No Resurrections (This Time): INFINITY WAR & The Return Of Blockbuster Mysticism

How the latest MCU entry restores our ability to dream along with the world's biggest franchise.

***Warning: Major Spoilers For Infinity War Ahoy***

There’s a moment near the end of Predator 2 (’90) that – at a recent 35mm screening in Austin – gave this writer a moment of pause. Following the breathless chase that comprises the bulk of Stephen Hopkins’ sci-fi/horror sequel’s final act (so spoilers, I guess, if you’ve never seen Predator 2), Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (a very sweaty Danny Glover) finds himself aboard the titular urban hunter’s spaceship. As Harrigan attempts to track the beast on its own turf, he stumbles across a trophy case that contains – amongst other perfectly polished skulls – the ivory noggin of a xenomorph from the Alien series.

Suddenly, my mind flashed back to being a Fangoria-obsessed dingus who rented Predator 2 on VHS, and what it was like to witness that Easter Egg for the first time. Your young brain was set ablaze by the possibility: are they actually going to follow this apocalyptic adventure with the ultimate intergalactic crossover, successfully answering the age-old juvenile query – who would win in a fight? I already owned the Dark Horse series Alien Versus Predator, and thus had an inkling as to what it could possibly look like. But the very idea of seeing those icons onscreen, duking it out, was straight out of a horror dork’s wildest nightmares.

Little did I know, British screenwriter Peter Briggs sold a spec to Fox in ‘91 based on that monster-mash story concept, and it was supposed to become the follow-up to Predator 2. Instead, the project languished in proverbial "Development Hell", and we instead received David Fincher’s compromised standalone, Alien 3 (’92). Unifying these projects were tumultuous development processes, which would be detailed at painstaking length via book – as Briggs’ script would eventually be broken down in Chris Gore’s superlative read The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made – and DVD feature (as we’d hear about Alien 3’s potential monks and wooden planets via the epic Quadrilogy BTS doc). However, little of this information penetrated the minds of moviegoers during the ‘90s, as we hadn’t yet entered the age of constant production “leaks” and hype pieces, which became (and remains) the basis for most post-AICN Internet fan sites’ business models.  

Then Marvel went and changed everything with the MCU. Beginning with Iron Man (’08), they kicked off a plan to create a shared universe, complete with post-credits stingers, news conferences announcing their slate for seemingly the next decade, and making each of the subsequently cast Avengers available for numerous press tours. Brick by brick, they built an empire that seemed omnipresent as it dominated the global box office and broke down boundaries in blockbuster moviemaking (anyone who denies Black Panther being one of the most representationally important tentpoles ever crafted is kidding themselves). It was an extraordinary gamble that exploited the system to its advantage, fueling the film writing economy while those whose well-intentioned resistance of this newly erected Industrial Cape Complex’s cycle shuttered as quickly as they opened.

However, something was lost while Marvel built their dominant pop domain (a structure buttressed into indestructibility once Disney purchased the studio). Though the movies that made up the MCU may have fluctuated in terms of narrative quality – as there’s a vast chasm between Iron Man 2 (’10) and Ant-Man (’15) –  there’s no denying the studios funneled every available resource into making these A-Level productions, rescuing funny book adaptations from their previously low-rent status (as anyone who sat through Corman and Cannon’s B-Movie attempts can attest). Sure, there was a uniformity to their visual aesthetic – give or take a Shane Black or James Gunn – that irked some (including this writer) at times, yet it was clear that Disney and Marvel weren’t fucking around, as each MCU installment seemed to improve upon the last, until reaching the rather triumphant run of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (‘17), Spider-Man: Homecoming (‘17), Thor: Ragnarok ('17), and Black Panther.

Yet regardless of how well-executed their final products were, Marvel’s churning production/publicity system somewhat lessened our ability to dream with these pictures. We knew what movies were coming next – sometimes six or seven deep – which lessened the stakes of each individual MCU piece we sat down with. Granted, this also somewhat keeps with the tradition of serialized comics – as with the books we almost always knew the hero was going to triumph, and - even if they perished - some bit of pen and ink weirdness could certainly bring them back. But the movies often weren’t so much self-contained individual narratives as they were obvious fragments of a product that’d been manufactured and market-tested for maximum appeal, complete with commercials during and after the credits for the next shiny thing that’d divert us for 2.5 hours. When combined with the inundation of production notes even most casual fans were hip to, everyone pretty much knew what was in store come the MCU’s next chapter. In short, the days of fantasizing about xeno skulls were seemingly gone forever.

Which brings us to Infinity War (’18), the first of two Avengers movies being helmed by Joe and Anthony Russo (who pretty much already made one in the form of Captain America: Civil War [‘16]). Originally envisioned as Part One, Infinity War was restructured to be a “standalone” movie (as much as any of these MCU entries can be separated from the franchise whole) during the writing process, complete with a title change. For much of the original cast – Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, in particular – it was possibly going to be their last go-round in spandex, due to contractual terms and the series entering its fourth “Phase”.

Essentially, in a franchise defined by being risky and groundbreaking in its approach to serialization, Infinity War was going to introduce another unprecedented event into the MCU’s timeline: the movie was going to place the Avengers on the edge of oblivion, leaving us to wonder who was going to die, and what would be left of the team in their departed caped colleagues’ absence. Perhaps this is why almost all of Infinity War hinges around the theme of “sacrifice”. We’ve watched these heroes bleed for the sake of saving numerous innocent lives before, but many times their losses were mostly in service of character development (see: Steve Rogers, whose entire existence is practically defined by the deaths of those he loves) and never actually threatened to wipe these titans from their universe.

Now, we’re at the end of the road with these supermen and women we’ve come to know so well – as Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) dreams of having a baby with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), while Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda “Scarlett Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) wonder if they should return to Captain America’s team all. We dream along with them regarding what could’ve been, had they never suited up and decided to keep humanity safe. Reunions are filled with melancholy longing; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) staring across a room at Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), knowing he’ll never feel safe loving her as long as the Hulk continues to rage. These relationships are instilled with a sense of overwhelming yearning for lives that were never actually lived, culminating in soap opera melodramatics, thanks to us tuning in to each episode. 

Infinity War even opens with the shocking demise of a beloved villain, as Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has his neck crunched by despotic intergalactic conqueror Thanos (Josh Brolin) within roughly the first five minutes. While this could easily be chalked up to the Russos (along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) setting the movie's stakes with an “anybody’s expendable” intro – and there’s certainly an element of that storytelling hucksterism at play – it doubles as a heartbreaking coda to the last MCU sequel’s heavy thematic lifting. A solid chunk of Ragnarok is devoted to a dying father (Anthony Hopkins’ Odin) wishing he could bring his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki together; a last-ditch effort to ensure the Gods he raised aren’t at each other’s throats after he passes on to Valhalla. Killing Loki off immediately after the ending of Ragnarok – as Infinity War picks up in the escaping arc following the destruction of Asgard – is like a cruel act of fate neither brother could escape. They’d finally made their peace, only to have it shattered by this malevolent purple bastard.  

Thanos is fueled by a twisted logic that’s propelled many dictatorial minds toward committing atrocities, as he seeks to provide the universe with “balance”, which is literally going to come at the cost of 50% of its inhabitants. His perceived necessity for such genocide is derived from Thanos’ experience on home planet Titan, which became overcrowded and thus didn’t have the resources to support its ever-expanding populace. Upon proposing his method for thinning that herd – through randomly selected elimination, thus treating those executed as a number instead of an individual – he was laughed out of Titan’s halls of power and labeled a madman. Not too long after, the planet was ruined after becoming overrun by its own people, proving Thanos’ theory right, and thus gifting the giant a paranoia regarding the rest of the galaxy’s congestion.

Only Thanos is also forced to give up that which he loves the most on his personal quest to see the sun rise over a stable cosmos. As he collects the Infinity Stones to fill his Gauntlet – each delivering a different set of powers – he kidnaps his “adopted” (read: kidnapped) daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and travels to Vormir, a planet where Red Skull (Ross Marquand), keeper of the Soul Stone, informs him the treasure can only be retrieved by sacrificing what he loves the most. As tears stream down his face, Thanos reluctantly throws Gamora to her death, granting him his latest set of powers. It’s a wrenchingly emotional moment, made even more real by Brolin’s rather spectacular performance, delivering a villain that has just as much spiritually at stake as our heroes. His actions will later be echoed on the Avengers’ side by Wanda, who must destroy the Mind Stone, killing Vision, the being she adores above all.  

For some, these moments are nothing more than feeble attempts at emotion, rendered false due to the Disney/Marvel's production process. As Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review:

"...for all the colossal CGI kinetics and pyrotechnics of the movie’s massive battles and thudding fights, the stakes seem so low. Even the surprising deaths of beloved characters, for all their momentary power to disturb, feel cheap, because the powers of superheroism...make no result seem conclusive, no death seem final. The redemptive heroics that are doubtless forthcoming in the next episode are little to look forward to; they have the inevitability of the calendar."

While the most cliched comparison point for every franchise’s “dark” entries will forever be The Empire Strikes Back (’80), it actually feels apt here for more than one reason. A New Hope (’77) obviously introduced a sense of life-or-death stakes into George Lucas’ Star Wars saga (via the demise of Obi-Wan Kenobi [Alec Guinness]), it still ended on a rather triumphant note for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the Rebellion, as they successfully detonated the Death Star. However, Empire famously leaves us in utter despair – as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite, Luke loses his hand and discovers Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is his father – making the audience wonder how exactly the next picture would play out. Part of this bleak finale arose due to contract terms (Ford wasn’t signed to do more than two movies), but again most viewers didn’t know that. As far as they were concerned, Han was dead, and there was no coming back.

Just like Empire, Infinity War bends our heroes to their breaking point, and even kills multiple members of our heroic squad. Thanos completes his Infinity Gauntlet and exacts his plan to decimate the universe’s population by fifty percent. This leads to an agonizingly ominous final reel, where the Avengers are forced to watch each other – selected at random, just as Thanos had proposed for Titan – vanish into plumes of drifting dust, some of them crying out that they don’t want to go. Arguably the movie’s most haunting image, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) whimpers and pleads as he fades from the arms of Tony Stark, the man who served as a father figure during his coming of age as a superhero. So, not only do we hear Tony’s dreams about having a child with Pepper (that will possibly never be born, due to his “job” as Iron Man), but also witness the nightmarish image of his surrogate son literally evaporating from his grasp. In this moment, the endgame of Infinity War is made abundantly clear: we’re watching our greatest icons wrestle with the notion of true mortality for the first time, realizing they won’t be around forever to protect us from the universe’s greatest evils. In a franchise known for always playing it safe, it’s a truly dangerous and affecting moment.

Obviously, movies cannot be watched in a vacuum, especially the 19th entry in an ongoing serialized franchise. Nevertheless, it’d be safe to assume that a solid chunk of Infinity War’s core audience saw The Empire Strikes Back on tape, with the full knowledge that Return of the Jedi (’83) exists. Beyond that film, there were toys and magazine covers and holiday specials that were omnipresent in many homes (or friends’ homes, or cousins’ homes, so one and so forth), alerting these young viewers that our heroes lived to battle the Dark Side another day. Still, that never lessened the impact of Empire’s final moments – Luke screaming after Vader portentously intoned “I am your father”, and Solo saying “I know” to Leia before descending into a frozen prison. As a standalone film, The Empire Strikes Back still kills, regardless of how much information you have regarding what comes next. 

So, what changed? Why are some viewers so resistant in the case of Infinity War? If you divorce yourself from any of the extratextual production notes, contract lengths, publicity tours, and announced slates, what remains is easily one of the ballsiest blockbusters to come around in years, adding mysticism back to the existence of our reigning superhumans. No longer are they untouchable creatures of might, but instead capable of being mortally decimated by forces they cannot stop or control, vanishing into the beyond. Removed from the comic book narrative, it’s a discomforting notion: beings created for the sole purpose of keeping us safe wiped out by a God just as easily as the rest of the population. While it might be a stretch to call Infinity War a “existential exercise”, if you take the movie’s text at face value, unburdened by questions of “what comes next” or how Marvel “will put it all back in the bottle”, a cold stillness enters your belly like a cancer. In short, if Iron Man can’t save Spider-Man from fading away, who the hell is going to save me from very real-world disasters? The escapist appeal of the MCU disappears completely, replaced by an overwhelming sense of dread. 

In his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr posits that the constant bombardment of daily online information has somewhat dulled our ability to engage in contemplative thought, not so much because it’s made us “dumber”, but instead due to the fact that we’ve been trained by these short bursts of distraction to process information differently. Maybe Marvel has done something similar with their movies; repetitively updating us on how they’re being made, what to expect and when, instead of allowing more room for big screen mystery. Now, when a picture like Infinity War comes out, some cannot relish its rather wonderful pleasures, thanks to all the extratextual knowledge they’ve been cursed with. That’s a crying shame, as Infinity War may be the first bonafide masterwork the MCU has delivered: a deeply-felt treatise on the cost of protecting many worlds, whose truly complex emotional core will be completely lost on some due to their need to log on and figure out “what happens next”, as opposed to considering the weight of what they just witnessed.

Avengers: Infinity War is in theaters now. 

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