Does the Ending of Infinity War Matter?

(Look at the headline, folks. Don’t read any further down unless you’re all caught up.)

From the moment Thanos first smirked his way into our hearts in the first post-credits scene after The Avengers, there’s been an air of anticipation among the comic reading set. Their reaction to hearing the phrase “Infinity Gauntlet” was akin to the anticipation you might see from Watchmen fans if you mention the word “squid,” or if you were to mutter “Red Wedding” near a group of A Song of Ice and Fire fans. When it comes to adapting these stories, these are the moments that cause the most nerve-wracking worry. On the one hand, you can’t imagine sitting through that trauma again. On the other, there’s no point in adapting these stories unless you’re actually going to follow through on where the story goes. And on the other, third hand that we all have, there’s the excitement behind wondering if the storytellers really are going to do it, and how a mass audience is going to respond.

In the case of Infinity War, Joe and Anthony Russo went all the way and brought to life a sequence of events that have haunted Marvel readers since 1991. Mad Titan Thanos acquires all six Infinity Stones, unites them into his gauntlet, and with a snap of his fingers, eradicates half of all life in the universe. As our heroes watch, utterly helpless, their friends and loved ones disappear into dust. Thanos escapes to some green, beautiful world, and watches the sun rise, a satisfied smile on his face. Roll credits.

This ending prompted two immediate reactions: Shirt-rending grief and outrage (both times I saw Infinity War, my [sold-out] audience gasped in horror as various characters disappeared, and there are reports of inconsolable fans staggering out of theaters), of course, but also no small amount of side-eye. Next year, Avengers 4 will show up and everyone assumes that, as in the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries that inspired this whole run, most everyone who vaporized will be returned with little muss and maybe minor fuss.

This expectation has led some to roll their eyes at Infinity War altogether, or at least to criticize it as being half a movie. That ending is so much schmuck-bait, a TV writer term for an obviously fake threat to the status quo that everyone knows will not last. Seen through that lens, Infinity War’s ending is little more than a cheap cliffhanger, and the sheer tonnage of death and grief little more than a speed-bump in the world-conquering, money-printing juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And, you know, on one level, that is fair. Marvel’s already announced release dates for the next Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies, so unless Homecoming 2 is going to be a romantic comedy following Aunt May as she lives the cougar lifestyle in a decimated NYC (which I would watch) and Guardians Vol. 3 is going to be Rocket and Kraglin bungling around the universe being jackasses (which I would definitely watch), those deaths ain’t sticking. It’s also hard to imagine Marvel looking at the cultural and box office earth-shaker that was Black Panther and deciding, ‘You know, one was enough. Let’s go ahead and off T’Challa unceremoniously in someone else’s movie.’

But this line of thinking does a disservice to what is a bold, devastating story choice, one that is sure to have ripple effects for both characters and audiences alike, for years to come.

1. “This was the only way.”

Lookit, fam, if your community theater announced that they were going to be staging a production of Hamlet, you wouldn’t show up at rehearsal and declare the whole thing was dumb because everyone already knows that Hamlet dies at the end (spoiler). Knowing how a story plays out has no impact on whether or not it will be enjoyable to see that story play out. That’s up to how well the craftspeople behind the story do their job of engaging you and sweeping you up into the experience. In Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda talked about how every night they did the show, audiences gasped when Alexander Hamilton got shot (spoiler). And that’s a historical figure who, the one thing anyone knows about him is that he got shot!

And saying that ‘we all know how this is going to end’ doesn’t even really apply here because, no, actually, we don’t know how this ends. Yes, it is reasonable to assume that most everyone who died in Infinity War will be brought back in some fashion (with a few exceptions. Sorry Idris) but how exactly are we going to get there? You can’t even turn to the source material because the character largely responsible for defeating Thanos in the original story, a gold-skinned Space Jesus by the name of Adam Warlock, doesn’t (formally) exist in the movies yet. And the Russo Bros. even went ahead and cancelled out the easiest out: In the comic, someone else puts on the gauntlet and wishes away Thanos’ actions, but in Infinity War, the last we see of the gauntlet, it is a shriveled, exhausted ruin. And that’s without even bringing up Gamora, who was killed long before The Snap, and as such can’t be rescued as easily as those who got Suddenly Departured.

This gets into the whole distinction of plot vs. story. We may have a sense of the overarching plot of these movies, but the story remains shrouded in mystery, undiscovered. And story is really what we care about. The characters, their journeys, the things they discover and lose along the way. And all of that stuff still sits comfortably in the unknown until next year.

2. “I don’t want to go!”

It’s been an open conversation for years as to why Marvel has so completely conquered cinema while DC lags behind. DC has a massive stable of beloved, iconic characters, a couple decades’ worth of hugely-adored TV series, live-action and animated, that have stoked interest and awareness for their bench of characters, and no problems attracting world class talent in front of and behind the camera. Yet, they keep tripping over their own feet, so much so that some have even begun to wonder if the problem lies in the characters themselves, and that maybe there’s just no place for demigods like Superman in this day and age.

Ah, bullshit.

The key to Marvel’s success, since day one, isn’t that they have better characters, or more relatable characters, or anything like that. For God’s sake, one of the MVPs of the entire cinematic universe is a hulking Australian doing a spotty British accent as the Norse god of thunder. The roster of Avengers includes kings, assassins, century-old super soldiers, a robot-guy with a magic rock from space in his head, a fucking tree, they got Dave Bautista in there hanging out with a bug lady, the list goes on.

But what Marvel cracked back in 2008 thanks to the winning combo of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. is how to find the human being within their collection of gods and monsters and connect audiences to that humanity. So even as Marvel’s offerings continued to get weirder (Thor), or more passé (Captain America), or just flat-out ‘why would anyone give them their own movie, what the hell are they even thinking any more’ (The Guardians), audiences kept coming back. For all that people love to complain that Marvel Studios films look like TV shows (a nonsense complaint anyway, and one that should never be brought up again after the latest showings from James Gunn, Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler), the success of these films prove that audiences don’t fall in love with a perfectly-framed image. They fall in love with the people within that image.

And Infinity War hurts those people. Bad. And not by killing half the cast, but by zeroing in on the reactions of those who remain. The power of Infinity War’s ending isn’t just in Black Panther vanishing, but in the look of grief and horror on Okoye’s face after her king evaporates in front of her. It’s in Rocket’s almost whispered cries of, “No,” as he watches Groot die (again). It’s in the way that Steve Rogers, upstanding, never-say-die Captain America, collapses to the ground and can only stare, used up and powerless, as everything goes so wrong.

And in the most grueling sequence, it’s Tony Stark, Iron Man, the mascot for this whole universe, the one who kicked it off and who has proven for ten years that there’s no problem he can’t solve, nothing that can’t be fixed, cradling Peter Parker, the kid he loves like a son, who he vowed to keep safe, while the kid weeps and begs for his life before he too disappears.

Look, we all know we’ll see Tom Holland as Spider-Man again. But I don’t care if the kid plays Spider-Man for another 50 years. There’s nothing that will undo how much that scene hurts. There’s nothing that will dilute the look on Robert Downey Jr.’s face as this nightmare plays out around him. Marvel spent ten years teaching you to love these characters, and in one fell swoop, they broke each and every one of them.

3. “Did we just lose?”

Marvel also spent the last ten years training you to feel safe within their universe. Tragedies do happen here, and good people do take losses, but the good always outweighs the bad, and the values of teamwork, friendship, love and honor always triumph over evildoers. Snatching victory out of the jaws of certain defeat is baked into the very premise of The Avengers as a team, as each outing sees the gang overcoming impossible odds to keep people safe. And even when things are at their most dire, we can trust that our heroes will make the tough choices and make the sacrifices needed to get things done. We’ve been taught to understand that all it will take to win the day is everyone coming together and doing what is right.

And this, maybe, is Infinity War’s cruelest trick. Because, see, for much of the film’s final act, the Russo Bros. give you exactly the triumphant Marvel bombast audiences expect going in. You get Thor’s triumphant return to save the day, just like Loki stepped in at the last minute in Ragnarok, and just like M’Baku showed up at a clutch moment in Black Panther. You have the heroes trading jokes (Cap and Thor talking about beards!) and teaming up in crazy/fun combos (Captain America meets Groot! Rocket and Bucky! Okoye and Black Widow!). And you have the death of Vision, rendered as the kind of tragic/beautiful sacrifice that Cap made in The First Avenger, or Iron Man made in The Avengers. Thor gets his kick-ass kiss-off, just like he did against Hela! This is the moment when it all comes together, when the day is saved and things are finally restored.

But not this time. This time, all the jokes and all the fun and all the seeming-triumph, they’re all for nothing. This time, their best wasn’t good enough. This time, the bad guy wins, and there’s nothing our heroes can do but sit and watch as half the universe dies.

For a studio that has built its name on uplift and adventure, that’s a massive risk to take. To introduce the idea that not only can heroes die, but that they can fail, miserably? To give audiences exactly the sort of rousing, idealistic action they’re accustomed to, only to snatch it back and smash it to pieces? To suggest that these upstanding figures of morality and justice, these benevolent protectors, might ultimately be useless in the face of, essentially, God?

That’s like if you had a best friend, right, and you loved and trusted this friend, and then you got a bike, right, and your friend came over all the time to show you cool tricks, you following me still? and one day your friend came over and was like, “Alright, let me show you my latest trick!” and then midway through he stopped, got off the bike, took out a crowbar, smashed the bike to pieces, then said, “Don’t worry, in a year, I’ll come back and fix the bike and finish the trick and then I’ll show you even more cool stuff!” and then he left.

Even with the promise that everything will be cool later, you’re still pretty mad, right? Still pretty freaked out? Perplexed, a tad? And it’s going to be awfully hard to ever feel safe with that dude around ever again, right? Because now you don’t know what the fuck he’s going to do. Now nothing feels safe.

All this is a long way to say that the answer to the question posed by the title is, “Yes, the ending of Infinity War matters.” Even if the universe gets restored in the opening minutes of Avengers 4. Even if that film opens with a twenty-minute stretch in some pocket universe, revealing that everyone who vanished is totally fine, and Gamora was just taking like a nap or something, that will never take away the sick feeling in my stomach when the endgame of Infinity War started to play out. Even knowing in advance to assume that The Snap would sound, watching these characters that I love get so close to averting it, and then seeing them collapse in body (those who disappear) and soul (those who remain) after they failed, it was just devastating.

It’s easy to scoff at that cliffhanger, to roll your eyes and wait for the next batch of corporate product to fly off the assembly line and make everything OK. But that does a massive disservice to the writers, directors, actors, and all the teams and crews of filmmakers who spent the last decade building up this world, and to the audacity it took to then bring that world to a place of such utter despair.

Marvel broke the world.

Even when things get glued back together, the cracks will always linger to remind you of your hurt.

Next post THE SEVEN-UPS Blu Review: A Thrilling Entry in a Loose FRENCH CONNECTION Trilogy