‘Infinity War’ and Overkilling Death

Mourning the greatest casualty of the MCU’s crossover extravaganza.
By  · Published on April 30th, 2018

Mourning the greatest casualty of the MCU’s crossover extravaganza.

This article contains spoilers for ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’

If you kill off half of the Earth’s mightiest and most beloved heroes and there is not a single tear to be found in a sold-out theater, something is terribly wrong.

This was the thought that plagued my mind far as I left the cinema after seeing Avengers: Infinity War. It’s arguably the weakest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World made even worse by how it was preceded by such a winning streak. Spider-man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther all demonstrated the MCU reaching new heights just before face-planting with their attempt at a crowning jewel, a clunky behemoth of overwrought CGI battles that is so overextended it recycles attack moves. (See: Loki and Tony Stark’s matching sneak-attack attempts).

But even worse than its unremarkable blur of fight scenes and overarching plot with the structural integrity of a sieve is the way Infinity War, in spite of numerous character deaths, feels emotionally as cold and sterile as a hospital room.

The particular strain of disappointment I felt after sitting through nearly three hours of Thanos’ unremarkable purple mug reminded me very much of what I felt after watching both Westworld and the latest season of Game of Thrones, which I found decidedly underwhelming. Considering the surface similarities between the three — i.e. epic scale sci-fi/fantasy — I wondered if maybe the same fundamental issue might be at work. And comparing the three I soon found a common problem, and that was the matter of death. Or, more specifically, how death is treated.

Because in all three, death has lost real meaning. In Westworld, it’s due to the fundamental nature of the show having primarily android protagonists. In Game of Thrones, it’s a recent development. The show in which warlords died of infected scratches has become a land of miracle cures for fatal ailments in which no one ever drowns. Between Theon being fished from the sea and an unconscious Jaime getting rescued from a watery grave, by the time Jon Snow falls through the ice it feels pointless to summon up even the faintest twinge of concern.

In Infinity War, it’s because the film loudly and clearly expresses its intentions of becoming the Boy Who Cried Wolf. While looking to go big by “killing off” half the characters you know and love, Infinity War pushes itself right out of genuinely shocking territory and into the realm of definite bullshit. Those quotation marks I added aren’t suggested by the film so much as printed in bold. As a general rule of thumb, if you want to maintain some doubt as to whether or not the characters you killed will actually stay dead, it is best to avoid those with announced sequels already in the works. Undermining death, in turn, undermines a narrative’s attempts to pack any sort of emotional punch like a supervillain loose in New York City wreaks havoc.

From the size of its villain to the length of its runtime to its body count, Infinity War clearly operates off the motto “bigger is better.” But emotional content doesn’t really work that way. “Going big” emotionally doesn’t mean widening the blast radius of the villain’s plan. Ironically enough, it means going small — working on the human scale. It means tapping into the kinds of fears, struggles, and hurts to which the average viewer can actually relate.

None of us know what it is like to have superpowers or to actually have the fate of the Universe in our hands. But we all know what it’s like to live in a mortal body and to have death brush against our lives in the passing of loved ones. When a narrative messes with the gravity of this relationship with death and mortality, it hugely limits its potential for meaningful dramatic content.

Things are, in a fundamental sense, defined by their absence. Light can be described as the absence of darkness, and vice-versa. Applying this to life and death, when a narrative behaves like death means nothing, life consequentially also means nothing. It’s fine if you’re Deadpool and going for snark with a side order of sarcasm, but if you want to work in the spectra of drama and tragedy, you’ve got a serious problem.

In its quest to go big, Infinity War makes itself one of the smallest and shallowest installments of the MCU thus far. Unfortunately, such irony seems to be becoming something of a trend — and the closest to a compelling tragedy any of the afflicted narratives are going to get.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.