Now, you might be wondering (probably not) why this isn’t part of my “Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios is Awful” series.
I’m done with it. It was the wrong way to frame my analyses of these movies, TV shows, and who makes them — to alter my approach of Art criticism a bit and see how it goes. I’ll keep my previous entries up for both the sake of transparency as well as to remember what not to do in the future. However, that is not due to having some newfound love for the studio and its practices (which I absolutely don’t — I’ll deal with that elsewhere — though I apply more blame to Disney nowadays), but rather the fact they’re taking the creative risks I’ve been dying to see forever now. It should not have taken this long but, given the short-sighted entertainment industry avarice, we’ve been given nothing but an elongated set-up to something that should’ve started far sooner.
I don’t know how much sooner exactly — but, again, it should not have taken slightly less than a decade. Perhaps, given the set-up at the end of The Avengers, it’d of been soon after that film. Here’s the thing though: you don’t need to watch any of the other movies beforehand. It’d almost be a disservice to just how well this film understands self-contained storytelling. If you want to go see them, you can — there are plenty of things to like within each (like the always magical Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Ragnarok) — but one can simply read the plot synopses on Wikipedia to fill in some of the blanks. I’d still highly recommend Captain America: Winter Soldier as I have before, but that has less to do with lore-building than just as a damn good movie by itself. It expands on the previous installment and many of its themes while dealing with contemporary socio-political issues (as best as one could with an expensive blockbuster, anyway — still an admirable feat compared to most) more evocative of 1970’s conspiracy thriller and less like a superhero film. Funny, considering the Russo Bros. also directed that one…
With Infinity War? Just reading about it wouldn’t work as almost everything that is said and done in this movie is shown, with as little exposition as necessary. But even then, they still use such for further characterization than simply getting information across. The film is what I’ve wanted to see more of from this franchise since Winter Soldier because, along with those elements, it subverts all expectations that’ve come from the continual iteration as well as an over-budgeted and bizarrely aggressive marketing campaign that weaponizes its fandom. More importantly, so many plot points within it recontextualize certain aspects from those other movies to the point they practically feel ret-conned. As if to make up for lost time…and I love it.
DESTROYER OF WORLDS
Anyone who knows me well enough should be aware of my sentiments on the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the obvious exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s always this great storytelling potential with each one, especially if allowed to stay alive, but they’re often reduced to one-dimensional baddies who “need” to die as if we’ve never moved on past action movie tropes of the 1980’s. They’re occasionally given legitimate grievances or personal issues to deal with — whether it’s Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Hela (Cate Blanchett), or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — but end up getting swept under the rug in order for them to be demonized and defeated gloriously by the hero, in a half-baked and tensionless action sequence that may as well’ve been from G.I. Joe.
Erik Killmonger is particularly egregious because, as someone who was both witness and victim to anti-black discrimination in the United States and rightfully aggrieved that Wakanda’s isolationist policies allowed it to continue, he still “needs” to be some woman-hating gangbanger prick to make his death (at the hands of his cousin nonetheless) seem justified. Keep in mind that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) not only forgave the man he thought killed his father and their accomplice, but saved the life of the man who did kill his father — yet it’s not considered that he allow Killmonger to live and make amends with him as family. Even James Wan’s recent Aquaman acknowledges that as an option within its main conflict.
None of them can really live up to Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk in Daredevil nor able to, what with the difference in format, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being more layered as characters within a feature-length film (plus some) as Loki is highly indicative of that.
But now? I have Thanos (Josh Brolin) along with his Children…
Thanos — unlike Killmonger — is not right. He is most definitely wrong. A person who thinks that mass genocide across planets is “saving” them from a painful existence simply cannot be correct, when such situations are far more complicated and need nuanced answers to be resolved. Yet, at the same time, I think Thanos knows this and still does it regardless. Unlike so many other Marvel movie villains — neither he nor anyone else ever state such outright. It’s all implied through cryptic lines that could mean many different things depending on how one wishes to interpret them (I’d call him “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” if that phrase wasn’t so obnoxiously, and erroneously, overused).
As far as my interpretation of the character goes? He wants to die.
He lived through seeing his civilization and people become extinguished before his very eyes, to be the only one left of his kind, and it broke him so much that — upon observing so many other civilizations were in the same state — he just couldn’t let it happen again. It’s difficult to not think, on some level, he wanted people to fight back and be victorious in order to prove him wrong and finally put out of his misery. Throughout the film, he’s partial to those who challenge him — even as he torments and tortures them — as if to act as an obstacle for them to overcome. The best evidence I can give for this is a single line, near the very end of the film, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) decides to pull an Oberyn Martell (hey, Peter Dinklage is here too!) and Thanos responds:
He doesn’t gloat of his superiority or personally belittle the hero who struck a blow against him, but instead pointing to his failure to finish the job properly and make him remember what to do next time they met in battle.
Thanos isn’t just an oddly religious alien warlord. He’s a force of nature. He’s an atom bomb with arms and legs. He is a Hindu god.
I don’t make that last comparison lightly but instead of using the terribly translated and outdated version that asshole J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted, I’ll go for a better-written and more recent variant (emphasis mine) by Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda:
“I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist. I am Time, the mighty force which destroys everything, fully Manifesting Myself, I am here engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without you, none of the warriors arrayed in the enemy ranks shall survive.”
Thanos is something else and it’s perhaps more integral to the film’s plot — a trait he shares with the legendary Darth Vader of Star Wars fame: he’s a father, though not a very kind one, of course…
THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER
One of the (many) things that made the Guardians of the Galaxy films incredibly disappointing for me — despite James Gunn’s skill as a director and writer (prior to being erroneously fired by Disney over an obviously manufactured controversy but has since been rehired, hopefully because Disney was shamed into submission) as well as a top-notch cast and soundtrack that almost rivals the musical selections in a Edgar “He Should’ve Written & Directed Ant-Man Goddammit” Wright film (“The Chain” is my favorite Fleetwood Mac song…)— was how the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) felt like all tell and no show.
When first introduced, they both verbally remind each other that they are sisters, which is odd given most siblings (whether they’re biological or adoptive) don’t need to do such as they’re already quite aware of this fact. Despite the second film’s pretense of supposedly being about “family,” it doesn’t actually bother to explore Nebula’s stated grievances and why she’s so fratricidal towards a sibling she seemed to get along with otherwise. I mean, sure, she has an expository monologue — all of which would’ve been more interesting to see as a flashback — that’s about as natural as a botox injection and little more than set-up for a lame punchline. In the end it was all just an excuse for an action scene to keep things “exciting,” much like the other subplots that only make the whole film a less cohesive piece. It’s hard to really care about events when they’re so dissonant to one another and characters have to tell you, the audience, how to feel as opposed to getting it across with more subtlety either in the visuals or writing.
As I said before, Infinity War does a commendable job recontextualizing and certainly does so with this relationship by finally giving us both a glimpse at Thanos’ relationship to both Gamora and Nebula along with better idea of them as rival siblings.
Despite initially coming off as another generic “strong (but still sexually objectifiable) female character” these movies keep on using — with exceptions like Shuri (Letitia Wright) or Okoye (Danai Gurira), who are actually strong female characters — this film informs us that she is instead little more than a spoiled kid who ran away from home to make her Daddy mad. She and the other Guardians ride around like a mercenary Scooby Gang who don’t take anything seriously and, even when coming across a scene of wanton slaughter, can’t keep from thinking about how they’ll enrich themselves from it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given they’re all lead by a pop culture-obsessed man-child who’s first shown kicking animals, none of which endangered him or even impeded his movement, for fun while dancing to music on a Walkman (how charming! Well, not really…especially if you replaced them with puppies).
Though ostensibly a villain, no thanks to a visage that exudes malevolence (which is surprising given it’s Amy frickin’ Pond with her beautiful red hair and lovely Scottish accent — like Kelly MacDonald before her…), I can’t help but think Nebula was the true hero and we were manipulated into thinking otherwise due to a skewed perspective of these events. Both she and Gamora were plotting an insurrection as seen in the first GotG installment and eventual assassination of their adoptive father, but only Nebula stuck to the plan — changing it when need be — simply to fail in the end…all because her sister, either out of cowardice or indecisiveness or (in my opinion) still being emotionally co-dependent on Thanos. Gamora just went A.W.O.L. and off to play with her new group of opportunistic drinking buddies (Groot (Vin Diesel) being the exception — he’s pure, like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) — but Rocket (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) is getting better about it…) until Pops got sick of waiting for her to make a check-in call before the clock hit 12:00 A.M.
But Nebula? She continued on, despite all the strain she went through to accomplish what would ultimately be a botched job, only to be tortured and implied to have been sexually assaulted (Thanos’ torture chamber attendant seemed rather…handsy, like some Japanese chikan). Yet, unlike her other siblings, she is a survivor. She’s one of the few left in an otherwise half-empty universe and given the tenacity she has shown through all the turbulence that has befallen her, I doubt she’ll stop moving until she’s dead…while still on her feet.
Perhaps she’s more like her father than her other brothers and sisters — especially Gamora — could ever be.
Though it would be remiss to not bring up how, on some level, there is something bittersweet about Thanos and Gamora’s relationship when — in a rare instance — a brief flashback sequence, rather than an expository monologue, tells of how they first met:
The subsequent scene wherein they have a heart-to-heart, much of which hit rather close to home given my own parental experiences (“I never taught you to lie…that’s why you’re so bad at it!”), reveals that — even with all her belligerence and the inconvenience it has caused him — she is definitely his favorite child and whom he wishes to carry on his legacy once passed on (all despite being one of the youngest and most rebellious). She yells and screams about how much she hates him and what he represents, as Thanos sighs with great restraint, before responding with the reminder that she could’ve easily absconded and never come back before, but nonetheless did, only to support his omni-genocidal galactic crusade upon return for two decades. Eventually this interaction devolves into an act of abuse that — though physical for Nebula, all too familiar with it — tortures Gamora psychologically enough to break down what little resistance (if there was really any to begin with, as much as avoidance) she had left in her being.
It occurred to me during these scenes that — though played by actors largely in their 30’s and 40’s — Gamora acts more like a girl than she does a woman and this applies to many other characters including fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as well as Thor, Loki, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — whether or not he is The Hulk — and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr). They’re all children in the bodies of adults. Even Gamora’s “will-they-or-won’t-they?” shtick with the unflatteringly aforementioned Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) comes off less like two platonic grown-ups dealing with sexual tension now than curious children about to lose their innocence, both on the verge of full-blown puberty and trying to process all these weird new feelings they’re unfamiliar with. Thanos himself practically symbolizes adulthood, as it comes relentlessly out of nowhere and one is given little breathing room for recovery, to render unto them all the rudest of awakenings. It won’t be pretty — it never is, but perhaps should be.
INTO THE SOUL OF DARKNESS
Earlier within this piece, as an aside, I mentioned being loathe to describe Thanos as “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” and that wasn’t as frivolous a statement as it may’ve seemed. To briefly clarify, for any unfamiliar with the phrase or its origins, before going further…
Dark Souls is a videogame series made by Japanese developer FromSoftware that gained what you’d call a “cult following” due to its oppressive atmosphere, punishing gameplay difficulty, and purposefully opaque storytelling. “The Dark Souls of [X],” when not simply observing similarities between it and another title (such as The SurgeandNioh), almost always references the second of those three aspects as its most defining quality — of being the most harsh or challenging, regardless of the activity or medium involved — with the other two seen as “optional” by many despite being integral to the experience. All of which I find completely wrong-headed.
I’d not only apply all those qualities to Thanos as a character but to Infinity War itself as a film. Their tone, even with those moments of light-hearted relief, is overwhelmingly grim. Both challenge the protagonists — emotionally, existentially, and physically — in ways they have not before and even questions their competency as heroes. Neither will bore you with an abundance of minute details espoused at length, the basic essentials kept succinct, but rather make inferences and leave others pondering what may be going on inbetween the lines.
It was rather surprising for any of this to be the case in my experience watching the film. Expectations were set low and my dwindling interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were part of that — to expect great disappointment and end up unexpectedly ecstatic— and then there’s this visual clusterfuck:
It looks like a toy box violently puked action figures onto a pile of neon signs, causing a migraine in the process, and represented my worst fears about the movie. A bloated, indulgent mess full of bells and whistles with nothing else rattling around in its skull regardless of whatever pretenses are made. Another exercise in empty spectacle, which we have an overwhelming surplus of already.
But…it’s all misdirection. A red herring. A sleight of hand. This poster, however, is better representative of the subject material and tone of the film:
Infinity War isn’t just any horror film — it’s a cosmic horror film.
I’ve already spoken of Thanos at length as well as Loki, Gamora, and Nebula to a lesser extent but have yet to speak of his other Children that’ve gone unnamed so far. They are Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary…I also prefer to call them “Obsidian Cull” ‘cause it sounds better). Very much unlike their younger siblings, each acts as an extension of their father’s will to some degree or another — almost like avatars for a Hindu god, actually!
As someone who cared little for Thanos’ comicbook counterpart (‘cause why do you need him when you have Darkseid?) I wasn’t aware of the Black Order, whom the Children of Thanos are based upon. Viewing Infinity War, it was refreshing to find villains who I knew so little about but managed to be intriguing — especially due to their excellent visual designs — and wanted to know them more as people…though they aren’t really people, when you think about. They’re humanoid in form and inexplicably speak English, yes, but they’re still extraterrestrials. The way they perceive the material world may not coincide with the way we, as homo sapiens of planet earth, do and makes it practically impossible to fully comprehend them as beings.
You know less about them than Thanos but, as inferred by Gamora’s backstory, it’s easy to deduce they’re each from a world he had conquered while culling half of the sapient population. Proxima and Crovus only have about six lines between them while Obsidian Cull (I told you it sounded better!) is reduced to unintelligible grunts, but— given his namesake — Ebony Maw is the most talkative of the four. He is both Thanos’ herald and (presumably) eldest Child, the film itself opening as he gracefully steps around corpses while evangelizing his adoptive father’s morbid spiritual philosophy with the calm of a Buddhist monk and eloquence of William F. Buckley. His appearance, though off-putting, is nowhere near as intimidating as his siblings coupled with a lack of signature weaponry in hand. That’s because Ebony Maw doesn’t need one as he is the weapon. Telekinesis, when used elsewhere, is often amusing or goofy but rarely is it ever as fucking terrifying the way Ebony Maw applies it during Infinity War next to the way Rainmaker does in Looper. It goes beyond making objects float in midair or pushing things out of the way — with an eerily acute perception of his immediate surroundings, he uses the very environment against the protagonists. He doesn’t just shove glass filaments into Dr. Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) face, but makes a wall swallow him while upside down. Then there’s turning rubble into flying spikes of death, causing a fire hydrant to burst open and temporarily incapacitate Wong (Benedict Wong), or chopping a car in twain a half second before it hits him. Made all the more unsettling by how slight and effortless his gestures are to make any of this happen, when it’d be portrayed with heavy-handed dramatics like arms flailing about or intense bodily tremors elsewhere.
In case it wasn’t already obvious (which it should be), I find the character absolutely delightful. Vaughn-Lawlor’s every utterance is pure gold and, next to Thanos himself, is what I wish more of in Marvel villains. At least, insofar as making them viable as threats rather than coming off as performative and largely ineffectual. Unfortunately, much like an ouroboros, this circles back to an issue stated earlier on in this piece…
It is bad enough when the film kills off some of the most interesting, imposing antagonists within the setting — but it’s worse when their deaths are treated as part of a joke or simply rote in execution. Especially when, purely out of convenience, these indomitable warriors from space who’ve likely slain thousands (if not more) by hand and able to fight superhumans to a standstill suddenly lose their competency. All of this is done in order to give one of the many heroes an easy “win” that, with everything else suggesting their only victory would be a Pyrrhic one, feel unearned and only means there are now three less villains to use within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I generally despise resurrecting characters as a rule (comics are terrible about it) but this is one of the exceptions where I wouldn’t mind it.
Notice how I said “three” and not “four”? That’s because, given his personal arc within the film (which I shall explore next time!), I didn’t mind that Bruce Banner defeated Obsidian Cull by flinging him into a force field and getting disintegrated in the process. He’s a big, dumb lizard man who only makes guttural noises and whose entire existence is to get embarrassingly beaten up by the heroes with no semblance of personality as the other Children. His loss is not one that leaves an intense absence. I could even get past how his death was downright slapstick, but it’s tough to tolerate when Proxima being flung into a War Wheel by an ill-defined, inconsistently-powered character (I hate Wanda so much) is equally comedic.
Keep in mind that, in their previous encounter, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was retreating most of the time and easily overpowered when dealing with Proxima directly. She could’ve been killed were it not for the intervention of Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson…and why do these movies keep forgetting she’s just a normal — albeit highly trained — human?), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie…who at least has a rocket-launching jetpack with metal wings) but, now, the cosmic Amazonian mass murderer of planets is careless enough to be defeated with…whatever Scarlet Witch’s powers are supposed to be. It doesn’t matter since her abilities are derived from how convenient it is for the plot at that very moment, like an anthropomorphic Sonic Screwdriver, than based on any kind of internal logic presented by the narrative (because there is none) just like they were in the comics.
Similarly, Ebony Maw’s death functions as the punchline to a joke set up by Peter Parker referencing Aliens as a “really old movie” (okay, that was hilarious, I’ll admit) — getting vacuumed into the celestial abyss after the most obvious of tricks, becoming an oversized popsicle. Which, just like Proxima, doesn’t make sense given his prowess as displayed in prior scenes. It’s just there to make Parker and Stark look all the more amusing, as if that was really necessary (it wasn’t). Corvus Glaive’s death may’ve been forgivable, given the injury sustained in a previous battle acted as potential foreshadowing, were it not for it being so bland as getting stabbed from behind by another character off-screen as if it was a surprise (it wasn’t). Only made nonsensical by Vision (Paul Bettany) being broken to the point he’s barely functional, though he could’ve as easily distracted Corvus enough for him to be injured once more and fall back to fight another day in Endgame.
I’d ask “why?” if the answer wasn’t so obvious: there is none, save for habit and expectation via well-worn fictional tropes. To stick to a formula that has only wasted further potential under the fallacious notion that “the bad guy must die because the bad guy must die.” It’s not a rule set in stone, just like the insertion of useless love interests, but they keep doing it despite the lack of demand or obligation for it. I’m not saying these characters should never die (as that’d be awfully boring) but this is ending something as it is just beginning. Superheroes are often defined by their nemeses, to force scenarios that put their skills or abilities or own morality to the test, making this dismissive expendability detrimental to storytelling possibilities as time goes on and the roster shortens with each insipid death.
Hell, Mystery Men made that point back in 1999 — almost nine years before Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe occurred. Wish that lesson was taken to heart…
That is not to say, as much as I still take issue, this is a deal-breaker of any kind nor is it the only problem I have. Yet none of them have ruined my fondness of Infinity War even with subsequent viewings — a great deal unlike most other Marvel films. Thanos and his Children aren’t my favorite thing about the movie, they’re just one of my favorite things about it. I mentioned Bruce Banner’s arc before and there’s plenty more. That is, for next time…
[Originally posted on 3/25/19 @ Medium.com]