This article contains massive Avengers: Infinity War spoilers.
It is by definition a bleak ending. Our eponymous collection of resilient, undaunted, and sometimes plucky (sorry, Peter Quill) heroes have been defeated. Severely and for the first time. Half of them have even ceased to exist after Josh Brolin’s Thanos snapped his fingers and disintegrated them into dust. Scarlet Witch is gone; Falcon is no more; Star-Lord and Mantis have joined Gamora in that big disco in the sky… and even Spider-Man, Marvel’s very own mascot superhero, died as a pile of ash in Tony Stark’s arms. As someone who has long wished Marvel Studios movies upped the stakes in their stories, Avengers: Infinity War delivered with a bloody vengeance.
Yet it’s still somehow underwhelming, isn’t it? We saw what it looks like when Kevin Feige, and the Russo Brothers by extension, decide to stop playing nice, but we didn’t see the end of the story. Not really. In fact, Avengers: Infinity War is not so much a movie as it is the first half of a movie. The “darkness before the dawn,” as so described by another grim chapter in a superhero saga that’s often compared to Empire Strikes Back.
And make no mistake, Avengers: Infinity War most certainly wants to be viewed as Marvel’s Empire where the good guys were also thwarted by an evil galactic regime and at least one hero seemed permanently scattered to the wind. However, this third Avengers film (fourth if, like myself, you count Captain America: Civil War as basically an Avengers movie) doesn’t play like the second Star Wars movie or any other dark penultimate films. Because that was a complete story which worked as a continuation of an ongoing adventure and a standalone journey into night. Infinity War, by comparison, reminds me of a number of sequels that tell a fragmented story. More a season finale with a less than satisfying cliffhanger (looking at you The Walking Dead), Infinity War better resembles The Matrix Reloaded, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, and a variety of films that choose to offer just half a plot. Well that plus a promise that “Thanos Will Return.” Which unto itself is both a mocking of its audiences’ expectations and yet still an implicit admission that this movie is not done. You just need to wait a year.
In this sense, Avengers: Infinity War is both Marvel’s most ambitious attempt to break away from its own formula, and yet still its greatest concession to it. For never has there been another movie in the ongoing serialized saga that simply closes with everything left hanging in the air.
To be clear, Infinity War is a pretty good movie that does a lot of things right, so much so that those right things could be stories unto themselves. For even in its splintered state, there are compelling dramas at play, and most of them involve the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor. Indeed, unlike most of the earthbound superheroes in Infinity War, the Guardians’ Gamora and Thor have definite arcs that could have only been enriched by a movie simply about their brutal run-ins with Thanos, as well as more time spent on the choices they make as a consequence.
When the movie begins, Thor loses everything to Thanos, albeit mostly off-screen. Taking a page from the opening sequence of the original Star Wars movie, the Asgardians have been slaughtered by an imperial force that concludes with one of their leaders being choked to death by the Big Bad. Yet when that choking official is audience fan favorite Loki, who dies fighting for a brother and people he’s betrayed countless times, it leaves a meaningful and bitter scar on the audience and Thor. One that would have been better served by deeper exploration than Thor’s solitary heart-to-heart with Rocket Raccoon much later in the movie.
This is because like much else in Infinity War, Thor’s journey is stretched and painted in broad strokes, as the narrative must also cram nearly every major hero and villain (and a few minor ones too) into its luxurious running time. Still it is Thor losing everything and everyone in his life, despite his god status, that holds the emotional heart of the movie. His loss and Gamora’s thwarted attempt at gaining a life with Quill. For like Thor, she too has lost everything to Thanos well before Infinity War begins, and loses the chance of a new life by its end. It is the sorrow of her journey, and how it effects all the characters she’s met in previous films, that makes this appear like a Guardians of the Galaxy movie in which the Avengers are stealing an awful lot of screen time.
If Infinity War needed to set-up a big extravaganza final film, it is not hard to imagine it being an entirely cosmic picture about Gamora and even Nebula—the Star-Lord proclaimed “Boba Fett” of the MCU who barely registers as a cameo in the film about her long-teased revenge—seeking and failing to get their retribution, and what toll the loss of Gamora’s life has on Peter Quill and the rest of his team. That coupled with Thor’s anguish is more than enough to set up Thanos’ final film where he takes on and even slaughters the Avengers. Well half of them, anyway.
Because again, the brutality with which the film raises the stakes by having a villain do what almost no other of his big screen ilk have done—win—is a bold and wholly impressive feat by all the creatives involved. However, it would have meant so much more if they died in a film that was about their sacrifice and not about setting up the ultimate teaser for another MCU movie. But as it is, a cynic could argue that Infinity War is the ultimate post-credits scene: a feature-length teaser and advertisement for a future movie instead of a narrative unto itself.
There have been other superhero movies that reached for the level of darkness here. The Dark Knight, another of those penultimate tragedies people like to reference, also ends with the Joker arguably winning the day. At the very least, the fact that he muddied the water between victory and loss, right and wrong, is unto itself an achievement for him and his film. The hero of that movie must enter essentially a glorified political conspiracy that ends with his self-exile from society and a faux-tribute to a fallen friend. The Batman’s saga is not over, but that story has a grim and crushingly final sense of closure to its narrative.
Even more acutely similar to Infinity War is the superhero movie X-Men: Days of Future Past. Like Infinity War, almost all of its onscreen superheroes die horrible deaths; and unlike Infinity War only a few of them are developed above the level of cipher for the audience to care about. And yet, I would argue Days of Future Past has a greater cathartic heft because the shock of seeing the superheroes die isn’t the point. We know they’ll come back, intellectually if not emotionally. But that film doesn’t give you the opportunity to rationalize it, be it by a few minutes or more than a few months; the X-Men of the future are dying while the choices of characters audiences are allowed to care about (James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman’s Wolveirne, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique) decide whether that fate is final or not. The death and in retrospect oh-so-obvious return happen concurrently before the mind can get ahead of the narrative’s machinations.
If all stories are three acts, then the “fakeout” of the death is also like a formal magic trick: You have “the Pledge,” “the Turn,” and “the Prestige.” In the Turn, the magician vanishes to shocking effect. Thus the Prestige is where the he comes back. In Infinity War, the magician doesn’t come back. The audience is instead asked to grab their things and kindly leave the theater and patiently wait a year to see the magician come back for his final bow. It is by nature underwhelming and unfulfilling, as everyone knows he will return. Thanos might return; but so will Vision, Scarlet Witch, Gamora, and Spider-Man. Hell, they’re going to have to start marketing Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 before his shocking resurrection in Avengers 4.
This returns to a fundamental drawback with some of the MCU’s lesser efforts: movies are not television, no matter how successful the MCU has been at implementing a serialized narrative. Each movie has a beginning, middle, and end… except for movies like Infinity War, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and other cliffhanging halfers. And in general, the MCU is aware of this. When one compares Infinity War to the very best Marvel team-up movies, one sees that the filmmakers are all too aware of utilizing cinematic structure to hair-raising results.
While the very first Avengers movie from 2012 is definitely a sequel to all the MCU movies before it, it acts as a standalone “get the band together” movie in which Nick Fury assembles a dysfunctional team “like the Beatles,” as per Bruce Banner in Infinity War. But unlike Bruce in the 2018 sequel, what drives him in the first Avengers (“I’m always angry”) is not left as a hanging thread with no resolution for 12 months. Similarly, Civil War is only possible because of all the superhero movies that came before it in the MCU. And yet, it is a conflict established in that film (the Sokovia Accords) that leads to character-defining arcs for its leads in Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. It’s a band breaking up film.
In contrast, there is no defining arc for anyone but Gamora and Thor in Infinity War. And one of them is dead. For now. Until the story is over. Which might mean Avengers 4 has all the catharsis denied in Infinity War, but at 150 minutes and a budget presumably near a quarter-billion dollars, that is one pricy missing ingredient for the here and now.