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How the ending of Avengers: Infinity War finds power in cheap spectacle

It may not hold up to scrutiny, but it absolutely works in the moment.

The characters in “Avengers: Infinity War” line up in a grassy field to face their opponents. Marvel Studios

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War seems to leave viewers somewhere on a spectrum of baffled grief, confusion, outrage, and disgust.

In the final moments of Infinity War, there are gasps and a few scattered sobs. As the credits start to play, there is shocked laughter, scattered applause, yells of, “Fuck you, Thanos!”

But in the moments after the movie ends, the doubt starts to seep in. The shocking thing we just saw can’t possibly last. We know it will be undone almost immediately. To some viewers, the ending seems cheap, or sadistic.

And yet in the moment of viewing, the ending of Infinity War works. Before you have time to think, before you realize how impossible it is that any of what you just saw will stick, before phrases like “but the franchise” and “that’s contractually impossible” enter your mind — there’s a moment of emotional impact.

Why is that?

The following article discusses the end of Infinity War in detail. Do not read it if you do not want to know the ending.

The end of Infinity War is absolutely impermanent and cheap. It still works.

Throughout Infinity War, the Avengers and friends are fighting against Thanos, who wants to destroy half the life in the universe for what are frankly economically unsound reasons. To do so, he needs to collect the six Infinity Stones, and the Avengers spend most of the movie fighting to keep the Stones away from him and/or collect weapons they can use to defeat him.

Each move the Avengers make requires increasingly deeper sacrifice on their part, and the steadily rising stakes train the audience to be ever more certain that the Avengers will be ultimately victorious. The good guys have to beat Thanos, because otherwise what was the point of Loki’s death/Gamora’s death/Vision’s death/the destruction of Wakanda? Besides, this is a Marvel movie, and in Marvel movies the good guys always win at the end.

But in the end, the Avengers don’t beat Thanos. Thanos assembles all six Infinity Stones, survives Thor’s new magic hammer, and snaps his fingers to wipe out half the life in the universe. And one by one, half the Avengers wink out of existence: Bucky, and Black Panther, and Scarlet Witch, and Spider-Man, and character after character who just moments ago seemed certain to live all dissolve into dust.

Realistically, this ending is not a fundamental destabilization of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers are going to win in the end, because that’s the kind of story Marvel tells — it’s just the end isn’t the end of this movie. It’s the end of the next Avengers movie, which is still untitled but scheduled for a May 2019 release. And most of those characters aren’t going to stay dead, because they are at the center of multiple billion-dollar franchises. Black Panther is Marvel’s hottest new star, and there’s no way he dies after just one solo outing; ditto Spider-Man. Every viewer in the theater knows that without having to be told so.

Moreover, it’s unlikely that their momentary deaths will have any lasting emotional impact on this universe, because Marvel has consistently struggled to develop character arcs across multiple movies. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote:

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. … 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.

But despite all the reasons it really should not work, the film’s final sequence stayed with me long after the fuzzy knowledge of what exactly each Infinity Stone does and the confusion over why Tessa Thompson wasn’t in this movie had faded away. (There is no good reason for Tessa Thompson not to be there.) The image of all those iconic, beloved characters dissolving into nothingness, the sparseness of the soundtrack behind them: It was an unforgettably arresting moment, and by and large, audiences have indeed been arrested by it.

Infinity War’s final sequence lands, but only as pure image, without trying to delve too deeply into the minds of the characters left behind, and only in the present tense, without moving forward to think about how little it will mean in the long run of the MCU. It’s death as spectacle, and as such, it is exactly what Marvel is built to do.

Superhero movies love spectacle, and that’s where Infinity War’s ending lives

Superhero movies as a genre are built around deadly spectacles: the skyscraper collapsing in flames, the car crash, the child crying in the street as people die around her. They’re what gives the superhero’s work stakes, and they are usually stunning to look at. They’re also abstract: Superhero movies are supposed to be fun, so we register the death as an image — shiny, dynamic, and explosive — without recognizing the dying figures as individual people.

There are limits to how spectacular and abstract these deaths can be, particularly if the heroes seem callous about them. When Superman accepted enormous amounts of collateral damage without blinking in 2013’s Man of Steel, the ensuing outcry was so loud that it prompted both 2015’s Age of Ultron and 2016’s Batman v Superman to include some exposition about how all the buildings destroyed in these movies just happened to be empty of people. That way, audiences could have the spectacle of the violence without the threat of the death.

But by and large, if the death is the fault of the villain rather than the hero, and if it is big and beautiful and epic, and if we don’t particularly know or care about the people who are dying, we accept the death spectacle as a standard part of the superhero movie. It’s part of what makes superhero movies fun to watch; it gives them their emotional punch.

The deaths in Infinity War are also purely spectacle. They take place in a world that will never allow its audience to feel the full effect of the trauma that should logically ensue from a massacre like this — you’ll have to turn to fanfiction for that — but they are this movie’s equivalent of the flaming car crash or the smoke billowing from the skyscraper. They are the deaths that lend stakes to the Avengers’ fight with Thanos, and their power lies in the pure image of watching these characters dissolve into dust.

But what differentiates the spectacular deaths of Infinity War from the standard deadly spectacle of superhero movies is that they are not abstract. They are intimate. They are the deaths of characters we know and love. They are the structural equivalent of the death of Passing Businessman No. 3, existing purely as imagery to up the stakes and give the franchise some emotional weight, certain not to carry any consequences whatsoever with them — but Passing Businessman No. 3 has been replaced by Spider-Man and Black Panther and Captain America’s boyfriend.

That’s why the deaths work in the moment, as you sit in the theater: They are the pure spectacle that we look for in comic book movies, made briefly, shockingly intimate.

In a way, it’s not surprising that this is the approach Marvel is taking to “the most ambitious crossover event in history.” What made Marvel’s films stand out among their superhero movie brethren was the decision to preserve the epic grandeur and scope of comic books, but to people them with figures who felt human even when they were gods, rather than figures who felt godlike even when they were human. That distinction has blurred over time, as the modern superhero movie has continued to evolve, but it’s built into the Marvel Studios DNA, and it came out again with this movie. The end of Infinity War is the Marvel ethos in miniature.