Cold open on Xandar. It’s a beautiful, utopian planet we got glimpses of in GotG. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is getting interviewed by Nova-Prime Glenn Close for a job with the Nova Corps. Right off the bat we are seeing the stitching together of Marvel’s several tonally and mythologically distinct domains. And it’s funny, in exactly the kind of way that reminds us of all the times Marvel has had the wisdom to wink and not take itself too seriously. But then a shadow passes over, showing us that shit is about to get real. Thanos is here with the full force of his armada, and he does easily what Ronan the Accuser failed to do in Guardians of the Galaxy. In no time he rounds up the Nova Corps and demands the Power Stone. Glenn Close refuses. So Thanos says, “Pick a side.”
Confusion. What do you mean, like, good or evil? No, Thanos says, just pick a side, left or right. There is awkward shuffling as everyone in the room splits into two even groups. Thanos has one group slaughtered, then goes to the survivors and asks again for the Power Stone. He has no quarrel with Xandar, he says, not like Ronan did so long as he gets the stone. They refuse, so Thanos says again, “Pick a side.” It’s clear he will keep killing half the group until he gets what he wants. So finally John C. Reilly steps up and caves. He takes Thanos through a series of elaborate high tech vault doors. Inside Thanos takes the Power Stone, grins, and it *plinks* into the gauntlet. Immediately cut to the splash title: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.
Avengers: Infinity War didn’t work. It certainly sold a lot of tickets, made a marked impact on meme culture. But now that it’s out on digital, it’s easy to see that Infinity War’s plot, character development, and dialogue all fail to deliver on the basic promises made my ten years of admirable pop storytelling. Marvel has had weak movies before, films that don’t stand out amidst the ever-growing crowd. But this is the first MCU film that I think doesn’t work. It doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, and more importantly it sets out to do the wrong things.
This is a new development for the cultural juggernaut that is the MCU, so it’s worth dissecting to figure out what went wrong and why. And, maybe, suggest some ways it could have worked and what lessons we can learn from these corrections.
What has been so satisfying about the other Avengers movies is that, even though they bicker a bit, when shit hits the fan they really gel as a team. Those moments are so well choreographed and fun to watch. They give you a sense that, as scrappy as they (and by extension all humans) are, they might just have what it takes to save the planet.
In this movie those moments either never bubble up or are undercut by cliched frictions that lazy writers have long used to jam drama in where they’ve failed to build it naturally: bad communication, poor impulse control, useless infighting, yelling “no go back it’s too dangerous” to a fellow superhero, soapy, bathos-laden moral dilemmas. Even the climactic “you should have gone for the head” moment before the snap was an unforced error from Thor. A little bit of screwing up is fine, but after Civil War it was time to feel again that the Avengers were “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” even if they were doomed to fail. If they failed, it needed to be at their best.
Infinity War leans very hard on its heroes all breaking in the face of a simple oncoming-train problem: an individual you care about, or half the universe. Loki gives up the Space Stone to save Thor. Gamora gives up the Soul Stone to save Nebula. Strange gives up the Time Stone to save Tony. Quill fails to efficiently fulfill his promise to Gamora. Wanda and everyone fail to do the sensible thing and let Vision sacrifice himself to save the universe. Thanos gets offered a similar test, but he passes by sacrificing Gamora, which, I suppose, is supposed to be Deep.
As many fans have pointed out, this is really Thanos’s movie. But why? Is Thanos a character we are all really invested in? Only in so far as he’s been a long-anticipated big bad. So we want him to be a good villain, because that’s what will make the characters we do care about struggle in a compelling way.
The fact that Thanos didn’t get to face the Avengers in their prime diminishes him as a villain. In fact, how uninspired is it that he almost lost to Mantis’s sleep powers, almost had his gauntlet hilariously tugged off his fat fingers by Peter Parker, and only triumphed because Chris Pratt lost his cool in the most tired way? That undercuts the scariness he deserved after a decade of buildup.
Worse, Thanos’s whole emotional arc doesn’t come together. His weird Malthusian take on the universe is just kinda confused, not scary. Did no one tell him, hey, some planets are doing okay at managing their resources and keeping their population stable? Or like, look at Groot’s planet, where there’s no competition for food because everyone can photosynthesize. Once you find out his weird ideology (which no one ever argues with him about), he comes off as much less charismatic than he did in just the few lines we heard in the trailers. If Thanos is the protagonist (which he hasn’t earned), he’s not King Solomon, making the tragic but wise choice. He’s Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.
More than a Thanos origin story, what this movie needed to do was effectively knit together the aforementioned domains of the MCU. We have Earth, Thor’s nine realms, the Guardians’ galaxy, and Dr. Strange’s mystical dimensions. This movie was the opportunity to build these into one big, interconnected universe with shared stakes. If you don’t, the inconsistencies between the domains look more like sloppy world-building and plot holes. Nothing major, but after ten years these glitches can accrue into a larger dislocation—which is what happened.
So, to start, let’s do a better job setting up the moment for this story. Infinity War follows right on the heels of Thor: Ragnarok, where we saw the fall of Asgard, a super powerful race that had at one point kept some peace in the universe—or at least their Nine Realms. Also recently, in Doctor Strange, we saw the destruction of two of the three mystical sanctums that presumably protected Earth from some of the worst dangers of the universe—such as Thanos. To deepen the world, let’s say those sanctums were created with the help of Odin, who was one of the few one people in the universe Thanos couldn’t fuck with. Asgard staked out a nine planet territory and kept it largely free from threats in the rest of the galaxy.
So Thanos can’t invade Earth directly because Odin’s shield protects it. Instead he had Loki attack using an army portalled in under Odin’s shield with the Space Stone in Avengers 1. Presumably Thanos also helped bring Ultron to life via the Mind Stone scepter to destroy Earth from within. When those plans failed we see him decide, in the credits of Avengers 2, “I’ll do it myself.”
And as luck would have it, Odin soon dies and Asgard is destroyed from within by a dispute over succession. As Black Panther pointed out, those moments of transition in rulership are the perfect time for outside forces to strike. So, Thanos, after years of playing around the edges, decides to make his move.
But who is Thanos and what makes him so scary? Being big and strong and genocidal doesn’t cut it. He needs to have a method to his madness, and he needs to be seen having a little fun with his cruel crusade. Hence our cold open above. We can salvage Thanos’s “kill half” gimmick by making it not a compulsion but a tactic. Rounding a people up and halving their numbers randomly until someone breaks is a genuinely scary and interesting way of getting what he wants, and sets him a bit apart from all the other “gimme the macguffin or the girl gets it” villains throughout history.
After the cold open, let’s cut to Wanda and Vision being romantic. We can keep it in Scotland, since Paul Bettany only shows his human form amongst mahogany estates and cobblestone lanes. The pair are attacked by Thanos’s four evil henchmen. These henchmen are fine sub-villains, but in the real movie they are given way too much of the plot to carry. Similarly, Vision and Wanda may be two of the most powerful Avengers, but they aren’t exactly the leading lights franchise fans show up for. Making them so central to the plot, and yet so hamstrung, was a significant and frustrating error on Marvel’s part.
So with a combination of alien trickery, ruthless strength, and cruel cunning the henchmen defeat them. The mind stone is ripped from Vision’s head, and Wanda is probably killed or maimed, to immediately up the stakes. The henchmen fly off. Across the world Tony gets a message that some transponder in Vision has turned off, and starts putting people on alert.
Next, we catch up with Thor and Loki and their band of refugees. In this version I’d like to think we did a better job of setting this up at the end of Ragnarok by having Thor say he wanted a new hammer, so let’s head to the forge. We’d have spent months getting excited for the forge, which is one of the space places in Infinity War that almost works. Either way, they are caught by Thanos’s giant ship. The threat of Thanos’s army killing the Asgardian civilians keeps Thor and Hulk in check.
Thanos explains that word has spread of Asgard’s fall, and now there is no one to stop him from getting the Infinity Stones, especially the one that they had been keeping in their palace. Loki is almost able to talk his way out of it (the fact that he didn’t even make one excuse in the original scene was mind boggling). Then the henchmen arrive with the Mind Stone and it goes *plink* into the gauntlet. Now Thanos has the same power to turn people to his will that Loki once wielded in the scepter. Thanos chides Loki for the trouble it caused him when Loki lost the scepter (the movie inexplicably fails to mention that Thanos has possessed at least one Infinity Stone before, or that Loki, in fact, is the only character we know of to have control of two of the stones at once). He takes control of Loki, who almost seems to fight it, but then gives up the tesseract. Thanos crushes it and the stone goes *plink* into the gauntlet. That’s three!
Thanos has Loki stab himself with his own dagger. Thor and Hulk rage, break their bonds, and attack Thanos. Thanos slaps them down, but he doesn’t have time for this. One of the things that makes him scary is how unconcerned he is with the Avengers. This is part of the escalation of the franchise. Loki fought the Avengers because he wanted to rule Earth—and annoy his brother. Ultron fought the Avengers because he disliked them personally and wanted to bloody their self-righteous hero schtick. Thanos just wants what he wants, and only bothers with the Avengers when they are in his way. With the Space Stone’s power, Thanos can warp through the mystical shield around Earth, and does so. Heimdall is protecting the Asgardians and in a last heroic act uses his sword to send Thor and Hulk after Thanos (as opposed to just Hulk, whom Heimdall hardly knows). He hands Thor the Bifrost sword in the process.
Cut to New York City. Thanos walks right out of a portal into Time Square. Some half comedic chaos ensues. Infinity War, for it’s giant budget, was inexplicably lacking in extras and civilians to make us feel like there are real, non-super human lives at stake. Iron Man and Spider-Man get on the scene quick. There’s banter, but then a fun, physical fight. Tony is wearing his classic armor, not the squishy nano-suit. Dr. Strange is indeed about to go out for a sandwich, but opens the door on this chaos. He joins the fray to some fun lines from Peter and Tony: “this guy’s a wizard?” “Just roll with it kid.”
Thanos beats down Peter, and Tony is distracted making sure he’s okay — a touching moment! Strange has his magic, but Thanos just has a scary gravity to him that lets him brush aside all that trickery (as we saw Kaecilius do during the Hong Kong time-reversal scene). Thor and Banner show up, and the fight goes up a notch. However Heimdall’s sword is no Mjolnir and half breaks. Banner can’t hulk out (same as in the movie). Thanos can portal around with the Space Stone, blast them with the Power Stone, and confuse them with the Mind Stone. Things go down hill fast.
Thanos grabs Stephen and rips the Time Stone off his neck. “You don’t know how to use that,” Strange says, but Thanos explains that the Soul Stone will show him how. This offers some structure of how the stones work in concert, instead of just being “plot powers” that sap the stakes from every fight, as the Time and Reality Stones do in Infinity War. *Plink* into the gauntlet, and then boom goes the Sanctum. We see Odin’s shield around the Earth dissipate.
Thanos revels in the power of four stones. With the Space and Time Stones together, he can now triangulate the location of the remaining two. “See you soon,” he says and warps off after the Reality Stone. Thor tries to get the sword to work, comedically trying magic phrases and shaking it. Stephen offers a spell suggestion and *zap* the Bifrost suddenly ignites. Where’s the Reality Stone, someone asks as Thor disappears. Welp, cut to
Space! Now’s a good time to talk about the Guardians of the Galaxy, because, in a way this gets to be their movie much more than the Avengers’. Guardians scenes are allowed to stretch and breathe in a way that Avengers scenes aren’t. They even get the one poppy diversion from the otherwise dour score. If we have Avengers on the title card, we should be putting these other character sets on Avengers-time—the fast-paced, team-oriented problem solving that the Avengers do better than anyone else. Instead, the pacing swings wildly and feels lumpy, as though a few jokes tested particularly well and the filmmakers cut a lot of other good stuff to let those run.
The bigger problem is that the Guardians scenes have more work to do carrying forward established dynamics. In this way a lot of the problems in Infinity War could have been avoided by having a stronger Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Vol. 2 was fine, but it missed an opportunity to give us the Gamora/Thanos backstory in a way that fit the theme of that film—namely, problematic dads. Giving Gamora (with Nebula) an inverse emotional arc to Quill’s would have been a useful point of contention to more aggressively develop the Gamora/Quill romance. As it is, they barely start dating by the end of Vol. 2, but in Infinity War we are supposed to swallow lines like “I love you more than anything in the universe.” Come on! You have to work for that cheese.
Vol. 2 is the only Phase Two movie that doesn’t either cross pollinate or significantly expand the MCU. The addition of Mantis is the only part of Vol. 2 that matters for Infinity War. A stronger Vol. 2 might have introduced Thanos’s henchmen or perhaps begun to explain the overlap of the different MCU domains. But because Vol. 2 didn’t pull its weight in the franchise, Infinity War has much more to do on those characters than any of the actual Avengers.
Anyhow, in our rewrite, the Guardians of the Galaxy are visiting The Collector on Knowhere, perhaps trying to sell him some gross-looking chunk of the planet Ego. The Collector isn’t interested — he’s got tons, those planets breed like crazy. Then Thanos arrives. The Guardians try their best, but they are no match for Thanos. Thanos grabs the Reality Stone — *plink* — and proclaims that he is going to ride to the Soul Stone on a chariot of carnage. Finally, he says, he will not be ignored. He warps off just as Thor arrives, his magic sword sputtering as its Asgardian tech fails. Thor is stuck with the Guardians, and now Gamora explains Thanos’s crazy pathology: he literally does want to court death.
I know this might feel cheesy, but it is scarier to make Thanos truly, metaphysically mad, instead of just a guy with a very bad idea about how to “save” the universe. When he gets the stones, Gamora explains, he’ll be able to kill half the universe instantly, thus drawing the attention of Death itself, which he believes is a lady he wants to bang. It’s a crazy story, but the stones could make the killing quadrillions part happen.
Now, this is much closer to Thanos’s motivation from the comics, and in interviews the filmmakers explained their reasoning for switching to his weird overpopulation/balance thing: “You’re spending two-and-a-half hours with this many characters, so then adding in some character that the audience has no relationship to, having to explain the backstory of that character, making you care about that character, making Thanos care about that character, making that character interesting to the other characters…”
But, come on! Infinity War added plenty of new characters, from Thanos’s henchmen to Peter Dinklage. And we aren’t talking about some mysterious, obscure Jack Kirby character. It’s Death, as in death. Everyone gets it about death. The audience already has a relationship with death, by virtue of being mortal human beings.
Another writer fretted that it would be weird to add a metaphysical character to the MCU, but letting Thanos dust half the people in the universe feels pretty metaphysical to me. Ten years in, in the triumphant franchise culmination you’ve been building towards, you can get away with adding a new plane of reality to your universe — something already built towards in Doctor Strange.
The writers say they wanted to make Thanos more understandable than bonkers, thus the awkward focus on his relationship with Gamora. But a metaphysical sexual obsession is actually a much more coherent and relatable form of bonkers than a genocidal policy proposal that makes no sense (we get enough of that in real life). And the idea that he might be doing all this for nothing, that he has to have faith that Lady Death is real—that also raises the stakes for Thanos. He has to consider that, “maybe I really am mad?” It’s a quaint thought compared to the suffering of his victims, and that kind of contrast makes for a good villain much more than the awkward scene where he wins young Gamora over by balancing a knife on his giant finger.
So perhaps Thor decides he needs to go get a new weapon after all, taking Rocket and Groot. This is a bit sad, as doing so walks back Thor’s character development in Ragnarok, but a few lines added to his conversations with Rocket could smooth that over, make him reflect on his need for tools to harness his lightning power. (Though for Gods’ sake, don’t do away with the eye patch too.) Meanwhile Quill decides it’s time he stepped up and returned to his home planet in its time of need. He and the others head to warn Earth.
The quest for the magic ax can play out much like it does in the original movie, interspersed with the preparations for the big fight on Earth. But let’s take a moment to deepen that piece a bit, since we went to the trouble of getting Peter Dinklage. He deserves some actual pathos to act around, as opposed to just being there as a joke about dwarves. Let’s say Dinklage shut off the forge on purpose after making Thanos the gauntlet—and maybe he made the Mind Stone scepter too. Dinklage metalled his own hands to prevent himself from making more weapons. He’s seen that his work arming the “gods and titans” in their squabbles just brings more suffering to common people. But Thor and Rocket convince him that Thanos has to be stopped and also challenge his skill, what with Hela having easily broken Thor’s hammer with one bare hand. Wasn’t there a million-year warranty on that thing? They make the ax in epic fashion and give it a Norse name, not the self-defeating “Stormbreaker.”
Back on Earth the Guardians arrive and pull a “take me to your leader,” but find only Tony, Peter, Banner and Strange (and maybe Rhodey now?), licking their wounds at the shawarma joint from Avengers 1. The Guardians explain that Thanos is on his way with his whole giant evil spaceship. As much fun as it is to have our character groups meet, this is very bad news, given that Thanos just single handedly trounced most of the Avengers with only three stones. Now he has five, and an army. And, for whatever reason, this time around they don’t have a Hulk.
Despair, dark night of the soul. They’ve been lucky before, but this is the big leagues now. Despite all the work Earth’s governments and superheroes have done to prepare for this very eventually, they weren’t ready after all. Then Tony says that weighty line he had the trailer: “we’ve got one advantage, he’s coming to us.”
Tony and Banner (with Parker trying to be helpful) do some good old fashioned science. Now that they know the scepter and the tesseract were similar objects, part of a set, they find a way to track down the Soul Stone down via it’s distinct gamma radiation signal, just like in the original Avengers (cue awkward Hulk/cancer comment about Strange wearing one around his neck). It’s in Wakanda, buried in the center of their vibranium meteor, as many of us assumed before Infinity War came out. Maybe we could have even had a post-credits scene in Black Panther showing the vibranium mining operation under Wakanda break into some silvery geode chamber. A few haters might call out the racial undertones of this—“so black people have a lot of soul, huh?”—but mostly people love Wakanda and would love to make it the center of the universe.
Tony has been fingering his flip phone all movie and finally calls Steve. “Meet me in Wakanda, I’m getting the band back together.” “How about you meet me in Wakanda?” Steve says. Team Cap has been hiding out there ever since Cap presumably broke his crew out of The Raft.
Now, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to introduce the Team Cap characters before this third-act team-up. However, if we want, we could sprinkle in some scenes of them tracking down Wanda, who, wounded but wrathful, managed to capture one or two of Thanos’s henchmen when the others fled to take the Mind Stone to Thanos. Perhaps she’s torturing the henchman with the mind-trickery powers we saw her use in Age of Ultron. Either way Team Cap shows up and hears from the minion whatever crazy ideology Thanos feeds his army to make them follow him on a quest that is really all about him—maybe the nonsense about balancing the universe! The henchman breaks loose, and we can give Steve’s crew a warm-up beating him down.
One way or another, they meet in Wakanda. In Wakanda, funny introductions all around. Quill and Strange bond over their mutual obsession with 70s pop music. Tony has a cute moment with Shuri about her nanotech panther suit, perhaps foreshadowing a more satisfying nanotech Iron Man suit for Part 2. Everyone learns about Thanos from Gamora and about the Infinity Stones from Strange. Why don’t they just destroy the Soul Stone? Can’t do it, they are immutable parts of the universe, and you can’t hide it from Thanos now that he’s got the other five. It’s important we don’t hinge our plot on destroying the Infinity Stones, because 1) that diminishes their significance, and 2) that leaves the audience wondering why no one else (the Asgardians, the Nova Corps) thought of eliminating this unfathomable threat to the universe for good.
Queue inspirational speech from Cap about how it’s fitting they have the Soul Stone because the human spirit is so indomitable. “We didn’t start this war,” etc. etc. Please, just let Steve say something more than “stay sharp.” Everyone gears up for a big battle, and we get some neat moments with characters we haven’t seen much of yet. Rhodey eyes the Iron-Spider suit (thrown into the mix in the Manhattan fight) and compares it to his clunky Army-surplus version like, “where are my spider arms?” Bucky awkwardly hefts a Wakandan laser spear and asks, “do you have anything with bullets?”
With Earth’s shields down, Thanos can just land his big spaceship right outside the Wakandan capital—the first time in the MCU we see Earth invaded from space rather than via portal or sort of phasing in, as in Thor: The Dark World. An epic fight commences with Thanos’s army. Thanos himself wades confidently into the battle, slaughtering his way relentlessly toward the vibranium mine. The core Avengers give him a good fight, especially when Thor shows up again on the Bifrost. But with five stones Thanos is too powerful — even though he can’t fully control them yet without the Soul Stone (no turning back time or swapping bullets for bubbles on a whim, an effect that totally took the stakes out of several big battles). The Avengers fall back into the mine, and we get a cool, aesthetically pleasing fight scene with Iron Man’s lasers and Thor’s lightning bouncing off silvery vibranium crystals.
But Thanos wins. He knocks aside the Avengers and reaches for the Soul Stone. Then he gets to have his little vision quest moment where he has to sacrifice Gamora. We can even set it in a dreamscape that looks like Vormir the prog-rock planet, though that scene really didn’t work for me. In this vision we see that touching sensitive side Infinity War spent two hours trying to convince us was so compelling. Thanos gets the Soul Stone—*plink*. Horrified faces all around as the Avengers realize they failed. He snaps his fingers and half the people left alive dust away. The survivors freak out, and Thanos explains that this isn’t just happening here, but all over Earth and all across the universe. His great romantic gesture to prove his love for Death.
Nothing happens for a moment, and Thanos is about to snap away another 50% of what’s left, as per his MO. But then Death does show up, taking Gamora as her creepy/sexy vessel like, “well, you got my attention.” Thanos wants Death to kill the other half so they can live alone together in the universe forever. He’s practiced these lines in his head for years. He saw her once, walking on a battlefield, exhausted by her task, and fell in love. The universe, life, it’s all meaningless. Everyone knows how it’s going to end. So why not just end it, Thanos suggests, and together they can finally rest.
It looks like Death might go along with this, but then Black Widow speaks up (this feels like a good way to have Natasha actually do something in Infinity War). Natasha, with her Dark Past, has perhaps seen Death before as well, and understands what it’s like to be a woman with a terrible purpose. Nat explains that, like Death, she too has seen life end with constant, statistical inevitability. And for a while she too lost her way, began to feel as though the work she sold her soul to do was actually pointless, and that life as a whole was cruel and short and better off unlived. What changed her mind? Someone offered to prove that a life could be used for good, and that person then set about helping Nat use her life for good. So why not at least them try to prove that life is worth more than a finger snap.
Nat proposes a contest: good versus evil. And a wager: double or nothing. Earth’s surviving heroes versus some villains Thanos picks, battling it out in an arena the size and complexity of a planet. If good wins, Death restores everyone Thanos dusted. If Thanos wins, Death kills the rest and becomes Thanos’s girlfriend.
We see scenes of devastation playing out around the globe. Thanos grins. Fade to the text: Thanos will return in AVENGERS: SECRET WAR.
Okay, what did we just do here, and why?
- We switched out Thanos’s malthusian motivation, which (like malthusian ideas in the real world) falls apart under the barest scrutiny.
- We made sure that Thanos got to beat the Avengers in a fair fight, thus establishing his place as the scariest of the Big Bads and making him worthy of a second movie rematch.
- We streamlined the story to give scenes more room to breathe and more room for humor and fresh character encounters.
- We set up the next movie with a Marvel property that will excite fans and a premise that makes the snap mean something beyond “shocking moment that will surely get rolled back.” (Looking at you, ‘Captain America worked for Hydra all along’-guy.)
- We stitched together the different domains of the MCU.
This last bit is really the most important part, because it was a task that only this movie could properly do. The Infinity Stones have been the through-line connecting the 20 Marvel movies into one universe. Bringing them together means the end of one paradigm (heroes stay in their domains but are loosely connected by encounters with the Infinity Stones) and the beginning of a new one. The new paradigm should be about taking heroes out of their comfort zone domains, thus raising the stakes and creating opportunities to explore new character facets. We’ve already seen how well Hulk in space worked in Thor: Ragnarok. Why not have Spider-Man fight something mystical, or the Guardians try to make it on Earth? These all become possibilities if we stitch the MCU together, giving the franchise more creative space to fuel many movies to come.
I don’t know where they are going with the next Avengers film. Presumably they’ll find a way to unsnap the universe. Perhaps though a Secret War! Certainly this movie left a lot for the sequel to do.