SPOILER ALERT for Avengers: Infinity War (and The Empire Strikes Back, if anyone truly needs that now).
Although I’m far too late for this to qualify as any sort of “hot take”–is “tepid take” a thing?– I’ve put a lot of thought into what bugs me (to put it mildly) about Avengers: Infinity War. And just to be clear, I’ve been a huge fan of the MCU, far more than I ever was of Marvel comics (I was a DC guy as a kid). Captain America, a character I found boring and trite in the comics, has become my favorite in the movies; and my inner twelve-year-old still can’t believe that they put millions—millions—of dollars into bringing Thor, my favorite Marvel character, to the screen.
But Infinity War killed all that, just as surely as Superman murdering Zod killed my interest in the DC movies.
This isn’t a critical review. The movie is incredibly well-made: written well, acted with skill and humor, on a huge scale that justifies the nearly three-hour run time. I’m writing here about its effect, particularly the effect of its ending.
The most common response to any dissatisfaction with the ending has been the “Empire” defense, as in, “The Empire Strikes Back ended the same way, and everybody loves it!” Well, no, it didn’t. And here’s why.
At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, our heroes have been routed but not defeated. They’ve learned terrible things, but it didn’t destroy them, and they’re last seen launching their next mission, to rescue Han from Jabba. More crucially, Darth Vader has failed at the very thing that’s motivated him for the whole film: he hasn’t turned Luke to the Dark Side. It’s certainly an open ending, an implied “to be continued,” but it’s also an ending that leaves us, the viewer, with hope.
Infinity War, by comparison, is all about failure.
Every single hero, every single Avenger, fails. Despite multiple chances to stop Thanos, they are unable to do so. We spend two hours and forty minutes watching all our heroes fail, so much so that it retroactively taints the previous movies. How can we enjoy Peter Quill’s charm in the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for example, when we now know his immaturity is a big reason for Thanos’s triumph? The hopeful open ending of Thor: Ragnarok is now erased by our knowledge of what that post-credit sequence meant for the Asgardians. And these failures are not just abstract, but painfully personal: Peter Parker’s demise is especially wrenching, and the one I just can’t shake. Our last image is of Thanos, his work done, contentedly watching the sunset just as he said he would.
Now, I’m not an idiot. I know this isn’t “The End” for the characters. For one thing, given the immense critical and commercial success of Black Panther, it’s a given than T’Challa isn’t gone for good; same thing with the new, popular take on Spider-Man. I’m sure there’s some elaborate plan to bring them all back and defeat Thanos in the next movie, just as Luke and company rescued Han and defeated the Empire.
But Infinity War doesn’t give us even a hint of that. Instead, it shows us how all our heroes fail. They fail themselves, they fail the universe, they fail us. Cue credits.
And it’s not the time for our heroes to fail. In the real world, failure is all around us: our leaders are hypocrites and liars, many of our male public figures have been shown to be unrepentant sexual predators, people have no sense of security that they’ll have jobs or health care, and minorities are in danger of being killed at any moment. Make no mistake, in the real world, Thanos has already won. The difference is, the half of the population getting destroyed are the poor and nonwhite, not arbitrary ones like in the movie.
And now we’re supposed to pay money to experience those same feelings of hopelessness and despair writ large on a movie screen?
I realize most people don’t have a problem with it. The movie’s already grossed $1 billion and counting. But we also live in a world where empathy is a dying skill. People don’t even feel for the immigrant family living in terror down the road, or the women who dread walking down the street alone. So why should they care about costumed heroes?
I don’t have an answer for that. I just know that the MCU deliberately set out to kill the hope in its universe. Yes, it’s temporary; all comic book deaths are temporary. But in the moment, that doesn’t matter. They send us out of the theater defeated, into a defeated world.
At a time when we needed heroes, they took them from us. And I don’t know if I can forgive that.