Conservative politics and cultural strife tend to lead to the most angry, violent and subversive pop culture. The Vietnam War and Nixon administration in the ’70s spawned the slasher film and the downer endings of The French Connection (1971), The Godfather Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), and so on. The 2000s, 9/11 and the Bush Administration brought about Torture Porn, chaos cinema (seen in the Bourne trilogy) and the gritty take on characters that have had past camp iterations (James Bond, Batman). Then Iron Man (2008) and the Star Trek (2009) reboot popped up in parallel to Obama, seeming to signal a new era of hope. But now look at us. Look at what they make you give.
In that context, it’s understandable why Avengers: Infinity War (2018) is a downer. I’m hard-pressed to remember any superhero movie in which the villain wins so cleanly and without caveats. Even The Dark Knight (2008), that sees Batman ethically compromised, is a win for the heroes. As well, Infinity War’s bleak ending is earned not just over its 150-minute length but as the culmination of 19 earlier movies.
Building on those earlier movies means Infinity War is packed to the gills, but amazingly it still functions as a story. Act One is the forming of the teams (Tony Stark, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man; Thor and the Guardians; Captain America’s team saving Vision), Act Two is Thor going with Rocket and Groot to get a new weapon and Gamora/Thanos questing, and Act Three is the big battle in Wakanda.
And although some characters have substantial arcs (Gamora mostly), I think the real message is Cap’s old tried-and-true refusing to change even in the face of armageddon…except, in this case, that doesn’t work and the good guys lose. Cap, who has mostly stayed out of the United States since Captain America: Civil War (2016), is a man of the world now and his story arc in Infinity War is to be completely broken of will. His “Oh God” and paralysis at the end is the last bit of his idealism fading away. And this is the guy who can literally “do this all day.” Avengers: Endgame (2019) will hopefully be about building that back up. And as the trailers have proven, that means getting the suit and the shield back!
Everybody has an arc of losing and being broken by it. In Strange’s case, his initial assertion that he would save the Time Stone before Stark or Peter is bent slightly, as he gives Thanos the Stone but it’s framed as this Machiavellian, clinical cut-off-the-leg-to-save-the-body maneuver because his ultimate responsibility is to all of reality.
And when Spider-Man loses, a dying Peter saying “sorry” to Stark is maybe the most Spider-Man moment ever. Always weighed with guilt, even at the end.
Everybody loses but Thanos, of course. That’s the delicious subversion. Although he’s not a traditional protagonist, as some have argued:
Moviemob makes a point about Thanos violating not just the in-universe rules but the rules of storytelling as a whole. No protagonist has the advantages that Thanos has in this movie. He wins every single confrontation and experiences few setbacks!
His storyline does have the most drive, though, so that leads to a bit of a second-act lull for the rest of the cast (unless it’s constant rock music and slapstick like in Thor: Ragnarok , I’m just never going to be cool with a Thor side quest), but overall this is the big penultimate season finale of a long-running series, with Endgame as the final season. Sure, characters will be brought back to life, but that doesn’t take away that the heroes lost this time, and more than likely characters, like Spider-Man (poor vulnerable Tom Holland), will remember having died and Iron Man Three-style will be shaken up by it in their respective solo movies.
In terms of hot takes, Ragnarok is about colonialism, Black Panther (2018) is whether or not it’s alt-right. I guess Infinity War’s is questioning whether or not Thanos is right. Part of this stems from the Russo brothers taking a character who hadn’t done much more than sit in chairs in previous appearances and turned him into a long-suffering Byronic hero.
Stemming from this, what I’ve got with this in terms of themes is the role of fathers, bringing Thanos in line with Abraham sacrificing Isaac (except he actually does it!), and the price of a life versus another. Just Write puts it succinctly:
I love the discussion of that line from Wong being the thesis of the movie, and the contrasting of Stark and Thanos as opposing ideas of fatherhood. The video argues Stark is a helicopter parent, literally putting armor around his surrogate son.
As well, Moviebob says in his review that Thanos could be a criticism of the sad dad trope that’s been on the rise lately, what with The Last of Us, Logan (2017) and last year’s newest God of War game. You know, the middle-aged white dude who has to make the big, hard choices for his kids.
This has been built up in the Guardians movies, as Thanos forces his children to fight because he believes it makes them stronger. He then halves the universe, rather than, say, supplying the universe with infinite resources, because he wants the survivors to build themselves back up and be stronger for it. It’s a consistent ethos.
So Thanos is a sad dad with Gamora, something Film Crit Hulk doesn’t think works. I can understand why some might not buy into their relationship, but it works for me. Everything you need to know you see on Knowhere when Gamora “kills” him and Thanos says he knew she still cared. There’s some stellar work from Saldana in this scene, as her sobs are heartwrenching.
Similar to that is the idea of Thanos as a critique of toxic masculinity. As Keith Friedlander argues, Thanos has a masculine energy to him, not unlike the “daddy” figure discussed above, that positions him as like the Avengers but more. He’s stronger, more clever and more ruthless than they are, and that’s why he succeeds. This, Friedlander argues, explains the “Thanos is right” crowd, who respect his “might makes right” and “rational” mentality:
While his supposed objectivity does render him an unrealistic representation of a violent despot, Thanos does, however, demonstrate a very relevant imperialistic mindset perpetuated by hegemonic masculinity. He is the superior force that descends upon independent worlds to correct their perceived failings through haphazard violence. When Gamora insists that she was happy on her home planet before he came, he responds with supreme condescension: “Going to bed hungry? Scrounging for scraps? Your planet was on the brink of collapse and I’m the one who stopped it. Do you know what happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies and it’s a paradise.” The infantilizing language with which he describes his victims reflects the polemics used to justify Western interventionism in the Global South. And when confronted with the human cost of his actions, he cites his superior capacity as the mediator of universal justice, afforded by his de facto superiority.
So this movie is about those who are willing to make hard choices, even if they aren’t appreciated in their own lifetime.
This is further explored with Stark and Strange. People compare the two characters a lot, but the subtle but important difference between them is Stark has an anti-authoritarian streak to him and Strange very much believes in structures and rules. Their taste in music says it all. Strange is introduced in his own movie listening to Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”, and one of Stark’s first scenes in Iron Man is him working on a hot rod listening to “Instituionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies.
Or to put it even more succinctly, Stark is rich but not bourgeoisie. Strange, ironically, appears to be new money, a self-made man, but is much more of an elitist than the Duran Duran-T-shirt-wearing Stark.
That kind of economic storytelling is where the Russos excel. For instance, Gamora singing along with Quill when the Guardians are introduced is effective shorthand for her character, that she’s mellowed out a bit (from nodding along to the music at the end of the first Guardians) and that she and Quill have grown closer.
The Russos also handle dread very well. There’s a relentless aura around the Winter Soldier in his titular movie, and that’s followed by a sense of inevitability to Zemo’s plan in Civil War. Here Thanos exudes an unnatural air. When he steps into frame it’s like the universe is cringing at his presence. This is especially palpable during the climactic scene when he arrives on Earth. The way the wind rises and everything becomes silence, the Russos film it like a horror movie. Thanos standing there between the trees, he may as well be Jason Voorhees.
It’s incredible that this movie even exists and sometimes I find it hard to believe that these silly stories I loved when I was a kid are getting this kind of care and attention. Part of the allure could certainly be the buildup to Endgame, and maybe I’ll check out after that. But for now, I’m fully invested in the MCU.
3. Avengers: Infinity War
4. The Avengers
10. Thor: Ragnarok
11. Iron Man
14. Doctor Strange
16. Iron Man 2