starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Pratt
screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
by Walter Chaw In the Nineties, DC comics resurrected a bunch of titles under their "Vertigo" aegis, aiming for if not more sophisticated, at least more mature storytelling, like Neil Gaiman's enduring, literary "Sandman" and Grant Morrison's still-unparalleled run on "Doom Patrol" (starting with issue 19). They were a re-entry for me into comics after a childhood collecting all things "Archie" and a few things "X-Men" and "Spider-Man". In the fifth issue of Vertigo's "Animal Man" reboot, Morrison writes a one-off called "The Coyote Gospel" in which Wile E Coyote (essentially) is maimed and murdered in any number of ways, only to painfully regenerate and be maimed and murdered again. I like to imagine sometimes the agony of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, resurrected in endless franchise reboots for the purpose of being killed, Prometheus-like, over and over again. There's a pathos to it, I think, in the Camus existentialist sense: this emotional detachment where it's sort of impossible to tell if mom died today or, you know, maybe it was yesterday, one can't be too sure. Maybe pathos isn't the right word. Closer to the point is that it's impossible to really feel anything for characters who cannot die; impossible to feel tension or fear for things that cannot be harmed. Superhero comic books and Marvel films by extension broadly simulate the tenets explored by French Existentialism: alienation, the absurd, the lie of freedom, the experience of dread and boredom. The only MCU entry self-aware enough to notice this to date is Scott Derrickson's Dr. Strange. Fitting that Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) features so prominently in Avengers: Infinity War.
Avengers: Infinity War (hereafter Infinity War) is about an omnipotent tool that can control every element of time and reality--meaning that if it falls into the wrong hands, bad things happen; and alternately that if it falls into the right hands, those bad things will never have happened. What can't happen if the "Infinity Gauntlet" falls into the "right" hands, whether that be in this film or the next, is the elimination of struggle in this universe. The only end-game in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a continuation of struggle. You can't change struggle. Struggle is foundation. There can be no ultimate resolution. It's absurd, and nihilistic in the extreme, and that feeling of indifference one feels now through any manner of bombast or atrocity in these movies is exactly only as predicted, after all. Like Camus's Mersault shooting a man five times and only being bothered by the heat and the sunlight, it's impossible to engage emotionally; these films are always second acts--and the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is to make us the eagle eating the liver and the Titan chained to the Caucasus simultaneously. We are the tormentors because we want to watch our heroes suffer but not die. We are the tormented because we don't feel anything.
Infinity War is fascinating, because this deep into the cycles playing out of life-death-repeat in this universe, our heroes are like Grant Morrison's immortal coyote. They are deeply depressed, many suicidal. They are fathers who have betrayed their daughters, sons who have murdered their fathers. They are lost boys and girls. In an affecting/not-affecting moment, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lists off the dead members of his family and then muses that whatever should happen, it would not add to the burden of his guilt and loss. Mantis (Pom Klementieff), mind-melding with chief-baddie and very sad Thanos (Josh Brolin), talks about his anguish; Star Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), does the Brad Pitt-in-Se7en tango and gets everyone in trouble; and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) begs for death not once, but twice. Thrice, even? Given the origin stories of most of these characters--rooted as they are in the deaths of loved ones, often through the heroes' inaction, real or imagined, it's not a far reach to say that superhero comics are trapped in a process of repetition automatism (or "repetition compulsion"). It's only a slightly farther reach to say that fans of superhero comics are engaged in addressing their own traumas of separation, abandonment, and insufficiency in these stories of superhumans who are merely super enough to restart their cycles of failure. It's the underlying Romanticism that drives Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, presented as heroic rather than broken-down and tragic.
The unbridgeable dissonance of Infinity War is all of these enhanced beings trapped in boring, dreadful re-enactments of their inaugural failures. As the film jumps from location to location, chyron to chyron, picking up storylines listlessly while letting others lay fallow for a while, out of sight but without any sort of urgency at their displacement, the best moments emerge as those featuring Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, conveying an ocean of regret in the delivery of the word "Nat" to his lost love, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)--or those between Paul Bettany's "Vision" and Elizabeth Olsen's "Scarlet Witch," who share a stolen moment together in Scotland before what they believe will be their deaths. Again. And again. And again. Because the nerves have grown numb now, there are scenes of cruel torture in the picture--the kind that a troubled child would enact on his action figures after a few days of standard play: Dr. Strange at the mercy of glass needles, Nebula (Karen Gillan) bloodlessly segmented like a plasticine exhibit in a sadist's medical museum... The atrocity escalates because there's nothing at stake here. You roll the rock to the top of the hill to watch the rock roll to the bottom of the hill. It all ends in Black Panther's Wakanda, cutting off that film's triumph of identity with wholesale destruction crash-cut into incoherence. Semiotics aside, the movie has some action scenes you can follow and some you can't, lots of talking scenes in between, and everywhere you look, some of our finest actors are doing their best to bring human emotion into this universe. It's stunning to realize that their attempts to do so are the most emotionally affecting things in the whole of the perfectly-named Infinity War: people valiantly, desperately trying to evoke humanity in the midst of a machine that makes that impossible.