Peaceful Thinking: Avengers: Infinity War and Criticism

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Peaceful Thinking is what I’ll call things that aren’t reviews. This isn’t a review.

It’s almost impossible to write about Avengers: Infinity War. I know, I’ve read plenty about it. Practically every review or think-piece misses some essential part of the film’s composition. Some writers seem upset that they had less of an understanding of what’s going on than they normally do, as characters are barely introduced nor are their powers or importance explained. Others argue that it’s barely a movie, more like a series of setpieces with hardly any character development taking place within or between the explosions and fights. Still others claim that there are no stakes to the film thanks to its very comic book nature and the things that we know comic books do (namely: have something happen, then reverse or retcon that happening issues later). While each of these have a core of truth, I’d suggest that none of them constitute a criticism of any value, at least for a certain kind of viewer.

It is difficult to ignore the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether you want to or not. The trailers play endlessly during children’s programming, sports events, and anywhere you look on the internet. Even if you proclaim indifference to the MCU, chances are you know its vague outlines and contours. Chances are greater that you’ve seen at least some of the films, if not all. Box office numbers bear this out, and Netflix availability helps. Because the point of the MCU up until now has been walking a fine line between interaction and standalone-ness on a character-by-character basis, seeing one film usually will give you some insights as to what else is happening with the other heroes offscreen. So, for your average audience member we can assume a knowledgebase that includes rough sketches of who the characters are and what their relationships (if any) are to each other.

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I think the criticism that says it’s impossible to understand what’s going on here without having seen all other 18 movies in the franchise is misguided at best and insulting at worst. As I noted above, audiences likely come into the film with some understanding of who these people are and what they do. They might not know about what Bucky Barnes is doing in Wakanda, but they probably know that he was Captain America’s friend and that he went into hiding (Captain America: Civil War covers most of this territory and it made over a billion dollars and has been available on Netflix for a while now). They might not remember where all the Guardians of the Galaxy come from, but Infinity War offers concise recaps of 3 of the 5 backstories, each of which both shade the characters’ interactions with each other and help build the stakes of the rest of the film a little. In fact, I’d argue that only Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Spiderman: Homecoming, and maybe Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are required viewing before seeing Infinity War. Your experience will be richer if you’ve seen all 18 previous films, but don’t feel like you have to spend 35 hours doing so. Audiences are smart, they catch on to what’s happening and Infinity War provides just enough context in addition to the cultural knowledge audiences bring into the theater to make the central conflict comprehensible and the side interactions properly compelling and fun.

The critics who point out the oddness of Infinity War‘s structure and interests are correct, but I don’t think that’s a particularly bad thing. As audiences, we have come to adjust our expectations based on what’s come before. We know that we shouldn’t expect scares in a romantic drama or deep character studies in a satire. While the standalone superhero films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had an almost disturbing similarity (aesthetically, structurally, even ethnically) that has only just started to be broken in films like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, the larger team-up movies have also developed their own styles, structures, and expectations. Infinity War pushes these to the extremes, but it doesn’t break them. What were scenes like the table scenes aboard the Heli-Carrier in The Avengers and in Stark Tower in Age of Ultron have now become the scenes aboard ships and within hideouts that function in the same way but add a layer of urgency and impending danger thanks to the larger conflict that starts in the very first scene of Infinity War. Those scenes still provide delightful character interactions and help humanize the superhumans in the cast (the Guardians and Thor make out the best in this category, but that’s probably not a surprise). We again get to see fun character and power combinations. We again have giant-scale destruction that must be held off by a relative few. And, perhaps most importantly, we are again left wanting more.

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In 2012 we got the first team-up Avengers movie and afterwards audiences and critics continuously wondered why, for example, Thor didn’t fly in to help with the events of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: Winter Soldier. Part of that desire came from the odious drive to outthink movies and ignore how stories work, another part from ignoring that the threat generally matches the available superheroes to fight it thanks to almost a century of superhero comics rules and several decades of superhero movie rules. But the desire does highlight the success of the team-up film to leave us wanting more. After seeing the chemistry between the six heroes blossom onscreen and on the battlefield, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want  them go back to their individual films. At the end of Infinity War, which I won’t spoil here, we also don’t want to see the heroes go back to their status quo films. We are left on a cliffhanger that will be resolved in a year or so in another big team-up movie, and only Ant-man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel will come out between now and that next piece of the Infinity War, both of which will likely avoid the events of Infinity War until their final seconds (Ant-man and the Wasp can get out of it thanks to quantum time-y-wime-y stuff, and Captain Marvel will be set in the 90s). Rather than a bug of splitting the events of the Infinity War between two films, the sense of wanting more is a feature of team-up movies used to heighten anticipation for the next one even more.

The last criticism I want to dispute here is that there is a lack of stakes in the film. Again, my refutation will rely on the idea that audiences are smart, and that the creators of this film, namely Anthony and Joe Russo, Kevin Feige, and the 16 credited writers, know what their audiences’ assumptions will be. I still won’t spoil what happens at the end of the film in this section, but I will spoil some things from the first scene and assumptions that can be drawn from those happenings. The first scene of Infinity War takes place on the spaceship holding all the Asgardian refugees from the end of Thor: Ragnarok. But in the first shot we see that it is split in half, and then we see that Thanos and friends have boarded the ship in search of a Macguffin. We’ll recall that the ship holds, in addition to the refugees, Thor, Loki, the Hulk, and Heimdall. But Heimdall is already injured and soon to be dead. Though Heimdall has rarely been a character of much consequence, he has been around a good deal and his portrayal by Idris Elba–whose star has certainly risen in the time between his appearance in the first Thor movie in 2011 and now–has endeared him to fans of the films. His death, after saving the Hulk with the Bifrost, works like all other deaths early in films. He signals to us that nobody is safe, that bad things will happen in this film, and that they will happen without much warning. Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of intelligent life in the universe is then a very real threat not only to the people that the Avengers have sworn to protect but also the Avengers themselves. Is that stakes enough for you?

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Perhaps not. This early death has indeed become a pretty standard way of setting up the stakes and perhaps it no longer holds the kind of shock it once held thanks to things like Game of Thrones and Westworld that killed off what seemed like main characters before the end of their first seasons. It’s a good thing, then, that we have several characters who have had previous interactions with Thanos and who can tell us the immensity of his evil. Gamora is the primary character who can provide this particular function for the characters within the film and for those of us in the audience. As the adopted daughter of the big meanie, she is well-versed in his depravity and she doesn’t hesitate to let everybody know what’s up with him. Hulk/Bruce Banner, too, can do this for the characters who don’t meet up with Gamora because of his survival and teleportation following his fight with the big dude. We also see some of Thanos’ follow-through in flashback where he accomplishes his mission on a smaller scale. There should be no doubt that he can and will destroy half of the intelligent life on in the universe.

So why are critics still upset at the lack of stakes? Well, it’s because they think themselves smarter than the creators of the film. Ah, they say, even if Thanos does happen to destroy half of life in the universe by the end of the movie, it doesn’t matter because we know that the destruction won’t last. How many times have superheroes died and come back to life? It happens in comics regularly and on screen only slightly less often. Surely this removes the stakes? I’d argue that it doesn’t. Even non-permanent death carries consequences with it (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and even non-permanent death can provide the catalyst for other events. If Thanos does pull off his plan, its impermanence is another feature of the story being told. The credits promise, in Bond-ian fashion, that Thanos will return and we can all guess that his return will happen during the next team-up movie, already promised to appear before our eyes soon. The question is not what happens if we lose half of the Avengers but rather how do the remaining half of the Avengers return their comrades to their life? This falls directly in line with the goal of leaving audiences wanting more. I was excited to theorize with friends about what will take place during the next film given what happens at the end of this one, and I’m pretty sure that’s the point of the thing. Marvel has a decade of making movies and even more of them making comics and so has a pretty solid grasp on how audiences and readers conceptualize the events they portray in their stories. It also knows that a subsection of its film audience will have read the comics series that this particular storyline is based on and so know one way that it might resolve. They can assume that the knowledge readers have will likely penetrate the mainstream and become part of the cultural knowledge within a few weeks. Again, Marvel knows what it’s doing and the promise of resurrection is baked into the story they’re telling, so it doesn’t automatically become stakes-less even if those who die return eventually.

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All of this isn’t to say that the film is perfect. I’ve got my qualms with it. For all of the differentiating that the movie tries to do with the Infinity Stones, their powers seem remarkably similar and disappointingly prone to being different color beams of energy. I was disappointed that the movie tried to handwave some things away (where’s Valkyrie? How did that one character get to that one planet?). It also could have been even weirder for my taste, and I don’t think any of the characters introduced in this movie make much of an impact. But Infinity War remains a remarkable achievement, a huge movie that mostly works and pleases while it indulges in moments of poignancy in the midst of a cosmic-level story. Critics need to catch up to what it’s doing, what Marvel’s place is in the culture at large, and what it means going forward.

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