Contains spoilers. Coz if we’re gonna talk about this, we’re gonna talk about this.
A:IW isn’t a self-contained movie – it’s a season finale. It’s in a position as unique as it is earned: the unprecedented achievement that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that the bulk of the character work has been done over several more-hit-than-miss films before we get to this.
The clever thing here (and not just here – “clever” is just what Kevin Feige’s Marvel Machine does generally) is to tell the story, to a certain extent, from the villain’s perspective. It doesn’t exactly humanise Thanos, but it’s one way to balance the emotional stakes: it’s a villain we barely know against a large cast of superheroes we’ve gotten to know over several films and, beyond that, with whom many of us have literally grown up.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrates ten years of escapist, optimistic, occasionally subversive, increasingly progressive, but above all lighthearted fun, with an unprecedentedly dark, traumatising mic-drop.
Fantasy films often tell stories of otherworldly monsters posing existential threats, but don’t succeed in making us feel the gravity of the events unfolding. Many open the way A:IW does, with a scene designed to demonstrate the threat the villain poses, but are unable to invest us emotionally because the victims are, to us, merely moments old, and the hero is yet to be introduced. But here, coming as it does right after Thor: Ragnarok, A:IW‘s opening scene is devastating. After everything the Asgardian refugees have survived, and after several films of Thor growing into the hero he is now, everything is rendered inconsequential in an instant (and where is dear Valkyrie in all this?). The threat, to us, is that the heroes with whom we’ve adventured, lived, grown for years – that everything we’ve invested in – may actually, with a literal snap of one’s fingers, be taken from us too.
A:IW does not work unless it makes good on that threat. And, inevitably, unfathomably, it does. Because we’ve never actually seen these heroes lose – and in such an arbitrary way. Watching half of our heroes disappear before eachother’s and our eyes – an arbitrary half selected, as Thanos says, “dispassionately” – needs to happen for everything to mean anything.
The story’s stakes may be universal, but the emotional stakes for the viewer need to be personal. Zooming in and out quickly enough to pack in all the necessary beats for both the micro and macro considerations usually leads to a film being a whole lot of not much. But there’s tight filmmaking in each brick of this towering building: with such efficient visual storytelling packed into each shot, each edit, each beat, a Spider-Man, say, can be introduced and deployed within 40 seconds:
A:IW has the advantage of years of micro-level work having already been done – allowing for an appropriately-universe-sized scope in its energetically cross-cutting, multiple-narrative montage, and needing room for only one character study: Thanos himself.
With a little story restructuring, Thanos could have been more of a Michael Corleone figure than he ends up being here.
The Tragedy of Thanos
The film begins and, in a cinematic moment as jarring as the wandering camera that follows the shower scene in Psycho, ends with the villain (which also, funnily enough, happens at the end of Psycho). Smiling – not with menace, but at peace.
In their previous Marvel films Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, which I’d argue (and have) are the two best of the MCU, the Russo brothers have refused to resort to the “suddenly goes mad for no reason” trope most common in superhero / comic book movie villains. But, just as each of those films has felt like an audition for its follow-up, here, in direct proportion to the increased head-count of characters involved, the stakes of humanising the villain have been upped once again. The juggling act of characters and tones in Civil War was impressive enough; but A:IW seems to be the limit of how far this can be pushed within one film, one episode – at least, if their track record is any indication, until the next instalment.
The arrival of Thanos, someone with the power to wipe out literally half of existence, does exactly what it’s supposed to: it shifts the goal posts in a substantial, unprecedented way.
The Road to Infinity
The CGI in A:IW – specifically of Thanos, and his Black Order – probably won’t age well. But the MCU has built its way towards this Empire Strikes Back moment (its cliffhanger ending, as much as needing the audience to buy a ridiculous-looking character upon which the entire universe’s mythology-shift is balanced) gradually and, for the most part, carefully.
The MCU’s journey from 2008’s personality-driven Iron Man, which hit its gritty “realism” peak with spy-thriller Captain America: Winter Soldier, has balanced out its increasing amount of space-and/or-fantasy wackiness with proportionate humour and self-awareness (more cheaply with the two Guardians volumes, more subversively with Thor: Ragnarok, and most culturally significantly with Black Panther). It will only seem miraculous that the MCU’s arrival at this, almost totally green screen, CGI fireworkstravaganza has stakes if you haven’t been paying attention.
The Redemption of Tony Stark
Let’s be clear: by the end of A:IW, Tony Stark is no less of an egomaniac, no less reckless; he still has blood on his hands, and a lot to answer for. But the situation surrounding his actions has changed so dramatically, that he’s oddly, tragically justified.
Since the alien invasion at the end of Avengers, Tony Stark has been single-mindedly driven to devise a defence against the next invasion he’s been unshakeably convinced is on its way. It’s led to disasters like Ultron, and risks like Vision – actions for which he has never taken meaningful, personal responsibility. The arrival of Thanos, someone with the power to wipe out literally half of existence, does exactly what it’s supposed to: it shifts the goal posts in a substantial, unprecedented way. Suddenly a few thousand deaths in Sokovia seems smaller in proportion – a tragic setback on the path to solving a much, much bigger problem.
During A:IW, we glimpse in flashback a Chitauri invasion on another planet – an invasion which succeeded, on a world with no Avengers to protect it. It echoes the vision Tony has in Age of Ultron, which sets him on his path. He is, as he tells Banner in that film, a mad scientist. He tells the MIT students he funds in Civil War: “go break some eggs”. Sure, he feels guilty about the deaths he helped cause in Sokovia, but he’s always focused on the bigger picture, even if those around him don’t support or understand him. Dr Strange warns Tony that he won’t hesitate to let Iron Man or Spider-Man die if it means saving the rest of the universe. Thanos, who is similarly driven by his own vision, one for which he would – and does – pay dearly, knows Stark by name. They are two sides of the same coin.
A Quick Word About Quill
Peter Quill is just… the worst. It’s more than a little disappointing that, between the events of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and this, he and Gamora have seemingly become a full-fledged couple. It kind of undoes the good work that film did in the entitlement smack-down effort. Quill’s behaviour did not “win” him Gamora’s affection back then, nor should it have. And now, he seems no less immature or insecure, either in relation to her or to his own masculinity. So what, exactly, has changed to make him worthy of her?
Though it would probably be argued that their relationship needed to become officially romantic for the sake of the A:IW narrative, I’d counter that with this: if the story required Quill have a motivation to lose his shit over Gamora at a crucial moment, their friendship should have been enough. It certainly was for Cap and Bucky (and theirs would have been a far better earned romance. Yup, I’m a Stucky shipper).
Funny, But Not Ha-Ha Funny
A:IW is perhaps the first Marvel film where the humour has felt really forced. The Russos managed the ebb-and-flow masterfully in Civil War – not helping things here is the sheer number of things going on, or the mish-mash of comic sensibilities the various characters bring with them from their respective films. And yet, had this film not at least made attempts at levity, it’s difficult to imagine how downright oppressive A:IW would have been.
The death scenes are haunting – I’m trying to remember if there was even a score accompanying the final sequence on Titan – as is the sight of Cap looking so utterly defeated when he says the final line of the film: “Oh God.”
The real blow here is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrates ten years of escapist, optimistic, occasionally subversive, increasingly progressive, but above all lighthearted fun, with an unprecedentedly dark, traumatising mic-drop.
Marvel is dead. Long live Captain Marvel.
Dialogue Dive‘s analysis of the midpoint scene between Thanos and Gamora discusses the power of the “Antagonist At Rest” in storytelling and character-building, by contrasting the theatrical version of the scene with the earlier, unreleased version of the same scene: