The most frustrating moment in the entire MCU comes during a late, pivotal moment of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Right until that point, the film is telling a clear story about Tony Stark’s hubris: how he was acting out of fear to invent a super protective A.I. robot entity thingy that went rogue and started wreaking havoc on all their lives. It’s a clear lesson about how fear begets more violence. But then the problem becomes two-fold. 1) Tony does ultimately not actually lose anything or suffer a great cost, especially given that Jarvis is not actually dead but about to be revived in a moment of cheating death. And more problematically, 2) Tony’s way of ultimately “learning” to solve this hubris is to literally do the same exact thing and put A.I. into another robot. His fellow Avengers literally scream at him, pointing out this exact flaw, and Tony can only yell back, “trust me this time!” because this is literally the only argument he has. There is no other grander point to highlight. He’s just stubbornly doing it again…and it works. Vision comes into the picture, Jarvis is restored, he proves he’s a good dude, and no matter what beautiful a gloss they put on learning to trust him (and him casual picking up Thor’s Hammer is the best moment of the film), it’s all just a distraction. One that comes back to that inescapable problem of these films: Tony didn’t learn anything. More importantly, he really just doubled down on his hubris and it paid off. And if you haven’t noticed, this behavior has started happening all the damn time in the MCU, which brings us to the devastating realization underneath all the charm, tension, and gloss:
Nobody changes and the lessons don’t matter.
Last year, people thought I was surprisingly tough on Spider-man: Homecoming, but I got to the crux of the issue when I wrote “When did [Peter] psychologically learn this lesson in terms of the dramatic action? Even Peter’s moment of looking at the reflection in the water and him being “nothing without the suit” was originally a comment about his character and his reckless philosophy. But instead of tapping into that, it’s instead used as a rote unphilosophical mantra that allows him to be able to push the rocks up now just because he pushes real hard. It certainly feels triumphant, particularly because we just saw him be weak, but it doesn’t actually make sense to the overall lesson, theme, or philosophy.”
Again, even on the character arc level, this just speaks to the MCU’s affinity for “the texture of change” as opposed to the scariness of actual change. It’s all making something seem like a big deal in the moment, but it really has no effect on anything, especially the endings. For instance, this film makes a huge deal of Peter wanting to remain a “friendly neighborhood Spider-man,” before Infinity Wars thrusts him to an alien planet to fight a guy who can literally beat up the Hulk. Sure, Peter Parker tries to make some kind of defense about there being “no neighborhood,” but then the film hangs its hat on the fact that it literally doesn’t make sense. There’s no actual lesson learned here by either of them (worse, at literally any point, Dr. Strange could portal him home to safety). Things simply have to move forward because it’s time for them to move forward within the MCU machine, rendering these themes mere impasses in pursuit of the obligatory. So Tony “knights” him as an Avenger. It’s a funny moment, but it only exists because the alternative is that Spider-Man is not in the movie, which is as cynical a narrative choice as I can think of.
But it’s utterly par for the course in these films. Again, nobody really changes and the lessons don’t matter. People railed on me when I pointed out that Captain America: Civil War basically ends with a half-hearted “undo” gesture and they argued, “don’t worry, this will have a huge consequence in Infinity War!” I knew it wouldn’t because I know these movies. And yeah, the only consequence amounted to a slight moment of awkwardness where Tony didn’t want to make a phone call so someone else did. That’s literally it. Even Rhody’s injury means nothing because he still gets to walk around on magic robot legs and still be War Machine. And what were the dramatic personal consequences of Hulk leaving Black Widow at the end of Ultron? Well, they stare at each other awkwardly for five seconds in this film and then it’s never referenced again.
Any time I point this stuff out, people exclaim, “they’ll deal with that in the next one! The next one!” And if I have to hear that one more time about any of these damn movies, I’m going to lose my mind. Because I’m not arguing for “answers” or anything so insipid. I’m arguing that the movies still absolutely need to create meaning and change within a single narrative. A narrative that needs to be dramatized. Because what happens when you defer that? You’re just playing a rigged game, one that will go on forever if you keep assuming the next one will address it. And I’m sorry, but the only way to win a rigged game is to realize you’re being had and stop playing. The characters (save a few) have become completely static. And that’s where you realize one of the uglier hypocrisies about these movies…
For films that are so insanely great at crafting likable characterization, they’ve become so bad at the most important element of writing characters: meaningful arcs and psychology.
Which brings us to one of the central problems of Infinity War: it’s portrayal of Thanos. It’s worth noting that he is effectively the driving force of the story…which is cool! There’s nothing wrong with the villain being in the pilot seat and this is actually the case with most films, here it’s just a little more clear. Moreover, I actually like what Brolin’s doing with it a great deal. He brings weight, gravitas and surprising emotion to his performance. And because the character is genuinely allowed to be dangerous, this automatically shoots Thanos up the ladder into becoming one of the handful of solid villains in this series. But the not-so-little problem underneath it is that his character makes no sense whatsoever.
“But how could that be? He explains exactly what he believes!”
Ah yes, the whole “villain explains their philosophy,” trope. Thanos tells us all about his belief in balance and how it’s the only way to save the universe from depleting resources and extinguishing itself. It is, of course, a hooey philosophy that doesn’t actually mean anything and which nobody really relates to on a psychological level. Heck, Kingsmen already blew the lid off that psychology to show it’s nothing more than a thinly-veiled belief to justify naked self-preservation. Which highlights the exact truth of characterization: it’s never about the philosophy, it’s the psychology behind it. To wit, Marvel’s phase one was so successful because it understood how much psychology mattered with the main characters. It tackled Tony Stark’s hubris and belief that his actions could have impact on other people and how consequences would change him. It showed where Cap’s utter willingness to put others before himself came from. It explored Banner’s depressive fear that his actions could have an effect on others. And no one underwent more of a psychological change than good ole’ Thor (just as no one’s evolved more since). These were real people going through real things that human beings can relate to. And now, with Thanos, we get the idea that’s he’s emotionally affected by things…but there’s no expressed psychology underneath it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with Gamora. I know that Thanos loves his daughter because he tells us so. I just genuinely have no idea why he does. And neither does Gamora. It comes as a complete surprise to her. But of course it’s a surprise. There’s no dramatically expressed reason for it. We’ve see them interact, but there are no real specifics to their relationship. No psychology between them. No story. Just expressed feelings about how he hoped for better from her and that she always hated him. Even in their flashback scene, he picks her presumably because she “stands up and asks him a question,” but it’s not actually playing at anything within psychology. The scene, along with everything else, is an example of the writers trying to engineer an affectation, but not a story. And as a result, it doesn’t matter how good Brolin and Saldana are acting, it can only evoke our sympathy, not empathy.
So we may understand how Thanos makes us feel: scared and threatened, but we truly don’t understand what makes him him. I know we get a quick flashback to the glory of Titan and how it’s all gone now, but it can’t help but feel so damn perfunctory. And as a stark counterpoint, compare him to what made Erik Killmonger the most compelling villain in the MCU. We not only understand exactly who this person is, but why he is, and how he directly relates to the experiences of so many who have been left outside the fortunate glory of super-heroism. It was all psychology and impact. Heck, it’s a movie that literally portrays his “inner child” and how that affects his behavior. And it all cascades into thematically-rich, deeply-meaningful stuff, which ends up being completely dramatized. It’s the kind of character work that is coherently worked right into the story and conflicts, which is absolutely critical for a movie like this.
Think back to most maligned villain of the MCU, probably Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. Now, there’s the obvious reasons for this in that he’s sort of just a static bore with no real human expression within the story, but it’s worth noting he is actually given a baseline psychology that makes sense. His people lived in the world before “light” was born, then they were displaced, banished into a prison world, and now they are back to take what is theirs. This makes “sense” because we are literally told all this. But we don’t care because we never see it dramatized. We never see his sense of loss, or emotion, or much of anything. We never get the specifics that haunt him or how it all comes to tie into the overall story. There is no “psychology as story” here.
And it can’t help make me think of Thanos’s story from the actual comics, which is far more compelling from a character perspective. “Cursed” by a disease that makes him look different, he suffers great abuse from his mother, to the point that she wants to kill him on sight. But rather than this having an immediate effect, Thanos spends his childhood running from his pain, wanting love, trying to please as most children do. He essentially becomes a love-craving pacifist child who thinks this will bring him what his heart wants. But by the time he grows up, the consciousness of this pain of abuse and neglect come to fruition. And so he turns to nihilism to cope. And to cope further, he falls in love with “death.” But Death is not a mere concept in this world, you see. It is actually a cosmic entity personified by a god. And he tries so desperately to please her by killing more and more and more, all in her name.
Yeah, this is big time resonant psychology stuff. And you wouldn’t have to look far into the news to see the way this could play into a commentary on misogyny and the creepy and possessive stuff men do “in the name of” women and love, all to get what they feel they are “owed.” It could be deeply powerful and resonant to today’s world. But why not go with it? Too hokey to be in love with a god? In a story that’s already full of gods? The grim truth is it’s just “safer” to go with a blind commitment to a vague philosophy (that no one actually believes in real life) and put in some nice textural scenes that make it seem like there’s something deeper going on, even though there actually isn’t. And thus, the fulcrum of Infinity War and all the pain in the universe ends up resting in the fact that some nonsensical dude likes balanced daggers…you’re just not supposed to think about it.
Perhaps it would matter less if something was actually going on with literally anyone else. Yes, I understand that characters are made sad and angry within the events of the film, specifically Starlord. But the closest we come to story is one scene of Thor expressing his feelings of loss, but there’s no time for that, he’s gotta go build a god weapon! Meanwhile, Banner can’t Hulk-out for reasons we do not yet understand. Tony issues some lip service about a wedding before rushing off to trouble and it’s barely referenced again. And Cap, the heart and soul of the franchise, is literally doing nothing but showing up. But I get it: everyone’s too busy running around trying to die. And after all this build-up, it’s a genuinely scary and visceral experience to have. And I even fully understand that if you squint, you can make out a little lip-service about how the film is really about not trading lives and giving into despair (which is exactly what Thanos does). But I can’t help but care about how little of the story is brought to forefront of the dramatized text, to the point that it feels like it’s “about nothing.” Within that realization, we come to a deeply irrevocable problem of semiotics…
Something always means something.
[. . .]
What are all these movies really about?
Which brings us to the one true sin of the MCU, which is that the meaning of the movie comes from the combination of all the points I have been making and how they have to operate in interlocking, faux-change perpetuity. No, it’s not as lazy as some anti-capitalist screed about how they keep wanting to make billions and billions of dollars (though it’s worth mentioning). It’s how all those things come together to create a certain a dire thematic statement within the story about the heroic and human condition.
When you look back at Greek myth and its treatment of “superheroes,” all with their own gods, half-gods and titans, you realize how many of the stories are just fables; morality tales with lessons of hubris and pain and suffering. They’re parables meant to inform us about our own human shortcomings. You know the stories, Icarus flying too close to the sun; Achilles and that pesky heel. But the one I always think about is the Prometheus myth, in which the protagonist steals fire from the gods to give power to man. There’s no other myth that so captures the story of what “superheroes” are about. To be given power far beyond measure and to put us on par with gods? Greek myths are always metaphors for power. And the point is that Prometheus is, of course, punished for this action and in a pretty grizzly way. But note that in Greek myth, the gods aren’t so much about challenging authority, but challenging fate itself. Particularly in the notion of what happens when you try to cheat death. This is precisely why The Wire got so much mileage out of using the structure of greek drama. It was comparing the lumbering bureaucratic nature of our modern institutions to “challenging the fates,” the consequences of which show our powerlessness and how we learn to cope in human ways. Like all stories, it was about our faults and failures.
But modern superhero movies have a completely different notion on their mind, largely because they’re about the empowerment fantasy. You’ve stolen fire from the gods and now you can do things beyond your wildest imagination! Isn’t it so cool!?! This is all part and parcel of why the messaging of “with great power comes great responsibility” has to matter the more than ever. Just as consequences and growth really have to matter. Which just makes me cringe when it comes to how insanely irresponsible some of the MCU movies have gotten when it comes to these fronts. It’s not the lack of death and “stakes,” but the lack of consequence and depth they represent. For if you can always stubbornly press forward and just yell “trust me this time!” If you can always hit “undo.” If you can never, ever truly suffer, nor spend time examining it, then you are lying about the consequences of stolen fire. And it’s the reason the best superhero stories are always about cost. They’re about how truly difficult it is to do the right thing; not how hard it is to defeat someone.
And so when I look at Thanos, the MCU’s own mythical mad Titan, I can’t help but realize that Marvel’s got it backwards. For it is Thanos who is the god that the Avengers will need to come to grips with. But instead they’ll press forward in pursuit of resurrecting the dead. And how many times have we had a feint of death before resurrection already in these films? Cap. Thor. Bucky, Loki, Jarvis, Pepper, T’Challa. The list is endless. And right at the biggest moment, right where the snap of consequence has to matter more than ever…
The MCU is once again going to be about cheating death.
Because damn the gods! Damn suffering! Damn cost! I’m a superhero, dammit! I’m charming and people like me and they don’t want to see me go! And I can’t help but think about how much this attitude has a lack of permanence—has not only cost comics and the MCU, but us. I think about how many people can’t handle the basic dramatic stress of Infinity War and seeing our heroes in danger. I worry about how all the old lessons of Walt Disney’s original ethos, and the emphasis on understanding loss and consequence, could help prepare us to face the pain that we experience. For so many stories are designed to teach us the incredible healing and human power of sadness. But instead, we have a story of denial. About the “heroes” who have fought tooth and nail against it at every step. It is like re-writing the story of Bambi so that the character will go into fires of hell to undo death itself. And if we let ourselves go past “the feeling” of loss in Infinity War, a movie that is ostensibly very much about cost and consequence, we will see the larger metaphor for what it is…
What if Prometheus stole fire and instead of being punished, fought back and killed the gods themselves? What if the lessons learned along the way didn’t matter? What if hubris was rewarded? What if we could snap our fingers back when god snapped their fingers against us? What if we could make it so that we were great at beating fate and could be much more awesome forever without much cost along the way? I imagine you’ll tell me that “they will address it in the next one!” But they won’t. We know they won’t. Not just because of what’s been announced in some trade, but simply because there’s too much at “stake” for those who are ordained to seek perpetuity. And with this film, they have the gall to look you in the eye and pretend they’re really finally doing it different. But it’s the worst kind of lie.
And I can think of nothing less heroic.