Avengers: Infinity War, the fourth installment in MCU’s (Marvel Cinematic Universe) flagship franchise of fan-teasing and fan-pleasing films has landed with much fanfare. It has been hailed as the pinnacle of a 10-year effort to transfer much beloved characters and their stories from paper to the silver screen. Since its premiere, it has quickly established itself as one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, managing to pay back its humongous budget of nearly 400 million dollars on its first day, and earning nearly two billion dollars in its first month. Obviously, it is a monolithic success, as far as money is concerned. However, story-wise, Infinity War is… troubled. I’d like to tell you about that.
It is, without a doubt, a powerful mastodon of a movie, trampling you with sights, sounds and emotions. It is not unreasonable to assume that it will become a classic in the manner of Star Wars. Some have already proclaimed its primary villain, Thanos, to be the one who can and will dethrone Darth Vader from his (well-earned) position as the greatest Big Bad Evil Guy ever. However, I believe that, gut-wrenchingly good as it is at times, it is a deeply flawed movie. I watched it when it premiered in Belgrade, and went to see it again a couple of days later to reaffirm my opinion on it. Here’s what happened, in broad strokes: the first time I saw it, during the first half of the movie I felt mild disappointment. The jokes didn’t land well, the plot was dragging its feet, some characters acted… strange, and I noticed a bunch of details that annoyed me (more on that later). However, there were also moments of true awesomeness and fist-pumping joy, so I thought things could still be salvaged. The second half is blockbuster cinema at its finest: an unrelenting tidal wave of explosions and high-stakes conflicts, masterfully orchestrated so that you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Then, finally, the ending. I clapped. I thought it was ballsy, letting the villain achieve all that he wanted and so utterly defeating our heroes, taking half of them to the grave. I thought it could have been even better, but I felt exhilarated that a gargantuan industry had dared to pull the carpet from underneath us in that way. For a moment, I thought I had witnessed a superhero movie huge not only in numbers associated with it, but in what it would mean for superhero arcs in the future.
But then I took some time to think about it and it all fell apart. That’s my main issue with this movie. It’s trying to be this intelligent thrillride compounded with superhero-levels of drama, but if you think about it, it becomes a sloppy mess. You don’t even have to think too hard.
There are things that Infinity War does admirably. Its writers, Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely, had the unenviable job of tying together a number of story threads on an unmatched scale, making them all meaningful, canon-correct and giving each of the characters some time to shine. Then the Russo brothers, the directors, had to make it all work, to make it all feel as a part of a single movie and not two-to-five of them happening at the same time. What made this task even harder was this was THE movie for the MCU, something all those 18 previous ones were merely building blocks for. There was no room for flops, this had to be a majestic commercial and critical success. They undoubtedly accomplished this (at least the commercial part). Storywise, they managed to make me (and not just me, everyone who went to see the movie) care for each and every character and hero, even for those whom I had previously just wanted off the screen as soon as possible. They managed to make each of the arcs important and vital. As I said, they successfully created an hour of pure blockbuster magic. They also made a villain to match the scale of the movie and surpass most expectations.
Let’s talk a bit more about that villain - Thanos, the Mad Titan. Fortunately, no time is lost trying to build up to his reveal. He had a few end-credit scenes and even a couple of scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy as his overture, and he appears in the first five minutes in all of his purple glory. From the get-go, it is obvious that he is ambitious, ruthless and powerful enough to back his claims. He ruined Xandar so thoroughly that there was nothing left of it to show on screen. He curbstomps both Thor and the Hulk (and these guys are extremely powerful), and then proceeds to, practically unopposed, collect each of the Infinity Stones necessary for his grand plan. And what is this plan? To erase half of the galaxy’s population. Why? Because resources are finite, planets are getting crowded, and if galaxy’s denizens keep multiplying at current pace, chaos, wars and mass destruction will follow, and all will end in tears. So Thanos wants to erase half of the galaxy to ensure that there will be enough resources for all and all will prosper instead (he claims Gamora’s home planet is now a paradise after receiving this treatment). The fact that so many will die is a small price to pay for the greater good.
I’m sorry, but this is so stupid. Many times in the last couple of weeks I’ve heard the following, paraphrased, of course: “Thanos is such a good villain because what he’s saying kinda makes sense.” It makes absolutely no sense. First, the fact that half of the galaxy is dead doesn’t stop the survivors from breeding on. Sure, it slows down the pace at which overpopulation problems are hurtling towards us, but only for some time. On the grand scale of things, it’s a very short-term solution. Not to mention that killing half the galaxy by turning it into a miniscule amount of ash actually reduces the resources so sorely needed by the surviving half. The only way to achieve Thanos’ end goal is to continuously come out of hiding (every couple of millennia or so) and snap the Infinity Fingers again. However, that’s not Thanos’ plan. His plan, after snapping his fingers, is to “finally rest and enjoy the sigh of a grateful galaxy.” The Milky Way will not be grateful. It’ll be dumbfounded, then paralyzed with grief... And then it will get angry. You can bet that when the whole galaxy is out to get you, they will get you, even if you have the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. If Thor nearly did it, someone else will finish the job. There is also the fact that, with the godlike power of the Gauntlet, he could easily create the needed resources. And so on and so forth, the gist of it is that his grand idea is idiotic, which is a major problem when he is made out to be this hyperintelligent villain that’s supposed to make us feel like he actually has a morally justifiable cause. He is not. He is simply utterly, completely, irrevocably, wrong.
On the other hand, I must praise Josh Brolin’s performance and the job that the animators have done. Thanos is imposing and dread-inducing in every scene he’s in. He demands your silence because you’re in awe of the guy, his majestic purple baldness and his space-regalia. Every time he talks, you lean in to listen, and he very rarely has to raise his voice. What he says, when he’s not talking about his absurd master plan, is compelling and intoned in such a way that you’re inclined to believe he is not so mad after all. Every single gesture he makes oozes power – all the hallmarks of a great villain. Even though I believe MCU’s former villains were not all bad (especially Ultron, Vulture and Hela, who are just fantastic), Thanos definitely manages to come close to the top thanks to his sheer charisma. It’s sad to see that his plan was his greatest flaw. That said, I do have a couple of other issues with our Big Baddie (like his unselective dwarf-massacre and his adoption of Gamora, a child he accidentally meets on the streets of his latest conquest and proclaims to be a great fighter, despite no evidence to support such a statement), but nothing that could compare to the idiocy of his goal.
Tied in closely with Thanos’ problematic motivations are the Infinity Stones themselves. There are six of these hugely powerful artefacts: Power, Space, Reality, Soul, Time and Mind. Each of these manipulates a certain facet of the universe. The main issue with these stones is that their powers are very poorly defined. For example, what would you assume the Power Stone actually does? “It gives you power,” is the obvious answer. That’s great. Power to do what, exactly? Start up a car by merely touching it? Nuclear power? Pure Watts? The worst offenders are, for me at least, Reality (also known as the Aether), Time and Soul. But let’s put aside the Soul Stone for a moment, as we haven’t actually seen it do anything except be used in the Infinity Gauntlet. Imagine what you could do with something that manipulates reality itself. You could solve all the problems you have ever had, instantly, by reshaping the entirety of existence to your liking. We’ve seen Thanos use it to fool Star Lord and his gang, and to demonstrate the beauty of Titan that was. So, it can create elaborate illusions then, and not truly reshape the fabric of the universe? Nope, because it is also used to turn Mantis into an Escher structure, Drax into croutons, and Star Lord’s gun and Gamora’s knife into bubbles. Why doesn’t Thanos just use the Reality Stone to save the galaxy, even though he obviously could? Because then there would be no need for Infinity War, and MCU would be called TCU, as in Thanos Cinematic Universe.
On the opposite side, we have the Time Stone, which is even worse, because whenever you introduce time-manipulating abilities (without clear rules and limitations to how they work), you set any stake, achievement, plot and essentially the meaning of your story on fire and then throw it out of the 30th-story window. As far as we know, the Time Stone can rewind time, fast forward it, lock it into a loop, whatever you want. This makes it the most powerful and underused asset of the Avengers. It also removes any mystery or suspense from the upcoming Avengers 4. Because we know that Doctor Strange is going to save the day (actually, he has probably already saved it) and use time-traveling to bring all the characters we “lost”. He implies as much by saying: “We are entering the endgame now,” after he surrenders the Time Stone to the Mad Titan. Instead of analyzing 14 million possible outcomes of Thanos’ clash with the Avengers, why didn’t Strange travel back in time to any feasible moment and kill Thanos? We know he is capable of such a feat. He managed to infinity-troll Dormammu, a being of incomprehensible power, in the Destroyer of Worlds’ own dimension. If you spend some time on it, you can imagine dozens of scenarios where affecting the past would solve all the problems caused by Thanos (and not just Thanos).
These are just some of the reasons why I hate the mere existence of Infinity Stones in the MCU. Artefacts of such mind-boggling power provide challenges and solutions, but they always riddle the story with plot holes to such an extent that it’s better not to have them in the first place. It is true that the threat they pose forces our heroes to overcome more adversity than they ever did and prove themselves worthy of our love and praise, but their abilities make all heroic efforts futile, because everything achieved can be rendered moot so easily.
I would also like to talk about the character arcs our heroes follow in this movie. There are good stories, like the Iron-Spider father-and-son relationship and the evolution of Vision and Scarlet Witch into characters whose fate I actually care about. There are bad stories, like Star Lord’s love for Gamora devolving into sheer stupidity. And there are ugly stories, like Loki’s suicidal idiocy and Gamora’s arc.
Two arcs in particular caught my attention, and I’ll start with the one that disappointed me – the relationship between Bruce Banner and the Hulk becoming a shoddy erectile dysfunction joke. To be clear, I love the fact that the Hulk is scared of Thanos and refuses to manifest. It should give more time in the spotlight for the awesome Mark Ruffalo to actually act and for Bruce Banner to contribute to the Avengers’ cause in a manner other than mindless rage. However, that time is then spent on Bruce attempting to coax the Hulk into reappearing in the manner known to too many unfortunate men. Is it me, or does Marvel really hate Banner’s character? He never gets anything. He lost his career and his love because of this horrible mutation. Then he lost the only group of people who respected him, a budding relationship with Natasha Romanoff, and, to top it all off, his own personality, for two whole years. And now, when the stakes are higher than they have ever been, he lost the one thing that made him useful in a straight up fight, and his considerable intellect is reduced to begging the mutation that ruined his life to come back. Bruce Banner has always been a tragic character for me, and I loved him for it, but that intelligent, kind, devoted character was made to wear a dunce cap throughout Infinity War. Of course, Hulk is gonna come back swinging in Avengers 4, but that doesn’t make the treatment of his counterpart in Avengers 3 any more bearable.
Now the good one: Thor. I hated Thor in his first two movies and the first two Avengers movies. He was invulnerable, nearly as strong as the Hulk, had a hammer that shoots lightning and he talked funny. And that was about it. Then, Thor: Ragnarok happened and did for this guy what four movies haven’t even come close to doing – it made him interesting. It gave him personality. It gave him his own personal brand of humor (one that is not based on him having no idea how modern society functions). It made him a badass. This is further built upon in Infinity War. As in Ragnarok, at the beginning of the movie he is shown to be far less than he thought he was. But then, throughout the film, he earns his greatness back with blood, sweat and quip. He is now, undoubtedly, the single most powerful Avenger. But unlike, say, Iron Man (whose suit is now completely embodying the trope that any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic, and can now basically do anything Tony Stark desires), Thor’s abilities are clearly defined and they don’t come out of nowhere. He paid for them, and is now fighting so that no one else has to lose what he had lost. The scene where he talks with Rabbit (sorry, I meant Rocket) about everything that was taken from him really hammers (see what I did there) home how great his trials have been. He is now truly a God of Thunder. With a sense of humor to boot.
I highlighted two arcs, both survivors of the Snap, but many of the characters in this movie end their stories in the wrong half of the galaxy’s population, the one that gets disintegrated by Thanos. Death of a character is supposed to be a powerful moment. Something that spurs his or her companions towards greater acts of heroism. Something that hangs above the protagonists as the ultimate loss and sacrifice. After the initial shock caused by annihilation of so many beloved characters, my sorrow was replaced with disappointment. I won’t reiterate how the existence of a time-traveling device makes this cataclysm meaningless. The Time Stone isn’t the only thing that prevents us from feeling the deaths of Spiderman, most of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Bucky Barnes and half of the galaxy with the gravitas that they deserve. It’s because we know that there will be an Avengers 4, and Spiderman 2, and Black Panther 2, and GotG 3 and so on. I know that Marvel Studios will not sacrifice their cash cows on the altar of poignant storytelling. I know that, in the end, the story of Infinity War means nothing. I realize that this isn’t a brave movie. Infinity War cannot be observed as a stand-alone film, in a vacuum. To truly appreciate it, you should be intimate with the MCU’s storyline, because otherwise you won’t have any reason to care for its heroes, not to mention that you will be completely baffled with the story presented. This is absolutely not a bad thing. After all, this is a movie “for the fans”. The problem is that, by requiring this intimacy, Infinity War shoots itself in the foot, because not just hardcore fans, but everybody who is remotely interested in the MCU, knows that these deaths are not lasting. They are just a gimmick with which the hype for the next movie will be increased. Two deaths are the exception: Loki’s and Gamora’s, but their demise is not tragic because it (probably) won’t be reversed. It’s because Loki was sacrificed to let us know that Thanos means business, and Gamora was thrown off a cliff so that her adoptive father can become a complex character. Both of them started out as villains who became reluctant allies and went on to become fan favorites because of their arcs and personal charm. And all Infinity War does is waste both of them to prop up their overblown shallow baddie.
In the end, Infinity War is a blockbusting powerhouse, but one that crumbles as soon as any semblance of logic or deeper analysis is applied to it. Its villain is commanding but misguided, its deaths ring hollow and its plot resembles swiss cheese. But, worst of all, once you manage to get past the shiny veneer of an emotional and visual spectacle, you can observe the brutal and ultimately emotionless workings of a money-grabbing industry. And I just can’t unsee it anymore. All I have left is a few bright spots of character development and some truly awesome battles, but those aren’t enough to wash away the bitter taste of this movie’s failings.