*** Spoilers Ahead ***
As I left the screening, there was a girl being carried away by her daddy. She was seven or eight years old and she hugged his neck with a dazed look. I’m sure she’d come to the theater to see Black Panther and Spiderman, but now she perhaps feared that her daddy might disintegrate too. She had just been exposed to one of the most shocking film endings since “Empire Strikes Back.” Her stunned, empty look said it all. Part of me felt like her. What did I just watch?
A calm, cold-blooded Thanos had gotten his way, and disintegrated half of the universe, and then rode off into the sunset. It was a daring ending, an unsatisfying one, and one which serves as an inkblot test for its audience. How do you react to trauma? Your response to Infinity War’s ending will reveal that aspect of your personality for you.
To my surprise, I felt a lot like that little girl. Dazed.
I then went back to what I knew about the authors of the piece. They wrote all the Narnia adaptations. Thanos (Greek for “death”) is unstoppable, or at least Dr. Strange said there was only one way to beat him, then later as he disintegrates, he says, “This was the only way.” Somehow, and I haven’t quite figured out how, the only way to beat Thanos is to let him win, but in his victory sow the seeds of his ultimate destruction.
As I thought about the movie, it struck me that the Comic Book movie is this generation’s western. It’s a loose genre and you can do almost anything you want with it, but ultimately it serves as a vehicle for your belief system.
In the old west, the boundaries and conventions were so undefined that a storyteller could create a world to enact his or her philosophy using characters. Morality and bigness of thought are allowed in westerns, even though they usually settle for clichés and stereotypes.
The same is true about the comic book genre. Most comic book movies settle for the usual clichés and stereotypes (see Zack Snyder), but the genre currently allows for an exploration of morality and bigness of thought on a broad popular level that no other genre can maintain.
And the Marvel guys have here possibly reworked the gospel concept of Christ’s defeat of death itself, by letting death do its worst.
And honestly I’m stunned anew by the audacity of the authors to attempt such a bold retelling, and by how violent and counterintuitive the gospel narratives really are. “Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν,θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας” or “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”
The superhero movie has evolved (mutated?) from its pulp origins into a popular American art form. What this says about American society and psychology, others can expound on, but it clearly has happened, and as the box office receipts for Avengers: Infinity War has shown, it has happened in a big way.
The question that arises in my mind is: what kind of form is this? It would seem to be one of those art forms that becomes rooted in a particular time and place, like late 19th-century German opera, medieval romances, or imperial Roman circuses — all of which contribute their part to the modern American superhero movie. So why hasn’t the Der Ring des Nibelungen been a nationwide opera box office smash? Why don’t kids want Siegfried masks for Halloween? The impulse toward these forms seems fundamental, but their manifestations through time are specific to the time and place.
It seems to me that the American superhero movie, especially the kind of wide-ranging multicharacter quasi-Epic of Infinity Wars is closer to a late medieval romance than any other form. Orlando Furioso, a 30,000+ line poem from the early 16th century features a league of knights, wizards, kings, exotic warriors, and monsters in a quest filled with sprawling battles that cover the whole world and even the moon. Magic, prophecy, fate, armies in open combat: the similarities to Infinity War are obvious. The sequential action logic of Orlando Furioso defies attempts to criticize it. It exists because readers/listeners find intricate plots and exotic characters entertaining. You can try to drag something deeper out of it if you want, but you’re going to have to wrest that specter from the moon dragons. Avengers: Infinity War is basically the same thing except five hundred years later and louder.
That said, there are better and worse ways to go about a sprawling action epic that exists only for entertainment, and Infinity War slips a few times.
First of all, I have to give those who put together the film some credit. The film is quite long, but it doesn’t feel that drawn out. There is a subtle skill in passing two hours and forty minutes without a lot of drag. The pacing is slick.
Second, the repartee is better than it needs to be, mostly because the Guardians of the Galaxy are brought into the mix, and not taking oneself seriously is a welcome relief from the usual heavy bollocks in these epics about the fate of the universe hanging by a thread. The contrast between the heavy and the light can serve to make the dramatic even more dramatic… something playwrights figured out a long time ago, but which is relatively new to these kinds of pictures.
The technical components of the film are basically flawless. It’s put together seamlessly, appropriate for a mega-million flagship franchise film. The entertainment is top notch. That’s not the problem. To my mind, the largest problem with Infinity War is its “commercialism” for lack of a better term. An action-driven neo-medieval Romance is going to be fundamentally plot-driven and spectacle-driven rather than character-driven, but the bright line separating the great epic from the not-so-great epic is a critical internal logic, and I get the sense that the real logic in the Avengers movies is not internal, but external. Sequel-logic. There are the infinity stones that control basic qualities of the universe (time, space, soul, mind, reality, power), but I get the feeling that the Hollywood money stone could unify or destroy them at the wispiest whim. The logic of the movie is really not that much different from a 1940’s Flash Gordon B-serial and to me, this sucks the drama out of the surprise ending.
The other big problem with Infinity War is that even though these kinds of epics are not meant to be character-driven pieces, you have to make some small attempt at developing characters if you want the audience to sit through nearly three hours and not be bored to tears. Not just establishing static characters and then having them do their thing with minor variations… that’s relatively straightforward. It’s the more interesting direction of taking the characters into the next dimension. Do demigods alter their static established characters due to events? That’s a genuine question. Greek gods don’t. That’s what mortals do. And these superheroes are definitely not mortals despite a requisite Achilles heel for each. The characters hover uneasily between godlike and mortal, but this just ends up being a quirk of the form rather than shedding light on their dual nature.
The nature of the bad guy is also critical in an ensemble piece of the form smaller-good-guys-fight-the-bigger-bad-guy-and-save-the-town/world/universe. And Thanos is just not that interesting to me. The whole “balance to the universe” angle and “cause suffering to ease suffering” rationale seems like an attempt by the writers at something deeper, but what? It seems really weak to me. That’s not how galactic murderers work. He’s a mildly regretful half-Satan and this just seems kind of silly after three hours of neck crunching, planet-nuking, and slicing reality into bits. I suppose it’s better than just a mindless force of evil, but maybe not. Maybe inscrutable is more terrifying.
So was it worth a watch? Sure. It was a mostly entertaining two hours and forty minutes if you’re into American Cosmic Neo-Romances. Did I learn anything? No. Would I see it again? Why?