One of the things that soured Age of Ultron, the second Avengers outing, was all of the hard work apparent in the film. Pretty much every movie you watch is the result of hard work, of course, but in Ultron all of the moving and shaking afoot in the past and future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe severely impacted the present, i.e. the actual movie you’re watching right now. Excepting the occasional moment of levity (the Mjolnir party game) or well-drawn action scene (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster), it felt like hard work just to get to the end of Ultron as a viewer. Director Joss Whedon never struck the same natural flow he found in his original Avengers movie, and he seemingly left the MCU because he’d rather work from a place of inspiration than from a blueprint strategy designed to perpetuate a larger narrative. In our original review we posited this as no coincidence when the Avengers themselves begin referring to their superheroism with workplace terminology, to their “jobs,” to the “endgame;” Ultron even has an absent-husband subplot featuring Mrs. Hawkeye that seems a better fit in Death of a Salesman than a Marvel flick.
But Ultron‘s in the past, right? We’re here for the new one, Infinity War, featuring everyone who was in Ultron and everyone who’s had a solo Marvel outing since then, plus a few new characters, plus an occasional cameo from the MCU’s ever-expanding backlog. As such, the first order of business (more workplace terminology!) is to issue a SPOILER WARNING to anyone who has not yet seen Infinity War. Motion State assumes no liability in your reading past this paragraph!
The second order of business, now that you’re still here, is to acknowledge that Infinity War is damn entertaining. It zips along at a faster clip than that of Ultron, somehow servicing twice as many characters and yet never feeling as overwrought as its predecessor. Yes, very few of the players at hand have anything resembling a real character arc; yes, sometimes the cuts from Wakanda to Titan to a dead star in the middle of outer space are a bit sudden. But the thing flows regardless, thanks in large part to the easy chemistry between the majority of the burgeoning cast. The character pairings, for the most part, work beautifully — Tony Stark and Stephen Strange clash because they’re essentially the same person, Peter Quill is instantly jealous of the he-man Thor, and Rocket is slyly covetous of Bucky’s new prosthetic arm.
At best, these long-awaited interactions pay off the promise inherent to the MCU: it’s a blast to watch your favorite characters finally meet. Half of Infinity War is light as air, careening across the galaxy and back with references to Footloose, SpongeBob, Aliens and — you guessed it — ongoing gags from Marvel’s previous “standalone” adventures; the other half, of course, contains a death-riddled narrative that’s about as heavy as Marvel can get. But this universe, like the one Thanos dreams of, is a balanced universe, and for the most part the shifts in tone only add to the entertainment of this particular rollercoaster.
…are you sensing an impending however looming on the horizon? As a fan of the MCU, a grown-up comic book kid who remembers reading The Infinity Gauntlet, and a filmgoer who had pretty high hopes for the “culmination” of this studio’s grand scheme, I was happy to find that Infinity War exceeded my expectations. It’s not a challenging film nor a game-changer in the genre, but it never actually needed to be. As a shiny new jewel in the MCU’s crown, Infinity War knocks it out of the park.
However. Much has been written about the ending of the film, in which the MCU’s New Guard — including Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and most of the Guardians — are wiped out of existence along with half of the universe. Infinity War concludes with the Old Guard — Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk — standing around dumbstruck as Thanos achieves his goal. Again, as an installment of the MCU, this cliffhanger is highly effective in simultaneously engendering shock at what’s just occurred and excitement for what could possibly come next.
As a standalone movie, though, this ending is questionable. That’s because this ending is not, in fact, an ending. There is no conclusion to Infinity War, only a cut to black in the immediate aftermath of a huge plot point. Importantly, there is not a semblance of hope to be found anywhere in the final moments of the movie. There are only two other movies I can think of which fit this mold — a big-budget blockbuster with a cliffhanger ending void of any hope — but both The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I are heavily padded and stretched and geared toward a coming-soon grand finale. Infinity War is better than that, living more fully in the moment in the immediate embrace of the threat of Thanos. But it still feels incomplete when all is said and done because nothing is actually said or done, only set up to be unsaid and undone in the next Avengers movie.
Desolation of Smaug and Deathly Hallows: Part I are explicitly the penultimate chapter in their respective sagas. Way back in October 2014, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige announced the arrival of Thanos as a two-part Avengers epic entitled Infinity War:
In July of 2016, The Wrap reported the news that Marvel had backpedaled on this idea and separated the two parts into “standalone” films, leaving the third Avengers as Infinity War and the fourth as a yet-to-be-revealed entity of its own. Feige, Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and everyone else at Marvel supported the same sentiment throughout the press tour: Infinity War is one story and Avengers 4 is another one. While that fourth, yet-to-be-named Avengers flick may indeed be different in tone and lineup, it’s now clear that it’s not really a separate film or a standalone entry. In a sense, Infinity War‘s ending prevents either film from fully existing without the other.
The specifics of the final event itself aren’t at the subject of this qualm. Thanos had to obtain all six stones and he had to snap his fingers. Anything short of a complete follow-through on that would have simply lessened the impact of Marvel’s Big Bad. Even outside of Storytelling 101, we could safely predict this development because it already happened in the comics:
As has been stated since the MCU first came into focus, movies aren’t comics. Infinity War is about as true to a splash-page comics crossover event as you’re going to get, but there’s still a major difference in the Thanos Snap of the film and the Thanos Snap of the comic. Okay, there are a lot of differences, from the characters “killed” to the placement of the snap at the start of The Infinity Gauntlet rather than the end. But the presence of hope is undeniable, the balancing act of an impossible atrocity and an inevitable vengeance. Blockbuster films with truly legendary cliffhangers — like Empire Strikes Back, which ends with Han Solo frozen and Luke Skywalker maimed — still have a hope about them that brings closure to the film we’ve just watched.
Infinity War is an absolute blast, but Empire it ain’t. And that’s clearly by design, because the Avengers films don’t exist on their own. Still, Infinity War might have benefitted from the inclusion of some semblance of hope outside of the Captain Marvel stinger and the fact that we’re pretty darn sure we can expect some avenging to go down a year from now. In the meantime we’ll have to be content with Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel, surreptitious theorizing about the ending of Avengers: Infinity War and, most importantly, awesome memes.