Well…here we are. After six years of teasing, the Avengers have finally faced off against Thanos, the Mad Titan – one of the biggest Big Bads in the Marvel Universe (who isn’t connected to the Fantastic Four). And just like they threatened to do for years, the real-life Illuminati behind all these movies decided to split their magnum opus in half, the better to make twice as much money. Change the titles all you want, Kevin. Out here in the world we’ve already been through two Deathly Hallows, two Breaking Dawns and a Hobbit Trilogy-That-Should-Only-Have-Been-Two-Movies-At-Most. We all know how this goes. You can not hide – I see you.
Because of this, I’m very conscious of the fact I’m about to review half a movie, dramatically increasing my chances of saying something dumb that’ll look even dumber once the other half comes out. But then again, there’s a lot to be said for a $200 million dollar American motion picture where evil wins and half the cast dies in a secular, sci-fi version of the Rapture. Yes, they’ll be back. We all know they’ll be back. Disney couldn’t stop itself from coaling up the hype-trains for their already-greenlit sequels. But since this isn’t a Zack Snyder movie, everyone was willing to buy into the kayfabe.
And for me, for a moment, the schadenfreude did flow. Howls of lamentation went up from all the newly-minted Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy fans as they watched their new favorite heroes really fail for what was probably the first time. And I couldn’t stop myself from wondering, “Have y’all never experienced the agony and ecstasy of waiting a whole month for a two-parter to conclude?” Or how about the sixteen months it usually takes Grant Morrison to wrap-up whatever bullshit he’s on? Christ, the years some of us had to wait between League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books would’ve driven you all insane…
As the first part of a two-parter, Infinity War is…well, it’s alright, with a big asterisk next to that. Leading to a note at the bottom of the page that says, “for half a movie.” But Marvel’s been selling us half movies for at least eight damn years – I originally wrote “ever since Captain America’s first movie switched tracks halfway through, devoting its last hour (and the back half of it’s title) to setting up the first Avengers.” But that’s not even true, since Iron Man 2 was the real patient zero for this particular plague. Some have requested that I at least give them the out of calling these things “episodes.” Joining the general discourse about how close movies and TV shows are getting, these days, mostly thanks to these Marvel movies. To which I say, “No – don’t deal with it the way those dead people do, c’mon!” Serialized storytelling techniques have escaped the page and are now dancing across all our screens. Turn and face it, because it’s coming for you whether you like it or not.
My TV-critiquing colleagues seem to think this is all the Sopranos fault, and they might be right…but this is my world. And I can’t help but notice these movies have recreated all the things we comic book fans have spent my entire life complaining about, all the things non-fans say kept them from getting into comics in the first place, and all the things ex-fans say eventually drove them away. The years-long wait-time between a story’s opening and resolution. The compulsion (engendered within you by-design) to slog through things you don’t care about lest you get confused when they pop up in the things you do care about later on. The territorial pissing on other people’s work once a new creative team takes over. The jumping onto whatever band-wagon’s filled with the most popular characters this year. The way the tone of those popular characters’ stories seems to leak into everything else as people are ordered from on high to recreate the popular thing’s success…in as superficial a manner as possible. The constant interrupting of everything (including everyone’s character arcs) for a Big Dumb Crossover Event That’s Sure to Change Everything…but don’t they always. And, of course, there’s the impermanence of death…though I never got on board with the hardline stance against such things…
…and we let all this happen, so pat yourselves on the back, people.
But let’s focus on the positives first. You can really tell where all the A-list special effects artists were during the first quarter of 2018, and they certainly weren’t polishing up T’Challa and Killmonger’s cat powers. The entire cast showed up to work and gave their all to the Russos, who replace previous Avengers director Joss Whedon due to Whedon’s very public (and apparently ongoing) burn-out. The Russos’ Captain America: Civil War was basically Avengers Two and a Half: The Smell of Fear anyway, so it’s not like the transition’s all that harsh. And do you remember when I said Civil War did nothing but ensure everyone would have to waste the whole first act of this movie Getting the Band Back Together? Yeah…boy, do I hate being right all the time. Now let’s sit back and wait for all those props roll in…[insert cricket chirp here]…huh.
Hey, did you like Thor: Ragnarok? Did you especially like that ending? Were you excited to see Thor try to integrate his ship full of refugees into the cacophonous bag of prejudiced dickheads that is planet Earth? Did you think that signaled some kind of vision for Thor’s future? Some kind of plan for the next phase of this Marvel Universe that went beyond, “Sell more toys”? Well, too bad. All those non-combatants Heimdall spend that whole last movie shepherding across the hills? They’re all dead. Heimdall’s dead, too, goddammit. Can Idris Elba survive a fucking franchise, please?
Loki – perennial favorite villain of this franchise due to him being that kind of sad-puppy dog hot people who aren’t me seem to like? Also dead. As is everyone (or half of everyone, at best) on the benevolent police state planet of Xandar, since Thanos starts this movie out with the Purple Power Stone we last saw in its vaults. We can safely assume Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, and John C. Reilly’s hot pink wife are all also dead. If we’re lucky, their cute little pink daughter survived and she’ll get to download the Worldmind and gain the power to make wormholes or something…but I’m not holding my breath.
“Why does somebody always have to die in this scenario?” Star-Lord will eventually ask Gamora, and that’s a very good question, Peter-Whose-Last-Name-Isn’t-Parker. It’s to heighten the stakes…artificially, some would say, since no comic book death has ever been permanent. Just look at Bucky, over there – dead for almost 40 years and he still popped up in flashbacks, until writer Ed Brubaker brought him back for realz in 2005. But it’s also to establish a tone of not-so-quiet desperation. Thanos is finally here, Doing It Himself at last, and he’s already strong enough to knock the Hulk out of Bruce Banner with just one magic stone in his Power Glove
This Thanos is spectacularly different from his comic book counterpart…but it’s been five years since any of my fellow Marvel fan’s raised a stink about something like that. After Iron Man 3 still made a billion dollars Marvel learned they could get away with doing basically anything to any character, including everyone’s beloved Robert Downey Stark. By this point, I’m not even mad to see him dragged right back to where he was at the start of Iron Man 3. Whatever. It’s fine…but seeing Dr. Strange call him a douchebag is even finer. Game recognizes game, after all. And far from home, forced to work with people who don’t work for him, it’s especially fine to see Tony try to be the leader he spectacularly failed to be during the Civil War. He kinda fails here, too, but we’ll talk about that next year. It’s almost like he keeps throwing up impenetrable barriers between himself and the people in his life because he can stand the emotional pain of bad things happening whenever he drops them…or something.
This is the, for lack of a better world, the “traditional” Iron Man conflict, and while we all thought that got resolved five years ago…well, that is the traditional Iron Man-fan delusion. It’s never going to stick. Especially since these movies still lack the stones to do what the comics did back in the 70s, admit Tony’s a drunk, and send his ass to rehab. The closest thing he gets to drying out is hanging out with their Guardians.
Speaking of which – at the heart of this film, we have two couples. One partner knows the location of an Infinity Stone and makes the other partner swear to kill them, lest it fall into Thanos’ hands. Oh, how romantic. Gamora and Quill have had two movies to get to know each other and for us to get to know them. Wanda and Vision had…Civil War…so here they get all of one scene to tell us (and one and a half to show us) that the two years since have “worked.” Great for them, disappointing for some of us. Quill and Gamora’s arc is shot through with their series’ usual bathos, while Vis and Wanda’s gets the dignity of being taken seriously. But they haven’t been in two billion dollar movies…well…technically they have, but not as main players. They are further towards the foreground now, since they’re already together and can’t do the “will-they-won’t-they” act…or they can, except this time it’s “will they or won’t they kill their lovers to save the universe.”
The answer’s yes, because they’re heroes and that’s what heroes do…selfless sacrifice requires even the sacrifice of that moral high horse you like to sit on so much…but beware, since Our Villain justifies his actions exactly the same way…It’s always nice when your significant other’s dad likes you…except when they’re a genocidal psycho-maniac. Then you might want to go home and rethink your life…after you save the universe from their evil dad.
Meanwhile, Captain America, God’s righteous man, says we don’t trade lives. Which is stupid and short-sighted, but the film does a great job of engendering false hope. Surely the Super-Science Squad of Bruce Banner and Shuri will figure out some way to get the stone out of Vision’s head without…oh, wait. Nevermind. Surely the universe will reward Steve Roger’s unwillingness to change in the face of a world that continually rejects his unfaltering principals…oh, wait. No – the last time that really happened was when he volunteered to be a lab rat got sweet abs out of the deal instead of cancer, or a skull face.
Well, surely the universe will cut Wanda a break now that she’s watched her parents and brother die and had to kill her android boyfriend…? It might have, but somebody had give up the Time Stone because “it was the only way.” I believe him…but I also can’t wait to see all the other ways the Nitpickers come up with once they have a whole movie to dismiss.
Evil Me: You mean “discuss.”
I said what I meant. I can hear them now, in another universe where all this went the other way. “What kind of Dr. Strange turns a black hole into a swarm of butterflies? The Russo Brothers obvious don’t understand the characters they’re playing with. Hashtag Not My Dr. Strange.” Maybe next time he should just make one gigantic butterfly and have her tornado-blast Thanos into the next county. Or five hundred copies of himself instead of fifty…except this isn’t a Star Wars movie, so I seriously doubt that’ll happen.
But I’m glad to see the first official wizard fight in this universe come off, even after Dr. Strange’s own movie did so much to subvert it. Between our directors and the squad of second units and assistants and special effects supervisors every expensive movie has (putting a lie to any pretense of the Auteur Theory) everyone involved managed to compose some quite nice shots and at least two very good action scenes that don’t take place in empty fields. Even the one that does has some cool moments. Some of them even move the plot forward.
What else is good…? Thor! Whenever he’s sufficiently traumatized, he lets some of his old attitude out of the bag, and that’s always my favorite Thor. His meeting with the Guardians, and bonding with Rocket over Asgardian weapons tech, are both nice. As is Nidavaler, and Big Dink Energy, and Thanos uses meteor: it is super-effective. And Stormbreaker…the 2006 action movie starring Alex Pettyfer as a teenage MI6 recruit…and Thor’s new ax/hammer. Guess he is the god of hammers and we can add that to the list of things Odin was wrong about.
All these good things were glossed over or outright missed thanks to the big, purple elephant in the room. Following the trend of recent years, movie-Thanos has been heavily overhauled into as “sympathetic” a mass-murdering space warlord as you can probably ever be without looking like Adam Driver. Comic book Thanos used to do everything he did because he wanted to fuck Death…literally. Death be a hottie in both major comic book universes…and while I’ve always preferred the easy-going, nonjudgmental, Goth Death of DC, I get the appeal of strong, silent Marvel Death. And I totally get what she sees in Deadpool. Those two are perfect for each other. But since she does not appear in this film (at least, not in body) I don’t need to litigate that particular nerd fight.
No, if Movie Thanos is anything, he’s a genocidal Malthusian. “Genocidal” because, while he says his genocide will be “random, dispassionate,” guess what, asshole? Still genocide. “Malthusian” after Thomas Malthus, the first guy to really start whining about how industrial civilization had filled Earth’s cities up with poor people and how, if they kept breeding, we’d eventually run out of food and everybody would die. That was back in 1798, in his book Essay on the Principle of Population. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” he wrote. But he was wrong because he was a hatchet-faced old-money dipship who never stopped to wonder, “Hmm…maybe people are poor because old-money dipships like my family have been hording all the wealth for thousands of years…? Nah.”
Of course, the tendency is to try and logic Thanos out of this genocidal mania – like this: “Given how much people like to fuck, even if you pulled it off and killed half of everyone, we’d be right back where we are now in 40 years. Maybe less, since there’s no sex like After-Tragedy Sex.” This is like trying to logic President Big Special Boy out of his hatred of people who aren’t rich and white, and it misses the actual point just as badly. The point is, Movie Thanos is a full-of-shit cult leader in a universe already full of ’em..and I don’t just mean his. Which is why he instantly became everyone’s favorite (or second favorite) villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Say what you want about the tenants of Eighteenth Century Malthusian Eugenics – at least it’s an ethos. An evil, imagination-free ethos that’s little more than a sublimation of it’s adherent’s murder fantasies…and it’s also, sadly, the dominant ethos among my nation’s ruling class. They hate us, they want us to die, but they don’t want to admit that to themselves – that would be uncouth. So they’re going to jump through all kinds of cognitive hoops in order to justify their hatred to themselves. Which is why they’re going to sit firmly on their asses while monster hurricanes ravage all our major cities. And they’re going to feel good about it. Justified.
I hope I’ve answered the dumbest question this movie inspired post-release – “Was Thanos right?” – with a resounding “hell no, and fuck you for asking.” All that said, I gotta praise Josh Brolin’s performance, and all the animators who transposed it onto that big purple face. And the presence of a villain with some actual power forces Our Heroes to do the thing these crossovers are supposedly known for and combine their powers in new and interesting ways, creating the best action sequence this series has seen since…what? Iron Man 3? Has it really been so long?
People often ask, “How will anyone know what’s going on in these Avengers movies without watching the previous Marvel films? Twenty movies in a row is a big ask for a society with terminal ADHD.” But Big Dumb Crossover Events, by their very nature, tend to invalidate whatever came before them. When they began – not with Infinity Gauntlet, but with it’s predecessor, Secret Wars – they represented complete breaks in character’s status quos…until they sold so well that companies began doing them annually…and then twice annually…and then they just became the status quo. Paradoxically never allowing any other status quo to develop in the first place. It was a transparent effort to keep people buying monthly issues back then, and now it’s come to the cinema, in a transparent attempt to make people show up to these thrice-yearly movies. Where do we even go from here?
Evil Me: To the top of box-office records, of course.
Well, obviously. And that makes everything okay, doesn’t it?
Evil Me: Awww…is the poor critic sad his big budget comic book films have mass appeal?
What does that even mean these days when Deadpool’s the most popular character in the whole cannon?
Evil Me: Would you rather go back to the duopoly of Batman and Wolverine?
No, nostalgia’s for chumps…though reviewing something self-contained would be really nice. Something that doesn’t cut off just when things are starting to get to the good—