At the end of my screening of Avengers: Infinity War, as the credit “Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo” flashed across the screen, the first thing audible was a louder-than-probably-intended voice saying, “What?!” followed by a few nervous giggles.
To some degree, the movie had worked its magic. We were disoriented and discombobulated, and as I exited the theater, there were more than a few people excitedly dissecting all the angles on that ending (which I am valiantly trying not to spoil, though I’m about to).
But as I talked over the ending with friends, the less it sat well with me. I certainly admired the gutsiness of it, the big swing it took, but I also struggled to feel as emotionally invested in it as I was supposed to. For lack of a better word, none of it felt real.
That might feel like a loaded word to use in a piece about a Marvel movie because of course the action of the movie isn’t real. But in movies that feature big, big sacrifices or big, big losses, it doesn’t matter the realism of the setting or characters, so long as the emotions ring true. The ending of The Empire Strikes Back is frequently cited in this regard, but I could just as easily include several story beats in everything from Mad Max: Fury Road to The Last Jedi to Marvel’s own Black Panther as creating fantastical situations that nevertheless were grounded in real human feeling.
So why wasn’t the same true for Infinity War? The answer has almost nothing to do with Infinity War. Indeed, the answer, I think, stems from the way Marvel handles serialization, which is to say it barely handles it at all. And here come the spoilers.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, change is fleeting, and emotional depth is too
One of the earliest emotional beats in Infinity War involves Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts trying to persuade Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr.) to take off the mantle of Iron Man and join her in wedded bliss. Maybe they could even have a kid or two, something he’s apparently been (literally) dreaming about. Then, almost immediately, Tony is swept off into the struggle to beat Thanos.
So far as it goes, this sort of emotional beat is serviceable enough. Sure, it’s basically the “just one last job” moment from literally dozens of buddy cop movies, and it’s presaging either Tony’s ultimate death (in the as-yet-untitled Avengers 4, arriving in 2019) or his “retirement” to some sort of happy family life, perhaps handing off the Iron Man moniker to someone else. (I think the latter is more likely, just so Marvel can call Tony out of retirement should its movies ever start to flag at the box office.)
The problem with getting invested in all of this is that, well, Marvel has done this before. Iron Man 3 concludes with Tony stepping back from superheroing in order to enhance other aspects of his life, and when he next appears in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he’s pretty much just back at it again, with little to no explanation.
His character arc from there veers wildly all over the place, trying to simultaneously service his increasing sadness over all the destruction he and his creations have wrought (a big part of his character in Captain America: Civil War) and his desires for something more like a family life (which is why he’s such a mentor to Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming).
These things don’t have to work at cross-purposes. There’s a way to play with this tension within Tony, this divide between the man who wants to right the wrongs he’s been tangentially responsible for but also wants to lead a new life mostly free of superhero excitement, with his beloved partner. But instead of teasing out these motivations, the Marvel movies mostly state that these motivations exist, then leave viewers to fill in the gaps themselves.
Granted, these movies are based on superhero comics, which do this sort of character development a lot, with characters baldly stating what they’re thinking or feeling because of the comparative struggle of comics to delve into their characters’ heads, lacking consistent devices for inner monologues (as a more traditional novel would have) or the benefit of an actor’s performance (as a movie or TV show would have).
These character beats almost always work in the moment of individual films, as they mostly do in Infinity War. It’s when you step back and take a look across the studio’s many movies that they start to feel a little more hollow, a little more like an adolescent understanding of complex emotions that a teen would just barely be starting to grasp (which may be one reason the character of Peter Parker has been handled genuinely well across several different movies).
But this also means that when major, life-changing events happen in the world of the Marvel movies — like the ending of Infinity War, in which half of all sentient beings in the universe are erased from existence — they’re rarely given the weight they should have, beyond some of the characters expressing, “I am feeling bad about this.” Cities are destroyed, relationships are ruptured, and the world ends within the Marvel Universe, but the most Infinity War engages with its characters’ emotions is showing us Tony wrestling with the decision to give his former friend Steve Rogers a phone call when he finds out Thanos is coming.
The conclusion of Infinity War should be gutting. Instead, it mostly leaves us wondering how Marvel will get out of this one.
The easiest complaint to make against the ending of Infinity War is that it exists solely for Marvel Studios to reverse it. Surely they’re not going to leave the status quo with characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther not even existing? Indeed, the post-credits scene, in which Nick Fury sends a desperate message to Captain Marvel, setting up her inclusion in the Marvel Universe, exists almost solely to assure viewers that this story will be reversed.
But I would argue this is not a bad thing! A serialized story that can’t return to some sort of status quo is typically a story with no center, one that spins off its axis very quickly. Humans crave some sort of order amid the chaos, and we do in our stories too. Empire Strikes Back ended with the Empire winning, Han Solo being taken by Jabba the Hutt, and Luke Skywalker facing his darkest moment, and the next film more or less reversed all of that over the course of its running time. Most serialized television involves setting up big, epic changes that are then almost immediately reversed.
But for these sorts of big changes to be effective, they have to somehow inform us about the characters’ emotional journeys. Luke’s journey toward becoming a Jedi wouldn’t be complete without the events of Empire, just as Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame was marked for the rest of the series by his short time among the Borg Collective (to name one of the most famous TV cliffhangers of the past 30 years). When characters change because of their experiences, even if they revert to some sort of status quo, we learn more about them. This is a lesson television has deeply internalized in the past several decades, which has led to much of its artistic boom.
But most of the experience we have with the Marvel Universe — at least in the macro sense — is that these story events will cause superficial shake-ups to the status quo that don’t necessarily result in major changes to how the company does business. On the micro level, this is just fine. Perhaps no studio is better at managing tone than Marvel, and watching any one of its movies is a master class in guiding the audience through the intended series of emotional responses.
But Infinity War tosses a whole bunch of balls into the air — even if you set aside the cliffhanger ending entirely — and the handful of balls from prior movies that it does deign to catch (like most everything involving Tony’s arc), it handles almost perfunctorily.
There are emotional moments in the movie that work. The connection between Thanos and Gamora — one that results in her death — comes a little out of nowhere. (One solitary flashback has to work incredibly hard to suggest Thanos felt something like genuine love for her.) But actors Josh Brolin and Zoe Saldana ultimately nail the big emotions, leaving you feeling as if, yes, Thanos is sacrificing something dear to him to get something he wants even more. Similarly, while it didn’t work all that well for me, Tony comforting Peter as he dissolved into nothingness provoked sniffles in quite a few folks around me.
In comparison, Star-Lord’s freakout when he realizes that Gamora is dead, as his compatriots are but moments away from stripping Thanos of his powerful Infinity Gauntlet, feels rooted in a very cause-and-effect understanding of human relationships and emotions: Thanos killed Star-Lord’s girlfriend, and therefore, Star-Lord must kill Thanos, disrupting a plan that Star-Lord came up with, which seems to be working pretty well. And his somewhat inexplicable actions in that moment are a culmination of a romantic arc that has actually built surprisingly well across a couple of movies!
All of these emotional moments that only half land contribute to the feeling that Infinity War’s cliffhanger can’t possibly hope to live up to the massive emotional weight of what happens.
What’s more, the choice to largely wipe from existence characters who are more or less vital to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a going concern (especially Star-Lord, Spider-Man, and freakin’ Black Panther) so dramatically inflates the stakes that it becomes all but certain the next movie will reverse most of these deaths.
Had the film wiped out the original team of Avengers, leaving the next movie to focus on this new batch of heroes battling to save the old ones and realizing it was their turn to take up the mantle of Avengers, the film might have had something. As it is, everything feels like a bait and switch.
Then again, maybe living up to the gravity of this situation was impossible. Perhaps the best thing we can say about Infinity War is that it hangs together at all. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay works largely because it eschews more traditional emotional arcs in favor of large-scale superhero crossover storytelling, trusting the universe-ending stakes to carry the day. Perhaps that’s why the one character who seems to get something close to a full arc — in that he has clearly defined goals that he carries out by taking decisive actions even at moments when his plans are in jeopardy — is Thanos himself.
I still feel a real sense that the film is writing a bunch of checks its sequel can never cash. It is in the nature of big cliffhangers to be trapped in a state of irresolution, to be re-judged after their resolutions arrive. But what happens in Infinity War should cause massive trauma in the few characters who survive, and I’m simply not convinced Marvel Studios knows how to paint with that particular brush. Great, high-stakes genre storytelling involves pain and guts and darkness. It gets its hooks into you and makes you feel all hope is lost — not that all hope is temporarily misplaced but we’ll be sure to find it by next May.
Avengers: Infinity War is playing in theaters.