In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters and crowds poured in hoping for an encore of the excitement and joy of Star Wars. What they got instead was a profoundly dark turn that took the shine off their beloved characters. Bewildered crowds dumped out on to the streets trying to make sense of the tragic realism that infected their favorite escape. Today, Empire is regarded as the best of the original trilogy, but at the time people were sad and angry at what had been done to the story they loved. It wasn’t until Return of the Jedi finished the story that they could appreciate what Empire did.
The profound sense of loss Infinity War brought would not have been possible if it wasn’t a skillfully crafted movie. It plays like the 4th act of so many past MCU movies, showing us the complex results of layering the variety of worlds on top of each other. It brought consequences that retroactively made stories like Thor: Ragnarok feel more vital when we see that it put the Asgardian population in the path of this cataclysm. Infinity War had to quake the earth since it is the culmination of 10 years and 18 movies, so we could be forgiven for expecting wall to wall action. But that kind of sensory overload would have been vapid without the serious dramatic weight developed by the movies many “quiet” moments. The filmmakers understand that we need to really love the characters in order to care about what happens to them, so what could be seen as throwaway jokes are instead crowbars prying our hearts open, leaving us vulnerable to what's to come. Every scene is interesting; there is a bounty of heart wrenching moments of loss, overwhelming moments of triumph, and there is no point in the story that is boring.
We all thought this was going to be the MCU’s ultimate nexus, seeing characters fight side by side for the first time, and while most of the characters did finally meet, they all remained separated into two groups that never joined. Although it’s disappointing some characters seem destined to never cross paths, that disappointment is eased by seeing new combinations, such as Thor with the Guardians, that are so undeniable that they feel like a chemical formula that produces hilarity. The Russo brothers wrangled such a huge roster by perfectly adapting to the style and tone of other Marvel directors, and managed to leave no character shortchanged. Movies in general can sometimes feel like plays, projecting the sense that if you peek around the corner you'd find the walls are made of cardboard, but Marvel has cultivated a world that feels lived in; if you looked behind these scenes you would find real people living their lives. This sense of realism is aided by fully realized and distinct characters, but also by the fact that the Russo brothers remain mostly invisible throughout the entire film. Many directors are capable of not toeing into the spotlight of the movie, but very few are able to deliver a movie of this scope that is also this consistently good. They made such a deeply impressive movie that it almost isn’t noticeable that it’s just half of the whole story.
Not only does this movie disrupt the idea that Marvel movies have no stakes, it also answers the common neckbeard criticism that the MCU has weak villains. The threat presented by Thanos is gargantuan, but the character himself has a rare depth for any blockbuster, much less an MCU movie. Thanos’ home world was destroyed by overpopulation, so his strong ideals are aimed at this problem, and his goal is to wipe out half of all sentient life in the universe. Since he believes he is protecting life by keeping it under control, his motivations are relatable for their altruism, but since his philosophies stopped developing at the college freshman level, genocide is his only solution. He is surrounded by the devotion of his cult like zealots who believe deeply in his cause, but Thanos only believes in it as a by product of his deep need to be proven right, exemplified by his idea that the universe will be grateful after he wipes out half of it. Thanos’ commitment to his righteousness extends into his willingness to sacrifice Gamora, who he purports to love, in service of his goal in order to obtain the soul stone. Gamora attempts to eradicate any emotion for Thanos besides hate, but her relationship with him is as complicated as that of any child with an abusive parent. The shocking amount of care and affection Thanos displays for Gamora humanizes him to the audience, but Gamora can only respond to it with a childlike helplessness. Gamora insists Thanos loves nothing and therefore doesn’t love her, but she is wrong as Thanos sees Gamora as a flattering extension of himself, and he is a big fan of himself. Likewise, this is why he has so much resentment for his other adopted daughter, Nebula, seeing his faults in her shortcomings and holding a contempt for her that is equal to his hate of his own weaknesses. Just when we start to see into Thanos’ psyche, he cements his villain status with the aforementioned sacrifice of Gamora. It parallels the heroes sacrifice of Vision in an attempt to stop Thanos, but the key difference between the two is the balance of power. Vision was so willing to be sacrificed that he was begging Scarlet Witch to push through her reluctance in order to do it, whereas Gamora was begging not to die while Thanos dragged her to the edge of a cliff like a soldier dragged her away from her mother as a child. More than any other killing, it’s this act that moves Thanos from understandable anti-hero to pure hateable villain.
This movie opens with Thanos telling us exactly how it will end: “In time, you will know what it’s like to lose, to feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless.” Despite that, the audience holds onto hope throughout the surprisingly brisk 160 minute runtime because the language of cinema has taught us to expect justice. But Infinity War is just a series of increasingly painful defeats. Each of those defeats is attached to a glimmering hope, such as the promise of a new weapon for Thor, the defeat of Ebony Maw in the donut ship, or the destruction of the mind stone with Vision. Each of them seeds the hope of victory, only to be stomped on as the movie repeatedly steps past where we thought the line was. In the way that The Avengers was engineered to maximize excitement with a slow crescendo of action sequences that built to a euphoric finale, Infinity War is engineered to maximize trauma in the viewer, through a slow build to the ultimate cataclysm. With all the popular chatter about Marvel not taking risks and letting characters die, the audience was expecting one or two characters to get murked, but this movie puts us through the wringer as we see the pantheon of beloved characters slowly get peeled away until Thanos snaps his fingers and turns the bulk of the MCU to ash.
In addition to driving the audience experience, trauma may be the keystone of the entire story. When you take a close look at the way this movie plays out, each of the aforementioned losses can be attributed to decisions informed by the trauma the characters suffered. The only reason Thanos attacks the Asgardian ship in the opening is because Loki’s inferiority complex wouldn’t let him leave the tesseract to be destroyed on Asgard. Stark and Strange both need to be the man in charge so badly that they could not put their egos aside long enough to coordinate a plan when the Black Order lands on Earth to get the time stone. On Knowhere, Gamora’s traumatic history with Thanos leads her to charge by herself into the trap Thanos set for her. Then on Thanos’ home planet, Titan, when Quill learns that Thanos sacrificed Gamora, the pain from his mother’s death is renewed and fuels an uncontained rage that takes their well conceived plan to a place from which it can never be unfucked. And yet, the trauma theme may go even deeper. There is a line near the end that doesn’t really make much sense, when Thanos says to Stark: “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.” It’s hard to know exactly what knowledge of Stark’s Thanos is referring to, but my gut says that Thanos is speaking of the vision Stark had at the beginning of Age of Ultron, seeing all his friends killed and the Earth destroyed, feeling like it was his fault. The immense fear of that idea has been driving Stark ever since to take increasingly drastic steps to prevent his worst nightmare from happening. The fact that Thanos brings this up teases that Thanos also has some personal trauma that is driving him to become more and more extreme in his pursuit of what he thinks is right. Just like Stark, Thanos decided he knows what is best for everyone else, and is willing to take the hard steps to accomplish his goals. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine Stark doing the same and telling himself that the universe will one day see him as a hero. Infinity War ends with Tony’s nightmare realized; his failure to protect the world has lead to the deaths of so many of his friends and loved ones. The only thing that might have made it better for him is if he didn’t have to live to see it, but he is not even granted that mercy. Tony’s trauma has been the driving force behind many of the larger MCU stories, which makes him the still point around which the MCU revolves. What he does next might be the most reckless and dangerous thing yet.
Over the years and through the bizarre places the MCU took us, I learned a pretty simple edict: trust Marvel. Every time it seemed like their latest dumbass choice was going to lead to the fall of the MCU, we were shown that they know exactly what they’re doing. Infinity War is the culmination of 10 years of interconnected filmmaking, if it were just a “good movie” it would have been a huge disappointment. It had to gather dozens of characters, from an African king to a talking tree, and make them work together in a movie that had to be more entertaining, exciting, and meaningful than any of its 18 predecessors. There are a 14 million ways this movie could have been a complete failure and I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking there is no way it could be done. The thought that dispelled that cynicism for me is the same comfort I will be holding onto in the long 12 months until we get to see the other half of this story: trust Marvel. 4/5
Coming up next: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)