I wasn’t planning on writing about Avengers: Infinity War for a while. My post on Black Panther has only begun to form in my mind – there’s so much to explore; I wasn’t certain what I’d say. However, there’s not as much in Avengers: Infinity War (or rather, there’s a lot of stuff in Avengers: Infinity War but not as much depth) as there is in Black Panther. For whatever reason, an idea began to form after my first viewing. Now, two showings in, I’m (surprisingly) ready to talk about it. HOWEVER – AND THIS IS IMPORTANT – THIS PIECE WILL HAVE ALL SORTS OF SPOILERS SO PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS UNTIL YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM YOURSELF. TRUST ME, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR DESERVES IT. OKAY? OKAY. THANK YOU. I HATE spoilers but I didn’t want to write a vague, superficial piece. I think the film deserves more than that too. So, when the idea came, I decided to run with it. With that being said, let’s begin.
Back in December, when the first full trailer dropped for Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War, I was worried it looked too crowded. I wrote, “I just can’t imagine how ANY film could do justice to at least twenty-five characters in two to three hours. I don’t want a movie that’s just a bunch of fight scenes with ever-increasing destruction. I want to see these characters I love continue to grow, in rich and intimate ways.” Despite what I wanted, my fears were realized.
As David and I walked out of the theatre from our 7:00pm show Thursday night I was overwhelmed…but not in a good way. When people asked what I thought of the film I’ve replied, “It was good. I think.” It is A LOT to process. For a nearly three hour movie there’s not a second of downtime. The action starts and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. I needed time to try and sort it all. It certainly wasn’t an entry point to the MCU (not that it ever pretended it would be). If you don’t know the characters going in, they do nothing to establish them.
This being said, writers/directors Anthony and Joe Russo deliver exactly what they promised/was advertised. This was a MASSIVE comic book crossover event in the vein of Jim Starlin and George Pérez’s original The Infinity Gauntlet series. And, for what it was, they did an exceptionally good job with it. It was fun. It was FAST. It was overwhelmingly packed with people, planets, and battles, with scenes changing faster than I could catch my breath. It was just like those big comic crossovers…and it had as little narrative weight as those stories normally do.
Again, back in December, I wrote, “[we] seem to want a comic book movie just like these big massive crossover comic books however, I don’t think anyone really does. The overwhelming majority of the characters in these stories are only filler for big splash page crowd scenes or fight scenes. There is no development whatsoever for most of the characters in the story. They are completely superfluous to the narrative…I’d argue a movie like this, over-crowded with characters we’ve come to love but with no potential for emotional development or a real narrative arc, would feel like a cheat.” And I was right. It did. At least it did to me.
If you don’t know (and if you don’t I told you not to read on! remember? spoilers!!!), Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of ten years of interconnected storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It brings together Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, Loki, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Wong, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, War Machine, Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Mantis, Rocket, (teenage) Groot, Nebula, Black Panther, Shuri, Okoye and the rest of the Dora Milaje to battle the Mad Titan Thanos and his Black Order – Proxima Midnight, Lord Voldemort Ebony Maw, Corvus, and the Black Dwarf – as they try to assemble the six Infinity Stones. The Stones give their wielder “control over six essential parts of creation,” namely Reality, Power, Space, the Mind, the Soul, and Time. Thanos wants to assemble them all so he can half the population of the galaxy with a snap of his fingers, allowing more resources and a more benevolent and prosperous life for those who remain. It’s an interesting take on the Mad Titan, an “honorable” intention behind his genocidal drive, and the battles are as epic as anything the MCU has ever delivered. However…as far as I was concerned, there was no growth, organic or forced, with any of the characters in this film save Tony and Gamora.
And, of the twenty-three heroes assembled, the only ones who weren’t superfluous were Tony Stark, Gamora, Doctor Strange, Thor, and Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch). Every other character could have been replaced by any other random superhero in their scenes with very little effect on the narrative. This bothers me. The hallmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and (to my mind) one of the biggest things setting it apart from the muddling-yet-expanding DCEU is the richness of their characters. It’s the interplay between them – both the humorous/bantery as well as the emotionally heavy and psychologically complex – that made us all fall in love with this world. In Avengers: Infinity War (as in all major comic book crossover events) there’s just no time for this. There was a lot of punching, a lot of explosions, a lot of epic battle scenes but of the TWENTY-THREE characters on the screen, FIVE were important. This doesn’t sit well with me.
It was also painfully uncomfortable to see just how white and male the MCU is. I mean, we all know it. But to see all their heroes together in one film? Marvel should be embarrassed at how few women are in this film and how few women they’ve introduced in TEN YEARS! Apparently, save Wakanda, there are only five women in the entire cosmos capable of saving the world and, save Wakanda, only three men who aren’t white who are capable of saving the world.
My second viewing (Saturday at noon (I willingly skipped a Friday night show)) helped me. The action wasn’t as overpowering the second time. The pace of the film was still unrelenting but I was able to see and appreciate a few subtilties I missed the first time around. I’m happy they’re there…even if the moments were few and far between.
Still, the subtilties weren’t enough to bring it up to what I’m used to seeing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was too much punching and not enough narrative and character development. But I want to be clear – I don’t really fault the Russo brothers for this (although maybe I should). I fault the format. They just took the comic crossover template and faithfully made it into a movie. A story framework that fits a comic book aimed at kids (where dozens and dozens of superheroes show up pretty much just to punch the mega-villain they face) doesn’t appeal to me in the movies I see as an adult. David agreed. We both liked the film…but we both felt a little short changed.
We wanted more.
Where I do fault the Russos is with some glaring plot problems. Now, I don’t know if these are things that bothered everyone. I’m not one for reading reviews. And I grant they may be a result of my tendency to overthink things and/or the time I’ve spent as a student and teacher of theology thinking about the transcendent. But much of the overall thrust of the narrative didn’t work. This is a MAJOR problem with giving your villain the power contained in the Infinity Stones. You have to manage that power very carefully and with great intention.
The Infinity Stones, when together, give their wielder the power of God. I’m not talking little “g” god here. I’m saying – with ultimate mastery of Reality, Power, the Soul, the Mind, Time, and Space – you have the literal transcendental power of God. All of creation bows and bends to your whims. That is A LOT to handle and impossible for any band of superheroes to believably defeat.
Jim Starlin brilliantly understood and worked around this when he introduced the Infinity Gems in 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet miniseries. On the second page of the first issue Mephisto remarks that Thanos’ mind can’t fully comprehend the infinite power he now wields – his finite, mortal mind can’t truly understand transcendence. So, while Thanos has the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, he can’t use the full scope of its transcendent power – at least not at first. His mind can’t comprehend it, much less master and control it.
Gerry Duggan, who’s writing this summer’s Infinity Countdown miniseries, gets this too. He’s brought the Infinity Gems, now called Infinity Stones (of course), back into the reality of the Marvel Universe. However it’s clear from how the Stones are described their power is lessened (for example the Mind Stone grants you telepathy and intelligence as opposed to ultimate control over all minds AND it only grants you telepathy and intelligence with your mastery of the Soul Stone). While this new Infinity Gauntlet, once it’s inevitably assembled, will grant its wearer immense power, they won’t have transcendent control of all creation.
OKAY IF YOU’VE DISREGARDED MY WARNING AND READ ON, AFTER THIS PICTURE OF THE INFINITY STONES I GET INTO SERIOUS PLOT POINTS AS WELL AS SOME PLOT HOLES. IF THIS IS THE SORT OF THING YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW FOR REAL YOU NEED TO STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW. OKAY? OKAY.
But neither of these plot points are clear in Avengers: Infinity War. As Wong describes the Infinity Stones to Tony and Bruce, he makes it clear they give those who hold them “complete control over six essential parts of creation.” While we can presume it takes Thanos time to master his newfound power, there is nothing in the narrative to make us believe this to be so. It’d just be us trying to mentally retcon an oversight. Starlin also has the wisdom to begin his tale with Thanos already having the complete Infinity Gauntlet. The Russos start with Thanos having the Power Stone and laying waste to Thor’s ship full of Asgardian refugees to gain control of the Space Stone in the film’s opening scene. From there the battle for mastery of the Time, Mind, Reality, and Soul Stones begins.
Here’s the problem though. Doctor Strange has the Time Stone. We’ve seen him use it – quite effectively – to freeze and replay time many, many times in Doctor Strange. So, the moment the Black Order arrives in New York, all he has to do is freeze them all in place and Tony can easily use his sweet nanotech Iron Man armor to blow them all to pieces. There’s NO WAY Ebony Maw and the Black Dwarf are too powerful to be controlled by the Time Stone. First, we’ve seen Strange use it to kick Dormammu’s ass – a more powerful entity then Thanos’ minions. Second, as the film itself states, the Time Stone gives Doctor Strange COMPLETE mastery over time. The same problem exists with Vision having the Mind Stone, literally wired into his being. We’re supposed to believe he (or Wanda for that matter) couldn’t use it take control of Proxima Midnight and Corvus when they come for his Stone in Scotland? It gives its bearer COMPLETE control over the minds of others. For that matter, when Proxima Midnight, Corvus, and the Black Dwarf lead Thanos’ army in the assault on Wakanda, all it takes is the Mind Stone to literally take control of every single bad guy on the field and make them stop, leave, or whatever. Yet…no one does this??
This problem carries over in a big way to Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Star Lord, Drax, and Mantis’s battle with Thanos on Titan too. Um, why didn’t they easily strip him of the Gauntlet? Why didn’t Doctor Strange just simply freeze Thanos in time OF WHICH HE HAS COMPLETE MASTERY OVER and take the Gauntlet? Or why didn’t he, when they all had the Mad Titan pinned and Tony and Spidey were struggling to get the Gauntlet off, use one of his sling ring portals to chop off Thanos’ hand and teleport the Gauntlet faaaaaar away, to a place they could all immediately follow it too, via another portal without Thanos? We saw Wong easily chop off the Black Dwarf’s hand during their battle in Washington Square Park. I think if Wong could do it in a fight accidentally, the Sorcerer Supreme could do it intentionally when the fate of all creation hangs in the balance.
AND why is there even a battle for the final three Stones?!? Once Thanos has control of the Reality Stone and the Space Stone, he can simply bend reality and space to his whim and pluck the Stones from their holders without a bunch of huge battles. Instead he uses his COMPLETE CONTROL OF REALITY to make everything into bubbles.
So, there was A LOT that wasn’t thought through. I get it. It’s hard! When I was a little ten-year-old kid playing with my superhero toys or my LEGOs I could never use the Infinity Gauntlet as a plot device – no matter how much I wanted to – because once I got into the story I couldn’t figure out a way to believable use them where the heroes stood a chance when the villain had that much power. Apparently neither could the Russos because they don’t have anyone – hero or villain – use the full power of the Infinity Stones even though nothing in the film tells us they can’t (and we’ve already seen Doctor Strange can).
Once assembled, Thanos does use the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of creation – and with it half of the heroes we’ve come to know and love over the course of ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a crier in movies and, as I went into this film, I expected to be weeping by the end. However, none of the deaths affected me because none of them felt real. In the comics, Thanos wipes out half of creation with half the heroes going down in the process too. Then, once the heroes stop him, they set right what he changed. I’m sure this will happen in Avengers 4 next spring. I know Kevin Feige promised us everyone wouldn’t make it out of this alive…but I don’t see the deaths in this film having any lasting relevance in the MCU. So who dies? is entirely a question for Avengers 4. And, in doing this, the Russos have removed much of the power of death in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When I watched Iron Man 3 for the first time I was legitimately scared for Pepper. When we lost Yondu in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 it broke my heart. I still cry every time I watch it! But to lose so many characters knowing most (if not all) of them will come back? Well now they’ve gone and made death nothing more than a cheap plot device just as it’s become in comic books. Even if I hadn’t read the Infinity Gauntlet series I’d know most of these deaths were meaningless. My existing knowledge of contracts, announced sequels, and box office revenue assures me many of these faces will be coming back.
I will say, with my second viewing (and, I guess, a little bit with my first), Peter’s death in Tony’s arms did carry a bit of a punch to the feels. But this is entirely because of Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr.’s acting and my preexisting knowledge of Tony’s problems with guilt and responsibility. It has nothing to do with the fact that I think, for a second, Spider-Man is really dead in the MCU.
All this isn’t to say I hated the film. I didn’t. I liked what it was. It was nowhere near as good as Avengers: Age Of Ultron (as Avengers sequels go) but I’d put my enjoyment of it around Thor: The Dark Work or The Incredible Hulk (although those films, for any flaws, still had real character development). I stand by what I recently wrote, even the most awkward of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still stand head and shoulders above most other superhero cinema. The same is true for Avengers: Infinity War. If this film came out exactly as it is, in 2000, it would have blown my mind. But it didn’t. At the end of the day, Marvel Studios bit off more than any one film could chew. The Russos did the best they could with what they had…but I’ve come to expect more from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s hoping future crossovers will stay far smaller in nature, keeping the focus where it belongs – on their cast of dynamic characters and the relationships between them, as opposed to giving us three hours of punching, laser blasts, and explosions all over the cosmos with a few quippy one-liners thrown in to move us from one scene to another.
That being said, I’m still planning on viewing number three tomorrow at noon.
If you share my desire for more Black Widow, you can read my look at her unique importance in the MCU here!
Or you can look at how love is presented in the MCU!
Or you can read my analysis of Loki and villains in the MCU!
What I’m sayin’ is, if you want more MCU, I’ve got options for you.