So you’ve seen Infinity War, right?
First of… *clears throat* ‘Holy fucking shit, that ending! Geez, did you just see that…Jesus!’
Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, let’s move on. Oh, and if you haven’t already seen the movie, stop reading and come back later. Unlike the Marvel universe, you can’t use a Time Stone to undo the consequences (burn!) of reading and frankly the film deserves to be experienced first-hand.
Still with me? Well, good, because Infinity War was pretty fun, right? An admirable smashing together of a whole bunch of Marvel properties that by-and-large works very well, assuming you know your Peter Quill from your Peter Parker.
But given that ending, and the various deaths racked up along the way, I want to ask a question. Does Infinity War solve the Marvel ‘lack of consequences’ problem?
Accusation: In most Marvel movies, there are very little consequences
The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are so much fun. They’re dependable slices of blockbuster entertainment and even if you don’t love one of the movies, you’ll still probably have a good time with it nonetheless.
This makes it all the more frustrating that the MCU tends to have very little actual consequences. By that I don’t mean exclusively characters dying, although that is certainly part of it (oh, and ‘dead but not really’ fake-outs are the worst – Loki, Nick Fury etc.) No, stories can have huge consequences without it necessarily involving the death of a character. In fact, I would go so far as to argue Game of Thrones has literally used up all its ‘story progression by death’ and has come up unstuck in delivering storytelling not dependent on shock-death.
But the clincher is, the MCU very rarely has any form of consequence. Certainly there are some good character journeys over the course of the films (Tony and Steve effectively switching ideologies being one of them) and some of the solo films are exceptions (Guardians 2, in particular, lands a fantastic character death) but, largely, stakes feel huge but mean nothing.
Let’s go through a few examples. In The Winter Soldier, it turns out that SHIELD has actually been infiltrated by Hydra, an extreme Nazi cult. Doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultron ends with a whole country being destroyed partially as a result of the Avenger’s actions, and it’s not really mentioned at the end of the movie. Civil War wants us to believe character relationships are damaged, but backtracks with Steve’s letter to Tony straight away.
None of it matters. Now, on occasion, stuff gets weight retroactively in a latter film – for example, the destruction of Sokovia has a huge impact on Civil War – but that’s not quite the same (more on this latter.) Most movies can’t rely on a sequel to give them meaning, and pretty much all good movies have immediate tangible consequences. That’s what gives them purpose.
So, the question is, in light of Infinity War, has this problem been solved?…
The answer is no, by the way, absolutely not. It actually makes things worse.
Is Infinity War the most inconsequential Marvel movie?
After a decade of being terrified to kill characters, Infinity War goes nuclear, killing Loki, Heimdall, Gamora, Vision and then a huge chunk of the other Avengers in one go.
Shit, boy! It’s like Marvel’s Red Wedding…apart from we know a whole load of it won’t stick. Spiderman, Guardians and Black Panther all have movies coming up so they aren’t gone for good. Straight away that undermines the ending. The funeral music credits, so powerful at the time, can’t help but feel like a gimmicky, weightless bit of audience manipulation rather than earned as a result of, you know, actually telling a good story.
The film has stones that can alter reality and reverse time. All the while those stones are around, nothing sticks, even if the film genuinely is committing. Are Loki and Gamora actually gone for good? If so, brave decision, I guess. But the film is crying wolf at the end, and so those deaths feel as temporary as every other.
There’s even a version of events whereby this could become the most inconsequential and pointless Marvel movie yet if it turns out they can rewrite time completely. If all the events of this film are undone then what on earth was the point?
Don’t get me wrong, I think the next movie will require sacrifice (Tony Stark basically has a target on his head the whole time now), but they can’t keep relying on subsequent movies to prop up the significance of the last. It’s bad storytelling.
And here’s the thing. Impossible, unbelievable stakes don’t need to be this empty and, to demonstrate my point, I want to compare Infinity War to an episode of the single greatest television show ever made – Doctor Who.
Infinity War and The Doctor
Although the most obvious episode to compare to Infinity War would be ‘The Stolen Earth’ (both stories involve aliens attacking, various different properties coming together and both have to juggle a huge amount of characters) I actually want to compare it to a slightly weirder episode, ‘The Pandorica Opens.’
If Infinity War thinks its stakes are high, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is like ‘bitch, please. You killed half of all life in the universe? Well we’ve literally exploded every star and the universe itself has faded out of existence. Those are REAL stakes.’ Yes, seriously, the penultimate episode of Series 5 ends with the whole universe blowing up. Go big or go home, I guess!
So, presumably, this should exhibit all the same problems as Infinity War. The universe can’t stay blown up for obvious reasons, it’s going to have to be undone. But, far from feeling pointless, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is a sublime bit of storytelling even before its excellent finale solves everything in a witty and cerebral way.
Because ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is about a lot more than the fate of the universe. There are important character moments between the Doctor and his companion, and between the companion and her husband that she forgot existed (who is also now a Roman Centurion, and also an evil plastic alien who doesn’t realise it…God damn, I love Doctor Who.)
It hinges on a fascinating question – ‘What monster is so feared in all the universe that it needs to be locked in the Pandorica?’ The answer turns out to be *spoilers* The Doctor. This isn’t just clever and shocking, it’s an insight into the theme of Matt Smith’s tenure – how The Doctor himself, with the best intentions in the world, can be seen by others as a monster and destructive force. Fear of him literally threatens the entire universe.
The episode ends with The Doctor imprisoned, the companion dead, the TARDIS blowing up and the universe ceasing to exist. Even though every single one of these is undone in the next episode, it’s actually about something greater than the obvious stakes – you can’t undo the character development or thematic exploration.
But if I asked you what is Infinity Wars about, I think you’d struggle to answer beyond ‘a purple alien wants to destroy half of everything’. There isn’t time for character development between the main heroes, so it’s a pretty surface level watch. The character explored the most is probably Thanos, and the biggest take away from him is maybe ‘crazy bad people sometimes think they’re justified’…but it’s all very flimsy. It’s relying on the shock factor of its deaths and stakes in a way the aforementioned Doctor Who episode just isn’t.
And the funny thing is, Doctor Who IS a TV series, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ IS a penultimate episode. This form of ‘all is lost’ storytelling is suited for television where you can find out the resolution next week. It sits uncomfortably in a movie that won’t get a follow-up for a year. (Although if Avengers 4 turns out to be a small, character driven piece exploring zany ideas on how to save the universe in the way ‘The Big Bang’ follows up ‘The Pandorica Opens’, all will be forgiven. Just saying.)
There are now less consequences
There’s still no evidence Marvel has learned its lesson when it comes to consequences and frankly, that’s becoming increasingly frustrating. God damn it guys, just commit already! If stones can literally alter reality, things feel less at stake than ever.
But if this piece has been overly grumpy, I want to emphasise I had a great time with Infinity War. It’s great, stupid, magnificent fun and a cinematic experiment that we just haven’t seen before. And oh boy has it got us talking and speculating. I’ll be there on opening night for Part 2, so I guess it kind of did its job.
It’s just the lack of consequences that I think the Marvel movies really need to overcome. Without consequence there can be no meaning, and the whole point of stories, even dumb fun ones, is to leave the audience with something beyond pure plot.