I’m going to hazard a generalization. Whenever a new Marvel movie hits theaters—or for that matter any film based on an Intellectual Property™ with a zealous fanbase—the critical responses congregate overwhelmingly in two opposing camps. The first group is the professional critics, the serious auteurs, and the intellectual viewers who decry Marvel as a prime suspect in the corporatization of filmmaking and the infantilization of audiences. The second group is the aforementioned zealous fans, a number of whom grew up reading the comics and are ecstatic that their beloved heroes are no longer only two-dimensional drawings on panels but also (real or CGI) flesh-and-blood giants on IMAX screens. I’m sure there are some fans who don’t like the homogenizing cost of Marvel’s entry into the cultural mainstream, but overall it seems fans are grateful that the rest of the world has finally caught up with them and now embraces what was once niche and only for nerds. Whereas the first group prophesies the death of cinema, the second longs with eschatological fervor for every new chapter and sees a bright future. The first dismisses the second as shallow. The second dismisses the first as snobbish.
I’m caught in the middle. Though I have only read a handful of comic books in my life, I have always been fascinated by superheroes on the screen. That fascination began with watching Batman: The Animated Series at a young age—too young, probably—and was intensified by Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and Nolan’s first two Batman films. 2008, the year of Nolan’s Dark Knight, was also the year of Iron Man and the birth of what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I was late to the MCU bandwagon. I saw three of the five “Phase One” releases and wasn’t impressed. I expected the first Avengers film to be a huge dud. How could it possibly be any good when its predecessors barely left an impression? I was proven wrong when I thoroughly enjoyed watching that film in May 2012. Two years later, Captain America: The Winter Soldier cemented my goodwill toward the MCU (never mind the two head-scratchers and yawn-inducers that arrived in between), and since then I’ve gone to see every installment on the big screen.
I say goodwill, not adoration. Every time I watch yet another one of these films, it is not always with excitement (I don’t understand why people say Spider-Man: Homecoming is better than Spider-Man 3), but I do approach all of them with hope. I also approach them with misgivings, but I always want to be proven wrong, like I was with The Avengers. I so want this scrappy series of films to succeed. I want the MCU to overcome its limitations and its past mistakes. I want it to resist its worst tendencies and double down on its most admirable aspirations. I’d like to think I hold the MCU to a high standard while also being gracious—and I’d like to think that I am gracious without being naive. I don’t buy the death of cinema rhetoric, but I’m not unaware of the symptoms of a spreading sickness.
Point out the lack of original blockbusters, or the replacement of movie stars with human action figures, or the ascendancy of aesthetic mediocrity, or the ironic banality of the limitless possibilities of CGI, and I’ll agree with you. I’ve heard it all before, and I carry these concerns with me. Not all of this is Marvel’s fault, but it sure is complicit. I know the frustrations caused by Marvel’s jokey-ness and pyromania and product placement and sequel-setups. I know the nagging feeling I’ve been cheated when trailer after trailer had me dying to see the film, only to find the film rushing to advertise the next five after it unfolded what turned out to be an unremarkable and straightforward plot. The fans and the filmmakers say it’s a “game-changer” in the franchise, and indeed the deck was reshuffled somewhat, but I leave thinking everything’s different and everything’s the same. Yet, silly me, I’ll be back in three months and we’ll do this again.
However, I don’t think that the folks at Marvel are corporate cons. Maybe it’s all propaganda and I’m a sorry sap, but when I watch Kevin Feige or the Russo Brothers or the cast talk about their love for the comics, the audience, and the whole improbable venture—even the cynic could admit that their success is unprecedented—I see a group of people gleefully playing in the world’s largest sandbox and genuinely wanting to share that joy with us. They seem to believe they’re offering a gift to the world. Intentions and results are two different things, but I base my continued hope for this franchise on the trust that they mean well.
“Okay, okay, but what did you think about Infinity War?” I think some readers assume that negative Marvel reviews only come from killjoys and positive Marvel reviews only come from fanboys, and this assumption is used to dismiss the writer if the writer doesn’t confirm the reader’s bias. So I wanted to lay my cards on the table first, in the hopes that, through me as a sympathetic party to both sides, both sides would give each other the benefit of a doubt. If you’re looking for a short answer to your question, it is that Avengers: Infinity War is as middle-of-the-road between better and lesser MCU films as I am middle-of-the-road between the two camps of reviewers. The MCU’s greatest weaknesses are on full display here, and while Infinity War doesn’t always play to the MCU’s greatest strengths, it does keep my hope alive that those strengths do exist.
I am not going to bother with avoiding spoilers—but really, there isn’t that much to spoil. Some characters die, the villain gets some shiny rocks, then it cuts to black. You probably already figured as much six months ago. I was surprised and affected by the ending of this film, but it was not because of any plot twist that could have been spoiled. It was because Feige and the Russos, after playing it unnaturally safe for the first two hours, finally had the guts to let their happy-go-lucky blockbuster get its hands dirty. The only time I was caught off guard by a Marvel film in a spoiler-category way was the second-act reveal in Winter Soldier. Now that could reasonably be called a “game-changer.” Infinity War, however, is not a game-changer. It could have been, should have been, and almost was, but it’s more of the same—only it’s more of the same to the power of more of the same.
I’ll start with the bad. It’s the usual littany: It’s overstuffed yet somehow threadbare. Its score is effective yet disposable. Its character arcs are more like baby steps. Its visual style should be daring and operatic, but instead it’s competent and polished yet unremarkable. In an early scene there is a hand-held tracking shot that echoes the early scene in Children of Men where Clive Owen exits a building to find chaos on a busy city street. The resemblance is clever if intentional, and apropos even if not. But that’s the only visual touch—or aesthetic element whatsoever—that stood out to me.
The Russo Brothers displayed a knack for political subtext, fight choreography, and genre flourishes with Winter Soldier. They proved they could balance a large, unwieldy ensemble and root the frantic proceedings in genuine, earned emotional stakes with Captain America: Civil War. But, sad to say, I couldn’t recognize their fingerprints anywhere in Infinity War. There is little to no discernible political subtext, and the film feels even more aloof from reality since it spends so little time on Earth. Except for a few visceral moments of hand-to-hand combat and the Helms Deep-like escalation of the major battle, the fights are incoherently choreographed, mind-numbingly numerous, and tediously long. (I just compared Infinity War to The Lord of the Rings here, but unfortunately there are more parallels to be drawn to the abysmal Hobbit trilogy. This is a new and only slightly improved Battle of the Five Armies, complete with some contrivance about a dwarf reigniting an ancient kiln à la Desolation of Smaug.) Infinity War was touted as a heist film, but the only common denominator between it and Ocean’s Eleven is Don Cheadle. Speaking of Don Cheadle, he and so many other fine actors are wasted. Most grievously, Chris Evans’ Captain America—the beating heart of this franchise if there ever was one—is sidelined, while the screenwriters go gaga over the motley space crew on loan from James Gunn. As for emotional stakes, they’re here but consist mostly of interest accrued by the investments of previous chapters, and even that interest is in short supply. Marvel has been getting better at incorporating distinctive directorial visions, but this is one of the most anonymous, assembled-by-committee products it has ever released. It feels like at least six previous Marvel movies rolled into one, as if Gunn, Coogler, Waititi, Derrickson, and Whedon each stopped by to direct a few scenes.
But the biggest problem by far is the humor. Marvel heroes shoot quips like Hawkeye shoots arrows, and never has this been more jarring or misguided than in Infinity War. Marvel should know that its audience expects this to be the one where the gloves are off—or rather, the one where Thanos puts a glove on. We understand that some favorite characters are going to die, we’ve been promised that Thanos is the most cruel and dangerous villain in the galaxy, and our continued attention to these films signifies that we accept the risk of this one going to some dark places. So why does Marvel keep apologizing for itself? After a serious-enough opening scene, Marvel reverts to business as usual. But there are ten times the usual amount of characters, and most of them moonlight as stand-up comedians, so there are ten times as many wisecracks. No one likes being around people who constantly make jokes to avoid acknowledging the gravity of their situation, and yet here we’ve paid for tickets to spend time with two dozen of them.
To be fair, I wonder if this is more an indicator of broader cultural trends than of anything unique to Marvel. It’s the men of Infinity War—Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax, Rocket, Thor—who keep trivializing matters. My concern is that this reflects and reinforces a conception of modern masculinity wherein men never stare hard truths in the eye and never divulge their inner doubts, deflecting every criticism and avoiding every risk by the distancing power of irony and sarcasm. Robert Downey Jr. and his cohort of dudes make that kind of toxic attitude look cool. But to be fair again, I think the film displays some awareness of this issue. Notably, it is one of the women, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora—the film’s MVP—who doesn’t mince words and won’t let her male counterparts laugh off their predicament. In a scene that is woefully off-center, she gets Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord to shut up and listen to her just long enough to demand that he kill her if necessary. This is a heavy moment, but it’s fleeting. The comic relief interrupts and you may as well add a laugh track. It is as if the film is in an argument with itself: “Come on, be serious!” “No, we can’t be that serious!” Now, to be fair yet again, the comedic elements do recede by the last hour and Marvel finally starts to deliver on its pledge of a no-holds-barred conclusion. This conclusion truly is brutal and may be one of the MCU’s finest accomplishments to date. But it’s too little too late. I know this isn’t meant to be Saving Private Ryan and that Marvel doesn’t want to traumatize anyone. Even so, this story had so much more dramatic potential and deserved a far less flippant treatment.
Now on to the good. Infinity War may repeat a number of the MCU’s mistakes, but (under)writing a boring villain is not one of them. Josh Brolin’s Thanos is one of the handful of elements that saves this film from itself. To be sure, he is not the first MCU villain to be sufficiently complex and human, nor is he the first MCU villain to have a genocidal agenda. However, because of the former the latter doesn’t feel like a tired retread. Previous Marvel villains have tried to wipe out whole populations, but they rarely succeeded. Thanos does succeed, and he evokes terror because he can literally do so at the snap of a finger, and because our heroes are actually outmatched by him. But more importantly, Thanos is the first such villain to feel the personal cost of the carnage. The previous villains either had no souls or already corrupted them beyond repair before we met them. Thanos’ hunt for infinity stones is reminiscent of Voldemort’s creation of horcruxes. Both require human sacrifice, and that sacrifice splits the soul in pieces. “What did it cost?” Gamora asks him. That question hangs over the entire film, and it’s suggested that Thanos is haunted by it. Speaking of haunting, the ghost of the Red Skull is an apt visual representation of the hellish fate Thanos is courting. In the comics, Thanos is in love with the personification of Death. Though she does not appear in this film, the scene on the mountaintop—a satanic version of Sinai and Moriah—shows just how indifferent she is toward Thanos. She will ask everything of him, but give nothing back. Like the Red Skull, he will become a phantom guarding a treasure he once touched but could never truly own. Never has evil looked so ugly and empty in the MCU until now.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the MCU’s most mature work to date. It’s not the best of the lot, but it is the most thoughtful and critically self-aware. I re-watched that film last week and was struck by how Iron Man/Tony Stark and the other heroes long for an end to their struggles, as through them writer-director Joss Whedon betrays his own longing for the MCU to be over already. This is the self-defeating paradox of producing a financially lucrative story. The Avengers, and we their increasingly exhausted audience, wait for some sort of eschaton. In Ultron, this eschaton is vaguely defined and Whedon suggests it may never arrive. In Infinity War, the Avengers still don’t know what the eschaton will look like and are as far from it as ever. They’re too busy fighting to ever ponder such things. Thanos, however, does have a definite eschatology, and it is chilling. I’ve seen the many-chapters-one-story nature of the MCU compared to the books of the Bible, and the Marvel fan’s eager anticipation of the culmination of the MCU compared to the Christian’s longing for Christ’s return. Marvel now has its own version of the Second Coming, but Thanos is nothing like Jesus. The last few minutes of Infinity War are a strange, unsettling perversion of the breaking of the seven seals in Revelation. Even so, it’s horrifying to consider that while non-Christians will hear preaching on Hell and laugh, they’ll watch Infinity War and be disturbed. How much greater is the holy and just wrath of Almighty God than the misguided and blasphemous raging of a purple demigod.
If screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely got one thing right, it is that they clearly understood that developing a single topical through line was the only way to keep this Frankenstein monster of a film functional and coherent. They settled on the theme of the immense difficulty and cost of sacrifice, and developed it rather well. Gamora tells her lover Star-Lord to kill her to stop Thanos from finding one of the stones. Vision tells his lover Scarlet Witch to kill him by destroying the stone that gives him life. Doctor Strange tells Iron Man he would rather let him and Spider-Man die than surrender one of the stones to Thanos. Thanos must kill his adopted daughter Gamora to obtain one of the stones.
The pattern is obvious and the message is straightforward, but it works. It’s not much, but this is the core of the film and the fruitful ground for its few legitimately powerful moments. Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord got on my nerves multiple times—he really is an immature brat—but I will give Pratt credit for delivering heart-wrenching, genuine emotion on two occasions, first when he tries to pull the trigger on Gamora, and second when finds out that Thanos killed her. These are among the strongest scenes in the film. Vision and Scarlet Witch’s final moment together is similarly moving, and Thanos and Gamora’s exchange on the mountaintop is the literal, emotional, and thematic height of Infinity War.
But the moments where sacrifice is refused are just as fascinating as the moments where it is painfully embraced. Sacrifice is a victory of will over emotion, and but there are many points in Infinity War where emotion triumphs over the will. The Avengers ultimately lose because they cannot master their emotions. Gamora cannot watch Thanos kill her half-sister Nebula so she reveals the location of a stone. Doctor Strange cannot watch Thanos kill Iron Man so he reneges on his oath and gives up his stone. Scarlet Witch cannot stand by while her friends are in danger, so she abandons guarding Vision, and she waits too long to kill him. Thanos says, “The hardest decisions require the strongest wills,” and only he has that kind of will.
In other cases of emotion overruling the will, Drax’s rage against Thanos derails an ambush. Following suit, Star-Lord ruins the Avengers’ only shot at defeating Thanos by trying to throttle him to avenge Gamora’s death. Finally, in a plot development that is never explained but makes sense thematically, Bruce Banner is unable to conjure the Hulk, presumably because of fear. (Annoyingly, this plot device is used for comedic rather than dramatic purposes. Mark Ruffalo’s Banner used to be one of the most compelling characters in the MCU. Post-Ragnarok he is reduced to a buffoon.) Again and again, the Avengers are placed in their own Garden of Gethsemane, and find the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. They are unable to submit themselves to the will of another and drink the necessary cup of suffering.
This leads me to what I think is the film’s only worthwhile contribution to the MCU or to contemporary blockbusters in general. The upshot of it all is that even good emotions become liabilities in inordinate and unchecked amounts. In particular, it is telling that one of the newest members of the MCU, Mantis, is an empath, because Infinity War is all about the dangers of empathy run amok. This is a timely warning.
In his scathing review of Marvel’s Black Panther, Timothy Lawrence concluded that “The only value [Marvel] champions is empathy. Empathy is a good thing; it is not the best thing. Empathy is not charity. Empathy is never enough. The suffering of the world will never be done away with, or even eased very much, by our merely human efforts.” In writing this, Tim tells me “it was at least half-conscious” that he was referencing Patricia Snow’s First Things article, “Empathy is Not Charity,” a similarly scathing response to Martin Scorsese’s Silence. In our secular age, Snow writes that empathy no longer “mean[s] simple kindness, consideration, or compassion. It means actually feeling what you believe someone else is feeling at any given moment.” This form of empathy “turns out to be an exhausting, counterproductive business,” one of the reasons being because “it is so vulnerable to manipulation.” Indeed, isn’t it striking that Mantis is one of the most immature and childish characters in Infinity War, and that she used to be the miserable minion and emotional hostage of a villain named Ego, a character who wanted to absorb all living things into himself, eliminating all emotional barriers?
However, I want to push back against Timothy’s indictment of the MCU a little bit, because I think Infinity War, deliberately or not, exposes the disastrous consequences of confusing empathy for charity that both he and Patricia Snow are worried about. Snow writes that postmodern man is “frightened of suffering himself but even more unnerved by the thought of others suffering” or of being responsible for others’ suffering. That is true for Star-Lord when he hesitates to shoot Gamora. That is true for Gamora when she watches Nebula be torturously disassembled. That is true for Doctor Strange when he sees Thanos stab Iron Man through the stomach. In previous films, the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have shown themselves willing enough to die to save others. But in Infinity War we find they are unwilling to let others suffer and die for them. Actually, they are not really suffering and dying for each other, but to save the rest of the universe. Like the apostate priests in Silence, our anguished heroes cannot accept that their counterparts might be giving up their lives for something far greater than themselves. Selfishly, they fixate on the fact that these friends and lovers will be taken away from them and cause them anguish, not on the fact that countless millions might be spared as a result.
Contrast this to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, a film that shares a number of similarities with this one. Harry tells the ghosts of his parents and mentors, “I’m sorry. I never wanted any of you to die for me.” The ghost of Lupin responds, “Others will tell [my son] what his mother and father died for. One day, he’ll understand.” Lupin did not let empathy for his child’s present erase his resolve to sacrifice for his child’s future. On the other side of the veil, he knows he made the right choice, however costly it was.
The case of Vision and Scarlet Witch is particularly instructive here. Patricia Snow references A Severe Mercy, a book about one couple of lovers who “agreed to reject everything that might separate them.” Vision and Scarlet Witch likewise seek “excessive, unmediated intimacy.” In the first act, they put their own lives in danger by isolating themselves from their allies so that they can have a romantic rendezvous in Scotland. They more than once remark how little time they have together. When Vision finally persuades Scarlet Witch to zap the life of out him, he comforts her with the words, “I only feel you.” He claims he feels no pain, and so she should not feel pain for him. Instead she should steel her heart against all pain and do what must be done, in the knowledge that they both understood and accepted why it had to be done. I’m not sure if this is the right reading of the scene, or if this a productive alternative to toxic empathy or just another, more insidious form of it. After all, Vision’s last words suggest an empathy without borders, but it is an empathy without borders that dangerously forestalled his necessary death. It’s a messy, complicated scene, and I don’t have a final verdict.
But the most disturbing case of destructive empathy does not come from any of our heroes, but from the villain. Gamora cannot believe that Thanos loves anyone or anything, let alone her. Quite the opposite, and tragically so. Thanos’ problem is not a lack of empathy, but far, far too much of it. He’s not much of a character foil to the Avengers, partly because one character can’t be a foil to ten or one hundred others, and partly because he interacts so little with them. But in the opening scene he explicitly identifies their one shared trait: They all believe they are in the right. Both Thanos and the Avengers believe they are acting in the interest of human flourishing. Thanos believes he has good intentions, but again, intentions and results are not the same. (This makes me wonder again if I’m a sorry sap for giving Marvel more slack because I believe they have good intentions.) The result of Thanos’ intentions is the belief that half of humanity would be relieved of its sufferings through death, and the other half would be relieved of its sufferings through the attendant freeing up of resources. He tells Gamora her home planet was on the brink of collapse before he took on the role of the destroying angel; now it is supposedly flourishing. He pities those who suffer, but his benevolence is deadly. After Scarlet Witch kills Vision, Thanos tells her, “I understand,” but their shared knowledge is no solace for either of them.
This is the extreme logic of the idolatry of empathy, and it is not too far off from our own, non-cinematic universe. Snow references Flannery O’Connor, who “warned that, in an age of unbelief, we govern by a tenderness that, long since cut off from the person of Christ, ends in terror. Abortion, opioid addiction, assisted suicide, euthanasia: Can we agree that this is not the brave new world . . . but a new kind of hell, with new kinds of suffering in it?”
In the classic 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, Cary Grant’s Mortimer Brewster discovers his two elderly and exceedingly kind aunts have been poisoning sad old widowers and burying them in the basement. They call it a “mercy” because they see the world-weariness of these men when they’re alive and their peaceful smiles when they’re dead. They see nothing wrong with these murders and it’s suggested they’re insane, while Brewster just about goes insane himself considering the absolute horror of the scenario and how to get out of it. The movie is played for laughs because the difference between right and wrong, in this case at least, was so obvious in 1944. I showed it to a group of friends a year ago, and they did not find the film amusing at all. They squirmed in their seats and I could no longer laugh at the parts I used to. Arsenic and Old Lace is no longer a fun escape from reality when you live in a world where sad old widowers are actually asking to be poisoned, and babies are aborted to save them from growing up in single-parent homes or in economic hardship.
I wonder if Feige, the Russo Brothers, and Markus and McFeely have any inkling of this cancerous form of empathy that is revealed and repudiated by their film. I wonder if audiences can see it, or if they can be brought to see its presence in their own lives and communities. And so I return to where I began, caught between the critics and the fans. Why watch Marvel movies? Not because they’re masterpieces or make any particularly admirable effort to extol whatever is true and good and beautiful. Not because we’ve all been longing to see Rocket and Thor banter or the Hulk and Thanos brawl. If for no other reason, maybe we should keep showing up for these things because our neighbors are too. Ordinary filmgoers can’t be persuaded to sit through The Tree of Life, let alone think analytically about it. So instead of dismissing them as addicts to fan service and emotional pandering, maybe we should go to the midnight premieres with them and spend the wee hours of the morning talking about why Star-Lord can’t be serious or why Scarlet Witch can’t let Vision die or why Thanos thinks it is loving to return half of humanity to the ashes from which it was made. Maybe then our friends will discover how much more rewarding it is to approach films critically (and charitably, as I have sought to do here). Then, realizing there’s only so much to be gained from a three-hour televised video game, maybe they’ll ask to see our Criterion Collections. It’s a hopeful thought. But Infinity War reminds me some things are worth doing, even if the outcome is uncertain.