You might be familiar with the phrase “jumping the shark.” It’s used to refer to a point in a series where a show, having reached its peak and used all of its best ideas, does something outrageously over-the-top in an effort to raise the stakes, but it ultimately is the start of that series’ decline.
While sitting in the theatre, watching Avengers: Infinity War, a thought hit me around halfway through and stuck with me throughout the rest of the (exceedingly lengthy) runtime: this is like watching a shark get jumped in slow motion, with no emotional weight whatsoever.
Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t think that Marvel movies will all be downhill from here, and I’ve felt burnt-out on the films for a few years now, but the successive successes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther had my enthusiasm reinvigorated going into Infinity War. And Infinity War sucked all of that enthusiasm right back out.
A lot of people loved Infinity War, and I understand (and envy) those people. It’s everything the archetypical Marvel movie tries to be cranked up to an absurd level. Massive, CGI-filled action scenes that drag on, well-established characters tossing quips around, and all the crossover interactions fans have been waiting for after years of teasing.
And yes, moment-to-moment, the movie can be a lot of fun. I’m a Thor fan, and seeing him interact with the Guardians of the Galaxy was everything I wanted it to be. The team-up of Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange was a bit more grounded, but provided a fun dynamic. However, these were just moments, and now, having had some time since seeing the movie, I remember them in a more vague sense of enjoyment than with any concrete details. It’s wholly ephemeral entertainment. As for the rest of the movie, it for the most part plays itself very seriously, but still lacks emotional weight.
I’m going to get into total spoilers now, so be warned, because I expect lots of people who have seen the movie are questioning why I’d say it has no emotional weight. Characters die, people are distraught, and horrible things happen. But the movie doesn’t sell them well. It’s so massive in scale and so dramatic that it undercuts any actual human moments. Deaths before the end of the film are telegraphed ahead of time, built up so that you know they’re coming, as if the movie is saying “Get ready to feel some major emotions!” Gamora’s is the biggest example, of course — the whole film is setting us up for her to die, preparing us emotionally, and the problem is, when she ultimately does, we see the sorrow filtered not through her friends (until later, when it’s diluted) but through Thanos.
And maybe that’s the problem. Thanos is the main character of this film. He’s a villain, yes, but he’s the only one given enough screen time to feel fleshed out beyond just relying on viewers’ memories of earlier movies. But he’s not a sympathetic character in the least, so when the filmmakers try to make us feel his sadness at needing to sacrifice his beloved daughter for his goals, we’re left conflicted — are we sad that Gamora is gone, or because Thanos is showing he has emotions, or because he’s one step closer to his goal? Are his moments of humanity meant to make us empathize with him, or show us that he’s a monster who would do anything to reach his goals?
The other issue with deaths is one that comes from the metanarrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). What I mean is that there’s a story in the films, but there’s also a real-world story of how these films are made, and for a lot of fans (even those who aren’t die-hards, which I’ll readily admit includes myself), that story gets more attention than the one within the movies. So when Gamora dies, many of us already know that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said that the third movie in his series would focus on her. We know that, at the climax of the movie, when Avengers are dying left and right, this cannot possibly be permanent. Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Black Panther have only had one movie each (and the latter two were recent, and fantastic, hits), so can we really believe that they’re just dead in an instant, while Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor (who’ve been staples for years and are certainly nearing the end of their contracts) are amongst the few survivors? Thanos literally used time travel moments before the massively fatal climax of the film to bring Vision back to life (briefly), establishing that no death in this story has to be permanent.
So when all of those characters die, it isn’t sad. I just sighed, knowing this will be undone in the next Avengers. Once you introduce time travel into a story, its events lose an immeasurable amount of gravitas, because you know if anything gets too bad to be believed, the heroes can just reverse it.
Superhero movies are at their best when they tell human stories in crazy ways — stories that give us a chance to connect with their characters, cheer for them, laugh with them, and understand who they are. When they succeed at that, we have incredibly memorable films that can be fun for a huge variety of audiences, are emotionally engaging, and stick with you. Avengers: Infinity War is the opposite of that. It’s so busy creating flashy, immediate gratification that it forgot to include any real substance. A lot happened in it, and I didn’t care about any of it.