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The Only Death That Matters in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

It isn’t a character, it’s a concept

Marvel/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

It’s right there in the title. Avengers: Infinity War is not the end of anything. Not the end of a phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not the end of Iron Man or Spider-Man or humans. Not the end of the Thanos saga that began 13 films ago, nor the end of the Infinity Gauntlet–abetted chokehold that Marvel has wrapped around the throats of the moviegoing public for the past 10 years. The movie doesn’t even really end, it just sort stops in its tracks, a thunderous cut-to-black, with feelings unresolved and Easter eggs unhatched. There’s no ending because there can’t be. There is no finality in continuity. This is infinity. But there is a death of sorts.

The 19th entry in the MCU has been breathlessly and paradoxically billed as “the most ambitious crossover event in history” (more ambitious than … World War II?). It is certainly an extraordinary undertaking, with more speaking roles than a Robert Altman film and more battles than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Directed by the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, making their third film for Marvel, it’s an involving, funny, competently made entertainment. The set pieces are perhaps the most coherent in the studio’s history. The one-liners are bountiful. The cameos are fun. As war movies go, this one doesn’t have much to say about war, intergalactic or otherwise. But it is consumed by its own stakes, and the themes that animate them. Who lives and who dies? Sacrifice as a means to salvation. Balance over emotion. Duty beyond family. And the very thing that makes it an effective, entertaining blockbuster is the same thing that undermines it: Those stakes are basically meaningless.

Stakes. They’re a tricky thing when your villain is a genocidal madman trying to vanquish one-half of the universe’s population to achieve a kind of civil and practical harmony. Thanos, the alien survivor king of the ravaged planet Titan, is a despot seeking the six Infinity Stones for his Infinity Gauntlet, a golden glove that sucks in said Stones to form a power fist. It’s a dumb thing to type and a worse thing to analyze, and yet somehow the Russos and the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and especially the CGI-rendered presence of Josh Brolin, make Thanos credible, vulnerable, even sympathetic. It’s a remarkable maneuver, turning a big, purple, helmet-wearing brute who is acerbically referred to as “Grimace” at one point in the movie, into the believable force around whom this MacGuffin-laden film revolves. But it’s those same MacGuffins that mess with everything. The Stones, well, they do different things. They can bend reality. They can shift time. They can even transmogrify artificial intelligence into a living superhero, in the case of Vision, possessor of the elusive “Mind Stone.” These things, like so many things in comic book and fantasy literature, are imperceptibly, ludicrously powerful. As in, don’t worry about anything that happens in this movie because there are these shining, colored crystals that can undo the damage instantaneously. Could there be a greater threat to the stakes of a story than the power to just get a do-over no matter what?

It’s a massive storytelling delusion masquerading as a fanboy nitpick. I get it. The suspension of disbelief is paramount not only to the Marvel movies, but frankly, to all movies. Trouble is, our keen awareness of things like contractual obligations and social media snitching means that the narrative bubbling around a film like Avengers: Infinity War can be almost entirely predicated around who lives and who dies. To many fans, these are more than movies; they’re Super Bowls around which to schedule. My own 14-year-old sister, who has lately become enraptured of the MCU, even gave me a pointed but vague directive about what I should do after I’ve seen Infinity War. “When you see the movie (don’t tell me who dies) tell me how many people die.” That is an absolutely bizarre request that makes me worried she’s become a professional superhero movie handicapper, except I understand completely what she wants—the chance to weigh how excited she ought to be to see it for herself, how concerned she should feel for the ending, and how significant this movie actually is. She’s seeing Avengers: Infinity War. She just wants to know how amped to get.

My sister will be delighted to learn that a lot of characters do not make it out of Infinity War alive. The body count, as it were, isn’t so much satisfying as confounding and even frustrating. Characters that we are quite certain will be back for future films are disappeared. And yet we know, given the enormous success of previous movies in which they’ve appeared, that they are not really gone. And some of the characters who are allowed to live are, in fact, leaving the MCU soon. This is a sleight of hand by the filmmakers, a theory-conjuring tactic that will have viewers immediately obsessing over the potential complexion of the fourth Avengers movie, slated for next summer. It’s Marvel Galaxy Brain. A subreddit thread come to life. I kind of respect it, even while I can feel the cynicism of the storytelling choices coursing through my body.

What worries me is the absence of purpose. After 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok and this year’s Black Panther, the possibility and flexibility of a Marvel movie had been renewed. We learned that complicated visions of racial politics could sit comfortably beside throwdowns with vicious war rhinos. In that way, Infinity War is a regression. And maybe that’s not an issue—Marvel’s The Avengers is the fifth biggest movie of all time, and Age of Ultron is right behind it at no. 7. These are purposefully mainstream spectacles, and hugely successful. Marvel’s doing fine. And when all those wonderful characters who “died” are resurrected—maybe by a superhero(ine) we haven’t met yet—we can get back to our regularly scheduled stakes. In the meantime, consider Infinity War a gauntlet all its own.