Film & TV

Infinity War: On the Road to Knowhere

From left: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Drax, Star-Lord, and Mantis in Avengers: Infinity War (Marvel Studios)
Marvel trademarks the no-hope genre.

We need a new word for disposable movies like Avengers: Infinity War because the old term “trash” doesn’t quite describe its happy negativity. Quentin Tarantino corrupted the term made famous in Pauline Kael’s 1968 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies” when his embrace of disreputable, B-movie tropes — his love of the dark side — shifted the course of film history. Overplaying the first term in Kael’s syllogism, Q.T. made trash fashionable. Then Peter Jackson betrayed narrative and visual clarity in his three-part, nine-hour Lord of the Rings debacle (turning J. R. R. Tolkien’s allegory into trash). The Marvel Comics movies are the eventual condensation of all that. We’ve gone from neo-trash to junk to Infinity War, an ad infinitum wreckage of film culture.

Ironically the most watchable of all the Marvel Comics movies, Infinity War starts with wreckage: A world has been devastated by the ultimate supervillain Thanos (corrupting the mythic Greek “Thanatos”, or “Death”), a green-screen performance by Josh Brolin resembling both Ron (Hellboy) Perlman and Mickey Rourke in Sin City. As conquered legions lay in ruin, Thanos’s minions proclaim, “You may think this is suffering. No, it is salvation. You have become children of Thanos.” It neatly summarizes how Marvel Comics movie fans have become debased and encouraged to enjoy it.

This latest installment of the endless franchise wastes time by establishing plot complications; war with Thanos isn’t even so simple as good-against-evil. Trash sensibility pits dark ambiguity against almost every single Marvel movie character: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Vision (Paul Bettany), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). They all appear in relays — narrative shorthand with a series of guest-star cameos that, admittedly, move at a clip. It’s almost pay-off for having suffered through the many previous films. Directing team Anthony and Joseph Russo show proficiency beyond most Marvel hirees. Infinity War suggests episodes of an old-time Hollywood serial — no emotion built up from past stories, just brief chapters compressed into fleeting incidents. Nothing is ever resolved, because nothing means anything.

What academics call “narrativity” (employing memory and structural awareness in storytelling — the secret to John Boorman’s Excalibur) here gets steamrolled by busyness and chronic fits of campy, facetious jokes between swashbuckling hunks Thor, Star-Lord, and erectile-dysfunction-sufferer the Hulk. The drawback to this — a lack of credible substance when characters pretend worry or ambivalence — is worse than Hollywood trashiness. The frantic comic-book mythology merely plays out the form’s intrinsic commercialism, not cultural or historical beliefs. The Russo brothers’ flippancy doesn’t match the brio of Boorman’s Arthurian masterpiece. In Excalibur, mythology represented historic human compulsions, resulting in a constantly moving sensual, kinetic, and visual panorama. (Visionary philologist Neil Jordan was billed as Boorman’s “creative associate.”)

Infinity War tells a modern story that exploits the need for mythology but without resonance — just action and battle scenes with the stars popping in from the sidelines. These overpaid, unprincipled thespians rip the veil off suspended disbelief: Thanos gets to turn back time opportunistically, and Black Panther’s Wakanda natives forsake their Afro-technology to fight supernatural beasts using spears. Marvel’s shamelessness is exposed.

Hasn’t anyone at Marvel realized that the very idea of superhero battles is oxymoronic? Zack Snyder dramatized this problem in Justice League when Superman held Aquaman and Wonder Woman at bay while giving side-eye to The Flash — an instantly hilarious, terrifying, shocked-and-awed look at omnipotence. The Thanos scenario repeats the Steppenwolf scenario in Justice League (one has five fated Infinity Stones, the other has three Mother Boxes) — both contrived to represent the essence of power. (Unfortunately, the color-coded Infinity Stones also recall the crayon-box psyches in Pixar’s Inside Out.) But the quest for the Stones is no more than videogame sport; it’s not imbued with Zack Snyder’s passionate interest in spirituality, the relation of man to God.

Infinity Wars is not just trash, but it turns age-old questions of faith into trash — and does it for fun.

The Infinity War fantasy disdains religious teaching. In this no-hope genre, superheroes fight supernatural evil to a draw. Upon threat of death, Dr. Strange observes, “No resurrection this time,” then later warns, “We’re in the endgame now.” When always-facetious Star-Lord is asked “What master do you serve?” he quips: “What? Am I supposed to say ‘Jesus’?” This comics-movie nihilism, dressed in the Russo brothers’ routine disaster imagery, heartlessly echoes post-9/11 anxiety yet fails to provide consumers (young or old) with the moral satisfaction of reasoned storytelling or edifying beliefs. The closest it gets to cosmology or theosophy is chasing Thanos and searching for those Infinity Stones through different galaxies, one named Knowhere — a juvenile idea containing its own critique, a videogame’s endgame.

Infinity Wars cliffhanger, before the next money-grab, implies that most of its superhero caravan has been vaporized — alluding to 9/11 apocalypse as well as to Spielberg’s 9/11 allegory in War of the Worlds. But you know they’ll all be back; the money machine must continue, as will the spiritual assault.

No point in angling to find sociological significance in Infinity War when fans have been conditioned to enjoy this mayhem. Infinity War is not just trash, but it turns age-old questions of faith into trash — and does it for fun. Maybe the best word for that is: pathetic.

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