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Media Review: July 2018

Avengers: Infinity War
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Produced by Marvel Studios
April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War and the Holy Church of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A couple of years ago, Darren Franich wrote an insightful set of analyses of all the Star Trek movies for Entertainment Weekly. In the first one (for Star Trek: The Motion Picture), he makes what I think is an important observation, that has reflected my own thinking about what movie franchises have turned into over the last decade, in the post-Harry Potter and MCU and new Star Wars era:

“Today, ‘The Motion Picture’ is a meaningless title. It runs along another outdated idea: That movies are fundamentally better than television. Almost four decades on, TV is more like movies, and movies are more like TV. And—roll with me, please—‘motion pictures’ stopped being A Thing You Watch and started being Your Life And How You Express Yourself.” (bit.ly/2LP27E2)

I’d go one further, and say that movie franchises have become akin to religious movements. New films in a franchise are the rituals we attend to reinforce our belief in and participation in Our Thing, and spoilers are akin to heresy. If the movies are Mass, then pop culture conventions are where we make our pilgrimages and acquire our holy relics. The blessed few make it all the way to San Diego Comic Con’s Hall H each summer, where they receive scripture from the burning bush itself. Disney is building theme parks based on our favorite franchises just as fast as it can, the world of the Harry Potter movies is an actual place you can go to—several, really—and King’s Cross Station has installed platform 9 3/4 for the photo ops. Fanfiction isn’t enough anymore; we need tangible expressions of our fandom, to show our allegiances, our faith. When was the last time you left the house and didn’t see someone wearing a Star Wars t-shirt?

It’s the ultimate escapism. It’s also filled with inspiration. A tremendous weight has been put on some of these films, Black Panther in particular, for its importance to representation and cultural identity. The Harry Potter books and films, along with a whole generation of dystopian YA lit, have been credited with inspiring the current wave of student protestors.

In light of their places in what appear to be actual movements, the prospect of reviewing a single one of these movies seems irrelevant. Of course, I’m saying that as a fully indoctrinated thrall of the Church of the MCU. I have heard complaints that Infinity War lacks emotional depth, that there are too many characters and the pace moves too quickly to get to know any of them or their tangle of relationships. To them I say: That’s what the previous eighteen movies were for, and you can’t expect the rest of us to slow down just because you didn’t do the homework. Normally I’d say a good film ought to stand on its own, so maybe this isn’t a good film. But in an age where movies are “Your Life and How You Express Yourself,” we judge them by how they make us feel, not by any objective standard. And Infinity War gave me exactly what I wanted. Except no, I didn’t really want to see half my beloved characters murdered with a snap of a cosmic finger. I did want a story that took risks and went someplace I didn’t expect.

See, I’m halfway through the review and I haven’t even described the movie I’m ostensibly reviewing because I just assume everyone knows already.

Avengers: Infinity War: Okay, so, there’s a bunch of B-list heroes from Marvel Comics that they’ve been making into improbably wonderful and wildly successful movies over the last ten years, and this is the movie where just about all of them come together to save the universe. That’s it, really. The rest is too complicated to go into because there’s stuff that pays off here that was planted way back in Iron Man, first of the franchise.

Oh, except one thing: The heroes fail. They do not save the universe. The bad guy, Thanos, successfully finds all the Infinity Stones to place in the magical Infinity Gauntlet, which he then uses to destroy half of all living beings in the universe. That actually happens. A dozen poofs of dust, and half our heroes are just gone. Even the ones that have their own movies scheduled over the next few years. Can I just say how impressed I am that Marvel went there? There’s a thrilling and horrifying moment when you suspect that Thanos is actually the main character of this film. He has a happy ending. After the film, a title card reads “Thanos Will Return.” Not the Avengers, but Thanos. Alrighty then.

It turns out that knowing that there are sequels—knowing the entire MCU release schedule by heart, in fact—very much changes the viewing of Avengers: Infinity War. Yes, half of all beings in the universe are dead and the scant surviving heroes are as crushed as they’ll ever be. But we’re only halfway through the story! And then there’s that teaser scene at the very end of the credits. You do know to stay all the way through the credits, don’t you? Well, if you don’t by now, I can’t help you.

I loved it. I loved that they didn’t pull the punch. I loved that they’re yanking our chain. Of course all those deaths of beloved characters are going to be reversed. Of course they are! We’re in the land of comic book superheroes, where death is never permanent. All this muttering that the hints that the deaths will be reversed lessen the impact is hogwash—the movie isn’t even pretending that those deaths are “real.” I’d argue we’re not supposed to feel anguish over them. Rather, our hearts should be breaking for all the characters who didn’t die. That’s where the movie wants our emotional investment: in Rocket’s anguish, Tony’s utter despair, in Captain America’s grim, “Oh God,” as the full weight of what has happened settles on him. In the previous five movies he’s featured in, we’ve never seen him admit defeat. And now? What next, indeed.

I’m feeling like a bit of a psychopath in that I’m not upset by what happened. The MCU is very good at putting guns on mantles and firing them off at just the right time. There are a whole lot of guns on the mantle right now (Dr. Strange’s cryptic statements and sleights of hand, child Gamora existing as Thanos’s conscience and perhaps still contained in the Soul Stone, the fact that several of the surviving heroes are going to be bent on revenge and have the means to accomplish it). The question isn’t whether all the random senseless deaths at the end of Infinity War will be reversed. The question is: What else is going to get undone, intentionally or otherwise? How far back will those reversals go? Will Gamora come back? Loki? All of Asgard? Where did all this start, anyway? The Battle of New York? When Red Skull retrieved the Tesseract? Is that how far back we have to go to stop this? Will whoever pulls that trigger try to remove Thanos from creation entirely? And what will that do? We’ve already got time travel and reality-bending powers on the table, so the only question is how far back they’re going to reset—and what’s going to be the cost of that reset.

That’s one of the two issues the film keeps coming back to: What’s the cost of all this power? The other is a statement spoken by Steve Rogers, Captain America: We don’t trade lives. They’re not going to offer up Vision as a sacrifice. Except that through the whole film, the heroes trade Infinity Stones and the fate of the universe for individual lives. Loki bargains for Thor, Gamora bargains for Nebula, Dr. Strange bargains for Tony Stark, Wakanda puts itself on the line for Vision, and on and on. (It’s worth noting that the characters who were directly traded for Infinity Stones—Stark, Nebula, and Thor—are all still standing at the end of the film. The ones who did the trading are not.) One can argue that this is why our heroes lose—they aren’t willing to hand over even a single life. Thanos is, explicitly—he kills Gamora, the only being he loves, to win the Soul Stone.

Well. We have the entire third act of the story left to go and I have a feeling this is all going to come back to bite Thanos. Because this has been a theme of the entire series all along: the conflict between those who believe in acceptable losses, and our heroes who know that every single life matters and every death is a tragedy. This started way back in The Avengers, when the Council decides to launch nukes at New York, because destroying a city is an acceptable loss for stopping an alien invasion, and Fury knows they’re wrong. In The Winter Soldier, when Hydra launches its crazy plan to kill millions in order to unite humanity under its banner. No wait, does it go earlier? Steve Rogers going to rescue Bucky and his unit rather than waiting for an official order? Infinity War makes this explicit: We don’t trade lives. You can’t count up a cost in lives, because every single life is beyond price. These films are making sure that in the midst of giving us all these heroic adventures, they clearly define heroes: A hero is someone who values individual life and works to protect it.

I recently went back and watched the first Iron Man movie—remember when we were all so sure no movie could make this second-string hero popular and there’s no way a whole series of Avengers movies could work? There’s a throwaway line at the end of that film, throwaway because it was delivered so straight by a brilliantly understated Agent Coulson: “This is not my first rodeo, Mr. Stark.”

This is not my first rodeo. We’ve done this before. S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes a McGuffin-generating machine, producing infinite guns on infinite mantles that we can pull out of a pocket universe when we need them, and the MCU just set it all up without us even noticing. The post-credit stinger with Agents Hill and Fury was mostly a gut punch, because yes, they’re dead, too. But before he goes, Fury pulls out that McGuffin, both entirely predictable and entirely thrilling, a pager sending a distress call to a mysterious logo: Captain Marvel. Release date March 6, 2019. I’m not upset by what happened in Infinity War because I know all the pieces are there to carry it through to a satisfying ending. This sort of thing either enrages you (this film enraged plenty of people), or it’s exactly what you want (Hi!).

Within just a couple of days of the movie’s release, someone set up a web page, basically a random thumbs-up/thumbs-down generator: didthanoskill.me. Click on it and get the answer: Did you survive Thanos’s hyper-genocidal finger snap, or are you one of the fifty percent who vanished in a puff of ash? See, we no longer escape into our fictions, we drag our escapism into the real world. Our Life and How We Express Ourselves. Gentle reader, I clicked the link and I was spared. My friends who all took the test were, alas, Slain by Thanos. They pointed out that this means it’s up to me (perhaps teaming up with Nebula) to retrieve the Infinity Gauntlet and use its awesome power to undo what has been done. See? We all have so much faith that this will happen.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, as well as the superhero novels Dreams of the Golden Age and After the Golden Age, the young adult novels Voices of Dragons and Steel, and the fantasy novel Discord’s Apple. Her recent books include Martians Abroad and Amaryllis and Other Stories, as well as her post-apocalyptic mysteries for John Joseph Adams Books, the Philip K. Dick Award-winning Bannerless, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. Her Hugo Award-nominated short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com, as well as in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.