is the god that the Avengers will need to come to grips with. But instead they’ll press forward in pursuit of resurrecting the dead. And how many times have we had a feint of death before resurrection already in these films? Cap. Thor. Bucky, Loki, Jarvis, Pepper, T’Challa. The list is endless. And right at the biggest moment, right where the snap of consequence has to matter more than ever…
The MCU is once again going to be about cheating death.
Because damn the gods! Damn suffering! Damn cost! I’m a superhero, dammit! I’m charming and people like me and they don’t want to see me go! And I can’t help but think about how much this attitude has a lack of permanence—has not only cost comics and the MCU, but us. I think about how many people can’t handle the basic dramatic stress of Infinity War and seeing our heroes in danger. I worry about how all the old lessons of Walt Disney’s original ethos, and the emphasis on understanding loss and consequence, could help prepare us to face the pain that we experience. For so many stories are designed to teach us the incredible healing and human power of sadness. But instead, we have a story of denial. About the “heroes” who have fought tooth and nail against it at every step. It is like re-writing the story of Bambi so that the character will go into fires of hell to undo death itself. And if we let ourselves go past “the feeling” of loss in Infinity War, a movie that is ostensibly very much about cost and consequence, we will see the larger metaphor for what it is…
What if Prometheus stole fire and instead of being punished, fought back and killed the gods themselves? What if the lessons learned along the way didn’t matter? What if hubris was rewarded? What if we could snap our fingers back when god snapped their fingers against us? What if we could make it so that we were great at beating fate and could be much more awesome forever without much cost along the way? I imagine you’ll tell me that “they will address it in the next one!” But they won’t. We know they won’t. Not just because of what’s been announced in some trade, but simply because there’s too much at “stake” for those who are ordained to seek perpetuity. And with this film, they have the gall to look you in the eye and pretend they’re really finally doing it different. But it’s the worst kind of lie.
And I can think of nothing less heroic.
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