This post contains spoilers, so for any of the lucky few who have not been bombarded with memes, reviews, and discussion over the last several weeks: be aware.
I don’t think there’s a more perfect metaphor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the scene where Rocket Raccoon gives Thor a robot eye in Infinity War. Over the course of Thor: Ragnarok’s runtime, Thor was stripped down, had his hair cut off, was forced to make compromises and sacrifices before ultimately overcoming a villain that shook the very nature of his home’s existence to the core. The loss of his eye at the end of the film and the eye patch that he received was symbolic of the sacrifices that he made throughout the story. Thor is a different person than he was at the beginning of the movie, both visually and emotionally. But in Infinity War, that symbol is waved away with what amounts to a throwaway joke in the moment. No, Thor isn’t fundamentally changed after that moment, but it’s almost a slap in the face to see a movie walk back the most drastic physical measure taken on one of its characters with a throwaway joke.
But it was such a fun scene, wasn’t it?
And this is where my (totally important) opinion on Infinity War lies: It is both what I love about the MCU, and all that frustrates me in a 150-minute movie. Marvel is so so so good at giving us loveable, smart, funny characters that are easy to follow. Iron Man gets into a fight with an alien wizard that he calls Squidward and it doesn’t feel a bit out of place. We would follow Iron Man literally anywhere at this point, and have a blast doing so. Same with Spidey, and the Guardians, and just about every character that appears in Infinity War. These movies are loads of fun to watch, the performances are always great, and most of the effects are pretty seamless.
And yet over the last few years, there’s been stuff that’s been gnawing at me about these movies. My issue is this: for a studio that puts a tremendous amount of care and effort into adapting these comic book characters, they don’t really try to developthem all that much. How, exactly, has Tony Stark changed since Iron Man 3? If anything, his character has regressed. Instead of addressing his decision to give up the Iron Man suit in Age of Ultron, the movie hopes that you didn’t notice that last part and tries to walk it all back. Tony hasn’t really experienced any sort of crisis that has helped him grow or fundamentally change in any way. The things that do happen to him, such as his rocky relationship with Pepper, mostly happen off screen and are discussed at convenient times through dialogue. Why can’t we have seen Tony and Pepper have a drag out fight at the beginning of Civil War? What happened in between that movie and Spider-Man: Homecomingthat caused them to reconcile? What we get are the “greatest hits” of these character beats without seeing the journey to get there.
Now, just to clarify a few things: I understand that the movies that Iron Man appears in now are all ensemble movies with many more characters. It’s very hard to create individual arcs for 14 different characters in the same movie. However, Tony Stark is the founder of this series. Where he goes, these movies go, so why are we pretending that all of these characters are of equal weight? Also, my criticisms aren’t so much about what these Marvel movies are, so much as what they have to potential to be. Maybe I should quit before I make myself crazy, but…eh, I’m gonna continue on anyway.
Marvel's Villain Problem
For years, we were subjected to all those think pieces that pretty much had the same title: MARVEL HAS A VILLAIN PROBLEM. Those were annoying as hell, weren’t they? I mean gosh, article after article about the singular problem with the MCU ad nauseam, it was exhausting. Now there are articles about many different MCU problems (like this one), so yay variety? Anyway, many Phase 1 and 2 villains were all criticized for being bland, boring, and ineffective. At that point, the only villain that actually worked very well was Loki. The common critique during that time was that the villains’ motivations were always weak. They wanted revenge, or to destroy the world or something. Over the last few years, Marvel has tried to address this issue and has come up with some pretty good villains like Ego, Vulture, and Killmonger. Here’s the thing: Marvel’s villain problem was never about motivation. It’s always been about character development.
What’s an antagonist? In terms of story structure, an antagonist is a character that stands directly in the way of what our protagonist wants. Luke Skywalker wants to become a Jedi Knight and lead the Rebellion to victory, and Darth Vader wants to stamp the rebellion out and ensure Luke does not achieve Jedi status. Max and Furiosa want to lead their group to safety, and Immortan Joe wants to stop them and get his “property” back. Clarice Starling wants to catch Buffalo Bill, and Jame Gumb wants to keep his killing spree alive to “transform”. These dynamics are what drive the conflict in each of those movies, and they also serve as a way to develop the protagonist’s true desires and their struggles. Villains can often be the protagonist’s opposite, which is why we see the clichéd line, “You and I are very much alike.” It’s true in a lot of cases, because oftentimes conflict is born out of two similar personalities colliding with each other. You can have an effective antagonist in any genre of movie, so long as you fully understand what the protagonist truly wants, and how to put up obstacles throughout the journey for that want.
This, I think, has been Marvel’s true villain problem. What do our protagonists want? Too many times the Phase 2 and on movies devolved into “villain does something that hero has to stop” instead of using the base desires of our protagonists to create a dynamic where things can be taken away from them. The lack of a true “want” causes a huge gap between a protagonist and what an antagonist can do. Maleketh is ineffective inThor: The Dark Worldbecause there’s no desire from Thor other than to stop him. It’s astonishing how little of a threat Ultron is to any of the characters throughout his time on screen, even though the motivation behind his creation is ripe for conflict. We’re always given “low point” moments, where the music swells and the characters look like they might be defeated, but it isn’t substantive. They can’t ratchet up the drama in these scenes because in the end, the desires of our main characters are usually nothing below surface level. There are notable exceptions, which I will bring up, but first!
This brings us to Thanos.
Does Thanos deserve to be on the notable exception list of Marvel villains? It’s complicated. He was teased so much since 2012 that it was very easy to get hyped for him as the “big bad”. Of course he would be a badass, they’ve been setting it up for years now. But, from what I saw in the movie, the reason he’s been fawned over is only because he’s allowed to run roughshod over all of our heroes in the movie. If you switched he and Maleketh out, I can almost guarantee you that Thanos’ motivations and effectiveness would be as lampooned as Maleketh’s were in the second Thor movie, and Maleketh would be hailed as a great Marvel villain. Killing half the population of a planet restores balance? Does Thanos not understand how social constructs work? It doesn’t matter if he’d killed off two thirds of the population, there would still be people vying for power who wanted to ensure that other, less fortunate people on the planet got nothing. But that logic stuff is beside the point; the issue is that he is a superficial antagonist who also happens to be very effective.
Now we’re getting into debate territory, because the hubbub surrounding Infinity War was that Thanos is not, in fact, the antagonist, but the protagonist of this movie. It’s true that Thanos’ decisions and movements are the driving force behind the movie, but if he is the protagonist, he’s a crappy one. Why? Because it all comes back to the true desires characterization. What does the hero want? Why does the hero want it? Thanos wants the Infinity Gems. Great, we got that. Why? Overpopulation ravaged his planet and so he wants to do the universe a favor? These motivations are impersonal at best and weak at worst, and it doesn’t give us any special insight into who Thanos is. He says that he loves Gamora, but why? What have we been shown that makes us believe that he deeply cares for her? Remember, if Thanos is the protagonist, we should see the emotional journey of the character in detail. Clarice Starling wants to catch Buffalo Bill, but her motivation, the reason she’s going to great lengths to stop him (and the reason the movie is called The Silence of the Lambs), is a deep feeling of guilt that she’s carried with her since childhood. What we want out of our main character is to empathize with them, no matter who or what they are. The Sopranosis a masterwork of having a protagonist who shouldn’t be likeable, and putting them in situations that make us empathize with him. It can be done, and it has been done, in the last movie Marvel released.
There’s a reason why there was a huge “Killmonger was right” campaign after Black Panther was released. It’s because the movie went great lengths to ensure that you fully understood where Killmonger was coming from, and how his past shaped his worldview. We literally see that he is still that little boy inside, whose father was killed by people from the same land that he had fantasized about. His motivations are clear, and his ideology is understandable given his upbringing. Plus, his very existence shatters our protagonist’s own worldview of Wakanda and the leadership of his ancestors. These qualities make a great and memorable antagonist, and I would absolutely say that Killmonger is the best villain from the MCU because of them.
The reason I compare Killmonger to Thanos is because Infinity War wants the same things for him. The movie wants you to empathize with him, wants you to understand where he’s coming from, wants you to feel the loss that he goes through over the course of the movie. But, like the relationship between Tony and Pepper, the movie really doesn’t want to do the heavy lifting necessary to fully realize any of these things. Sure, the music swells and the performances are pitch perfect when Thanos realizes that he needs to kill Gamora, but underneath all of the packaging, what we have is a scene that is emotionally hollow. Other than the flashback, which does not show anything other than the fact that Thanos likes balanced daggers, we aren’t shown anything that could lead us to believe that love is in this equation at all.
The reason that I’m frustrated with this version of Thanos is because his comic book counterpart’s motives are far more interesting. In the comics, Thanos was a deformed kid who got abused by his mother, which led to a psychological need to please. He became enamored with the physical embodiment of Death, and thought that in order to get her attention, to make her love him, he had to kill in her name. And what more effective way to do that than to kill off one half of the universe with a snap of your fingers? This motivation can be communicated so much better and with so much more emotion than what we get in the movie. It can contextualize things that are weak, and most importantly, if he is truly our protagonist, we need this to understand where he’s coming from emotionally.
Because otherwise we’re just projecting our own emotions on the screen. Otherwise we’re just bobbing our head to a greatest hits version of a movie instead of one that puts in the effort to make you believe in your character.
They'll Deal With That In The Next One
We’re living in an interesting era of movies. These guaranteed sequels and shared universes are something that we haven’t really seen in terms of big budget filmmaking before, and leeway should be given over a few things. However, there is one excuse for these movies that really gets to me, and that is, “They’ll deal with that in the next movie.” This is trotted out every single time somebody criticizes an aspect of one of these stories. “This is a shared universe with a whole bunch of sequels. They’re just setting up the next movie. This’ll be handled in the next movie.” And you know what? It’s always wrong.
Every single time.
Nothing is ever handled in the next movie. Age of Ultrondidn’t handle the fallout of Winter Soldieror Iron Man 3. Civil Wardidn’t address really any of the loose ends of Age of Ultron other than some lip service. Infinity Wardeals with the strife between Captain America and Iron Man (which was waved away at the end ofCivil Warbut whatever) with an offhand “You broke up? Like the Beatles?” from Bruce Banner. Because the secret is that these are all individual movies, and they will change things (or more often, keep things the same) for the sake of the story that they’re telling in this movie.
So when I criticize the way that Thanos’ motivations are handled, I don’t want to see “they’ll deal with that in the next movie,” because doing something in the next movie doesn’t retroactively make the one before it better. Thor: Ragnarokdoesn’t make me want to watch the Thor movies again; it just makes me want to watch Thor: Ragnarokagain. And how many times are we going to use this excuse? Lostwas always going to answer all the underlying questions in the next season, or the next episode. True Detectiveseason 1 was going to deliver on those supernatural elements that were hinted at in the next episode. The Last Jediwas going to answer all those mystery box questions from The Force Awakens. It seems every time we fall in the trap of expecting a story to “deal with” things that happen in a previous movie or episode, we are priming ourselves for disappointment, and also focusing on the wrong things.
They All Ded
So, question: Do you think any of the dissolve to dust deaths of our Marvel characters are permanent?
I’m gonna guess no, and that’s because literally no one I’ve talked to about these movies actually believes any of those deaths are permanent.
Why is this? Is it because we know so much about the behind the scenes process of making these movies that the magic is gone? I think it definitely has something to do with that. There are tons of websites that make their living off of announcing who has signed on to what, which actors have contracts with which studios, and which movies are going through reshoots. I knew that Robert Downey, Jr. had dropped out of Inherent Vicea year and a half before the movie came out. I know the full cast of a TV Pilot that I’m probably never going to see. It’s weird, but that’s the nature of film and TV discussion right now.
However, I can’t help but think that there’s another reason why nobody is convinced, and I think you can look at the people who were spared at the end of the movie. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, War Machine, and Rocket Raccoon are all still kicking. The other people who were turned to dust were either side characters mostly unconnected to these characters, or newcomers like Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Spidey. What’s the pattern with the survivors? With the exception of Rocket, they have all been part of the MCU since basically the beginning. It undermines the gravity of what just happened. Everybody somewhat unimportant dies, but don’t worry, your favorites are still around! They’re all coming back for the next one, it’s all good! So what should be a really terrifying moment seems a bit cheap, because the turn to dust thing basically means that all of these characters are kidnapped. Killing them off had no real effect. While it was the right decision to have our heroes fail, the consequences of that failure are still nerfed so they can let the audience down easy.
The argument here is that these are comic book movies, though. In comics, characters come back to life and die with such consistency that it doesn’t matter. I’m not making the argument that these movies aren’t perfectly adapting the structure of comic books. What I am saying is that Black Pantherand Thor: Ragnarokhave shown that these movies have the capability of being so much more. They can be movies that are aboutthings, and can communicate nuanced ideas to mass audiences effectively. They can be great on their own while also building the overarching universe up, creating a more vivid place for the characters to inhabit. It’s just frustrating to me that Marvel doesn’t seem wholly interested in being that. Infinity Warfeels so much like one step forward and two steps back.
But it made a whole bunch of money, so who am I to judge?
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.