“This is the end game,” says Doctor Strange at one crucial point in this film, and for once you better (almost) believe it. I’ve been a skeptic of Marvel productions for as long as I can remember, as a film-lover who loves narrative films more than ongoing soap operas about superheroes with more personality in their fists than their brains. And yet the apocalyptic scale of this latest entry in the saga, the sheer surreal extent of the carnage and its dramatic implications on future instalments, had me feeling in a way that I so rarely have before with these things. And feeling something – something out of the ordinary that you just can’t get from everyday life – is the entire point of cinema, I’ve always believed.
So hats off to directors Anthony and Joe Russo for orchestrating 2 hours and 40 minutes of compelling action that rarely flags and consistently arrests the attention of even a superhero cynic like me. The more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the achievement – bringing in over a dozen iconic superheroes to fight in different parts of the universe, maintaining the breezy pace and momentum all the same, balancing genuine laugh-out-loud moments with genuine horror, and throwing in enough fist-fighting to keep the kids (young and old) entertained… The success of it all is no mean feat.
And the more I think about how much I enjoyed the film as a story, the more I’m surprised, because in many ways it’s not a story, at least not in the conventional sense. There are no character arcs; these superheroes don’t undergo any massive changes in identity, or manage to triumph over inner demons. And what minute arcs there are dramatically go up in smoke or are left unresolved by the film’s ending. As with lots of other Marvel productions, but unlike Black Panther, it feels less like a self-contained story and more like another chapter simply intended to set up further chapters in the exponentially growing MCU web. So why did I leave the cinema feeling satisfied this time around?
I think the answer is Thanos, the vulgar grey giant played with snarling perfection by Josh Brolin and who is the best villain Marvel have thus far conjured onto the screen. What’s unusual about this film is that it’s him, the villain, going on a quest, and the heroes who are trying to thwart him, in a marked reversal of fairytale lore. And so, in some strange way, you’re made to almost root for Thanos in his efforts to collect all of the infinity stones and become master of the universe. It’s in our nature to want to see a quest being fulfilled, at least on film, even if that quest is in order to eventually wipe out half the universe.
Like Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Thanos represents sheer, unadulterated evil, and yet has a peculiar logic to his murderous ways. He wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe in order that the universe, with its finite resources, can survive a little longer and prosper. The tolls he must pay to “save” the universe are terrible. But he believes that they’re worth it, and if we’re not careful he just might be able to convince us that they’re worth it too. Like any dictator in history, his self-delusion is the most frightening thing about him, and the most convincing. As human beings, we find self-delusion on a titanic scale utterly compelling to watch, sometimes even to the point where we might begin to feel sorry for the self-deluder. Or even begin to share in their bizarre delusions. I don’t think I need to draw any more parallels to today’s world, and the monster who’s currently sitting in the White House. Or the Kremlin. Or the…
So this film taps into an alluring darkness that has always been at the heart of superhero narratives: fascism. Both superheroes and supervillains believe that they are the only ones who can restore order to the universe; they believe that they’re above all rational law, human or otherwise. That’s a combination which has proven deadly throughout human history. And so it proves at the end of Infinity War.
I’d seen much talk on social media about how traumatising this film’s ending was, and put it down to marketing hype whisked up by Marvel to help sell their product. Not caring all that much about any of the characters going into the film, I didn’t expect to be moved by any of their deaths. And yet I was; without giving anything away, let’s just say that even I was shocked by how far this film was willing to venture into tragedy. And the fact that its tragedies occur not with a bang but with a series of whispers makes it far more disturbing to my mind. We’re all going to vanish into thin air one day, and to be reminded of that fact again and again and again at the end of the film left me speechless, stunned, and completely taken aback, for quite a while afterwards.
It’s a bleakly poetic and troubling series of images that will sear itself onto your conscious mind, if you allow it to. In terms of sheer bleak nihilism, it matches Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding sequence, which is quite an achievement – and I suspect it was partly inspired by that show’s willingness to shock its fans.
Which raises the question – where do Marvel go from here? Game of Thrones failed to ever match the Red Wedding, because how could it? “We’re all going to die” is all that show’s ever really had to say, and the Red Wedding was its most dramatic depiction of that reality. I think Marvel will similarly never be able to top the shock factor of this instalment. But can they find other ways to surprise, entertain, and capture the imagination?
It’s possible they could reverse the damage they’ve wrecked on some of its biggest characters at the end of Infinity War. After all, anything is possible in this universe, and we know from Loki and Doctor Strange that death doesn’t have to be permanent. I fear that would be a copout, and might reduce the impact of Inifinty War in retrospect. But for now, I can’t stop thinking about the film, which frankly has never happened before with a Marvel production. I would swap all of the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films for just the one shot in this one of Tony Stark, starkly alone, waking up to the fact that half of the universe can be wiped out with ease.