Marvel reach new heights of phantasmagoric spectacle and maturity of storytelling

David G. Hughes on Joe Russo’s & Anthony Russo’s ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018)

SCENE: TONY STARK (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.) FENDS of the hammer blows of arch-nemesis, Thanos (Josh Brolin), a conflict destined ever since Iron Man (2008) crashed onto cinema screens ten years ago and the Marvel Cinematic Universe embarked on its cosmic voyage. The various gadgets, weaponry and propulsions of the Iron Man suit attempt to draw blood from the impenetrable hide of the Titan, whose brute force tears off Stark’s iconic helmet to expose our beloved hero to a fatal blow. We in the audience clench and look on with terror until, thankfully, a reserve helmet quickly encases the vulnerable skull, and Stark earns a few seconds more to keep up the fight. But Thanos is unrelenting; the powerful suit that has dependably encased and elevated Stark’s ego and heroism, that has always had a nifty reserve for sticky situations, is merely stripped away piece by piece until little machine remains, like the skin of a fruit peeled and made ripe for devouring. Stark’s cunning and perseverance keeps up the fight, a too-human man face-to-face with a force of overwhelming malignant power. Human flesh stands before the Giant, David before Goliath, and we genuinely have no idea whether our hero will come out alive. Here is a film that dares to suggest that our shields and technologies cannot protect us forever, that sometimes Goliath wins, and benign Empires can and usually do collapse. Just as soon as Marvel stretches to intergalactic proportions of cinematic imperialism, they produce a bold riposte to Western hubris.

This moment embodies the key to the success of Avengers: Infinity War: not namely its vastly enjoyable operatic treatise on heroism, sacrifice and nihilism, but the violent realisation that our usually magnificent and indestructible heroes have become quite destructible. This is affirmed in a brutal pre-title opening sequence that introduces Thanos as the Galaxy’s #1 pugilist and philosophical nihilist, a force to be truly reckoned with. What makes Thanos such a powerful villain is not merely his physical superiority to each and every Avenger (or Brolin’s surprising performance), but his body as the unstoppable agent of his callous and pessimistic pathology of Order — restoring balance to the universe by indiscriminately removing half of its inhabitants from existence.

Indeed, sacrifice is the film’s chief theme: Thanos is quite prepared to commit dispassionate genocide as a sacrifice for what he perceives as the greater good. Good ole’ Captain America (Chris Evans), on the other hand, wont “trade in lives” and strives to protect the sanctity of the individual life even as billions of others are put at risk as a result. But good and evil are often reciprocal, and an even higher concept emerges: is destructive sacrifice possible without the positive force of love? There is a recurring motif to posit this: the task of murdering one’s loved one when faced with the ‘greater good’. It is this ethical dilemma, blended with a physical vulnerability hitherto seen and a sense of gargantuan loss, that makes Avengers: Infinity War the greatest castration spectacle the cinema has ever seen. All of our heroes are faced with a devastating knowledge of failure and powerlessness — the inability to protect one’s lot: one’s home, one’s lover, one’s ego, life itself. Even Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) inability to conjure the Hulk is played as an impotence joke, and Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) sense of masculinity is challenged by the arrival of the more muscular and sonorous Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who himself needs to forge a new phallic hammer to face the “bastard” foe with over-masculinised proportions.

It is in extremis, the point closest to death, that our deep affection, or rather love, for the characters becomes most palpable. The audience itself is faced with the question: just whose sacrifice can you tolerate? This Marvel phenomenon is not to be scoffed at or readily dismissed; what other film franchise—or rather, film accomplishment—can garner reactions as passionate as this critic partook in during a packed audience screening? Gasps of horror as beloved characters withered away to nothing, or the applause and euphoria as a bearded Captain America emerges from the shadows to save the day. Take Steve Rogers, a character initially criticised as merely a nationalistic play toy and naïve boy-scout, had by now won the audience over, his fortitude and heart earning him the affection of a cynical audience just as it earned him the rank of Avenger’s leader. This symbol of idealism had rather touchingly permeated into the real-world auditorium as something meaningful. All of this deep-rooted affection is only made possible by the gradual character development, good will and passage of time that ten years of Marvel films can accumulate. Like slow cooked food, the result of this apogee is flavoursome and deeply enriching. While we can debate the implications of this serial style storytelling on the cinematic medium (this is a film that relies on you bringing emotional baggage and contextual understanding), it is undoubtedly a unique accomplishment and the feeling is evidently real.

The bonkers crossover ambition and cavalcade of characters inevitably determines that the film suffer as an individual piece of work. But we are witnessing a live coup d’état in cinema storytelling, as Marvel forges its own path with the strength of Mjölnir; the redeeming characteristic of Infinity War is its awareness of overcrowding and thus embrace of chaos: the film rejects Thanos dictum of ‘order’ through depopulation by embracing madness, multitudes and diversity as a virtue in itself. As such, the proceedings are phantasmagoric, lurid, grandiose, visually gaudy, planet-hopping, and all together pretty silly. In other words, form, content and meaning is working in perfectly harmonious nonsense.

The same sense of opera and emotive climax that characterised the finale to The Lord of the Rings (2003) where moving parts came together and great battles occurred is equally present here. The spectacle of sacrifice, loss, sadism, asperity and destruction is truly epic. What Marvel intuitively understand is that superhero cinema is a mad alchemy: throw together diverging symbols, ideologies and character personalities and the sparks will inevitably fly. While this alchemy has worked wonders for Marvel’s comic reliability and political dialectics, Avengers: Infinity War is a new degree of storytelling maturation for the production company: it has gone beyond the laughs and even beyond the ideas — it has stripped the armour and produced the tears. In other words, Marvel has learned to love.

Release: April 26, 2018

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.