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Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Few Criticisms of Avengers: Infinity War

I’m just going to cut straight to the point: I don’t think necessarily think Avengers: Infinity War is a bad movie. I enjoyed myself watching it in some capacity, which is ultimately what Marvel Studios was going for. But it was a certain type of movie, the kind where, as I’m watching it, I start thinking of all the ways it could have been better. So with that, I figured I’d give the few most significant changes I think would have improved the third Avengers film. As a warning, if you haven’t seen Infinity War yet and you’re concerned about spoiling the movie for yourself, maybe hold off, because I’m going to cover some major plot points.

First: Don’t change Thanos’s motivation from the comics.

I’ll start with a basic one (also, a less spoilery one, to give that crowd one last chance to leave). For those who aren’t familiar with the comics version of the character, the film rewrote Thanos’s basic motivations. Contrary to what a lot of people think, the Marvel movies aren’t necessarily good because they stick close to the plot of the comics (in fact, some of the best decisions have been when they let directors and writers play fast and loose with the canon). So the fact that Thanos’s motivation is different isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself.

It’s just that the new backstory just…doesn’t quite work. Some villains can be given motivations that seem understandable even if their actions are monstrous, but it needs to line up with what they’re doing. Leaving aside that Thanos’s plan to stave off overpopulation by killing half the world is both monstrous and nonsensical (for a variety of reasons), it overlooks that his means to doing is by collecting the Infinity Stones, artifacts that allow him to alter reality.

Which, you know, presumably includes the power to just…make infinite resources, thereby solving that overpopulation problem he worries about. Which is one of the problems in dealing with all-powerful artifacts, in that they frequently would break the sequence of events the writers need to happen, such as when Doctor Strange totally neglects that he has the power to control time when his team of Avengers just misses the chance to stop Thanos in the fight on Titan.*

*Of course, Strange insinuates there’s some reason he didn’t use the Time Stone, but it apparently needs to be concealed from the rest of the Avengers, which is its own lazy and frustrating writing trope, but let’s not dwell on that too long.

Since there’s really no way to make Thanos’s mass genocide seem reasonable in any way, why bother concocting a new origin at all? In the comics, Thanos is still a powerful cosmic entity seeking the reality-altering Infinity Gems in order to kill half of the universe, but he’s doing it to woo Death. Trying to appeal to a physical embodiment of a force of nature like that feels like a good combination of strange, mystic, and terrifyingly incomprehensible for a goal as crazy as massive galaxy-wide genocide. And part of me thinks this might be too bizarre for a major blockbuster, but then, Marvel also just included Ego the Living Planet in a movie last year, so maybe we’re underestimating the amount of weirdness people will go along with. At the very least, unrequited love for Death as a being is an underlying motivation that can’t be countered with “that’s not at all how this works”, like Thanos’s new plan can.

Second: Too many deaths at once

I don’t know how else to say it, but the large number of deaths that closed out the movie did nothing to affect me emotionally. I suppose some of that is technically due to outside knowledge, as even the most casual of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans is pretty darn clear the movies won’t be “for real” killing off Spider-Man or Black Panther or every Guardian of the Galaxy outside of Rocket and Nebula any time soon. Plus, even for those who don’t know that, it’s not like the MCU has been hesitant to undo deaths in the past.

But still, something about these deaths in particular felt especially hollow. Maybe it’s the overwhelming quantity making it hard to take in the full scope, with double digits dying all in the same scene? Maybe part of it is how rapidly they all happen, with only one main character dying in the first two and a half hours before suddenly erasing half of them in a single moment and leaving little time to reflect on each individual as they go and making all of them feel less impactful than that early death? Maybe it’s how blatant a set-up the entire moment is for the sequel, how easy the fix is, and consequently how obvious it is that none of this will last more than two-thirds of a movie?

Of course, Marvel movies have managed to wring emotion out of their moments in the past while being clear set-ups for future movies as well. So it might just be that the decision to end where they did made it clear on some emotional level that this was the midpoint of a double-length movie rather than a conclusion of an individual movie. Getting too worked up about that feels in some ways almost like getting worked up when thing go south at the end of a chapter in a book, right before the intermission of a play, or (most appropriately) in between issues of an ongoing comic series. Or, to quote one of my favorite movies growing up: “Guys, guys, relax. It’s only halftime”.

Except that it’s clear from the way the scene is treated that the creators wanted it to be a clear emotional beat. With that in mind…

Third: Maybe just restructure the movie?

If the nature of your movie is robbing your major emotional beat of its impact…maybe you need to restructure your movie? Of course, there are other problems of this sort. For instance, if your heroes need to lose their major battle to set up the downer ending, it needs to feel deserved, and I just don’t know if that’s the case here. For instance, the loss came because a single lapse in judgment from Star Lord…but also from Doctor Strange deciding not to use his magic “time rewind stone”.

Of course, if you saw Doctor Strange, you’ll know that that magic stone was enough to overpower what seemed to be magic demon lord of a hell-dimension, but it’s apparently just not enough to stop a big purple dude? And based on that, it’s arguable that Strange’s actions in Infinity War betray his character arc from his solo movie*, seeing as that movie ended with Strange more than willing to trade his life for the greater good to save the rest of the universe, but this one sees him trade an Infinity Stone (allowing Thanos to wipe out half of the universe) for a single person’s life.

*This arguably also holds for Spider-Man, who ended his movie deciding to be the more local hero that Iron Man wanted him to be and turning down a spot on the Avengers…but immediately charged at a space ship in the opening twenty minutes of Infinity War (maybe it applies to other heroes too and I just haven’t thought of this yet, but it’s also probably fair to note that none of these problems are as glaring as the gaps that result from Ant-Man appearing in Civil War that I’ve noted in the past, so it’s an improvement at least.) Edit: There's probably an argument that Thor: Ragnarok was undone too, I suppose.

What’s the fix here? I’m not totally sure. It might require a longer sequence, but then, maybe the secret could have been to not end with Thanos having completed the Infinity Gauntlet; even if you need to spend more time on these beats, ending with Thanos having devastated the heroes by taking one Infinity Gem after an all-out battle, and well on his way to completing could have been equally devastating if done well. And nothing says you couldn’t have had Thanos succeed at wiping out half the population in the next Avengers (which, arguably, wouldn’t have lessened the emotional impact much anyway, given that the decision they went with already made it feel like the midpoint of a larger movie). While I'm not positive of what the best choice might have been here, the more important point is that there were alternatives.


Of course, it's not all bad news. Ultimately, I liked Infinity War a lot more than the movie that technically preceded it, Civil War. And it’s tempting to try and forgive these weird gaps in the film's logic as something that crops up in the big events in comics as well (which is clearly the inspiration for Infinity War, in all of the best and worst ways). But those issues are still issues in the source material as well; they’re essentially just ignored because of how prevalent they are. The Marvel Cinematic Universe presents a chance to learn from those mistakes and build a better story (something the last few films have been especially good at), one without flaws so ubiquitous they become just background noise. For all the parts of Avengers: Infinity War that I liked, I still find myself quoting Tony Stark in Spider-Man: Homecoming: “I wanted you to be better”.

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