THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS
Set against the MCU’s long slate of great, immensely successful and largely adored comic book movies, Infinity War manages to set itself apart as something truly special.
Here are some of my more specific thoughts on what this film meant to me personally.
The Stories within a Story- Shaping and Reshaping our Expectations
Each individual film in the MCU has its own tone, its own style and its own arc. You don’t really need to be a comic book fan to necessarily enjoy them, and one can enjoy a single, particular film or series without needing to appreciate them all. For example, one might connect with the spy-thriller vibes of Winter Soldier but not dig the Star Wars type space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy.
But here is what is so brilliant about what the MCU has managed to pull off over all these films and all these years. While each film is different, they have also each been conditioned by a larger, creative vision which has slowly been pushing each story towards a collective, climatic finish.
This is what Infinity War represents.
Which essentially means there are multiple different entry points into the story that Infinity War is bringing to close and there are many different ways to experience this story depending on which character or characters we happen to have an infinity for. This also allows the film to be ripe for conversation amidst the potential for a variety of different reactions.
It’s risky. Never before have we had something like this on film. But it is a risk that I believe reaps a worthwhile reward.
Avengers 4 or a True Avengers sequel- Bringing the MCU together
The first two Avengers Films along with Captain America: Civil War (which many affectionately call “Civil War”) took the first steps in pulling together the MCU, and they did this from three working perspectives:
- raising the stakes (Avengers)
- foreshadowing the rise of a recognizable villain (Age of Ultron)
- setting the relationships between the characters of each individual characters in the MCU in tension with one another (Captain America: Civil War)
Thus we arrive at Infinity War with real stakes, the rise of the most dangerous villain they have yet to face, and the individual narratives/character arcs that see our heroes now splintered and separated from one another.
And what is astounding to me is the way in which Infinity War uses these perspectives to pull each individual film with all its unique tones and styles and characteristics into what essentially becomes one large, continuous first act of a Lord of the Rings style epic trilogy. I have personally come to consider Infinity War as a sort of sequel to everything that has come before it, a middle film and the first of a two part grand finale all rolled up in one. It is a true marvel that the film allows the different tones and styles to be equally present and visible while also becoming something entirely unique and different.
Harnessing and Setting the Tone – Creating a True True Mash-up of everything that is good and right about the MCU
There has been a ton of material released on the inter-web detailing the genius of how this team of directors, writers, artists, cinematographers managed to honour each individual flavour and tone. Here’s one of my favourites (and you can follow the link into the rabbit hole… well worth the time)
But the most essential ingredient for honouring each individual tone and identity is the way they structure the film. This film is an ode to comic book storytelling methods, capturing what many have come to love about reading comics. I would argue of all the films the MCU has done this is the first, truly great “comic book” movie. Creating multiple entry points into its narrative over time is precisely what comic book storytelling does, especially in its more modern form as the relationship between screen and page begins to get stronger and stronger and more relevant.
Here is a link to an interesting article about modern storyboarding techniques:
What allows all of these individual films to work in a mash-up film like Infinity War is precisely this- storyboards allow a single caption to “flow through the story”, a larger theme and purpose that defines the more defined narratives or each character. And the larger a series becomes the larger and more purposed the storyboards can become. This is why a single film can carry so much nuance and information regarding a larger universe, even if you don’t realize it at the time. They structure Infinity War using 20-30 minute individual sequences (panels) set within a larger narrative arc (storyboard) in order to allow this larger narrative to unfold.
If you are a person of faith, it is worth noting that this is also a great way of seeing the relationship between God and the world. As we live our lives we are constantly being made aware of the larger story in which God has been unfolding since the beginning of time. In our limited perspective we live our lives so as to gain glimpses of this story and our place in it, and then to allow that story to infuse our life with a greater purpose, a grander vision for the world in which we live. And the beauty of this is that each of us are given an entry point into that story from the perspective individual narrative, just as each character in the MCU plays a larger role in Infinity War.
To begin with, I think for many fans who have been following the MCU with eagerness and anticipation it is fair to say while there are many different entry points for this film, there also exists a silent and shared expectation:
a) a chance to see all of the characters coming together in one film
b) The story of Thanos as a truly great villain to trump them all.
I don’t think anyone truly knew how or if they might actually pull this off, but if we can narrow this film down these two expectations there is little question they pull it off in a pretty incredible and awe inducing fashion. My jaw was on the floor by the end of this film. But it is what the film does with bringing all of these characters together and with developing Thanos that also circumvented these expectations.
First, the film uses its structure to establish the place of each individual narrative in the pre-determined story they are now starting to reveal, bringing each standing character arc to its own final points of tension.
- The now rogue hero’s of Cap and Widow
- The isolation and growing PTSD of Hulk
- The aging and fractured Stark and the burgeoning mentor-student relationship with Parker
- The devastating loss of Thor’s family and world
- The longing of Rocket to belong in the midst of his own past and hurt and his desire to just be a captain (this was so brilliant)
- Star Lord’s own journey as a captain and the family dynamics and loss he has faced
- Establishing the relationship between Gomorah and Thanos
- The spiritual journey of Dr. Strange in finding humility in light of his ego and service in the midst of power
- The relationship between Vision and the Scarlett Witch
And then it fuses these points of tension together to expose a larger, and in many ways unexpected story about a fractured group all needing to find a way to work towards a unifying goal- defeating Thanos.
What is really interesting about this larger story is the ways it uses the old guard as windows to see the new. We know these old characters. We are invested in their stories. The film reminds us that no matter how often the stuff of life tends to separate us from one another, that we all face tough stuff in this world and that we are all fighting toward the same end is what shapes our common humanity and brings us together.
Take the opening scene for example. We are thrown into the harsh reality of genocide. This flows straight out of the story of Ragnarok and connects us to the world of the Guardians, the old and the new being brought together through a single picture of desolation. And it is out of this that the film is able to dig into the personal stories of Star Lord, Stark, Thor and Rocket revealing a shared experience on an even deeper and more personal level even though these characters have just met for the first time.
Or take the growing Stark- Parker relationship. The film uses this as a entry point into the relationship between Stark and Dr. Strange, bridging the mysticism of Strange with the concrete, scientific methods of Stark and connecting it to their need to control (or their inability to control) what is happening and their burgeoning desire to each make a difference and be a difference maker in their own way, or in the case of Stark to leave a legacy that will last beyond his aging presence in these films.
The True Story of the Greatest Villain
As was mentioned above in regards to defining expectations, if Infinity War becomes anything in the midst of all these inter-personal dynamics and fractured relationships, it is telling the story of Thanos. This is ultimately his movie, and I am willing to posit that Thanos is likely the great villain of our time. If everything has been building up to seeing this character fleshed out in full form. here he is given depth, motivation, ambiguity, moral-tension and immense power that is all captured in a performance by Brolin that should not be understated.
And did I mention he looks incredible on the big screen!
While all of our heroes are an entry point into their shared arcs in Infinity War, they also become the entry for developing and understanding Thanos as the central villain they must each unite to defeat. Thanos has lost everything, and so the opening picture of genocide not only ties us into the story of Thor and the Guardians, but it stands as a contrast to Thanos’ own moral dilemma. Because over population caused his own planet to self destruct, his only means of redeeming this tragic reality is to extend mercy to the world by gaining the Infinity Stones and wiping out half the population with the snap of his fingers.
There is a part of Thanos that perceives his actions to be right and necessary and just, and there is another part that seems to be blindly moving towards something he feels he simply needs to do for the sake of alleviating his own hurt and loneliness and despair. It provides a stunning level of emotional complexity, and it is this opening picture told with tragic proportions and mass death that keeps this moral tension in view moving forward, especially in that crucial scene between Gomorah and Thanos where he is revealed to have the love Gomorah assumed wasn’t there.
Defining the Heroes and the Villain
And here is ultimately what is so neat to me about the way these old stories meet up and pair off with the new. We begin to see each of these fractured and broken stories slowly uncovering a subtle (and not so subtle) question about what defines a hero and what defines a villain. And this question comes through the idea of sacrifice, a theme that is also familiar to the Christian story.
Take Vision and the Scarlett Witch. Yes, even though killing Vision so that Thanos can’t get the stone would have been for the greater good of the world, doing this would have made it difficult for Scarlett Witch to distinguish her own actions from Thanos’ motivating purposes. Thus she remains driven to find another way to defeat him, if only to know she is on the right side of the line in this battle between good and evil. The fact that she does it in the end is set against Star Lord’s willingness to kill Gomorah for the greater good as well. I think the way these two scenes pair together tell us that this theme of sacrifice is the thing that separates them from Thanos, even when it is not entirely clear.
Contrast this with Thanos’ decision to sacrifice Gomorah for the sake of extending mercy to the world. For Thanos, the only way he saves the world is by sacrificing Gomorah, through which we are given a striking picture of this moral ambiguity. Where Thanos stands on the right or wrong side of this line isn’t always clear and throughout the movie we are left to struggle with where his motivation lies, for self or for others. All we really know is that all of this death, all of this loss, all of this destruction is painful and not the way things are supposed to be.
And this moral tension comes to full fruition in the moment Strange, having seen every possible scenario and knowing there is only one way forward, sacrifices his stone and saves Stark’s life for the sake of world, a moment that stands as the most definite picture of hope in this film, the idea that even in the questions there is a way forward, a way to redeem the mess and to find the promise of a better future. And somehow, this notion of sacrifice, of the hero’s constant resistance towards exchanging one life for another, feels like it is going to be a central part of how they move forward together.
Leaving Us With the Questions
Which is precisely where we find the film making its boldest move of all. In this story, in this moment, the heroes lose and the villain wins. It’s something we can see coming in the opening five minutes of the film. We know that Thor is the most powerful hero and we see him left with one eye and powerless against Thanos. We know The Hulk is the next most powerful hero and we see him being tossed around like a rag doll and suffering with some form of PTSD that keeps him from turning green and saving the day.
And the faint hope we have that Thor might be able to forge another hammer arrives at last with a striking and forceful sense of depletion in the final sequence.
Bold. Gutsy. Heartbreaking. Challenging. The last shot of Thanos staring off into the sunset might be one of the most chilling scenes I have experienced in recent memory, a scene that is willing to leave us wrestling with all the unanswered questions of this collective journey. How can this be redeemed and at what cost will this redemption eventually come?
The Stakes of Life and Death: Redemption
The question of stakes in this closing moment of the film has been hotly debated. Some loved it. Some hated it. Some feel they have been cheated, others found it raised the stakes beyond what they imagined.
Suffice to say at least everyone seems to be talking about it.
First, it is worth pointing out that this is what comic book stories do. They all have their own version of the Infinity Gauntlet. No death is ever necessarily final. They introduce kids to important adult themes. They allow us to taste death and darkness and despair and all those unanswered questions of life- our common humanity- while also giving us hope that anything is possible and nothing is final and that we can trust that we are heading towards something better than the present reality.
Second, when it comes to comic book storytelling, these storylines are less about the death itself and more about ways in which these deaths can and will impact the characters in the story moving forward. It is about the ways in which the stuff of life forges us and allows us to grow. It evokes necessary emotion in the moment while leaving us with the question of endless possibilities moving forward. We know heroes come back to life. We know things can be changed and corrected. This is why we can trust these stories. The real question is how will this unfold? How are they going to tell this story of loss and redemption in a way that teach us something about life and where these lines between hero and villain ultimately get drawn. How are all of these characters, already fractured, already broken, going to deal with this loss moving forward.
This is the stone out of which heroes and villains are forged in the comic book world.
Thus the stakes are to be understood and experienced in the moment. The stakes are in the sacrifices that have been made and the ones that will likely have to be made to find hope in the tragedy. The stakes are in this universal sense of defeat and the pictures of mass death that linger through each of these sequences. The stakes are in how we choose to find a way to rise above the current reality.
Faith. Hope. Love. This is the stuff of trusting that we are also a part of a larger story, one that is moving us towards the promise of redemption and a better world.
We don’t know how this story ends, and that is what forces us to sit in the moment. We don’t want our heroes to die, and that is what forces us to sit in the moment. We don’t want to be left in such a stark picture of loss and devastation, and that is what forces us to sit in the moment, to hope and trust that where this story ends is where it promises to end- with a world that can be redeemed.
Dr. Strange saw an immense number of possibilities, and only one resulted in victory. That is where the hope lies, but man does it seem like this is going to involve sacrifice. In the stakes of life and death and finality, redemption only works if there is a way forward, the promise of something better. And that is what Infinity War stakes the entire story of the MCU on.
Again, this is what comic book stories do. You don’t truly know how all of this is going to play out in the final act, but in this moment man does this all suck big time. Watching Parker die? Watching Scarlett Witch holding Vision in his final moment? Watching Gomorah being thrown off a cliff? Watching Thor lose everything in that opening scene? Hugely emotional.
Which brings me to where this all of this seems to be leading.
Disassembled Hero’s Assemble
The new hero’s have disappeared and the old guard is left standing. I wouldn’t have wanted them to write this story in any other way. It’s perfect. The Cap and Stark relationship is left intentionally unresolved, which means working through the stuff that pulled them apart is likely going to play into how they respond to what has just happened. And we know there must be a reason for saving Stark at the expense of that final ring.
I’ll wager this. I actually think if you strip away Thanos this is Stark’s story at its heart. His bookend.
And there is the question of why Rocket is the one who remains of the Guardians. Or why Banner becomes the only one to interact with each different group over the course of the film.
Any way this shakes up the final film is going to be one emotional ride through both the reality of the hell that Infinity War leaves us with and the promise of a new earth that lies somewhere on the horizon. Infinity War has set the stage for the MCU to be reborn. It has set the stage for the old to give way to the new in dramatic fashion, and calling out to Captain Marvel in the end was goose bump inducing. Using the setting of Black Panther and Wakanda, incorporating a dominant Guardians vibe, the increased role of Dr. Strange, the idea of the student taking the place of the mentor.
Yes, this is a tragic ending, but hope still remains. The real question is, what is it going to cost and how will the hero’s be able to redeem this notion of sacrifice that seems so central to the story Infinity War is telling.