See, sometimes I like to take big-ass pop culture event movies and then dissect them at least a little on the autopsy table — from a storyteller’s perspective, I like to root through the narrative guts and splash around in the blood that pumps a particular story’s heart. I’ve done it with The Last Jedi, and Mad Max: Fury Road and Prometheus and so forth.
What choices did they make? Why did they make them? How am I feeling? How did the story make me feel that way? Where are my pants? WHY DID THE MOVIE TAKE MY PANTS
I don’t think I’ve done that yet with a Marvel movie.
And maybe it’s time.
I don’t want to get too deep with Infinity War, but I do want to talk about a few things, and that means — well, it means SPOILERS ARE COMING.
And I hate spoilers.
It’s because I’d hate to spoil you if you don’t want to be spoiled. Spoilers foisted upon you rob you of your agency as a reader, as a viewer, as audience for a story. And spoilers too obviate the storyteller’s construction — we put a lot of work into a lot of things, one of those things being the orchestration of revelation in narrative, and spoilers undercut our articulation of the things we want known, and when we want them to be known.
So, with that said, I’m going to put a WHOLE LOT OF SPOILER SPACE here.
In fact, I’m going to just cut and paste a passage from James Joyce’s nonsense book, Finnegan’s Wake, just so you have an absurd buffer between this part of the post and the part of the post where, basically, I tell you the ending of the movie.
Here, have some James Joyce:
Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen-
core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy
isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor
had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse
to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper
all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to
tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a
kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in
vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a
peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.
What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy-
gods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu
Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still
out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons cata-
pelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie
Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod’s brood, be me fear!
Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms, appalling. Killykill-
killy: a toll, a toll. What chance cuddleys, what cashels aired
and ventilated! What bidimetoloves sinduced by what tegotetab-
solvers! What true feeling for their’s hayair with what strawng
voice of false jiccup! O here here how hoth sprowled met the
duskt the father of fornicationists but, (O my shining stars and
body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of
soft advertisement! But was iz? Iseut? Ere were sewers? The oaks
of ald now they lie in peat yet elms leap where askes lay. Phall if
you but will, rise you must: and none so soon either shall the
pharce for the nunce come to a setdown secular phoenish.
Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s mau-
rer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofar-
back for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers
or Helviticus committed deuteronomy (one yeastyday he sternely
struxk his tete in a tub for to watsch the future of his fates but ere
he swiftly stook it out again, by the might of moses, the very wat-
er was eviparated and all the guenneses had met their exodus so
that ought to show you what a pentschanjeuchy chap he was!)
and during mighty odd years this man of hod, cement and edi-
fices in Toper’s Thorp piled buildung supra buildung pon the
banks for the livers by the Soangso. He addle liddle phifie Annie
ugged the little craythur. Wither hayre in honds tuck up your part
inher. Oftwhile balbulous, mithre ahead, with goodly trowel in
grasp and ivoroiled overalls which he habitacularly fondseed, like
Haroun Childeric Eggeberth he would caligulate by multiplicab-
les the alltitude and malltitude until he seesaw by neatlight of the
liquor wheretwin ’twas born, his roundhead staple of other days
to rise in undress maisonry upstanded (joygrantit!), a waalworth
of a skyerscape of most eyeful hoyth entowerly,
We’re good now, right?
GOOD BECAUSE HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Also, boy, Finnegan’s Wake is fucking nonsense, isn’t it?
I, like the rest of the civilized world, saw Avengers: Infinity War this past weekend.
And I have thoughts.
It’s worth first describing the overall theater experience — I don’t mean this to be emblematic of every theater experience, but it was at the one I went to, 10:30AM on Friday. For most of the movie, the crowd was fucking excited. Lots of applause. Gasps in the right places. Lots of cheers. (So many cheers and laughs actually that it ended up stepping on subsequent jokes or dialogue.) There was this shared energy going on, a pop culture electricity buzzing like bees between us.
And then —
— the movie ended.
Post-credits scene played.
And walking out of that theater…
Shit, I’ve been to noisier funerals.
People just… wandered out, like from a disaster, a plane crash or a collapsed building. Shell-shocked. Jaws dragging behind them like carry-on luggage. A look of bewilderment and worry passed between us all. There were some breaks to this: a few guys behind me were like, “Yo, what the fuck just happened.” Next to me, a woman explained to her boyfriend who Captain Marvel was, and what the post-credits scene probably meant. On the way to the parking lot, two late-20s dudes were explaining to a pair of young boys (maybe 10?) that everything would be all right, it’s a comic book movie, they’ll all be okay.
I went to my car.
I sat in the driver’s seat.
I kinda just stared at it for a while?
And then I went home.
And I kinda felt really shitty? Like, inside. Inside my body. Inside my heart. I felt shitty. (Real-talk, I felt a fraction of what I felt during the 2016 election, which is actually apropos when you think about it: big pastel-colored asshole walks away with an unexpected victory, sits and regards his ruination with weary glee, credits roll, good luck, motherfuckers.)
That’s worth picking apart. That movie made me feel something hard. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s damn sure a powerful thing, to affect emotions like that, to kick you around like an empty soup can. I went through an array of emotions in the wake of feeling shell-shocked: I felt mad at the movie. Then I felt sad. Then I felt disappointed? Then I was reassuring myself the same way you reassure yourself after any loss, after any failure — “Well, it’ll be fine, Captain Marvel is probably kicking it in outer space, and of course in the comics Adam Warlock just undoes the whole fucking thing anyway, right?” — and then you go through a new wave of disappointment when you realize it is a comic book movie, like that dude said, and everything will probably just be okay. Certainly half the people that turned to void-ash have movies planned anyway — it’s not like Black Panther 2 or Doctor Strange 2 are going to be about piles of dirt blowing around the cosmos for two-and-a-half hours.
Here people will say, and have said, this is the Empire Strikes Back of the Avengers. Or, if you prefer more recent, The Last Jedi. And yet, neither of those movies kicked me in the teeth as hard. My kid loves those movies and doesn’t view them as a one way trip to Bummertown — we think of movies like ESB and TLJ as having down endings, but they really don’t. They take us to the bottom, to the nadir, but then we get sight of the ramp. We see the lift, the upward-angle right at the end. In Empire, we’re granted the scene with the rebel fleet — Luke gets a new hand, Lando goes off with Chewie to find Han, Leia and Luke regard the galaxy as the music swells. In Last Jedi, we not only get a Pyrrhic Victory moment with Luke versus Kylo, but we see Rey take the mantle of the last Jedi truly as she moves some rocks, reunites with friends, and they zip off in the Falcon — not to mention we’re granted the coda with Broomboy and the Stable Gang (my favorite Genesis cover band, by the way).
Infinity War has no such scene.
And that’s why it hurts so hard.
This comes down to a discussion about story structure. I know. Yawn. Snore. Boo. But for us storytellers it’s an important thing to talk about — we know how stories are structured, and that structure is (usually) deliberate. Changing a piece of it, or removing a piece, can have dramatic impacts — impacts you may intend, or impacts that you may not.
Infinity War has no denouement.
(Pronounced with a haughty French accent: DAY-NOOO-MOOHHHH)
Most stories give us an ejaculatory story climax — OH MY GOD SHIT IS HAPPENING, IT’S ALL HAPPENING, NNNGH BOOM — and then we are given narrative time to deal with that. The action ‘falls’ and moves past the climactic resolution and into a glimpse of the fallout of that resolution.
Usually, the more exciting and intense the movie, the shorter the falling action / denouement. The more epic it is, the longer that becomes.
Jurassic Park goes from their climactic escape to a moment of peace onboard the helicopter out — and then the credits roll. We don’t have much there, maybe just two minutes max of that, but it’s not really essential. The kids glom onto Alan Grant, completing the circuit for Sam Neill’s character, and hey, Holdo smiles, birds are dinosaurs, it’s a new day.
Empire Strikes Back has about… five, six minutes of falling action and denouement. The escape from Cloud City, Luke has one last chat with New Dad, and then it’s time for a new hand and talk of a rendezvous on Tatooine to go save Han.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has 37 hours of denouement.
Infinity War has mostly none. Okay, you get a denouement of Thanos sitting in like, a fucking meadow and being all proud of himself — and that works if you assume he’s the protagonist of the movie. (Spoiler: he might be, though whether that’s intentional or not, I dunno.) We don’t need much denouement if we’re to believe the Avengers are actually the Bad Guys. In that case, Thanos gazing out on his glorious success is not that different from Alan Grant looking out of the helicopter as they flee Jurassic Park. Job done. High-five. Music swells.
(One could also argue that the post-credits scene is a denouement, but I’d rather avoid that as a declaration. Given that it’s set in the middle of people turning to void-ash, and given that it lends us no time to decompress or understand what just happened, I’d argue it’s just an additional moment stapled to the climax of the film.)
If you assume the Avengers are the protagonists, then… the denouement isn’t much of one, is it? We aren’t given any moments with the heroes to deal with what just happened. We don’t have a scene of them dealing with it. No funerals. No conversation. No Cap and Tony entering a room and giving each other a hug. There’s no resolution. Further, we’re given literally no optimism — we’ve spent two-and-a-half hours with our plane in freefall, and you kind of half-expect that right at the end we’d be given a hint that the engine’s gonna start, that we’re about to pull out of this dive before we hit.
We just crash.
It’s kind of brilliant.
It’s also kind of awful?
Because here’s the thing — denouement is, as noted, French. And it’s French for “unknotting.” Meaning, you’ve just spent all this time tying some knots, and now it’s time to loosen them, if even a little. And those knots aren’t just plotty-knots. They’re the knots of our emotions. Infinity War spends a great deal of time tightening those knots, and then no time undoing them.
Brilliant? Maybe. Difficult to deal with? Nnnyeah, kinda, for me, anyway. Maybe not for you! I’m not telling you how you should feel. But I felt like I was kicked in the gut after leaving it — and it’s maybe why I can’t take my kid to this, at least until the next chapter is out — *winces* — a whole year from now.
At the end, Infinity War ends up being a truly astonishing comic book movie through-and-through. It is the realization of Marvel’s dreams, and of my dreams as a comic book reader. It is the perfect example of a brawny, bang-up comic-book crossover translated to the screen.
But perfect example also means that it carries with it the best and the worst of those comic book crossovers. The action is high! The heroes meet! They quip at each other! It’s funny and intense and unrelenting. It also doesn’t give them a lot of time to talk or be their characters beyond their most trope-iest of traits. It also requires you to have seen… most of the MCU movies, which in terms of the movies means you’ve spent a buttload of time and money to get here. It also means that, like with comic books, we’re treated to a real cliffhanger ending. But the problem there is, a cliffhanger in comics means you have to wait 2-4 weeks to pick up the next one. Here it means we have two more movies over the next year to help us pick up the teeth that this one knocked out of our open mouths.
There are other problems with the movie, maybe — the powers are inconsistent and sometimes the movie seems to be willfully plotty even when it betrays characters or logic. The Infinity Stones seem to do specific things until they don’t? Thanos’ master plan is somehow both genuinely sympathetic and really dumb — there are better ways to achieve what he wants to achieve, unless you assume he is just a narcissistic genocidal maniac who is lying to himself about that (and by the way that works for me, I buy that). But those problems are small in the face of what is a movie that gets so much right about the big, bursting bad-assery of a comic-book cross-over event.
But I miss that denouement. That’s where it gets me. That’s where the movie hurt me. For 95% of it, I was in love. For that last 5%, I felt sad and upset and mostly still feel that way now. I don’t know if that was intentional or not. If it was — then, hey, here’s my applause. I don’t like feeling that way but I also appreciate a film that wants me to feel that way and achieves it. But a part of me worries that it’s really just down to marketing — they didn’t want to tell us it was Part One of Two, meaning, the reason we get no denouement is less a willful narrative choice and more because it’s really one half of a movie and they just didn’t wanna tell us. Which means maybe this bit, from this article, wasn’t entirely true:
Two months ago, the Russo brothers told the Uproxx site that the third and fourth Avengers were being retitled in part to clarify that the films would be two separate films rather than one large film split in half.
I loved the movie. I hated the movie. Which is the sign of something interesting, I think. It is a remarkable achievement, if a troubled one, and needless to say I am gnashing my teeth for the next one to find out how our Heroic Resistance undoes the horrors of Purple Space Trump.
NOW GIVE ME BACK MY PANTS, THANOS