Marvel movies are what they are. Good fun. In the past few years, Marvel decided to experiment and make superheroes a template for inserting other genres into the mix. Whether it’s the up-front satiric approach of Thor: Ragnarok or the thriller-styled Winter Soldier, Marvel has shown that they’re not afraid to try something new.
However, one constant in Marvel movies was that the good guys won, no matter what. We always got those happy endings, the heroes standing tall and eating at a fast food joint after saving the world for the umpteenth time. We’ve gotten used to it. They’ve conditioned us to expect certain resolutions.
Superhero movies, particularly Marvel movies are very much Wrestling with added CGI and explosions. Each hero has their entrance music, their signature attire and finishing move. The bad guys and good guys are clear, and the good guys are often too naive for their own good. Nothing quite exposed that similarity like Infinity War. At some point towards the end, for better or for worse, the movie felt like a massive wrestling match. Heroes popping up into view with RKOS OUTTA NOWHERE. All that was missing was a loud “AND HIS NAME IS STEVE ROGERS!” You could feel the good guys building towards their massive tag-team finisher of doom to take Thanos out and save the world again.
And then Thanos snapped his fingers.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt shocked watching a superhero movie. Logan had a sad ending, sure, but it was building towards it for over 2 hours. We all knew that the movie would be goodbye. Just like we all knew Thanos was supposed to be defeated. I was conditioned to believe Thanos WILL be defeated. Then came the shock, lasting until the credits rolled. My groans of “oh come on, not again” that were surely going to come if Thor’s last axe swing was a triumphant one were instead replaced with a confused admiration.
You see, the Russo brothers did more than just end on a low note. They deconstructed one basic rule that their universe was built on. No man left behind. If any of the Avengers had the guts to allow a friend to sacrifice themselves, if Scarlett Witch immediately blasted Vision’s crystal to bits, if Gamora could watch her sister suffer, or if Loki sacrificed Thor’s life to keep the Tesseract, Thanos would’ve probably lost. The happy-go-lucky “we’ll get them next time!” attitude that made the Avengers what they were suddenly became a handicap that defeated them in the end. While their naivete can be nitpicked and held against the movie, I feel like it was too important thematically to suddenly switch. In a way, Infinity War is an anti-superhero movie — told largely from the perspective of the villain, a semi-sympathetic one at that, featuring goofball heroes who sometimes seem to care more about their own egos than saving the world. They never really seemed to be fit for what they were about to experience.
Just like the audience, they also were conditioned to believe that they’re powerful enough, smart enough and skilled enough to get away with it. Just like babyface wrestlers, they didn’t want to win in any other way but their way and for the first time, they were punished for it. Cap’s idealism, Tony’s Messiah complex, Starlord’s faux confidence were all exposed, and it was amazing to watch. Marvel was often criticized for the lack of stakes and consequences in their movies. Perhaps even the heroes themselves didn’t quite imagine what the stakes actually were. It will be interesting to see how the remaining characters grow, now that they’ve seen the consequence of failure.
In the end, however, we all know this state isn’t going to last. Nobody really ever stays dead in comics other than Uncle Ben, and the same goes for superhero movies. At the same time, “How will they get out of this mess?” now becomes a valid question, and opens a lot of new avenues for Feige and co. to pursue. For the first time in a while, I want more Marvel movies and I’m actually intrigued. All this also doesn’t detract from the fact that Infinity War is an excellently executed standalone movie. It checks all the boxes for entertainment value and actually deconstructs some of its own foundation in a meaningful and surprising way. For the first time in a long while, I’m actually impressed and not just entertained. Because Marvel movies are what they are.
Until they are not.