To preface, I would like to say that this review is not intended to mock, shame, or otherwise agitate viewers who enjoyed Infinity War. I do not wish to rob them of any enjoyment they may have gotten; instead, I hope to elucidate how the film functions as a media artifact and why I found it unimpressive in execution. I encourage introspection on how these divergent critical perspectives came to be, and how our individual frames of reference color our conclusions.
*Spoilers for pretty much every MCU movie within*
I. Rose-Tinted Spectacles
I don’t know if I will ever have a theatrical experience comparable to the first time I saw The Avengers in 2012. Although I hadn’t particularly bought into the movie’s hype train, I went to see it with a group of dear friends during a period in my life that I look back on with great fondness. We were joined by a teacher we shared in high school, who agreed to come along with us on the condition that we all went in costume. In the span of about a week, our group constructed a set of costumes made from various household supplies and whatever we could scrounge up at Goodwill. If nothing else, I thought, this venture would leave us with some fun memories.
When opening evening arrived, our gang lined up outside the theater well in advance, and, unexpectedly, turned into local celebrities for about a half-hour. In a small town, where everything closed at 8 PM and the most happening club is Applebee’s, neither children nor adults were used to seeing this kind of spectacle in a public space. I thought myself ill-suited to satisfy the impromptu audience’s need for theme park mascots. I had chosen to wear Thor, even though I hadn’t seen his movie. Rings of aluminum foil constituted my armor. An old dish cloth flapped behind me as my cape. And yet, when I raised and swung the toy Mjolnir I had purchased from the Wal-Mart one block over, when the photos snapped and the kids cheered, everything felt right. Before we even entered the theater, all of us were beaming. I knew at that point that our outing would be a worthwhile experience, regardless of the film’s quality.
And to my utter shock, Joss Whedon and the talented staff at Marvel pulled it off. The Avengers was like nothing I had ever seen, a fanboy fantasy come to life. Seeing all of these big stars, their characters previously selling-points for solo movies, come together and join forces in a multi-hour action romp rife with witty dialogue, unforgettable performances, and an uplifting tone made all of us leave the screening feeling stupefied. Nobody had any illusions about the story being particularly deep or anything, but just seeing all these heroes brawling it out in one place with such high production values was unprecedented. Today, I’d honestly liken the film more to a concert or a music festival than an actual story – people came to The Avengers to witness something that hadn’t been tried on this scale before, to watch several Hollywood A-Listers interact in a shared space where their individual film franchises overlapped. This had been the pipe dream of crossover culture for decades, and at the time, it felt like something you would eventually tell your kids about seeing, like the moon landing or the last episode of M.A.S.H. The spectacle of its mere existence was entirely the point, and I think it deserved the cultural sensation that followed in its wake.
I have not watched The Avengers since that viewing over six years ago. I know how much my opinion was shaped by the film’s novelty, the irreplaceable experience I had seeing it with friends and mentors on that opening day, my integration into that jubilant crowd via my budget cosplay, and the fervor that lingered with us in the days following the screening. I’m certain I would look at the film more critically if I went back to it now, but I nonetheless believe that the first Avengers movie is an achievement. Like the most expensive, bombastic magic show ever, the filmmakers did what I previously thought impossible and dazzled us into a stupor with this ambitious project that spanned four years and six films. And there’s merit in this; I wonder how film historians will contextualize the impact of the first Avengers film in context of other seminal spectacle-driven works, like King Kong or Star Wars. But cinematic culture shocks are nonetheless ephemeral and can’t be replicated. A long-term story cannot thrive on spectacle alone.
In the intervening years, Marvel has released an additional 14 live-action, theatrical films in this series, as well as television spin-offs and other tie-ins. To say that they’ve saturated the market is to say that Rob Liefeld isn’t the best artist of human anatomy. Even the people who like the movies admit that they’ve fallen into a formula, and seeing a new one in theaters every few months can be tiring, to say the least. I’ve seen every single one of the films leading up to Infinity War, with my opinions varying strongly between them. The winners by a country mile are James Gunn’s Guardians of Galaxy movies, likely due to a stronger writer-director voice contributing to more unified aesthetics, themes, and ideas in the texts (for more information and better film critiques, please check out Lindsay Ellis’s review of GotG Vol. 2, which helps to capture why I think it’s one of Marvel’s strongest films). I also greatly enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man, but eventually, the genre fatigue started to wear me down.
The second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, came out to middling praise in 2015, although I actually think I enjoyed it more than most critics did. But that special quality that enraptured me during the first movie was definitely absent. By the time 2018 rolled around, the game-changer had become the blockbuster standard, inspiring copycats in its own image, such as DC’s film series and the ill-fated Dark Universe from Universal. Size and scale no longer impressed me, and self-congratulatory team-up flicks with little story content to speak of felt like hollow facsimiles, endlessly setting up point points for future films by blatantly advertising them in the text, perpetually deferring story progression until the heat death of the universe.
Infinity War, the third movie to bear the Avengers namesake, offered to bring all of the disparate stories to a head in one climactic showdown with series baddie Thanos. But even as the film went on to achieve commercial success and critical acclaim, I found myself vexed by a movie that felt bloated, unambitious, incoherent, and exhausting to watch. To an extent, I can understand why the film has become such a success – it gave Marvel fans exactly what they wanted, delivered on everything they’ve conditioned them to believe a superhero movie should be, and, on a surface level, paid off on a decade’s worth of previous productions. But Infinity War is also the product of one of the biggest hype campaigns in human history, likely to be equaled only by the second coming of Christ. A veneer of illusive cultural significance masks the film’s medley of narrative flaws and storytelling failures.
I’ve seen several people, both of social media and in professional publications, use terms like “groundbreaking” to define Infinity War. In retrospect, I can’t say for certain whether the original Avengers movie deserves to be honored as a breakthrough event that changed the landscape of the industry. I can’t help but question if my nostalgia glasses were the right prescription. I can, however, say with confidence that Infinity War fails to qualify as anything remotely bold, refreshing, or even competent.
II. Get Hype
From Super Bowl promos to Fortnite tie-ins to the limitless deluge of memes, Infinity War material dominated pretty much every medium of news or entertainment in the periods leading up to and following its initial release. By showing up everywhere, Infinity War aimed to convince its viewers that it was the movie event of the century, that all of Marvel’s previous blockbusters were only stepping-stones leading up to this mega-hit. The film boasted the highest marketing budget of any of the other installments within cinema’s most lucrative franchise – a staggering $150 million were allocated to promos alone. And to the delight and relief of undergraduate advertising students everywhere, the movie’s manufactured prophecy facilitated its overwhelming success. Infinity War became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, surpassing $2 billion in sales and easily overtaking the previous two movies. The aggressive manipulation of hype culture – the perpetual Grail Quest for the next biggest thing – allowed Infinity War’s existence as the culmination of this expensive project to justify a supposedly inherent significance, divorced from more traditional metrics of criticism. In other words, hype and marketing helped to erect new standards by which the film would be judged, predicated on size, scale, and intertextuality with previous films.
Even though the “Infinity War is the most ambitious crossover event in history” memes usually carried an element of absurdist satire in their counter-examples, a tacit acknowledgment of the claim came by the fact that its accuracy was rarely questioned. And there’s no real reason why it should be, because, from a certain point of view, the statement is true. I can’t think of a movie that leaned into its premise as a crossover sensation quite as hard as Infinity War, privileging that aspect in marketing over all others. As far back as January 2016, Director Joseph Russo touted the 67 character cast in a bid to pique excitement. So when the hype is directed at the immense size of the cast, the inclusion of so many characters, then that’s what the potential audience is told to value. As information disseminates in the forms of marketing, word-of-mouth, and the all-important memes, it reinforces the assertion that this immensity is the dominating factor for what makes the movie noteworthy. And I’m not saying that silly internet images need to express criticism of our media consumption habits; I’m simply considering the impact they have on the mass transmission of ideas and attitudes.
Of course, many films, even reputable ones, use gimmicks like this frequently in their advertising to illustrate their unique achievement; famously (or perhaps infamously), Richard Linklater’s Boyhood earned admiration from many viewers and critics solely on the fact that it was shot over a period of 12 years. In many cases, it’s difficult not to be impressed by something like that. But in the case of Infinity War, the proof of concept for a large, multi-film crossover event had already been fulfilled in 2012. So when the movie increased its cast from less than a dozen heroes to more than 50, I saw the dissipation of potential for The Avengers to go beyond a flash in the pan gimmick. After the honeymoon period of the first film ended, instead of using its sequels to delve deeper into the story and existing characters, the franchise instead doubled-down on its premise, cluttering the frame with innumerable bodies and flooding the films with an ankle-deep ocean of a narrative – simultaneously broad and shallow.
In my opinion, having 67 principal characters does not qualify a film for greatness. If anything, it leads to an inevitable bloating and lack of focus. I find it puzzling that so many audiences (rightfully) grilled Ready Player One for its hollow appropriation of pop culture icons without context or meaning, yet seemingly gave Infinity War a pass despite its overreliance on cameos, callbacks, and a slavish allocation of screen time to every minor figure from the previous 18 entries. Much of Infinity War reminded me of the “EVERYONE IS HERE” tagline from the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate trailer – except the Purple Guy actually made into Infinity War.
The consequence of the film’s myopic pursuit – being the definitive crossover event – gradually rears its ugly head as the story progresses. Characters seem to teleport around, possess knowledge they logically shouldn’t have, and are magnetically attracted to plot contrivances. From the hot-potatoed cell phone lost and found amidst the rubble of the New York streets, to Captain America and company’s sudden, inexplicable appearance in a dingy train station that Vision happened to crash into while battling in the skies over Scotland, to the Guardians’ overly fortuitous discovery of Thor in the void of space, to Thor’s knowledge of the final battle in Wakanda despite never meeting Black Panther, to Thanos’s bizarrely premeditated trap on Knowhere, in which he either a) somehow knew the Guardians were coming and projected a false version of the station beforehand, or b) only created the illusion after the Guardians arrived, and they seemingly neglected to notice that the station was on fire before they entered.
Almost all big movies have problems with handwavy plot contrivances like these, but they’re more frequent and more egregious in Infinity War due to the structural nature of the narrative. Every aspect is designed around getting the heroes together for the next action set piece, and with so many characters from so many different backgrounds to juggle, the script repeatedly forces these scenarios without regard to causality or internal logic. Not only does the bloated cast prevent individual characters from having arcs, but it also inhibits the natural progression of the team-up action sequences around which the film revolves. The movie’s biggest selling point becomes its greatest detriment.
Furthermore, the coalescence of all these superheroes onto a single screen leads to a great deal of tonal and stylistic discrepancies. A previous strength in the Marvel films stemmed from their stylistic diversity – the spy drama of The Winter Soldier looked a lot different from the neon flare of Guardians of the Galaxy, or the kaleidoscopic acid trips of Doctor Strange. As the movies settled into an established formula for their plots, they kept things somewhat fresh by each adopting a signature visual style to complement the tone and ideas of the piece. But these aesthetics clash easily when lumped together into a veritable circus near the movie’s finale. We have the semi-realistic soldiers of Captain America and Black Widow, but they’re eventually accompanied in the final battle by goofy CG characters like Groot and Rocket Raccoon. These types of team-ups are common in comics, but the nature of sequential art typically means that everything rendered within has a more consistent style. The transition to live-action and motion poses uncanny difficulties for this type of crossover, and Infinity War fails to strike a good balance between these clashing aesthetics.
What the audience is eventually left with is a series of long, tedious action scenes with little tension or relevance to plot progression. The film retains a kinetic pace throughout, leaving no time for pillow scenes to process all that’s happened or let anything emotionally resonant actually sink in. Instead, we’re consistently treated to filler battles with Thanos’s goons and some shockingly bad looking CG alien mooks in Wakanda. So much of the action is shot in wide shots that remove any sense of weight or impact. Eventually, my brain started to check out because the action wasn’t being used effectively to punctuate important or exciting moments. Rather, it ended up as the movie’s visual baseline. All the while, underdeveloped characters participate in fights that have little to do with their personal stories, interests, or investments. This renders the combat stale at best and confusing at worst. Black Panther, the pragmatic leader of a sovereign nation, seems awfully eager to sacrifice the lives of thousands of his soldiers to preserve the life of one android who wants to die. Meanwhile, there’s no consistency in the power scaling, which gets more and more problematic as Thanos’s godmoding escalates beyond control. Apparently, Thor can take a sustained blast from a neutron star, one of the hottest, densest objects in the universe, but a punch from Thanos will lay his ass out. The carnage feels blown out of proportion, crossing the boundary from over-the-top fun and into alienating indifference.
This isn’t to say that the film is completely devoid of enjoyable moments. Watching the clashing egotism of Stark and Strange was still a sight to behold, and despite the tired, worn-out look that marked the faces of many of the veteran cast members, everyone performed their role with a great deal of charisma. But ultimately, the daunting size of the cast virtually eliminated the possibility of an emotional core.
III. Civil War, Continuity, and Consequence
In order to clarify why I believe Infinity War fails to deliver on the decade of build-up behind it, I first need to briefly discuss another popular MCU flick.
Between their work on The Winter Soldier and Infinity War, directors Anthony and Joseph Russo helmed Captain America: Civil War, the third installment in Cap’s saga, very loosely based off an edgy Mark Millar comic of the same name. Despite admiring their first outing into the Marvel series, where they turned the Captain America story into a slick, streamlined spy thriller that forces Steve Rogers to confront the contradiction between his “all-American” virtues and the paranoid, repressive arms of the state as they exist today, I found their work on Civil War to be messy and lacking in vision. As the title might suggest, Civil War strikes me as a divided house, trying on one hand to be a campy team-up action flick that pits hero vs. hero, while also presenting a genuinely compelling tale about trauma, grief, and personal vengeance. The fluctuations in quality that Civil War showcases from moment to moment often leave me baffled, and in retrospect it’s definitely the fulcrum of the team-up movie – the transition point where the MCU began to move away from tight, character-oriented scripts and more towards bombast.
Civil War benefits from effective character drama between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, but only with regard to their more personal stakes – namely, Stark’s rage at Bucky Barnes, Cap’s desire to protect Barnes, and the wedge this drives into their friendship. But in order for the movie to have the big hero vs. hero team fight that the audience presumably wants, the script reorients the story as a hackneyed political drama about superhero interventionism and the Avengers’ lack of oversight and accountability. I’m aware this was the crux of the source material, but it wasn’t very strong there and feels entirely out of place here. The plot about the superhero regulation laws feels like lip service to the source material, and all the resulting conflict accomplishes is making Captain America, framed as righteous by the formal and thematic devices present in the film, promote a reckless, juvenile, borderline objectivist philosophy – the same kind of ideas that Stark supported in Iron Man 2, but as we’ll discuss later, Tony is a revolving door of character development. In fact, most characters act with confusing and contradictory motivations throughout the whole movie – one of the more egregious examples being Black Panther, whose characterization received a much-needed restructuring by the time his own feature film came out.
But Helmut Zemo steals the show when it comes to sloppy screenwriting. While I greatly appreciated the filmmakers’ attempt to distance themselves from the typical superweapon-wielding villain that the MCU relished in (and which they would fortunately break away from in the future, with characters like The Vulture and Killmonger), Zemo’s plot to unravel the Avengers from within proves entirely ridiculous when you remember that he’s just an average person. Zemo’s plan to manipulate the Winter Soldier, Captain America, and Iron Man into conflict through a series of framed political assassinations, the co-opting of the Sokovia Accords controversy, and the eventual trail of breadcrumbs leading the three heroes to a red herring where he unveiled his true goal all required so much prescience, so much knowledge of how everyone would react in each situation, such perfectly calculated mental puppetry that it feels like Virginia Woolf writing a Dune novel. Seriously, with all of these superpowered individuals investigating the mystery, attempting to foil Zemo’s plot at every turn, and making and breaking alliances as the situation demands it, the dominos fall so perfectly into place that it foregrounds the weak script’s bias for Zemo. So many variables flutter chaotically throughout the plot that the very concept of the film resolving in the manner it did feels ludicrous. The bizarre penchant of the Russo brothers to privilege the villain’s evil plan and the nonsensical execution thereof would return with a vengeance in Infinity War.
The confused character dynamics and contrived execution of Civil War’s story beats both exist as byproducts of a certain imperative: forcing all the characters together for obligatory but ultimately pointless action scenes. With the inclusion of Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Ant-Man to the roster, Civil War’s turgid cast made me notice the adverse effects of such a crossover for the first time in the series, and proved a grim omen of things to come. The story progression effectively grinds to a halt mid-way through the film to have a big battle in the world’s emptiest airport lot between two teams of heroes fighting with loose justification. Suddenly everything switches to ugly wide shots that attempt to cram in as many characters as possible, with little regard to basic composition. Other scenes in the film look much different from this. Particularly, the final fight between Captain America, the Winter Soldier, and Iron Man looks beautiful by comparison. I’d rather not digress into a breakdown of individual shots, because this section is already beginning to resemble the movie it’s complaining about in its superfluity. But compare these:
It’s hard to believe these shots are from the same damn movie. And for the record, I’m not cherry-picking. These shots turn up among the top results when you Google Image Search the respective scenes.
The point I’m attempting to make here lies in the fact that Civil War possesses undoubtedly good elements, from both narrative and filmmaking perspectives. However, its obligation to satisfy the hype of the “civil war” premise, to introduce more new characters and smash them together like action figures, actively undermines the script by inorganically leading the plot from set piece to set piece. And this also leads to drastically conflicting tones. In addition to its eschewal of the dark, proximal shots that characterize much of the film, the big action scene also features Spider-Man making cheeky quips about The Empire Strikes Back while roping up Ant-Man’s legs. This culminates in a film that feels like a diegetically-shaky, amorphous blob.
And yet, my most substantial grievance with Civil War comes from its failure to deliver on its core premise. For a “civil war”, there sure aren’t many casualties. It’s dishonest to evoke the concept of war and not have a single one of your heroes bite the dust. I can’t remember any consequences at all, for that matter. War Machine sustains a crippling injury that supposedly paralyzes him, taking him out of the game, but don’t worry; he’s fine in Infinity War. The Sokovia Accords that limit hero activity have precisely zero relevance on future films. The arrested Avengers get busted out by Cap in the end. Captain America loses his shield only to find a new one. Bucky loses his metal arm, thus symbolically shedding the years of brainwashed servitude he suffered as the Winter Soldier, and then immediately puts on a new one come Infinity War. The Avengers split up, but all it takes is a phone call to bring them back together. The Russo brothers undermine what little development that occurred in Civil War almost immediately. Even at its initial release in 2016, I remember leaving the film feeling hollow, like I’d watched two and half hours of static.
These issues point to a larger problem with the MCU: there isn’t enough story to encompass 19 movies. You could write a summary of the series’ overarching plot on the back of a ticket stub on your way to see Ant-Man and the Wasp. Every plot point, every ounce of character development has been spread so thin that Trojan wants to patent it. Watching an abusively long film that goes nowhere usually leads to dissatisfaction. I don’t think Marvel wants to make “Waiting for Godot”, but they’ve gotten awfully good at it.
A common response to criticism of Infinity War effectively having neither story nor character development usually falls something along the lines of, “That was in the last 18 movies leading up to this”. I’ve been personally accused of watching Infinity War without seeing the other films, despite the fact that I’ve seen all of them. But when we consider that the continuity of this cinematic library in relation to Infinity War matters only in the most superficial sense, that the previous films are mainly used for references and callbacks, then Infinity War’s lack of internal substance becomes more damning.
The truth is that Infinity War renders most of the events of the previous films inconsequential. I’ve already mentioned all the things in Civil War that go nowhere, but this issue proves shockingly endemic among MCU flicks. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor loses Mjolnir, his iconic hammer, and learns that his true power as the God of Thunder lies within himself – just as the true essence of Asgard dwells in its people, not its cities. So although the hammer of the gods shatters and their homeland falls, Thor’s maturation and subsequent rescue of his people, even at the cost of his eye, still saves the day. In Infinity War, the Asgard refugees immediately fall to hands of Thanos, Thor gets a prosthetic eye, and forges a new axe to fight with, totally undermining the story of the previous film. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker passes on Tony Stark’s offer of a new mechanized Spidey Suit, a humble acceptance of his role as a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”, just trying to do the right thing. Within the first act of Infinity War, Spider-Man dons the new suit that Tony gave him and jumps on an alien spaceship to engage in a cosmic battle as far away from home as humanly possible. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 focuses on Peter Quill’s maturation as a person away from the destructive machismo he used to hide his insecurities. Now he’s back to being an arrogant, aggressive jerk in Infinity War. And throughout every movie he appears, Iron Man seems to: learn, forget, and relearn lessons about humility, paranoia, and his own self-destructive behavior; earn and lose the affections of Pepper on a regular basis; oscillate between destroying/retiring his superhero assets, only to spontaneously possess new ones; and alternate between retirement to an administrative role in the Avengers, as shown at the end of Age of Ultron, and involvement in direct action (Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Infinity War).
So there’s absolutely no truth to the conceit that you need to see all the movies to understand Infinity War, or that it’s the culmination of 10 years worth of plot development. The films lack consequence in a macro sense. For a project emulating serialized fiction, there remains a remarkable tendency towards homeostasis. From Age of Ultron to Civil War to Infinity War, almost nothing can disrupt the stasis of the MCU. Bad faith justifications of Infinity War’s dearth of plot hold ridiculous in their own right, as if they’re admissions that the film isn’t supposed to be good. But beyond that, the movie doesn’t respect its audience’s understanding of causality, their eye for character consistency, or the time and money they’ve committed to get this far in the story.
The previous films, even the good ones, embody a marketing gimmick, not a groundbreaking storytelling gamble. Disney wants audiences to believe that they need to see every movie to understand the others. I know several people who went back to see Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther just so they had context for Infinity War, only to conclude that it wasn’t necessary. The series gravitates towards a status quo so that anyone can hop into a theater seat and feel comfortable knowing only what they absorbed through cultural osmosis. Disney and Marvel know that not everyone is going to watch every movie, and they can’t afford to lose viewers on expensive projects like this one.
This partially explains why I’m so puzzled by the strong reaction to the character deaths at the end of Infinity War. With characters dying in such an impalpable, anticlimactic, and blasé manner, it’s hard to believe they won’t get resurrected by the end of the next installment, especially after the franchise has betrayed the idea of stakes and consequences so consistently.
Coupling this with the absence of an authentic emotional core leaves investment extremely difficult. And in response to the critics citing Thanos as the story’s emotional center… Well…
IV. Thanos: The Gauntlet of Fate
It wouldn’t be totally inaccurate to say that your enjoyment of Infinity War may be largely predicated on how much you like Thanos. As stated earlier, Marvel has a bit of a history with weak villains – I like The Winter Soldier, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, the first Guardians movie, and even Thor 2 (to an extent), yet I can hardly tell you a single thing about the villains from any of them. The studio has obviously worked very hard to address this issue in recent films, which I applaud them for, even if the characters haven’t always worked for me. To Thanos’s credit, Josh Brolin does an amazing job bringing life to the character, giving him a sense of personality that pushes against the limitations of the script. Not to mention that Thanos looks remarkably convincing for a CG character, with a subtly expressive face and a physical presence that I never doubt. As far as superhero villains go, I’ve definitely seen weaker characters than him, but I still found him wanting for nuance in many respects. And though I think the hype surrounding him feels somewhat artificial, I take greater issue with claims that he is, in fact, the protagonist.
Thanos operates under the assumption that the audience already has a notion of his menace. Indeed, he’s been built up since the first Avengers, and made cameos in Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy. A large part of the film’s marketing had to do with him; Fortnite even added him as a playable juggernaut powerhouse in one of their promotional events. But the extra-diegetic hype over Thanos clashes with the textual reality of his role in the films’ events. In The Avengers, he entrusted his evil plan to Loki, who bungled it horribly. In Guardians, he enlisted Ronan the Accuser, a petulant and incompetent C-List villain if ever there was one, to retrieve the Power Stone, only to face immediate treachery from Ronan, Gamora, and Nebula – all of which went unpunished. The post-credits scene in Age of Ultron shows him withdrawing the Infinity Gauntlet and claiming that he’ll “do it himself”, suggesting that he had something to do with Ultron’s uprising and the manifestation of the Mind Stone, despite this not being the case. So in truth, Thanos has spent the last dozen movies with his oversized, gloved thumb firmly up his ass, and all of his plans until this point were swiftly defeated. Since he gained no ground on the heroes in the previous 18 movies, he comes across as less Darth Vader and more Skeletor, with his weekly world domination plans regularly foiled.
The movie presents Thanos as this looming menace who’s finally emerged from the shadows to carry out his galactic retribution. Everything has led up to this, or so the marketing suggests. The cinematography exudes a sense of celebration as Thanos pommels the heroes, as if it’s delivering on a latent promise. When Bruce Banner arrives back on Earth and warns that “Thanos is coming”, the audience is meant to laugh at Doctor Strange’s nonplussed reaction. “He doesn’t know about the biggest Marvel villain ever? What an idiot!” Granted, Infinity War at least offers a scene at the beginning where he easily defeats Thor, Hulk, and pals, which helps to legitimize his threat to a point, but I still found the baggage of hype that informed his execution here undeserved, considering the context of previous movies.
In fact, I personally prefer Ultron to Thanos in the context of villainy. Though his scope was confined to a single movie, Ultron showed a great deal of charisma and vulnerability uncommon in both Marvel villains and the evil A.I. archetype in general. Something about his paternal animosity, his kinship with the Maximoff siblings as fellow orphans of Stark, and his palpable fear of abandonment really resonated with me. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two characters comes from the fact that Ultron is motivated by emotion – he’s bitter, spiteful, and nihilistic. Thanos’s ethos derives its core from an internalized ideology, a more “rational” approach, which often makes for a respectable antagonist, but it doesn’t work quite so well with the logic of the universe in this case. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem normally, as Marvel’s gotten away with villains with nonsensical or nonexistent ideologies before, and there’s at least an attempt with Thanos, so he could, at the very least, act as a serviceable Monster of the Week. But the downside of this goes beyond the reduction of his supposedly grandiose status.
If an audience has difficulty understanding or identifying with Thanos as a villain, that’s not really a deal-breaker; unlike typical adventure story protagonists, villains don’t necessarily have the burden of being relatable, and can handily get away with simply being alien and cool. The problem arises when Thanos is recontextualized as the protagonist, as asserted by director Jose Russo and plenty of online critics. Their understanding of what constitutes an effective protagonist proves remarkably juvenile, as Thanos’s journey fails to make a compelling case for this quality. Neither the structural aspects of the story nor the sloppy characterization nor his illogical morality qualify him as a protagonist in any regard.
Russo claims that Thanos “has the hero’s journey in the movie,” and “has the major traditional character beats”. This is verifiably false. For starters, Thanos maneuvers through the movie relatively unabated. He conquers all challenges with ease, and threats from the proper heroes rarely seem like anything beyond minor nuisances to him. Nothing transformative occurs. As he gathers Infinity Stones, the rising stakes progressively skew in his favor, contrary to how tension should escalate for a protagonist. For all the hullabaloo over supposed “Mary Sues” (I loathe the term) in cinema lately, I find it odd that his cheat-code level of power, escalated beyond the point of absurdity, gets overlooked when considering him as a lead character. Again, overpowered characters are not inherently bad or even detrimental to narratives, hence why we often see them cast as antagonists. But to have such an unstoppable force as a hero, one who rarely, if ever, faces setbacks or defeat, severely derails the emotional pacing and structure of a story. Everything starts to resemble a sequence of banal chores as tension dwindles. He suffers only inconsequential physical challenges, and the sole emotional beat he undergoes is paced and resolved in an unsatisfying manner.
The scene in which Thanos travels with Gamora to a distant world in order to retrieve the Soul Stone should’ve constituted a major dramatic beat, but everything fell flat in execution. At the precipice of a mountain, he learns that the only way to retrieve the gem necessary to accomplish his mission is to give up what he loves most. In a more realized screenplay, this should’ve been a third-act twist: one where the hero either shifts goals or the villain faces an ironic defeat. Since Thanos loves nothing, his grail lies forever beyond his reach – Gamora even says this. And nothing thus far has indicated that Thanos possesses any traits mitigating his monstrous nature. An odd flashback scene involving his abduction of a child Gamora, who seems all too willing to go with him without a fuss in spite of her people’s genocide in the background, attempts to force some sentimentality, but it makes things more confusing and incongruous. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 revealed that Thanos regularly tormented his daughters, forcing them to fight each other and removing body parts from the loser. Unless viewed in the most perverted, abusive mindset, no audience could reasonably believe Thanos’s capacity for love. But he sacrifices Gamora anyway and obtains his prize. The film frantically tries to backtrack here as he sheds a few obligatory tears, but considering the characterization and context, the whole attempt reeks of a desperate, borderline humorous, plea for emotion.
Our “hero’s” sacrifice barely constitutes a speed bump in his warpath. The entire conflict gets introduced and resolved in the span of a minute or two, and Thanos faces no more personal or emotional challenges for the duration. Sloppy characterization renders a dramatic scene frustratingly comical, and this epitomizes why Thanos cannot be regarded as the protagonist by any means. The sequence does, however, offer up some weird, disconcerting apologism for sadistic abuse in a flaccid appeal for sympathy. So that’s nice.
Not all protagonists need to follow the Campbellian Hero’s Journey to a tee, mind you, but to explicitly cite such a concept in reference to Thanos proves disingenuous at best.
The shaky world-building doesn’t do Thanos’s motives any favors, either. Supposedly, Thanos developed an ideology based around balance, correcting what he views as imbalances in the universe. This primarily takes the form of population control in response to resource scarcity. His primary goal, which he achieves at the end of the movie, comes with the erasure of half the life in the cosmos. And according to Russo, since he “wins the film” and “completes his mission”, that makes him the hero. Russo fails to comprehend that victory doesn’t equal heroism – neither in a narrative sense nor a moral one.
Countless elements of the setting and the characterization of Thanos’s order refute the idea that any sort of sympathetic altruism underlies this goal. His very name evokes Thanatos, the Greek personification of death, and his cadre of ruthless lieutenants further cements the Saturday morning cartoon villain vibe. They extol their master’s virtues in a cultic manner, evangelizing on how the civilizations they massacre should feel blessed. This type of megalomania doesn’t jive with the debatably altruistic motives we’re meant to consider. Having a legion of doom doing his dirty work also hurts Thanos’s case for being the lead character, as he’s not directly facing his challenges half the time.
Moreover, if the risk of intergalactic extinction actually rang true, then wouldn’t it have been more effective to showcase any evidence of that in the preceding films? You only had 18 to work with! Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor gave us a look at bizarre alien landscapes and advanced civilizations of several types, but never once did they give off any notion of some impending cataclysm. While you could potentially argue that wealth disparity existed in Asgard, Xandar, and the Grandmaster’s City, nothing gave the impression of a resource crisis or a society on the brink of inevitable collapse. Narratives about resource scarcity can be effective, but they often confine themselves to Earth, or at least a singular location where reserves already face depletion. The MCU spans the stars, where space travel gives quick access to a variety of untapped locales. Considering the vastness of the universe, such a shortage could never believably occur in the setting, but the filmmakers recklessly and thoughtlessly import these dramatic conventions from other stories without realizing how they function. Not to mention that Thanos fundamentally misunderstands how natural culling works, and that population difficulties usually resolve themselves without the direct intervention of outright genocide. Yes, this resolution often manifests in the form of mass deaths, and the morality of brutal naturalism can be contested, but Thanos paradoxically seeks to intervene to enforce a natural, self-regulating cycle. Again, this plot could work if Thanos wished to punish or eradicate specific groups or civilizations that he deemed vile, unworthy, or otherwise harmful to universal prosperity, but his philosophy of random selection contradicts this.
Without any convincing framing in the text, Thanos’s plan seems flat-out incomprehensible to the audience, especially when it’s responding such an intangible threat that the world-building never established. Identification can’t occur, and neither can sympathy – he’s just a dumb, brutish monster who rampages through the universe practically unopposed, and the marketing tells us to believe that he’s more than that.
Thanos stands out as a typical sophomoric attempt at a morally grey antagonist whose methods run counter to his motives. Ostensibly striving to preserve life in the long-term, Thanos utilizes his fully powered Infinity Gauntlet to delete half of the universe from existence. But throughout the film we see him manipulate the fabric of the universe with the Reality Stone, creating objects from nothing, turning weapons into bubbles, etc. Could he not use this to solve the resource problem he so fears? Or could he not use the Space and Time Stones to much the same end? Destruction seems like a crude and indirect method for resolving this problem. This issue likely results from the transition from the page to screen. In the Infinity Gauntlet comic, Thanos annihilates life on a massive scale in a bid to win the affections of Death herself. In this sense, his motives align with his methods. The filmmakers preserved his iconic holocaust, but never stopped to consider how it no longer made sense. Infinity War consistently prioritizes a spectacular facsimile over substantial storytelling.
Ultimately, there’s no way to justify his mass slaughter, no matter what vague metaphysical threat it’s responding too, because genocide isn’t rational. I actually find it rather alarming that so many viewers and critics agreed with the directors about Thanos’s heroism, because it demonstrates an eagerness to accept genocide in the name of utilitarianism. Infinity War might serve as the greatest revelatory prank on Western culture if it wasn’t so dumb.
Now, I don’t believe the Russo brothers support this ideology, nor do I think they intended this particular message. But in its hollow appropriation of images evoking mass destruction, coupled with the well-known shorthand for writing a “sympathetic” villain, the movie accidentally endorses this. In truth, the Avengers didn’t meet defeat at the hands of Thanos; rather, the incuriosity of the filmmakers killed them.
V. The Snap
In the wake of Infinity War, the Avengers brand tastes less like popcorn and more like cotton candy – what once was an exhilarating cinematic spectacle for me now feels wispy, unfulfilling, and barely palpable. The sweetness dances on me tongue for only a second before vanishing, reminding me of how hungry I am. The movie’s ending makes a mockery of the idea that any of these installments were building towards a dynamic or dramatic story. Every film before and every film on the horizon feels marred by its cynical, soap operatic adherence to the status quo.
The last act spends its time spinning its wheels, almost like a microcosm for the franchise’s plot at large. Scarlet Witch’s tragic killing of Vision, for all its lengthy, melodramatic bombast, tries the audience’s patience. We know that Thanos will stop at nothing to get the Mind Stone, and he just acquired the Time Stone, allowing him to undo the sacrifice before there’s even a moment for its impact to land – not that it could, considering how obvious this twist was. And so, with a snap of his fingers, Thanos deletes half of all living beings. This leads to an exhausting montage meticulously cataloguing the fates of literally dozens of characters. Basic pacing and editing take a backseat to a morbid roll call. As far as breathtaking mass extinction scenes go, this ain’t “Komm, süsser Tod”.
Greatest of all affronts is how transparently Marvel acknowledges that none of this matters. The series has already eschewed lasting consequences on multiple occasions, and several of the recently deceased characters already have films in production. A new Spider-Man comes out just months after Infinity War’s 2019 follow-up. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 got confirmed for the following year. They’re essential components in the hype engine, so they can’t go unadvertised. This year’s biggest movie undermines its own ending by forecasting the inevitable survival and return of all the fallen heroes. Infinity War, like the flicks that came before it, will amount to nothing but a footnote as the franchise marches on in episodic normalcy.
If nothing else, I predict the next Avengers movie will be better, if only because it’s supposedly downsizing its cast. I find it awfully convenient that the sole survivors of Thanos’s purge, with the exceptions of Rocket Raccoon and Nebula, happen to be the main Avengers from the first movie. I would’ve preferred that Marvel retire the characters of Iron Man, Captain America, and the like, considering how tired their presence is – after a minimum of five movies each, many of their performers seem bored and playing their part by the numbers. I think it would’ve been more exciting for the surviving heroes to consist of the more inexperienced and underexposed ones – Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, the Guardians, Black Panther, etc. Having the B-Team forced to find a way to stop Thanos on their own, all the while showcasing new party dynamics, would make for a more interesting experience than recycling the team composition from the first two Avengers.
But I fear that even if the next movie materializes as a better work than Infinity War, I doubt I’ll see it. I’ve burnt out on Marvel movies. They have their formula and they’ve grown comfortable in it. Even if their quality had a stronger consistency, I still think that seeing three movies a year would eventually leave anyone exhausted with the series. Since Infinity War earned so much, it’s clear that the shared universe superhero bubble isn’t likely to burst anytime soon, but I do notice more and more genre fatigue among film buffs. If I could remove half the library with a snap of my fingers, I would. I liked many of these movies, but I just can’t be bothered to care anymore, especially with the franchise’s audacious disregard for consequential storytelling.
Hype culture enables all of this. Studios and complicit audiences defer satisfactory narratives for the promise of an even bigger payoff, forever in the distance. Instead of using the films’ serial quality as a carrot on a stick, it’s more accurately a carrot on a treadmill – we ultimately go nowhere, and they don’t even let us eat the goddamn carrot!
As I write this, I worry that I’ve turned into a contrarian. I personally don’t believe so – or at least, I don’t want to. I can’t deny how distant I’ve grown from fan culture in recent years, though. I loved The Last Jedi and hated Infinity War, which I’m pretty sure marks me for death at any convention I might attend. However, it’s not my intention to oppose the prevailing opinion on principle. I simply wish for movies that succeed as movies, not as fanboy reliquaries.
I get no joy out of disliking something, and even less out of tearing down what other people love. I imagine I’d feel guilty if someone stopped liking or admiring a movie because of something I said, so I don’t know if I’m even looking to sway people to my side. I wouldn’t want the rhapsodic memories I have of my first Avengers viewing to be sullied, and I similarly wouldn’t want to belittle someone else for enjoying Infinity War. I do, however, hope that discourse about a film’s merits and flaws can occur without violating the legitimacy of those emotions. Sharing such criticism allows us to understand our own feelings and offer an exchange of ideas with others.
Donning your nostalgia glasses as if you’re planning to go out and fight crime isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But our critical lenses should not go ignored. As one Nick Fury says, “You need to keep both eyes open.”
– Hunter Galbraith
One thought on “Avengers: Infinity War: I Don’t Feel So Good About Hype Culture”
This review sucks.