I appreciate the place that Avengers: Infinity War holds in the Marvel universe and in culture as a whole. I do not like it.
Spoilers below, as I would like to use this to process and discuss the movie.
All agony, no payoff
About one-third of the way through the movie, Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star Lord) has to kill his crewmate Gamora in order to prevent the knowledge she holds from falling into Thanos’ hands. This was discussed between them earlier in the film, and then the moment arrives. Gamora is being held by Thanos, begging Peter to kill her. Thanos, having just retrieved the Reality Stone, just holds her there, literally daring Peter to pull the trigger. Peter agonizes for a long time, probably two minutes of screen time, before he tearfully professes his love for Gamora and pulls the trigger…
…only for his gun to squirt bubbles, Thanos having already disabled it with his Reality Stone.
It is a cruel, cruel trick for a character to have to go through an agonizing decision like this, weighing the ramifications of their decision and ultimately making a decision to go against everything they stand for, only for that decision to instantly be rendered meaningless. Peter made the decision to kill Gamora, weighing her life and their feelings against keeping important knowledge out of Thanos’ hands. He finally decides that Gamora’s wishes and the fate of the universe are more important than his feelings, but in the end he still loses Gamora, her wishes are not respected, and the fate of the universe still falls to Thanos.
This is Infinity War in a nutshell: it doesn’t matter which impossible choice the characters choose. It doesn’t matter whether Peter kills Gamora. It doesn’t matter whether Spider-Man stays at home or gets on the spaceship. It doesn’t matter whether Wanda can take the Mind Stone from Vision or not. In the end, Thanos still wins. Half the beings in the universe are still erased. There is no free will; choice is meaningless.
It's not a tragedy
It’s hard to enjoy a movie that revels in the darker aspects of its own meaninglessness like this. That’s not to say that sad movies can’t be enjoyed. Tragedies have been a staple of theater since the dawn of Western civilization. But that line of logic doesn’t apply here.
A tragedy is more than just a sad story. Tragedies, despite not having a happy ending, still have a moral. Oedipus Rex, one of the more famous tragedies, has a message of not succumbing to one’s own hubris. Despite being warned by everyone around him, Oedipus falsely believes he has beaten his fate and carries on. When his folly is revealed, he walks away a broken man, and both he and the city he ruled over grow and change as a result. In turn, we the audience learn a truth about the world that, though it hurt to watch and learn, changes us as a result.
The Avengers are not fighting fate and succumbing to hubris; they are fighting Thanos. They are fighting a being that is not a god and in fact does not want to be. They are fighting against an ideal only insomuch as that ideal is going to kill a random half of them. And they lose. There is no moral here, no great truth for the audience to learn.
In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers lose and fall victim to the villain’s scheme; but in the end the characters grow and mature as a result. Even though Tony and Steve end the movie at odds, there is hope for reconciliation. Steve reaches out to Tony in the end with an apology and a way to contact him, and we the audience learn a lesson about loyalty and forgiveness.
In Infinity War, we don’t even get the Avengers.
There was a bit of a meme on YouTube for a while about the lack of memorable music in Marvel movies. The Avengers theme is the exception that proves the rule, tying itself to the iconic 360° shot in The Avengers when all of the Avengers—six at the time—were standing back-to-back on the field of battle for the first time.
This lack of distinctive music from the solo films is incredibly apparent in Infinity War. Several characters have grand entrances set to different motifs and themes from The Avengers. At a climactic point in the major battle in Wakanda, Thor arrives in a classic heroic entrance…
…and the theme from The Avengers starts playing.
Not present in the scene: Tony Stark/Iron Man, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (who Tony explicitly made an Avenger early in the film), Dr. Steven Strange, Drax, Mantis, and Peter Quill/Star-Lord. At the risk of channelling Archibald Asparagus, you can’t say the Avengers are assembled when the Avengers are not assembled! At the scene in question, I found myself wishing we were hearing “Immigrant Song”—a song more specifically tied to Thor’s great and powerful entrance—instead of music that evokes triumph and unity.
When the Avengers theme starts playing in The Avengers, we know that they’re going to win. We don’t know how they’re going to win, but we know it will happen. In contrast, when the theme plays in Infinity War, it is growing increasingly clear that Thanos will ultimately be victorious.
Ultimately, I have to feel at this point, that the original title of Infinity War: Part I was more appropriate. Having a “Part One” in the title denotes a sense of incompleteness. It signals to the audience that the “all is lost moment” will most likely come at the end of the film instead of two-thirds of the way through. It sets up expectations accordingly and helps prepare the audience for the film.
As-is, it’s hard to enjoy this movie. The fun moments are few and far between and are drowned out by the oppressing futility of the movie. Even an unexpected appearance by the Red Skull—a moment I would have enjoyed on its own—fell flat and was overshadowed by the content of its scene.
I look forward to part two so we can officially erase this movie from the MCU.
2/4: it’s only worth it in context, and some of that is context we don’t have.