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To Infinity and Beyond: Of Life (and Death) Without Meaning in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering accomplishment, from a purely logistical standpoint.

The film features approximately fifty major characters drawn from ten years of cinematic storytelling, all drawn together to face a major existential threat in a story that spans from a fictional African kingdom to the depths of outer space, all told within two-and-a-half hours, and all packaged in a neat and easy-to-follow delivery mechanism. Marvel Studios and the Russo brothers might make it look easy, but there’s no denying the level of skill and technique involved in shepherding a story like this to the big screen and making it work in a fundamental “this is entertaining” kind of way.

It’s important not to undersell this, not to dismiss the level of craft involved in stitching together a coherent narrative from the differing lengths of cloth. There is pleasure to be had in watching the various characters come together; in watching Peter Quill get insecure around Thor, in listening to Rocket joke about stealing the Winter Soldier’s arm, in the fact that Tony Stark and Stephen Strange spend the bulk of the movie attempting to out-Sherlock one another. Infinity War succeeds on these terms. It’s easy to be dismissive of this cinematic experiment, given how easy it looks, but that does not diminish the accomplishment.

However, there’s also something gnawing away in the background of Infinity War, an awkward question that the film never actually answers. “What is this actually about?” somebody might legitimately ask, and there are any number of possible answers. Infinity War is a film about a big purple dude with a magic glove. Infinity War is about paying off ten years of continuity. Infinity War is about proving that it is possible to make a movie like Infinity War. Infinity War is about ensuring that the next Disney shareholders’ meeting is a blowout party.

All of these are legitimate answers, but they dance around the truth. On its own terms, taken as a piece of popular culture projected on to a screen for two-and-a-half hours, Infinity War isn’t actually about anything. When people sit down to look at Infinity War in the years and decades ahead, to dissect and examine it, what will they come back with? What is it actually saying? What is it actually talking about? Not even in some grand “thesis statement about the universe” way, but in a more basic “this is the thematic arc of the film” manner?

Watching Infinity War, there is a deeply uncomfortable sense that Infinity War is about nothing beyond itself.

The question of what a film is “about” is a loaded one, because it often seems like a film has to be “about” something “important” in order to be worthwhile, as if the merit of a film might be confused with the merit of its subject matter. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is perhaps the best example here; Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are essentially a fable about contemporary America. Similarly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes all have important things to say about temporary society.

However, this contemporary relevance is not what makes these films great. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are immaculately constructed by a filmmaker working at the top of his game, and would be great movies if they were simply “about” the story of a young boy trying to make sense of a chaotic world by imposing his own sense of order upon it, and learning too late the futility of that enterprise. Similarly, it’s possible to look at Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes as a set of films “about” Caesar.

In fact, many of the best Marvel Studios movies are quite clearly “about” something, even if that “something” is personal and intimate rather than big and political. Guardians of the Galaxy might be the best Marvel Studios movie, and it is fundamentally “about” a boy who responds to the death of his mother by retreating into a world of fantasy populated by green-skinned aliens and talking raccoons. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was at its best when it was “about” that boy reuniting with his deadbeat dad and coming to terms with the fact that he could never have the idylised childhood he wanted.

Even outside of these personal stakes, many blockbusters passively absorb the ambient mood. It’s hard to say if this is part of why these movies resonate with the larger culture, or simply proof that they exist within the larger culture, but it is there. To pick one completely arbitrary example, Jaws is a movie haunted by the spectre of Vietnam, even as it unfolds on a sunny beach in the middle of summer. It is fundamentally about a generation of complacent adults who feed their innocent children to a brutal monster lurking beyond their shores. It is not the core of the movie, by any means, but it is there.

Even light and fun movies tend to be “about” interesting and provocative things. Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that is hilarious and delightful, but it is also a brutal deconstruction of the legacies of colonialism in a surprisingly literal manner. Similarly, Black Panther is a film that deals consciously and explicitly with the legacy of slavery and the scars in which the forced transplantation of a generation of people from Africa left upon the collective psyche. Both movies are also highly enjoyable popcorn action flicks.

This brings the discussion back to Infinity War. What is Infinity War actually “about” from a thematic or character standpoint? What does it have to say about any of its characters or the world in which they inhabit? It is very hard to tell. Most obviously, it is very hard to tell because none of the characters within Infinity War exercise any agency in terms of the narrative. None of the heroes make any choices that have a significant impact on how the plot plays out, and their interactions and intersections are governed by chance more than their own decisions. In a film like this, “chance” is just the hand of the author.

Of course, Infinity War is an Avengers movie, and so it should be discussed within the context of the larger franchise. In particular, Infinity War exists in the context of the last two Avengers movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. Age of Ultron was written and directed by Joss Whedon, while Civil War was written and directed by the same creative team responsible for Infinity War. So it is no surprise that Infinity War has a lot more in common with Civil War than with Age of Ultron.

Age of Ultron is a deeply flawed film, and it is entirely possible to see both Civil War and Infinity War as an attempt at course-correction based upon response to Age of Ultron. Nevertheless, Age of Ultron is an interesting film, because it is largely predicated on the agency of its central characters. Its central characters make bad decisions, and those bad decisions have terrible consequences. The character of Ultron is created by Tony Stark, and Age of Ultron goes to great lengths to explain why Tony Stark would think that creating a super-intelligent artificial intelligence was a good idea.

Tony’s motivations in creating Ultron make a reasonable amount of sense, given what the audience knows of his character. Iron Man III had hinted that Tony wanted to settle down and retire, and creating an artificial intelligence to protect the planet was a way of accomplishing that objective. Similarly, the audience understands that Tony is fundamentally a weapons designer, so it makes sense that his solution would be volatile and dangerous. More than that, the idea of building a defensive technology is a projection of a man who lives inside a metal suit; “a suit of armour around the world.”

Of course, creating Ultron is still a terrible decision, but it is a terrible decision that is entirely in keeping with who Tony Stark is as a human being and how he has behaved as a character. That said, even within Age of Ultron, there is a sense of the film fudging the details. Tony’s mind is manipulated by the Scarlet Witch, which serves to let the character off the hook for his actions slightly. Tony never faces any consequences for creating a genocidal robot. More than that, Tony’s solution to the problem is to do exactly the same thing again, but hope that it works this time. As noted above, Age of Ultron is deeply flawed.

However, Civil War is a movie that consciously retreats from the idea of agency and responsibility. The basic premise of the movie is absolutely superb. It turns out that the world isn’t exactly comfortable with a paramilitary force of superheroes operating without any oversight or any respect for boundaries or accountability. It’s a premise with a lot of potential. It could be used to explore American self-image or even to discuss the politics of gun control. It could even serve to explore the metaphor of superheroes itself, asking the audience to wonder why they support these characters who impose their will on the world.

From a character standpoint, the set-up of Civil War is just as rich. Captain America is a character who slept through the second half of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. Captain America’s understanding of American foreign policy is the Second World War, but not Vietnam or Nicaragua or Afghanistan. He is the embodiment of American idealism and self-confidence. At the same time, Tony literally just built a robot that tried to destroy mankind and dropped one half of a city on another. So these characters have interesting and diametrically-opposed perspectives.

However, Civil War retreats from anything approaching theme or agency. While Tony feels really bad about the civilians killed in the past few films, nobody bothers to point out that he designed a genocidal robot responsible for putting those civilians in danger in the first place. While Steve Rogers looks like he might take something resembling a principled stand, it turns out that his main motivation is a desire to protect Bucky. Bucky, who is a killer robot cyborg implicated in a string of murders that shaped the twentieth century. Civil War is a story about gun control, but with one dude who really loves this one gun.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Civil War were willing to allow its characters to commit to their beliefs or their perspectives, if the film were willing to afford Tony and Steve a bona fides personal and philosophical disagreement. However, Civil War refuses to make Tony Stark a “true believer” in registration, delegating that role to General “Thunderbolt” Ross, who is a villain from The Incredible Hulk. Similarly, Civil War refuses to have the schism between Steve and Tony mean anything, because the film ends with Steve giving Tony a phone on which he might call whenever Thanos shows up.

Everything in Civil War is very meticulously calculated and engineered in such a way as to avoid anything that might challenge or upset an audience invested in either Tony or Steve. The films are wary of politicising their heroes even slightly, and so Civil War is stripped of any significance or weight. It is impossible to hate either Tony or Steve for any of the decisions that they make within Civil War, because the film bends over backwards to avoid having them make any decisions at all. Even the climactic throwdown is driven by highly-charged emotion and immediately walked back. Even Rhodey is walking by the end.

Unsurprisingly, Infinity War is this “story without meaning” approach extrapolated past its logical extreme. It is telling just how much energy within Infinity War is spent walking back the changes made within Ragnarok. In Ragnarok, director Taita Waititi made a point have Thor change and grow in a manner both physical and personal. In Ragnarok, Thor lost his eye and his hammer, and finally became King of Asgard. Infinity War reverses these changes; it gives Thor a new eye and an axe that works just like his hammer, and brutally destroys Thor’s kingdom before the opening titlecard.

Within the narrative of Infinity War, none of the characters make any choice that has any meaning. Tony is reluctant to call Steve for help, which would be a bold character-driven decision. However, he is about to call Steve when he is interrupted by the arrival of Ebony Maw and Black Dwarf in New York. Later, Bruce Banner picks up the phone and makes the call anyway. The two teams created at the end of Civil War are reunited when Captain America takes the team to the New Avengers headquarters. Rhodey has no qualms about working with the people indirectly responsible for crippling him.

Infinity War works hard to break its characters into smaller teams, perhaps hinting at the idea that these characters are diminished by their separation and their division. However, none of the characters choose to be separated. The plot would have unfolded exactly the same way had Civil War never happened. Banner would have crashed in the Sanctum, Strange would have found Tony, Tony would have pursued the alien ship, and so would have been separated from the group. Thor would always have been on his way back to Earth, his trip never informed by the schism between Avengers.

It’s telling that, after overpowering Ebony Maw on his space ship, Tony and his team find themselves trapped on autopilot. Admittedly, Strange wonders whether Tony could override the autopilot returning to Titan and Tony decides not to. This is perhaps the most active decision that any major Avenger makes over the course of the film, the only decision that would actively change the terms of engagement with Thanos. It is telling that Tony’s big decision is not to make a decision, to let things play out as they must.

In fact, this is a recurring aspect of Infinity War, a sense that the narrative depends entirely on the characters surrendering to fate and following the whims of the larger plot. At one point, Strange states that he would happily sacrifice both Tony and Peter to stop Thanos. This is a bold character moment, and one that makes sense. Strange was a doctor, and so he understands how triage works. It is also a source of potential conflict and contrast, characters bouncing more than just quips and laser blasts off one another.

However, when the moment comes, Strange chickens out. As Thanos threatens to murder Tony, Strange caves. Strange surrenders the stone to Thanos in return for Tony’s life. It is a noble gesture, the stock and inoffensive version of heroism. It also runs counter to everything that Infinity War has used to contrast Tony and Strange over the course of the film. However, it is implied that Strange is only doing this because he has seen the future and so knows that he must do this to assure a happy ending. “It’s the only way,” he explains.

To be fair, it might be possible to argue that this is perhaps what the film is “about.” That Infinity War is a meditation upon heroism. Certainly, Captain America bluntly states, “We don’t trade lives.” There is a recurring motif of characters refusing to sacrifice others for the perceived greater good, of refusing to bow to the utilitarian logic of Thanos. The team refuse to sacrifice the Vision to save “the mind stone.” Gamora refuses to sacrifice Nebula to protect “the soul stone.” Strange refuses to sacrifice Tony to keep “the time stone.”

However, this argument is unconvincing on several levels. Most obviously, there is an argument in favour of making these sacrifices given that the whole of existence itself is in the balance. However, even the film itself seems to back down from this extreme position. Gamora begs Peter to kill her if Thanos takes her hostage, and he tries to grant her wish. Similarly, as Thanos battles across Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch does decide to sacrifice Vision. The team are undone not because they chose to make these sacrifices, but because they didn’t make them soon enough. So the theme doesn’t work.

Similarly, it could be argued that the lack of agency afforded the heroes within Infinity War is intentional. There has been a lot of argument that Thanos is effectively the protagonist of Infinity War, that he is the driving narrative force at work within the story. This is a defensible position, even if Infinity War never commits to the idea. If this were Thanos’ story, for example, it would make sense to open with his first encounter with Gamora rather than his murder of Loki. If this were Thanos’ story, Infinity War spends far too much time with characters who aren’t Thanos.

However, even accepting these criticisms, it is fair to argue that Thanos takes actions that shape and define the plot. The bulk of the film is concerned with Thanos acquiring the “infinity stones”, even if he apparently “decimates” Xandar off-screen before the film starts. Much has made of the fact that Thanos is one of the better-developed antagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that he has a depth that distinguishes him from characters like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World or Kaecilius in Doctor Strange. This is true, Thanos gets more attention and more articulation of his motivations.

However, Thanos is ultimately just as trapped within the confines and the demands of the film’s clockwork narrative as any other Marvel antagonist, but without the sense of grand tragedy that made characters like Loki or Kilmonger so compelling. On the surface, Thanos has a reasonably plausible character motivation. He believes in population control, that the universe simply has “too many mouths to feed.” So the character has been travelling from one world to another in order to thin the herd. His plan in Infinity War is to use the “infinity stones” to do the job more efficiently and effectively.

This is a detailed character background, and Infinity War affords the audience a number of short scenes between Thanos and Gamora which suggest an inner life for the villain. It is all stock movie villainy 101, a reminder that “even evil has loved ones” and “sometimes bad people do the wrong things for the right reasons.” However, these character motivations are ultimately superficial. Thanos is just as much a puppet of the narrative mechanics of Infinity War as Tony Stark or Doctor Strange, just as driven by plot logic that is working on autopilot.

Why does Thanos love Gamora? What is so special about their relationship? Infinity War reveals the mechanics of their first meeting, a chance encounter on a word being culled by the Mad Titan. Gamora asks Thanos a question about her mother, and Thanos takes a shine to her. But why? What is so special about Gamora? Is Gamora the first person to ever ask Thanos a question at one of these culling sessions? Is Gamora the only kid who properly balances a knife on her hand? In simple storytelling mathematics (“this scene plus this scene equals established relationship”) it makes sense, but not on a deeper level.

Of course, there is a very simple reason why Thanos loves Gamora. Infinity War is building to a scene in which Thanos has to sacrifice something that he loves, so that the audience might have an emotional reaction to the character. So Thanos loves Gamora, so the audience can feel sorry when Thanos throws Gamora to her death later in the film. It’s very cold and cynical, and there is nothing resembling humanity beneath it. In fact, the scene might work better if Thanos were to confess that he only allowed himself to love Gamora because one day he knew this sacrifice would be necessary.

This hazy characterisation becomes a problem again at the climax of the film, when Thanos gets ahold of the “infinity stones” and wipes out half of the universe. Why? Why not use the stones to create more food? Why not use the stones to create more space? Why not use the stones to eliminate biological needs like hunger and to change the metaphysical mechanics of the universe? If Thanos is concerned about over-population, then he has just been given the power of a god. There are any number of solutions that don’t involve murdering half the universe.

The climax of Infinity War only makes sense if Thanos wants to murder half the universe, if that mass murder is the end of itself rather than a means to a given end. This is something that the source material handled relatively well, suggesting that Thanos was a mass murdering psychopath obsessed with the anthropomorphic personification of death and planned to offer half the universe to her as a gift. It’s a very weird and comic-book-y premise, perhaps too weird for a major blockbuster film. However, it would do a much better job of explaining that ending than the motivation afforded in the film.

Indeed, such a story would very definitely be “about” something, in the way that it played upon the conventions of modern romances and unwanted romantic attention. Thanos sacrificing half of the universe as a macabre offering to an anthropomorphised version of death that wanted nothing to do with him would be a superhero romance for the #metoo era, one that played grand romantic gestures as monstrous and treated the idea of love as something to be purchased as grotesque. It would be Say Anything for the new millennium, with the infinity gauntlet as the boombox and the murder of half the universe as Peter Gabriel.

Instead, Infinity War sacrifices this weirdness and potent commentary for familiar clichés. Infinity War desperately wants to reinvent Thanos as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s answer to Magneto or Doctor Doom, a well-intentioned extremist convinced of his own valour that could be accepted as the hero of his own narrative. This glosses over the fact that the comic book iteration of the character worked best as a monstrous supervillain. It’s telling that the sincere character motivation presented in the film originated as a red herring that the comic book character used to catch the Silver Surfer off-guard.

There is no small irony in the awkwardness with which Infinity War tries to imbue Thanos with some greater “meaning” or “purpose.” Most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s villains have skewed towards nihilism, with Malekith hoping that the darkness might once again swallow the light in The Dark World or Kaecilius hoping to feed the universe to something horrific in a shadow dimension for no reason beyond his own belief in the meaninglessness of life. Indeed, Infinity War might work better with Kaecilius as its primary antagonist; not because Kaecilius is a good character, but because Mads Mikkelsen is fun.

Watching Infinity War, there is a sense that the film stripped out the nihilism that defined the comic book iteration of the character from his motion-capture counterpart because that might make him too much of a protagonist in Infinity War. If Thanos truly believed that life was meaningless and existence didn’t matter, Infinity War makes a plausible supporting argument. A nihilistic version of Thanos would see the gears turning within the great machine that is Infinity War and be validated, understanding that agency does not exist inside the confines of the universe wherein he finds himself.

This is true of Thanos himself. Thanos is not a character in Infinity War, so much as an instrument of the larger narrative. Indeed, it is very revealing that his single action taken with the “infinity stones” is to split the universe in half, both literally and narratively. Thanos separates the characters from their loved ones, just as he separates this narrative from its ending. Thanos effectively uses the “infinity stones” in order to split Infinity War in half, to create an entire second movie. Despite what the directors might have promised in the lead-up to release, Infinity War is definitely just the first part of a two-part story.

And Thanos does that, as an agent of the plot. In wearing the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos becomes a god of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He also becomes an avatar of itself. If Infinity War could be said to be “about” anything, it is arguably a film “about” being Infinity War. Like any good movie movie villain, Thanos is the embodiment of a certain set of anxieties and fears. However, those fears do not speak to broader concerns, like the Joker embodied fear of the breakdown of social order or like the Vulture stood in for middle-class entitlement in a turbulent economy.

Thanos embodies the fear and dread of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Thanos embodies death, his name lifted from Jim Starlin’s misremembrance of the word “thanatos”, the Freudian death drive. However, Thanos does not represent not death as normal people in the real world might experience it, as loved ones or families endure it. Despite the enormous scale of Infinity War, there are like three “normal” people in it; three civilians outside the world of heroes and god. Ned Leeds, Thaddeus Ross, Timon the Collector.

Despite the pitch that Infinity War is “darker and edgier”, death and destruction are kept largely off-screen. The film opens after the massacre of the Asgardians by Thanos’ forces. When Thanos visits with Gamora, the mass murder of her people is kept off-screen, with Thanos even drawing her attention away from the cull by his forces in the background of the shot. Although Nowhere is in flames, there are no signs of any dead bodies once the veil is lifted. The battle in New York is notably brief. The fight for Wakanda takes place in a big open prairie.

If Infinity War is about death and destruction, it is not about death as mortals understand the concept. Instead, Thanos represents the inevitability of death and time as existential threats to the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. In the comic books, these characters are eternal. Even death is just a character arc for figures like Wolverine and Captain America, not the full stop at the end of existence. Peter Parker will always be a young adult, even sixty year into his publication history. Tony Stark remains a constant, even as the war in which he was crippled might change.

However, a decade into its existence, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is confronting the fact that its actors age and won’t be around forever. Chris Evans has signalled a desire to leave. Robert Downey Junior wants to finish up before it becomes “embarrassing.” Even Samuel L. Jackson’s appearances have become less frequent as his contract reaches its end. There is a sense that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have to confront the reality of death and time in a way that its source material never has. Thanos, an avatar of death, literalises this existential anxiety.

This is the point of his introductory monologue, although couched in the language of the plot. Thanos argues for inevitability and entropy, for decay and death. “Dread it,” he taunts Thor. “Run from it.” Thanos embodies the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe literally won’t have these iterations of the characters around forever, and that the films will have to grapple with the ravages of time in a way that the source material has never had to. Infinity War arrives at a point where that is more pressing than ever.

In some ways, this feels like an interesting counterpoint to one of the core themes of Age of Ultron. One of Whedon’s more interesting themes in Age of Ultron is the idea of procreation and progeneration. It echoes through Age of Ultron; Black Widow’s sterilisation, Tony’s creation of Ultron, Ultron adoption of the Romanoff twins, the Frankenstein sequence in which the team bring Vision to life. Age of Ultron is about the grotesque and warped creation of new life, of the perversion of reproductive urges into something monstrous.

After all, procreation is similar to death in certain ways. The act of reproduction renders the parents obsolete. “Everyone creates the thing they dread,” Ultron states. “Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers, people create… smaller people? Uh… children! I lost the word there. Children. Designed to supplant them, to help them… end.” Reproduction reflects the passage of time, a sense of movement and change. In many ways, the central tension of these cinematic Marvel adaptations, which unfold in a world that (unlike comic books) is affected by the flow of time.

Indeed, Age of Ultron suggests that Ultron is just as much an existential threat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thanos. He threatens to make the heroes redundant. Repeatedly in Age of Ultron, procreation is suggested as something that runs counter to “the mission.” Black Widow reflects of her time in the Red Room, “They sterilise you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission.” Tony justifies his creation of Ultron by arguing that Ultron “would end the team. Isn’t that the mission? Isn’t that the ‘why’ we fight, so we can end the fight, so we get to go home?”

In Age of Ultron, procreation and progeneration is suggested as something that can only exist outside of the confines of the superhero narrative. That is why Steve Rogers dreams of coming home from his never-ending war to Peggy Carter, and why Hawkeye works so hard to keep his domestic life a secret from the people with whom he works. Age of Ultron seems to argue that there is something grotesque in the idea that these characters are trapped in the same old narratives for all eternity, unable to change or grow, only able of procreation through monstrosities like Ultron.

Perhaps this explains the warped plot logic of Age of Ultron, where Tony Stark redeems himself for his early mistake by making the exact mistake again. Tony went against the team and created Ultron, and fixes it by going against the team and creating Vision. From a narrative standpoint, this is deeply frustrating. However, that might be the entire point. Age of Ultron was itself the result of a troubled birthing process between Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios, and perhaps this narrative loop Whedon acknowledging that Tony will never be allowed to grow or change or evolve. He’ll just keep doing the same thing, forever.

There is much less tension within Infinity War, with the Russo Brothers aligning much more smoothly with Marvel Studios. Thanos might be an avatar for change like Ultron, but the Infinity War is decidedly less ambivalent and ambiguous than Age of Ultron had been. Thanos embodies entropy and death, and so is presented as monstrous. He is a villain who must be defeated and vanquished, a monster with which the Marvel Cinematic Universe must wrestle. Thanos externalises the deepseated anxieties of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a piece of fiction.

Infinity War will probably be the biggest movie of the year, and one of the biggest of all time. And it’s enjoyable, well-produced, fun. But it’s also not about anything more substantial than the mid-life crisis of this gigantic pop cultural behemoth. The film’s central tension doesn’t even amount to “what if half the world’s population dies?”, as there’s not one major human character outside of existing franchise supporting casts. It’s quite literally, “What happens to the franchise when these iterations of iconic intellectual property move on?”

Infinity War feels like it has managed to craft a blockbuster without any deeper meaning beyond itself, completely disconnected from the world beyond the screen. Perhaps this is a reflection of the unreal times within which these films are produced, the “post-truth” era. Perhaps even stories have become unmoored from reality, and audiences are no longer looking for anything resembling truth within their fiction. Infinity War moves with clockwork precision, but with no real purpose beyond sustaining itself.

Indeed, even the film’s most devastating twist is undercut by the mechanical efficiency with which it is executed. Thanos manages to get ahold of the Infinity Gauntlet and wipe out half of the universe. However, it’s very telling which characters he removes; Spider-Man, Black Panther, most of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos wipes out the characters who have contractual immunity, the characters who are guaranteed to return if only because they have sequels in the early stages of development.

Even within the confines of the narrative itself, Infinity War goes out of its way to explain how this bold storytelling choice can be done. The “infinity stones” can be reassembled and the wish can be undone. Even the “time stone” itself would allow the user to go back in time and to control the flow and movement of history. Infinity War does not end on a bleak and downbeat note, but instead a riddle rooted in storytelling mechanics more than character or theme. “Which particular trap door will with the production team use to get out of this one?” the narrator intones.

During the confrontation on Titan, Thanos argues for a form death that is “random” and “fair”, that affects “rich and poor alike.” It is very clear from the cynical and calculated nature of the death that Infinity War brings to bear during the final few moments of movie. It is clear that Thanos might represent entropy and decay in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but is also clear that he exists for the same purpose as most comic book villains: to be defeated. Even as he gets his wish in the closing scenes of Infinity War, the movie seems to have the last laugh. Even death cannot trump contractual commitments.

One of the few restrictions on the power of the “Infinity Gauntlet” is that it hold no power outside its home universe. That seems appropriate. Ultimately Infinity War plays best as a commentary on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, rather than anything outside of it. It does not operate in relation to the real world, instead trapped within its own recursive fantasy. Perhaps it is the perfect movie for this moment.

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9 Responses

  1. Speaking as someone totally disinterested in the MCU (although a fan of Nolan’s Batman), I think this movie sounds utterly appalling. Somehow both hollow and inward-looking. Movies don’t always have to be “about” politics or social issues but I think they need to be “about” something other than just eating up 2 or 3 hours of your time. But at 34 I guess I’m aging out of the target demographic. There’s a sobering thought.

    • I mean, it’s impressive that it got made, and that it is functional as a film; that it can followed clearly, that it amusing in places, that its events make sense if you don’t think about them.

      But, yeah, it’s a very hollow film. Which is a shame, given Ragnarok and Black Panther.

  2. What gets me is that at one point Thanos holds a little dialogue about knowing the universe and its resources are finite (using that literal world), and then he goes on to wield the Infinity Stones that grant him power of reality, time etc.. I think that was supposed to rhyme thematically, but to me it was discordant. I don’t like labelling every in-congruence in a fictional world a plot hole, but by drawing attention to it kind-of makes it one. Rather baffling, in retrospect.

    I just saw it an hour ago and the more I think about it, the more it falls apart. Disappointing really, and almost a hallmark of Markus and McFeely at this point.

    • Yep. I mean, I don’t mind plot holes. I think that focusing on them ignores the fact that plot is not the be-all and end-all of filmmaking. (For example, I don’t really care how Bruce Banner knows so much about Thanos to provide the information dump to Strange and Stark.)

      But that’s a pretty big logical gap.

  3. The connections with post-truths can´t help but feel a little forced to me. I understand your point and I absolutely agree with the idea that you are trying to present. However, the fact that this movie isn´t about anything but itself simply shows the tendency of the Marvel universe to be more and more about itself, post-truth, however, is about a narrative that affect our view of the real world, the danger of this political discourse is exactly how inform our own views on society, based on a made-up narrative, whether anything resambling actual analysis of facts. I think Infinity War works as the consequence of a massive franschise being able to over-indulge itself in such a level that allows itself to this this sort of narrative, the kind of thing that happend, for example, on plenty of the work of writers like Moffat, in my mind, that is. Sorry for any mistakes on my grammar, english is only a second language to me. As always you analysis are on point and relevant

    • No worries. I wouldn’t have noticed any errors or mistakes in your grammar.

      I don’t know if it’s fair to say the Marvel Universe is more and more about itself. I’d argue that Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are more about the real world than Thor or Civil War, for example. But, yeah, the recent Avengers movies (counting Civil War as an Avengers movie) are more and more about themselves. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this shift happened around 2016.

  4. “So. INFINITY WAR, then. No spoilers.

    It is perhaps best understood as an unprecedented brand power move. It is not “a film” as that term is commonly understood. It is a sequence of connections. It’s a statement from a bizarre place of popular-culture ownership. It’s a statement that they have done ten years of film storytelling, often with very conventional story templates, so that everyone in the world will show up for what is often an extraordinarily unconventional story-like event with one extremely unexpected tonal shift.

    It, by design, makes no sense unless you’ve watched most if not all of the other Marvel films. There cannot be a casual viewer of this emanation. Only a committed one. It is likely to be the largest worldwide opening of all time, as I write this, even though it’s not opening in China or Russia this weekend.

    The production values are near-perfect. The days of the slightly janky AVENGERS special effects are long gone, and every pixel is painted with jewelled, exquisite skill. As a visual experience, it is peak Marvel. The mocap on Josh Brolin makes Thanos a far more effective “CGI villain” than the waste of Ciaran Hinds on JUSTICE LEAGUE, which had all the performance nuance of a level boss in DOOM II.

    Per the trailer, I think it was a brave choice to have the evil spaceship apparently designed by James Dyson.

    The writers and the directors worked very, very hard to make something that did not feel beholden to rules. They’ll stop the thing dead for sixty seconds to do a gag. There are a lot of gags. I mean, no possible joke goes unjoked. Nothing I say here should be taken to denigrate the work of those people. They have achieved a remarkable thing.

    (Special nod to whoever designed the sonics for the next-to-final scene.)

    It is not a movie. It is a brand manifestation that wants to have prolonged, eager and reasonably skilled cultural sex with you. It wants your experience with its content™ to be satisfying and it hopes you are pleased enough to return for further interaction with the Brand. This is a very 21C thing. I like it for that alone, to be honest.

    AVENGERS 4 happens next year, of course, and I will be interested to see how they stick the landing. But, in terms of cultural power plays, this one is the pinnacle.” -Warren Ellis
    (Incase you dont want to click the link)

    I mean its valid right, like you said it is to mechanically designed to pleased general audiences and pay off every storybeats that make avid fans go “everything is connected”…

    • I mean, Ellis is right here. I’ve never described it as anything but an accomplishment. All of my criticisms of it are tempered by an awe at the sheer logistical mechanics of making a film like this. But I’m not convinced that this is the best version of a film like this that is possible, but the safest.

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