In 2008, Paramount released Iron Man, casting a fallen Robert Downey Jr. to helm what would be the makings of a new cinematic universe. Paramount, likely did not know what they possessed. If they had, they never would have cast Downey Jr. (and they wouldn’t have sold sole distribution rights to Disney). Still, his casting was a massive risk and for some time, was the only risk taken by the current Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). A universe reliant on the same reoccurring tropes, arcs, and character development devices.
And though the narrative of Avengers: Infinity War is that of the ultimate risk, it’s really more of the same. It is the greatest crossover event…..since Captain America: Civil War…..since Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film’s risk comes from the inherent need to ‘balance’ a myriad of characters’ storylines, yet the story itself is nothing more than those same MCU building blocks. And while those building blocks are useful because they are effective, and they do often work to great effect here, in the end, Infinity War is symptomatic of a culture of tentpole writing that isn’t dependent on a playfulness of plot, rather a tried and true method reused, reused, and reused.
Infinity War, if you didn’t know already, is set around Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his henchmen, The Black Order: Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Promixa Midnight (Carrie Coon), Crovus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), and their hunt to find the infinity stones. A collection of gems that causes its proprietor to own the universe.
There are three real draws to Infinity War: Spider-Man, Thor, and Thanos.
Spider-Man (Tom Holland), though never developed past the kid who needs to learn some lessons, is expertly deployed. Often possessing some of the best lines, and pointing to the insanity of this universe, assuming Dr. Strange’s name is a moniker rather than real. The film is set on multiple, often beautiful worlds, worlds of fire, ice, desert, and reflecting pools, and Holland’s character provides some of the best levity to the darkest corners.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a character who has always had the most developed arc of the MCU heroes (don’t fight me on this), displays why he’s been the most malleable and identifiable hero. That identifibilty speaks to the strong writing behind his character. Because unless we’re all wielding hammers, on its face, a Norse god should be the least connectable character in this universe. Yet, Thor’s failings are often the most human: hubris, anger, envy, and lust for power and adulation. Here, his most endearing qualities are his resolve and false face ahead of tragedy. He has the best comedic moments, and often, the most heroic and knowingly sacrificial.
Yet, barring those two heroes, the rest of the Avengers and Guardians are either after thoughts are so poorly drawn out that their arcs are often pointless. Some of that is to do with the number of characters. The easiest method for the Russo brothers to tackle this large universe is to focus on a small group of heroes. Yet, much of these issues are poisons that have plagued this universe for a while, whether it’s the relative afterthought and uselessness of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) or the stunted growth of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
The lack of any coherent growth is what gives the first hour and a half a stuttering and haphazardly scattered feel. Indeed, much of the segments and cuts are solely to get to the next meme-able instance or the next punchline. And while Marvel films have always skipped to that beat, here with the abundance of characters, it weakens the integrity of the story. In fact, I had zero emotional connection with any of the heroes in that first hour (characters that I have become attached to over the past 10 years).
Is it too much to ask for these heroes’ actions to have legitimate consequences? In fact, what character in Infinity War isn’t a passive shadow? And yes, while I understand the film is only part 1 of 2, the film bestows little belief to think that these heroes will not succeed. That there will be some deeper consequences that will befall them, more than a character here or there dying. Rather they will never be in danger of actual growth (which is probably more a complaint of MCU as a whole), they will never have to modify their very actions.
However, there is one character that elevates the film to something intriguing: Thanos. 85% of MCU’s films have had weak villain-after-weak-villain. Nevertheless, with the additions of Killmonger in Black Panther (whose entire cast is thrown on the back burner here) and Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, those villainist woes are far behind Marvel. And here, it is Thanos who adds to that new tradition. He’s a better version of another recent foe: Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2).
In fact, Thanos is the real hero of Infinity War because his aims are so logical. There are limited resources. These resources are limited because of overpopulation, which causes war, strife, and the evilest traits in the galaxy. Why not kill trillions upon trillions of beings to create ‘balance?’ On logical grounds, it’s difficult to argue against. Yes, there is the emotional component, but when the emotional is subtracted to cold essentials Thanos is a savior. Much like Satan in Paradise Lost, we are meant to despise him. Yet, we find ourselves defending him, even empathizing with him: “One who brings/A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time./The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
There is an inherent danger in the character, not just because his aims make logical sense, but also because his character’s ambitions are so familiar. Thanos is a reflection of every MCU superhero. He has an ethos: an ethos he’s willing to commit to for the ‘greater good.’ He will sacrifice love and worlds to achieve peace. In fact, he will even sacrifice himself. And most importantly, he sees himself as the hero in his own narrative. Those who stand in his way are misguided, the blind who will know ‘right’ when it is presented to them. Sound familiar? Tony Stark? Steve Rodgers? Thor?
Thanos appears unbeatable because he displays the same strength of belief in righteousness as our heroes, even if that belief is misguided. Even if that belief destroys himself. And much like our heroes, his want to save the world isn’t driven by sole revenge. It’s driven by sacrifice. Dependent on a team, yet individualistic, he’s a display of the self-made figure, driven to ‘heroic deeds’ through circumstance. And though, much like Satan, we are attracted to his sheer will, we know (if we are morally intelligent), that his goals are comprised of heroic plunder and hubris: hubris being the ultimate sin. And even with the failures of Infinity War, which there are many, from weak character development to the lack of a coherent story with consequences, it is Thanos’s character that stabilizes an often, adrift and recklessly tormented ship, and puts everything just at its ‘right balance.’