Let’s talk about AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Hella spoilers follow, so you’ve been warned.
Just a quick bit of background, so you can get a barometer read on me and these superhero entertainments. They’re mostly fine entertainment. AVENGERS? It was fun, gave me what I was looking for. AVENGERS 2 was terrible and muddled, even accounting for production interference from the studio. It needed several rounds more of revision. Burned up a lot of goodwill. I’ve gone and seen most of the Marvel movies since then, and found them…largely okay. THOR 3 was a welcome break from that, embracing the crazy and silly and mannered.
So I went into INFINITY WAR with somewhat mixed expectations. I try to manage expectations ahead of movies these days, simply because that’s the only way I can enjoy them. I’ve managed to avoid everything but vague spoilers and really short TV spots. Yeah, I knew about the big twist ending, but not so directly that you could consider it spoiled. Oh, and a quick word on spoilers. There’s a continuum running from: “If the movie can be spoiled, it’s no good” to "NO SPOILERS EVER: ABSOLUTE UNIT." Neither extreme is ultimately correct, but there’s grains of truth in each. Ultimately, I think everyone should be able to go into things with a relatively clean slate of expectation or foreknowledge, should they choose.
Lots of folks don’t choose to these days. Lots of websites depend on this, deriving their content, endless content, from upcoming entertainments, bits teased out over literally years. Folks, that’s the Howling Pit, so far as I’m concerned, and you gotta stay away from that. If that’s the way you pass time while at work, then you do you. I’m done with this. I’d like to experience the movie. Just tell me when it comes out. I don’t care about all the metatext. I realize I’m quite nearly alone in this.
Now, back to INFINITY WAR. Short form. I liked it. Maybe even a lot. Found it entertaining, though certainly not the revelation that lots of folks are required to think it is. Hell, every new Marvel movie is required to be a revelation. That’s the only thing that justifies the amount of hype going into them, y’know? And they’re just not. They’re entertainment. This isn’t bad. Quite the contrary, in a world as repeatedly and un-subtly corrupt as ours, entertainment goes a long way. Insert here the easy metaphor of the American Depression and comic strips/radio/movies as a way to soothe a nation in anxious war with itself. Same basic idea. Mere entertainment is great.
And on that level of engagement, INFINITY WAR delivered. The characters all acted and interacted in ways that made sense and satisfied, even when they misstepped. Multiple times, heroes are presented with life and death dilemmas (dilemmae?) Often with differing outcomes (and often falsely presented, but let’s dig a little deeper here.)
Okay, some background for those of you who haven’t watched and are still reading.
Thanos is our cosmic villain (and according to some cretins, there’s debate on this — I’ll deal with that particular bit of cretinry later). He’s a pilgrim/demigod on a crusade to bring balance to the entirety of the cosmos by killing off half of its population. The universe is limited in resources, see? Only by dispassionately killing off 50% of those hungry mouths can we possibly survive in the long term. This is a perfectly fine comic book plan for a villain. Simple, direct. Can be reduced to a bumper sticker or a tweet: “50% so All can Live!” for instance. I don’t mind that this plan is artificially-induced or limited in its vision. That’s fine. Villains can be flawed simply because they refuse to see a bigger picture.
There it is. Thanos is going to kill off half of everything (seemingly only of the intelligent life forms, and really only humans, since that’s all we see getting disintegrated when his plan comes to fruition — spoiler alert.) The heroes, being the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and in fact nearly every superpowered character in Marvel’s stable, must act to prevent this from happening. There is no question about it. Nobody stopped to galaxy brain this, even in jest “Hey, maybe Thanos is right.” No. It’s an evil plan put forth by a twisted and blindered, broken man. Yup, for all of Thanos’ purple-gray hulked-out physique and battle armor, he’s just a man with a vision.
But none of the heroes in INFINITY WAR thought this 50% obliteration plan was a good idea. Now, the dilemma, as I referred to above, comes with the choice between a human life being taken in order to prevent Thanos from achieving his goals. It’s framed in four specific instances:
Iron Man and Dr. Strange state that they’d choose hiding the Infinity Stone (the macguffin in this particular movie, there being six of them) over saving the life of the other hero. Spoiler: Dr. Strange gives up the stone in order to save Iron Man’s life at the hands of Thanos.
Vision asking the Scarlet Witch to destroy the Infinity Stone in his head (presumably annihilating his android consciousness). Spoiler, she destroys the stone, and is the only one who can do it, choosing to kill the man who loves her in order to keep the stone out of Thanos’ hands.
Gamorra asking Star Lord to kill her before she can give up the location of one of the Infinity Stones to Thanos. There is no question that she will eventually break, that Thanos knows her well enough to get the answer (and in fact tortures his own adopted daughter Nebula to do so — Nebula also being an adopted sister to Gamorra, so this might even be a fifth instance of the Dilemma.) Spoiler: Star Lord pulls the trigger on Gamorra and would have killed her, were it not for Thanos’ intervention, turning the death beam into harmless soap bubbles. Thanos says to this “I like you,” to Star Lord, apparently admiring his courage. But since these are the words of a villain, they are worthless at best, ironic at most.
Lastly, Thanos finds himself caught in the Dilemma. He is presented with the fifth of the Infinity Stones, but to seize it, he is required to sacrifice something. There is, apparently, only one thing in the universe that Thanos values equally to his desire for the stones. And this is the life of Gamorra, his adopted daughter. Since he is the villain, he chooses to push her to her death in order to acquire the stone. It’s not a complicated transaction, and since he is a simple and broken man, the choice is clear. He kills his adopted daughter in the pursuit of power. Personally. Directly.
And keep in mind that this grand plan he is pursuing is the antiseptic, if not wrenching to the survivors, deaths of half of the beings in the Universe. This is the goal of his grand sacrifice. And he achieves it. He is granted cosmic power on a scale perhaps comparable only to your chosen conception of God. He can wrestle down chunks of planets from the heavens, pelting the mere mortals who dare assault him with flaming death. He can control the very stuff of reality. He has, in a word, won. All of the battles that follow his acquisition of the Gems are one-sided shadow play (and fun to watch.)
Everything boils down to Thanos, having beaten half of the Avengers on his home planet of Titan, beaming down to earth and stomping the other half on Earth in Wakanda. The battle here is cosmically uneven and laughable. And yet the heroes refuse to go out lying down. Every one of them fights, and every one of them gets beaten.
Even the Scarlet Witch, backed into a corner, chooses to destroy the soul gem that is inextricably tied to the life of the Vision, her lover, to prevent Thanos from getting the last soul gem. A wrenching sacrifice, yes. But also meaningless as Thanos holds the power to reverse time and simply rewinds back to a moment where the gem was intact, and pulls it from the Vision’s forehead. Total defeat.
The heroes have lost. The villain wins. And we get to watch half the human (and alien, to be fair) characters in the movie disintegrate. The curtain drops. Show’s over, folks. Go home.
There’s the shock.
Or is it? Thanos is certainly the character we spend the most time with as the film rolls. INFINITY WAR ends up being his hero’s journey in the acquisition of the Stones and by extension, shedding all of his worldly shackles, reaching for a kind of cosmic consicousness, or at least power. He achieves what he set out to do, regardless the cost to himself or to all the survivors. He is confident he is the protagonist of his own story and you can certainly argue that he’s the central character of INFINITY WAR. He’s the best-delineated, the one for whom the stakes are clearest. But if you’re calling him the hero of the film, you’re either a cretin or fishing for clicks. Or both. There’s people who willingly engage in such obvious bad faith argumentation simply for its own sake or to profit from it (whether to annoy or to sell ad buys.) Those people aren’t worth considering, as their desires are pretty clear.
To say that Thanos is the hero or that he is a virtuous soul, this is to engage in galaxy-brain thought, a false dichotomy often favored in thought experimenters whose ideas don’t survive outside the hothouse of their own heads. But I’ll play along for just this once.
“Is the murder of half the beings in the universe justified for peace and plenty for those remaining?”
And it’s a false argument. A comic book argument. And I mean that in the sense of “Okay, we need another villain motivator that seems to work on the surface but falls apart and that’s fine because it wasn’t meant to withstand close scrutiny by anyone but cretins.” Which is fine when you're fueling the machine that requires more stories on a monthly basis (even faster-burning back in the days of the Bronze Age, when these Thanos stories were shaped up and forged.)
On what timeline is this peace and plenty to play out? Forever? Until the heat death of the universe itself? Until the end of Thanos’ lifetime, admittedly finite?
Even if you accept the “forever” answer without evidence, lemme flip this for you.
“You’ve just handed cosmic power to a man who refuses to wield the cosmic power for the actual betterment of the Universe.” As offered by the text, Thanos controls time and space, reality itself. It is not impossible to suggest that he could simply tip the cosmic scales to “Everyone survives in plenty because poof, there is no scarcity for any element or thing ever.” Thanos can imagine half the universe dying for his thought experiment, but he can’t imagine anything other than that. He believes this to be the ultimate noble sacrifice, a weight that only he can bear. The truth is that he *desires* this, but he can’t even allow himself to understand that he desires it. Instead, it’s cosmic self-delusion. An obliterating narcissism.
A paucity of imagination. Thanos can only imagine a universe that mirrors his own broken-ness. He cannot move past it and into an existence which at least offers an opportunity for All, as flawed as our world is. He's tied up in it. But then he's a character and a villain, so this is understandable.
Granted, this is a paucity of imagination that the story demands. And is unfortunately practically baked-in to any of these cosmic-level stories (which I adore, by the way.) But I’m clear in understanding that they’re shadowplay. I enjoy the shadowplay when its done well, which INFINITY WAR does just fine. I don’t pretend it an absolute moral lesson, because its one that fails within its own (admittedly incomplete, since this is Movie 1 of 2) text. Perhaps I’ve underestimated the writers and they’ll explore these grounds in the second. I seriously doubt it.
Now I’ve probably spent too much time and energy on this. The people arguing for Thanos’ hero-hood are the same people who point out that the Empire just wants things to run on time and yadda yadda yadda. They believe this knee-jerk contrarianism presents an intellectual monument when in fact, it’s weaksauce galaxy brain thought that doesn’t even merit a half-assed meme.
Aside from me riffing off the story as suggested, INFINITY WAR entertains. But I’m a person who’s well-versed in the background of all these characters and has willingly watched most of the Marvel movie offerings. If you’re not in this camp, it’s going to be an uphill slog (and this is by design.) But don’t feel bad. Most everyone in America has seen enough to follow the story and to know that Thanos is, in fact, a bad dude who should be stopped. And even though the curtain drops on him silently reflecting on his moment of triumph, we know that this isn’t the ending.
So in terms of things that worked, I’d certainly throw the troupe of actors right to the top. They were there in their roles, not smirking, not winking. They were all in. Special recognition to Josh Brolin whose work I’ve seen and enjoyed before (minus THE GOONIES — THE GOONIES is a terrible film and only borderline entertaining). He’ll never get any recognition for this role ‘cept from fans. Playing the heavy in a big superhero film is not an award role. That’s not how these things work. But, dammit, Brolin made it work, which was critical because the entirety of the film revolves around him and his damnable quest, his psychotic conviction that he is the only one who can save everyone (except for the half of everyone he kills without a thought.)
I won’t give off a list of things I’d liked to have seen changed. That’s not such a good use of time. I’ll give one general thought in this vein, though. Thanos needed a complete costume redesign. His full battle armor is too complicated and fussy (this is a very common symptom of contemporary design, though, where the details overwhelm the whole, particularly in live-action CG and is a common bete-noir of mine.) So, given that, you’d probably think that I’d cheer once he stepped out of his armor early into the film.
Instead, Thanos should have meaningfully dropped pieces of his armor, or at least saved it until a moment that mattered, like when he had to face his own Dilemma of murdering a daughter versus the power he sought. That could have been an epic, shattering moment. It was still effective on screen, mind you, but to see the transformation, of him literally shedding everything that mattered to him in pursuit of his twisted goal? It could have been perfect.
Otherwise, a great time, far better than my (tempered) expectations. Plenty of spectacle, plenty of wit, plenty of popcorn entertainment.