Now having seen Avengers: Infinity War for a second time I feel like I can more or less pinpoint some things that work and some things that don’t.
For obvious reasons, I will have to include some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie do not read further.
YOU’VE BEEN WARNED – SPOILERS AHEAD
When I first learned about the run-time of the film (2 hrs – 40 mins) I was disappointed. While everyone was remarking about how this would be the longest Marvel movie thus far, I was thinking, “Is that enough time?” The short answer to the question is no. But, the answer to that question is dependent upon what you wanted from the film. I wanted a movie that would tell a complete tale. Now, we were told early on that this film and the next Avengers film would be linked, so it’s no real surprise that Infinity War is part one of a larger story.
THAT being said, if the plan all along was for this film to be part one, they dropped the ball in a couple places.
The ongoing complaint about MCU films has been the lack of a great villain. The first worthy antagonist was Loki in the Thor franchise and the first Avengers, and it wasn’t until Killmonger in Black Panther that we got another great one. The paramount strength of the MCU films has always been the heroes, and the casting of these heroes. And I’ve had the same argument every time I’ve read a complaint about the villain – the villain of every MCU film is the hero. Tony Stark is his own worst enemy in every film and there’s no villain that can compare to a superhero fighting their own inner demons. The antagonist’s main purpose, in a narrative sense, is to incite and complete the character arc of the protagonist.
The hero’s journey has always included winning an internal conflict in order to overcome the external one. And the previous films balance showing what the hero can do with what they can’t do. Thor is capable of winning nearly any battle with his magical hammer, but can he make the intelligent decision to put the hammer down when the fight calls for diplomacy? Black Panther has the resources and physical abilities to protect his country and prosper, but does he have the gumption to open these resources up to the world to protect people all over the world? These are the inner battles that occur within each character and they are the core element of what we love about these superheroes. Killmonger makes T’Challa realize he has failed as a hero and king. Each film tells a different story of inner struggle. Ant-Man has arguably the worst villain of any of the films, but aside from being a superficial physical threat, he has to be a catalyst for Scott Lang to prove he’s the man his daughter deserves as a father.
Which brings me to my first issue with Infinity War: it is comprised of pure external conflict. The film includes around two dozen superheroes and aside from Bruce Banner not being able to summon his inner Hulk, the internal conflicts are only alluded to. Doctor Strange and Tony Stark exchange remarks about each other’s egos, which has always been the obstacle for each character, but they don’t visualize this struggle in any contextual way. No hero has to make a choice that directly conflicts with their personalities or ideologies. Captain America puts his life on the line in the name of defending the universe. Black Panther fights to protect Wakanda. Thor wields a Titan-killing weapon to avenge the death of Loki at the hands of Thanos and to protect the universe. Spider-Man hangs on in the fight with Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Star-Lord, Drax, Mantis and Nebula because he wants to be part of the team and he’s a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Characters are defined by the choices they make. At no point in any fight are we shown a moment where a character does something we did’t think they could or would normally do. At least, on an internal level. The fanboy/girl mentality is happy with watching the heroes use their abilities and the physical manifestation of their powers, and, believe me, that stuff is wonderful and fun to watch. But, narratively, the film feels like a shiny empty space without the internal conflict.
Which brings me back to my disappointment with the length of the film. With the breadth and scope of a film this size it wasn’t going to be possible to include all of the ideological conflicts, but it’s sad they weren’t able to include any. If the story is going to be stretched out over the length of two movies and (presumably) 5 hours of screen time, then there needed to be an existential struggle of some sort. At the end of the film we’re left with several dead heroes and a feeling of failure but there is no choice to point to as the reason to continue the story. What poor character decision needs to be rectified in the next film?
Now, where the film fails the heroes, it actually succeeds for the villain. Thanos is a top-notch antagonist and lives up to the moniker of The Mad Titan. His nazi-esque ideologies (exemplified when he actually has to retrieve the Soul Stone from the Red Skull) and inner grief at having to murder his daughter, Gamora, in order to “mercifully” save half the universe by erasing the other half, make him a fully realized being. He is both monster and man, just, perhaps, not in equal parts.
I spent about 70% of my second viewing just marveling at the complexity of the emotions of this character. Thanos is burdened with will. The star of the film is Josh Brolin and to say the mo-cap work is extraordinary is nothing short of underselling the actuality. There is pain and turmoil in this character and he has to do things he would rather not. You can see it in his face when Captain America holds off his attack with his bare hands during the final battle in Wakanda. Thanos pauses to look at him with respect and wonder, and then has to realize that, in order to complete his goal, he has to put Cap down.
It is Thanos who makes decisions that define him and it’s no surprise that the best scene in the film takes place on his decimated home planet, Titan, when he is ambushed by Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax, Nebula and Mantis (typing that sentence kind of made me giddy – shut up!) Using their collective powers, they manage to restrain Thanos, and Mantis subdues him, and the truest display of emotion in the entire film ensues. In the midst of trying to erase trillions of beings from existence, Thanos displays sorrow, anguish, and pain. As Mantis is narrating the inner workings of Thanos’ emotions, Star-Lord reacts with disdain, as if this “creature” could exhibit the complexity of an actual morality. When Thanos breaks free of the spell we see the anger in him that is a result of Mantis bringing those emotions out of him. You could say Infinity War is a Thanos film where the heroes are there just to hang on for dear life as this force of nature wields his will.
The most important part of Thanos isn’t just that he is a fully realized character who has his own moral compass, it’s what he does to the heroes. And I’m not referring to his physical power, which is far and away greater than that of any hero in the MCU (except maybe Captain Marvel? We’ll see!) What we really experience in watching these super beings interact within this war is fear. In the opening scene there is a brief clash between Hulk and Thanos, which is the fight most people were likely looking forward to somewhere in the final sequence. Thanos takes what Hulk gives him and then casually puts him down. Over the course of the previous films we have learned the two mightiest Avengers are Hulk and Thor, without question. The introduction of the film tells us neither of them are a match for Thanos and, hence, for the rest of the film Hulk is frightened and refuses to come out of Bruce. These scenes where Hulk refuses to come out despite Bruce begging him to are mostly played out for laughs, but it exemplifies a force that the Avengers have never really experienced. Nowhere in any film have we realized the level of fear these characters have.
As the film ends and we are left with this feeling of failure and disbelief that Thanos has completed his mission, it is the fear that persists. Tony gave everything he had and then watched Spider-Man be erased from existence in his arms. Cap watches Bucky turn to ash and knows what real fear is, as does Rocket when Groot is erased in front of his eyes. I have a feeling it will be this fear that fuels the team into the next film as they try to undo the catastrophe Thanos has caused.
When I left the theater after the first viewing I felt like most of the audience felt: disbelief and dismayed by the loss of so many characters and the defeat of our greatest heroes. But with a second watch I was able to complete some gaps that existed after the first watch. The film is nothing like we have ever seen in cinema before. It truly exists as a cog in a gigantic machine; an event film in a serialized medium. You cannot see this film without having seen every single one of the previous films, and as a result of the chaos caused in this story, the following films are must-see. The next movie is Ant-Man and The Wasp, followed by Captain Marvel, which we know from the end credits stinger will be of the utmost importance. The events of the previous films fueled the story of Infinity War, and the events of the next two films will tell a story that leads us to the next, untitled, Avengers film.
For now we’ll have to say Infinity War is a tremendous feat with some stunning events and an enormous narrative scope, but it’s incomplete. I’m not sure casual movie fans will appreciate this notion, but judgement has to be reserved for the completion of the story. What they created in Infinity War broke several boundaries we never knew Marvel would break, and the theories about how the story will be resolved will persist for the next year when Avengers 4 hits the theaters. Keeping the masses on the proverbial hook is a feat in and of itself, I just hope they have the balls to finish the story the right way.