This blogpost finishes up my analysis of Infinity War, previously started last week. Here we’ll be taking a look at the stakes and the level of uncertainty in the film. Let’s proceed.
In the last blogpost, I talked mostly about characterization that needed to be beefed up to have made Infinity War connect for me. I also outlined the following lovely list of things that made me really check out of the movie. The list included:
- Emotional engagement, defined as connection to the characters and investment in what happens to them.
- Believability or digestibility of the stakes.
- Uncertainty in what would happen.
SPOILERS for Marvel’s Infinity War, if you haven’t guessed.
For this post, we’re going to look at the stakes and the uncertainty in the film. These are pretty well tied together for me, so I think we can manage in one post. Here goes.
Infinity War clearly reads as the turn in this story, the leveling up of stakes for our ever-expanding plucky team of super-powered critters. The fate of the world is obviously not a sufficient issue to be leveling up to at this point – we’ve been there and done that twice in the Avengers series and more times than not in other branches of the franchise. As is often the case with action movies, Infinity War chose to expand the scale of the threat. It’s not humankind that are in danger of being wiped out. It’s the control of reality on the line. Half of the population of the universe, erased at the hands of a madman. These are large stakes. Unfortunately, I never felt them. Some of this was because of my lack of attachment to the characters. Some of it, however, was because the stakes were just so damn large.
I mentioned in the last post that connection to characters is really important to a film, and this is because of a simple fact of human psychology – we can’t grieve the masses. It’s really hard for your average person to mourn the death of a thousand people, or a million. It’s a lot easier to mourn a single person that you love dearly. The stakes that matter in Marvel movies are personal – think T’Challa’s kingship in Black Panther, or Thor’s exile in Ragnarok. Both of these movies worked so well because we were cheering on an individual. Those individuals are right and good because of how they treat the masses they govern, but they are appealing to us because we know them personally and intimately. So when we level up the stakes to talk about half of all of the sentient population of the galaxy…well, that doesn’t really mean anything, does it? What keeps us emotionally invested is actually Thanos’ threat to individuals – to Vision and to Gamora, to Iron Man, to Captain America and Thor. This is why it was so important to make sure that the characters upon whom the narrative arc depended were well developed.
Contrast this with the side of the equation, the question of uncertainty. We know the stakes, but we should have questions about whether or not the protagonists can safely or possibly accomplish their goals. Nothing should feel predetermined. Which is the third reason that Infinity War didn’t quite work for me – the plot moved the characters, and the ending was a foregone conclusion.
When I say the plot moved the characters, I’m talking about a sense of dislocation that you can often get when watching movies, especially action movies, which rely on external conflicts (fists) to keep things moving. We need the characters to fight and not talk things out, so they fight. I think the worst Marvel movie for this was definitely Civil War. Part of this is because all of the characters we were meant to view as protagonists were playing the reaction game – there was never a point where any of them were really behind the ball and not running from it. I never felt like they could win. What moments of hope existed in the film were not sufficient to outmatch the inevitable destruction coming down the chute. We knew that Thanos would win. The promise was made from the beginning that he would get all the stones. The only uncertain stone, in my opinion, was the Soul Stone, and that was because no one knew where it was. Once we knew that Gamora had found it, we knew that the game was over.
The challenge, then, was to make us hope that it was possible to destroy Thanos despite how overwhelmingly powerful he seemed. Thor’s arc was the most hopeful of the ones presented. Unfortunately, Thor’s arc mostly consisted of him wandering around space doing god things that were not really well explained until, at the very end, he shows up with a super powerful weapon that is also never really explained and manages to botch killing Thanos. As, I suppose, one does when the fate of the universe is on the line. While I’m a big fan of Thor’s new axe (and very hopeful that there will be a sweet Gimli reference somewhere in Avengers 4) the arc felt flimsy overall. We needed a super weapon, so suddenly there was a man who could make a super weapon. We needed Thanos to live, so despite being hit with what is apparently the most powerful offensive tool in the universe, he lives. Thanos was always going to win. The story demanded it.
I think, in the end, this film as a bedrock for the upcoming fourth film may be a good thing. The question of which characters are actually on the chopping block and how it will all play out is definitely one that has intrigued the fandom. But as an installment, this movie was forced to spend all of its energy playing out old threads and setting up new ones. It was unable, for better or worse, to grow beyond what had come before or to make itself independent of what was coming. It’s a tricky situation, writing in a series, and despite my critiques I think overall the writers did a good job with what they had to work with.
That said, there were ways that it could have been improved, and gaps in the plot that were glossed over with charisma and tissue paper. I wanted to be taken in, but it wasn’t quite enough for me.
Let’s hope the ending makes it all worth it.