As “Avengers: Infinity War” grossed something like 400 bajillion dollars over the weekend, it seems like there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen it, and thus we can talk a bit about its ending. But if you haven’t, and still plan to, bookmark and click away and come back after you have. Seriously. This is a spoiler warning! You have been spoiler warned!
Last Thursday night, I watched Avengers: Infinity War with quite possibly its most receptive audience: a group of 250 or so super-fans who viewed it at the conclusion of a 31-hour marathon of Marvel movies. (Read all about that here.) So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they greeted the climactic deaths of several important characters with much wailing and gnashing of teeth – and I mean that quite literally, as in people were audibly crying out, and crying, at what they saw. But it also seemed like the audience that should’ve been most aware that what they were seeing was altogether impermanent; if there’s any franchise where dead people don’t stay dead, it’s this one. I mean, the last person we see die, in the final post-credit scene, is a character who literally returned from the grave. There was a headstone and everything!
If you’re unaware of what happens at the end of Infinity War and aren’t planning on seeing it (and seriously, can’t reiterate this enough, this is your last warning, spoiler-phobes), here’s what we’re talking about: the series’ Big Bad, Thanos, finally accumulates all of the Infinity Stones the franchise has spent far too much time on, and is able to commence his evil plan of universe-wide population control by killing off half of all life, chosen seemingly at random. And thus we watch several beloved characters slowly vanish into thin air: Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch, Winter Soldier, Falcon, and every damn Guardian of the damn Galaxy. These deaths are played for maximum emotional impact, with characters registering fear and terror as they watch their very physical beings disintegrate; the death of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, in the arms of his surrogate father Tony Stark/Iron Man, is rendered particularly poignantly.
But look, it’s all bullshit.
And it’s not just bullshit because of the franchise’s traditionally loose standards w/r/t the permanence of death. It’s bullshit because of the very business model that has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the most lucrative of film franchises: the years-out announcements of upcoming projects, creating a culture of anticipation that pays off financially but not (in this particular case) emotionally.
Here’s what I mean: a quick Google search for the films of the MCU reveals a new Spider-Man movie out next summer, a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie in 2020, and new sequels to Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy set (but not yet to specific dates). If all of those characters just evaporated, what do we think those movies are going to be? Haunting, unbroken shots of their empty environs? (That, folks, would be an “experimental anti-film.”) Two hours of Aunt May crying at Peter’s funeral? Okoye and M’Baku taking over Wakanda? (Okay, that one I’d kinda like to see.)
Of course not. The next, as-yet-untitled Avengers movie, shot concurrently with Inifity War and picking up immediately where it leaves off, will inevitably reverse all of those deaths and set the Universe right again. So how is the remotest emotional investment even possible? And even stranger, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo could’ve had that kind of payoff, because you know who didn’t die? Iron Man and Captain America and Hulk and Thor and Black Widow, all of the original Avengers, all played by actors whose contractual obligations to the series are coming to an end. (Only one, Black Widow, has a stand-alone movie on the Marvel slate.) And don’t @ me, I’m sure that’s not how the comics go, so it’s verboten, or whatever. Who cares! We’re not dealing in comic books; this is a film series, with its own unique challenges, and they fumbled the ball.
Or is it even a film series at all? I participated in a binge-watch before Infinity War, and that has become, to many, the go-to method of ingesting popular art. It’s a terminology and methodology more frequently ascribed to television shows, but the MCU is in many ways a hybrid of television and film series. (The numerous actual TV shows that are Marvel-adjacent, like ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Netflix’s Jessica Jones, are merely taking this strategy to its logical conclusion.) It’s no surprise that the MCU’s defining directors (Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers) come from episodic television; the best sections of their films tend to function like situation comedy, building laughs from our familiarity with the characters and anticipation of how they’ll react to the plot machinations, even creating Ross-and-Rachel style will-they-or-won’t-they romantic possibilities. (And several of the most entertaining installments of the series have come from comedy directors: Taika Waititi’s Thor: Rangarok, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3.)
Beyond that, no matter how proudly quirky any given installment may be, they’re all adhering to a house style and predetermined template: pleasant introductions, comic interactions, big mid-movie action set piece, heightening of conflict and stakes, giant CGI-heavy blow-everything-up climax. Even their most sui generis filmmakers adhere to it; Ant-Man or Black Panther have their own idiosyncrasies and virtues, but at the end of the day, they must stick to the Marvel playbook, just as a Rian Johnson-directed episode of Breaking Bad is still first and foremost an episode of Breaking Bad.
So the big, harrowing, emotional ending that everyone is raving about on social media should be treated as what it is: a season-ending cliffhanger, which the Marvel-makers will slither out of as surely as the folks behind Dallas did, when it turned out J.R. wasn’t really dead. (Or, more accurately, when Bobby Ewing turned up in the shower.) It’s a giant cheat, which they’ll presumably offset by then killing the characters they’re actually getting rid of, and everyone will cry into their popcorn again, and it’ll make another 400 bajillion dollars. Lather, rinse, repeat.