Avengers: Infinity War and the Power of Change

This analysis contains full spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

I'm still discovering new things about critiquing a cinematic universe: the concept is still so new that there are always surprises. What I discovered was that eventually in a universe's life, a review of any of its movies starts to become a review of all of them. Avengers: Infinity War is like that. It's a culmination of so many threads that I'll sometimes have to follow them back to their source to find out if we're tangled in them or not because you'd never know just by watching this one alone (imagine someone going into Infinity War because it looks fun, having seen nothing else). But I was surprised leaving Infinity War to realize that something brand new is actually its most defining element, a power that is as reality-defining as the infinity stones in the context of writing its characters into their worlds. It helps us redefine so many things that we've known, for some of us, since they were on top of our themed birthday cakes as children. This Avengers film has a protagonist. And he happens to be the villain.

He’s been dangling in front of our noses for years, ever since he appeared in the post-credits of The Avengers and gave this series its endgame, something I thought it would have avoided like its universes depended on it. By finally making this climax real, the question becomes not where we’ve come from or how we got here, but what we’ve learned. This is why I thought the series would avoid it. If it ever made such a film, I thought we’d all realize how little we should have expected from this assembly-line moviemaking in the first place. I’m not saying I thought it was going to be bad: I’m saying I thought it would be outside of its formula to be particularly bold. I was right. But it didn’t stop the Russo Brothers from being bold.

I'm going to make a bold claim of my own by asking a question: in what way have any of these characters really progressed? They’ve been flopping back and forth between their better natures since the beginning, being challenged but hardly changed. If Iron Man is conscientious in one film, he might be recruiting teenagers to do his dirty work and hitting on their sexy single Aunts in the next. If Thor outgrows his hammer today, he might need a new one tomorrow. Consider Spider-Man: was there any lesson in Spider-Man: Homecoming other than learning to be a neighborhood hero, and relying on human spirit rather than Stark technology to become a better person? How long does it take for him to put the Iron Spider suit back on in Infinity War? It’s like the other movie never happened.

Why do these bad scriptwriting things happen to well-written characters? It doesn't come from the writing but the producing. Kevin Feige, the ringmaster behind the MCU, believes that the series needs to maintain a kind of homeostasis: color temperatures can’t deviate too much, themes can’t stray too far from the norm, and characters can appear to experience change but they can never really change (consider that Edgar Wright was fired from Ant-Man, not because he was making it badly, but because he was making it differently). Changing these characters permanently and keeping track of their development would be a breach of their appeal: they’re icons, maybe of a company, definitely of themselves, and no one ever intended for them to grow up. The perverse glee of watching Infinity War, the unprecedented depth of tension in a film so cockamamie, comes not only from the fact that the main character is Thanos or that he's allowed to have a real arc, but from the fact that he believes in it. They've finally created a character with ambition.

We’ve had bad guys like him before, supposedly. But Loki stood in more for the plot of The Avengers than for any motivation: he was a MacGuffin in human form. The robot gangster Ultron was more amusing but not more complex – his emergent personality laser-guided to talk smack as he attached rocket thrusters to a European province felt unbalanced with the script’s ambition to say that he represented something very important about Tony Stark’s hubris. These guys never measured up.

Thanos is a deeper character than Disney’s Marvel’s The Avengers has ever made, and the first time they’ve ever tried to make any of their villains tragic or sympathetic (Black Panther's Killmonger came really close with his intentions, but by the time he's spouting villainous one-liners in a punching match with the hero, which he's destined to lose, I think that movie had lost sight of the sympathy I'm talking about). Among a rogues gallery of forgettable one-off terrorists, Thanos aspires to be worthy of The Killing Joke, the comic that made the Joker a figure more towering in madness because he was touched by sympathy. We saw what the monster was feeling, and how similar to him we are. Is Infinity War that deep? It aspires to be, and that’s enough.

Thanos is Marvel’s first modern villain, the first that would be out of place in the old The Marvel Superheroes cartoons. Thanos' goal has nothing to do with ruling a kingdom or punching someone. His goal isn't even what he's trying to do, which is to destroy half the universe – this is just the means. His goal is to save the universe from itself. He’s less a villain than a darker face of heroism – like the Avengers, he wants to save people. But he makes the heroes look like people who want to feed the homeless without having them too. He seems to know that saving people comes at a cost, and that he's the only one willing to bear it. So his solution is to halve the number of mouths to feed, and Infinity War has the audacity to show that the planets under Thanos’ rule are prosperous. The 1968 book “The Population Bomb” predicted that earth would run out of space before it ran out of people. It proliferated the fear of expendable resources that is now preached with the consistency of the laws of motion. Thanos takes responsibility for this theory, pushing it to its inevitable conclusion, to take the problem as a question of human mathematics.

I don’t agree with Thanos’ solution, which implies that free will has no place in the universe, which makes an incredibly assertive argument for the intervention of gods. Isn’t it strange that I have to say that I don’t agree with the film’s villain? I have to say this because Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War and the success or failure of his goal is where the film gets all its tension. You can’t help but compare his goals to those that the heroes have had: Iron Man wanted to be a better person, Thor wanted to be a better person, Peter Quill wanted to have a family, Dr. Strange wanted to be a better person, Black Panther wanted his kingdom to be a better kingdom, and Thanos wants to save the universe. I care about whether he succeeds even though I don’t agree with his means, so much that I’m not sure if I want to ruin the illusion by seeing him get punched out in the next movie. I actually think the cleverer move for the next phase of the series would have been to not reverse what Thanos achieves: to treat it as the MCU version of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which an interdimensional evil destroyed whole timelines in the Multiverse. To take whatever deaths he caused (in that case, we'd have to change who died) and move on: that would have been the growing up of the cinematic universe, instead of just a reset button.

There are reasons to keep the conclusion of Infinity War intact, other than the fact that he was the main character. If death can be reversed in a cinematic universe, then how are we expected to ever feel tension about it again? This is already a problem; we don’t expect to lose any of these people without a three-movie buildup to the loss. But someone particularly has become very important to the stakes of this universe, someone who must stay dead if any of these battles will mean anything going forward. Of course, I’m talking about Gomora.

Thanos is an essential character because he is driven; this is what gives him his special allure. Like Walter White, we like him because of his pursuit of a goal, not because we condone his actions. The movie shouldn’t condone him either, and that’s where Gomora comes in. She represents the cost that Thanos pays to achieve his goal. She stands in for his resolve, and it’s at the moment that Thanos becomes most brutal that he also becomes most human. Gomora does that to him. If she comes back in the next film for any reason, we’ll have lost what all of this really means, which is that sometimes you do what you think is right and you’re not right, and that sometimes doing it costs a lot anyway. Our main characters didn’t have to pay for their Civil War (Brody was back on his feet by the post-credits; Tony Stark barely remembers that people on his team killed his own mother). In Gomora, this universe found some stakes.

With her, Thanos experiences his revelation, the ultimate price of all his beliefs, and he does so standing next to an actual Nazi. This is the best scene in the history of the MCU, an image of provoking philosophical power to stand against all the “poster pose shots” of the series’ egotistical past. Nothing has ever been as fracturing, or as meaningful.

Thanos wages a holy war on the universe, to become its savior by forcing it to make the ultimate sacrifice. He himself sacrifices nothing before this scene, and how is that different from the heroes he fights? Tony Stark never had to pay for the fact that he sold weapons to terrorists; Captain America has never really struggled with the deaths he caused in his crusade to save an old friend; Bucky Barnes gets off easily from killing Black Panther's and Tony Stark's parents. And how about any of the heroes who have ever had love interests? Not a single relationship in the MCU has panned out in a meaningful or lasting way, and it's because love will always get in the way of being a superhero. Infinity War knows and acknowledges this, but instead of sweeping it under the rug, it forces Thanos to acknowledge it too.

An old Nazi commandant tells him beneath the sunset of an alien planet that in order to ask his dream of the universe, he must make such a sacrifice himself, to destroy what he loves most in order to complete his quest of love. “You have failed,” Gomora says, “because you love nothing.” Thanos becomes the greatest character in the MCU, not when he destroys half of the universe, but when he proves Gomora wrong. He becomes the only one in its entire lineup truly capable of love.

He does so beneath the twin towers of an alien monument. This represents the curious ambition at work in Infinity War to have the man waging his holy war, the man who destroyed New York in The Avengers, to be its most sympathetic character. He makes the ultimate sacrifice for his cause in a scene of belabored reverence, an Old Testament scene. God commanded Abraham to kill his son on the mountaintop and Abraham obliged, until God allowed him to stop. But if you don’t actually do it, Infinity War seems to say, then what’s the point of obliging? How will you know who the real heroes and villains are, if you don't let people act on their natures? This is a film that believes that God has been allowing these heroes to stop short of their beliefs this whole time, and now lets those beliefs go all the way. It’s not just about virtue: it’s about how much it costs.

This occurs in a Marvel movie that, without Thanos, is as predictable as its predecessors. Infinity War inherits all the problems of its rickety lineage. The tone flits between the gravity of a looming galactic holocaust and the wisecracks of a magic wizard or talking trash-panda. It is a grim film often made inconsequential by banter, or by a quadrupedal alien dinosaur being punched in the face by someone dressed as a cat, juxtaposed against a sentient raccoon helping a Norse god to ski on a satellite’s shingles to power a sun so that a giant dwarf can build his electricity ax. Meanwhile, other people are talking very seriously about population density. Thor – and Chris Hemsworth continues to rise towards heights of emotion even as comic relief – asks teary-eyed, "What more could I lose?" This happens somewhere around that skiing scene I think, in a movie where Iron Man calls the bad guy’s henchman “Squidward.” The fact that Infinity War balances all of this relies entirely on Thanos: he's the one person in the universe we're allowed to take seriously. Everyone else is his backup, and it's not terribly important what they're up to.

Yes, as the series goes on, there seems to be less and less room for Tony Stark. But we knew that, ever since they removed his ionic heart in Iron Man 3, that constant visual reminder of his mortality that made his snarky egoism default into a defense mechanism for his literally fatal flaw. He used to be a visual schematic of his own character arc, which did happen before they undid it, in his first two movies. They’re planning for his arc to be done because his contract is up, even though he and Pepper Potts feel like they're just beginning, and he and Spider-Man have a good thing going. But characters would naturally get lost in so much noise.

Thanos overcomes the weaknesses of his series. He doesn’t have to linger or negotiate his contract and so he is capable of being an absolute example of himself. He contains none of these corporate emotion-revisions. Within Infinity War, Thanos is as convicted of his higher purpose as a suicide bomber. The glee of watching him work is that of seeing a madman convicted to the point of sanity, of terror propagated into truth. Infinity War is not a movie that makes you proud: it makes you reflective.

As 21st century Americans, we are obsessed with terror. Like Tony Stark in this movie, we feel as though we’ve known it as long as an old friend, and sometimes we even wonder if there was something we could have done to stop destroying a world we believe has been shrinking since at least 1968. Thanos in the scheme of a blockbuster that markets destruction as entertainment represents an incredible ability to rationalize terror, to acknowledge the sympathetic convictions of mass murderers and gods.

But that only applies to the real world, the one that contains philosophy and conflict and religion. This is the MCU; it's called a "universe" because it operates on its own terms. I don't know what's going to happen in Avengers: Endgame, if the ambition to beat a big bad guy and save the day is going to be fully restored. But just taken alone, I believe that by making a genocidal villain the hero of its story, Infinity War is not accepting terror but motivating a universal worldview. The MCU is now a place where even the most sadistic villains have the best interests of all life in mind, where even madness draws people closer to solving the impossible problems of living together in the universe. This must be the most optimistic universe of superheroes ever invented, where even the epitome of badness has everyone’s best intentions in mind, like he could never become more evil than the old guy with a child's imagination that invented him in the first place. Infinity War is confident to the point of self-exaltation and at the end of so much fluff, it even earns it. The Russos have made a world where no one in the universe – not even Nazis – are beneath cosmic enlightenment. The old black-and-white virtues are certainly gone. The film ends with Thanos looking at a sun, either rising or setting, because it wants you to think about whether you’re okay with that.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Anthony Russo

Joe Russo

Christopher Markus

Stephen McFeely

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (characters)

Thanos Josh Brolin
Tony Stark/Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.
Bruce Banner/Hulk Mark Ruffalo
Thor Chris Hemsworth
Steve Rogers/Captain America Chris Evans
Peter Quill/Starlord Chris Prat
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow Scarlett Johansson
Dr. Stephen Strange Benedict Cumberbatch
James "Rhodey" Rhodes/War Machine Don Cheadle
Peter Parker/Spider-Man Tom Holland
T'Challa/Black Panther Chadwick Boseman
Vision Paul Bettany
Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch Elizabeth Olsen
Sam Wilson/Falcon Anthony Mackie
Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier Sebastian Stan
Loki Tom Hiddleston
Heimdall Idris Elda
Eitri: King of the Dwarves Peter Dinklage
Wong Benedict Wong
Mantis Pom Klementieff
Nebula Karen Gillan
Drax the Destroyer Dave Bautista
Gamora Zoe Saldana
Groot Vin Diesel
Rocket Bradley Cooper
Pepper Potts Gwyneth Paltrow

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