Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
**This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.**
Avengers: Infinity War, the nineteenth movie in the fantastically interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, opened last week to rave reviews, smashing records to make its mark as the biggest opening weekend of all time. Coming on the heels of their success with equally record-smashing Black Panther, clearly, Marvel is doing something right. It is not overstating things to say Infinity War is a massive achievement for Marvel Studios and arguably the culmination of years of hard work and dreaming going all the way back to 2008’s Iron Man. But what is truly remarkable about the success of Infinity War is that it breaks an established storytelling mold. In this film, rather than our heroes fighting the bad guy and ultimately saving the day, at the end of the movie, fully half the characters and heroes on the screen disintegrate into dust and die, and the villain, Thanos, accomplishes everything he sets out to do and ends the movie victorious.
Infinity War is a movie about striving to do the right thing against all odds. It’s a movie about competing ideologies on the value of life. And it’s a movie, shockingly, that leaves the audience with failure and death and a seeming almost utter lack of any hope that it will be made right. But movies with such a dismal ending don’t usually inspire audiences to keep coming back for more—let alone smash box office records—so what’s really going on with Infinity War?
There is a fourth wall that exists between characters and audiences in storytelling. In most movies, characters don’t break this fourth wall—acknowledging their fictional nature to the audience—because that violates suspension of disbelief and the immersive experience of going to see a movie, among other things. What we have with Infinity War, however, is something I think is more along the lines of a bending of the fourth wall. At no point do any of the characters acknowledge to the audience they are merely characters, but MCU producers can’t get around the fact that the audience knows information about the future of MCU franchise movies, not the least of which being that there is a sequel coming to Infinity War.Movies with such a dismal ending don’t usually inspire audiences to keep coming back for more—let alone smash box office records—so what’s really going on with Infinity War?
By virtue of the fact that we know there is going to be another film, the fourth wall is bent. By virtue of the fact that we know several of the characters who die at the end of Infinity War are already slated to appear and/or star in sequels in the MCU—including Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the full slate of Guardians of the Galaxy characters—we can’t ever fully believe their deaths are final. And herein lies the one overarching critique of the film: the deaths at the end of Infinity War lack consequence because we know most—if not all—of the characters who die must return to the MCU for roles outside this movie.
Does this foreknowledge, though, really make these deaths of any less consequence? In the context of the story, they still carry incredible emotional weight, and the filmmakers ask us to acknowledge that the characters in the story don’t have the same foreknowledge we have that their colleagues and friends will be coming back. Or even, as some of them have a little time to realize they are dying, that they themselves are not dying for good. The deaths are real deaths, with real weight, and far from being without consequence, I would argue that the temporary nature of death in this story—as only we, the audience, can know it’s temporary—actually makes it of more consequence than if we had no hope at all of these characters coming back to life.
And this is what’s filling the theaters.
Infinity War opens with Marvel’s Big Bad, Thanos (Josh Brolin), having just obliterated Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) refugee ship from Asgard. Thanos is on a quest to find and possess the six Infinity Stones—mystical stones that will give him the power to control the cosmos—and he’s attacked Thor’s ship to get the second of the six stones. What Thanos wants to do with the stones is bring balance to the cosmos by wiping out half the population of the universe with a snap of his fingers. With each stone he adds to his Infinity Gauntlet, the more powerful he gets. From the Asgardian ship, he continues on to find the next four stones, sending his “children” to earth to retrieve the two that are there for him. The movie follows Thanos as he fills his Gauntlet with the stones, as well as both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy as they team up to try to stop him.
From the first scene, it’s clear Thanos is the most powerful foe any of our heroes has ever faced, and nothing will deter him from his singular goal of bringing balance to the universe through mass genocide. Not even love for his favorite daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), will turn him from his path. In a sort of bastardized reverse echo of how Jesus, as the Son of God, willingly laid down his life to save life, Thanos, who wants to be God, murders his daughter to gain the power to destroy life. It’s a chilling scene and one that establishes Thanos as more than just a skull-smashing, philosophy-spouting villain, but a true idealist. In that moment, you are left with no doubt of the sincerity of Thanos’s belief in the justification of his mission.
The forces of good in the universe are those who value each and every life, and they break against Thanos like waves against the shore. From the murder of Gamora to the defeat of every Avenger and Guardian who goes up against him, Thanos marches ever closer to filling his Gauntlet with all six Infinity Stones. His absolute commitment to his ideology of dispassionate, utilitarian genocide for the greater good allows him a disregard for individual life that moves him to murder not only his own daughter, but to destroy anyone who gets in his way, even as he admits respect for them. As he threatens to kill Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he tells him he hopes people remember him, and it’s a reminder that the most dangerous villains—in reality, not just in fiction—are those ideologues who earnestly believe they have the moral high ground. Our heroes’ regard for individual lives and refusal to “trade lives” is no match for Thanos’s willingness to kill as many people as he can to realize his goal. Thanos, although not a personification of death, has become a conveyor of death, not unlike Hela from Thor: Ragnarok.
The comparison to Hela is important because Infinity War’s narrative arc, much like Ragnarok’s, turns on our villain’s interactions with Thor, whom he attempts to kill in the beginning of the movie. Thor then goes on a quest of retributive justice to get a god-killing weapon called Stormbreaker, a weapon capable of killing Thanos, even when Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet filled. At the end of the film, Thor returns in climactic fashion and buries Stormbreaker in Thanos’s chest, and it seems our favorite Asgardian has saved the day. But as we also learned in Thor: Ragnarok, vengeance and pure heroism can’t defeat death.
Only dying and coming back to life—only resurrection—can break the bonds of death. This is why the temporary deaths in Infinity War aren’t cheap or of little consequence. Death is never cheap: it costs everything.
In the first scene of the movie, Thanos, after killing Loki—a character known for faking his death—throws his body aside and says, “No resurrections this time.” He’s speaking to Loki’s dead body, he’s speaking to Thor, but also, in a meta, fourth-wall-bending sort of way, he’s speaking to the audience, prophesying his victory and teasing the end of the movie. He understands the power of resurrections. He understands that resurrections break the power of death, which would mean his defeat. There will be no resurrections, this time. Not in this movie, where Thanos will accomplish his mission of death.
This is a Good Friday movie, but only we know it’s Good Friday. The characters in the story don’t know the deaths are temporary, and experiencing the catharsis of death and grief with them lends as much weight to the deaths as anything else. But the end of Infinity War places the audience in an even stranger position because it leaves only us with hope. Usually in a cliffhanger ending, characters rally around some hope of defeating the villain. Of taking off in the Millennium Falcon, perhaps, on a vague rescue mission. Of a victory against all odds in a battle like Helm’s Deep, even when the greater forecast looks grim. But in Infinity War, there is no hope for the characters on the screen. Half the population of the universe is gone, Thanos victorious. When the reality of their immense failure finally sinks in, the last words uttered by a hero on the screen (pre-end credit scene) are, “Oh, God.” An utterance of horror? Or a prayer? Perhaps a mixture of both.
But we know this isn’t the end of the story, and that’s why Infinity War is a compelling movie, despite ending on such a dismal note. Because the ending isn’t really dismal or hopeless at all. None of us really believes Thanos is coming out ultimately victorious. We have faith most, if not all, the deaths he’s affected in this story will be overturned, and the overturning of those deaths—the resurrection from the dead of the heroes of our modern MCU mythology—will bring about his defeat. And this is what makes the deaths in the movie of greater consequence than if the characters who died simply stayed dead. If they stay dead and Thanos remains victorious, Infinity War would be a bad story, and if we didn’t know what we know due to that bending of the fourth wall, we would walk out of the theater supremely dissatisfied. But we know there’s a sequel, and sequels on sequels for other characters in the mega-franchise that is the MCU, and the producers of the MCU know that we know, and so they wink at us and leave us with that hope. They have let us in to the process, let us glimpse the wizard behind the curtain, let us know everything is going to be okay.
In the end, all we’re teased with is the hope that the resurrections we don’t get “this time” will be what can break the stranglehold of death next time. Temporary death for ultimate victory. As Doctor Strange tells Tony Stark before fading to dust, “There was no other way.” And Sunday is coming.
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