- Of the mainstream reviews--that is, those prohibited on pain of death of discussing the film's ending, AKA the only thing that is really worth talking about--my favorites are probably A.A. Dowd at the AV Club and Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. Both manage to address the film's flaws without stepping on a revelation they couldn't address. First, here's Dowd getting at the heart of the matter:
Infinity War is the closest a movie has come to a true comic-book crossover event, those massive arcs that unfold across multiple titles, forcing cash-strapped readers to shell out for books they don’t normally buy just to get the full scope of the narrative. The dirty secret of these heavily hyped ensemble sagas is that they’re usually pretty underwhelming, and Infinity War inherits plenty of the problems endemic to crossovers: the privileging of quantity over quality, of spectacle over story, and of the shock value of major changes to the status quo over just about everything else.And Seitz perfectly capturing the sense of missed opportunity that wafts over the entire film:
If only the film were better modulated, or perhaps longer, or more elegantly shaped, or ... well, it's hard to say exactly what's wrong here. But something's not up to snuff. This is, as many have pointed out, one half of a story broken in two, but it feels like less than half somehow. Until pretty recently, MCU films have suffered from collective curve-grading—each film seemed content to settle for "better than expected," as opposed to being really, truly good—and that feeling returns here, unfortunately. "Infinity War" faced so many challenges, many of them unique to this particular project, that it's a small miracle that it works at all. On some level, it feels ungrateful to ask a movie that already does the impossible to do it with more panache. But what are superhero movies without panache really good for? If there was ever a moment to swing for the fences, it was this one.
- With a bit more freedom to discuss the disintegrating elephant in the room, Film Crit Hulk masterfully analyzes the way Infinity War--and other Marvel movies before it--try to establish stakes and a sense of urgency. In "Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel's Endless Endgame", he argues that the film fails at this task long before it gets to its consequence-free ending.
If you’re going to kill half the population in the universe, then kill them. Right now these other tertiary characters are "dead," but dramatically-speaking, they may as well have just been kidnapped. But what else should I have expected? These movies have always been about "the texture of consequences" without any real commitment to them. So now phase one heroes are going to have to rally together or go save phase four heroes, and maybe sacrifice themselves, blah blah blah. It's always been promises and deferment. Which means that the MCU has ultimately belied what was the greatest hope for these movies: to use the unique medium of film to tell full stories, full of big, bold, lasting choices in a way that had become impossible within the cyclical bloat of comics. And that's when it hits you. The simple, obvious answer to what the MCU "is." Because these are definitely not movies. And despite all the arguments, they're definitely not a season of television either…
They finally just became comic books.
After 10 years of unparalleled success they've managed to inherit the same exact problems of critical mass that plague that industry. Endless cycles. Confusing timelines. Continuity issues. Basic bloat. Feints of death. This isn't the infinity war; this is the infinity loop. And the MCU had the opportunity to avoid all that. But thanks to its unparalleled success, they took on the same exact problems of comics instead.
- Speaking of Thanos's evil plan, this handy website will let you know if you were among its victims. I, sadly, didn't make it.
- Darren Mooney does a close read of the film's plot--with side visits to Age of Ultron and Civil War--to discuss how not only is there a great big nothing at its core, but how the team-up MCU movies seem perpetually at work dismantling the films that came before them so as to ensure that no consequences or meaningful changes ever trouble their universe.
Everything in Civil War is very meticulously calculated and engineered in such a way as to avoid anything that might challenge or upset an audience invested in either Tony or Steve. The films are wary of politicising their heroes even slightly, and so Civil War is stripped of any significance or weight. It is impossible to hate either Tony or Steve for any of the decisions that they make within Civil War, because the film bends over backwards to avoid having them make any decisions at all. Even the climactic throwdown is driven by highly-charged emotion and immediately walked back. Even Rhodey is walking by the end.
Unsurprisingly, Infinity War is this "story without meaning" approach extrapolated past its logical extreme. ... Within the narrative of Infinity War, none of the characters make any choice that has any meaning. Tony is reluctant to call Steve for help, which would be a bold character-driven decision. However, he is about to call Steve when he is interrupted by the arrival of Ebony Maw and Black Dwarf in New York. Later, Bruce Banner picks up the phone and makes the call anyway. The two teams created at the end of Civil War are reunited when Captain America takes the team to the New Avengers headquarters. Rhodey has no qualms about working with the people indirectly responsible for crippling him.
To that last observation I would add: It's not just that Rhodey doesn't hold his disability against Steve and company (since after all, it was Vision's fault, for using potentially lethal force in a fight where everyone else was pulling their punches). It's that at the end of Civil War he proudly tells Tony that his maiming was "worth it" because going against Steve was the right thing to do, but in Infinity War he sneers at General Ross and happily welcomes an unrepentant Steve back to Avengers headquarters. There are multiple other such issues. Vision tried to kill Sam in Civil War, and yet Sam has no problems working to protect him, and no comment on the fact that his fellow fugitive Wanda has been having an affair with Vision for two years. Wanda destroyed Bruce Banner's life--something he once felt so strongly about that he promise to kill her "without even changing color"--and yet now he has no reaction to the fact that she was essentially given his old room.
The obvious response here is that the characters are dealing with a more pressing crisis. But there's a vast gulf between putting aside your differences for the greater good and simply not giving a shit about things that were supposedly a matter of life and death just one or two movies ago. Character interactions in Infinity War overwhelmingly fall on the latter side of the divide. It couldn't be any clearer that the question we were supposed to find flummoxing and thorny in Civil War is now completely irrelevant, just as Tony's loss of perspective in Age of Ultron ceased to matter by the time we got to Civil War. Which tells us, I think, all we need to know about how seriously we should be taking anything that happens in Infinity War.
- In "Thanos is America", Lili Loofbourow finds some odd resonances in how the film depicts Thanos, and wonders if these might not undercut the audience's ability to feel shock at his actions:
America has been Thanos, and it got over the slaughter without much difficulty. America has claimed that killing thousands of people irrespective of their age, occupation, status, or personal storyline was for the greater good. And here is the really eerie part: It's convinced many people that this is a correct assessment. It was a tough choice, sure, and it took a tough man — a great man, even — to make it. (You might say the hardest choices require the strongest wills.) Metaphorically speaking, America has sat in a garden and smiled because the world we bombed into being is (in our view) a better place. People said it was brutal, but America knew better. And got everyone to basically agree, or at least move on.
Not to disagree with this entirely, but I think it's also important to note how much Thanos acts as a necessary boogeyman that validates the kind of violence Loofbourow describes on the part of the Avengers. Thanos--on his own or through his agents the Chitauri--has been dogging the MCU since Avengers, and in all his guises he has justified the existence of extra-legal, unaccountable violence that just happens to come wrapped in an American flag. In a universe where beings like Thanos exist, not only are Captain America and Iron Man necessary, but hobbling them with laws and international agreements becomes an act of, at best stupidity, at worst villainy.
- Following up on this article on twitter, Loofbourow adds an interesting observation on how the film completely misses the real import of the relationship between Thanos and Gamora, reminding us again of how poorly-served Gamora has been by the MCU.
The fact is, Gamora should have been a perfect reader of Thanos. That's literally the only way she could have survived his fatherhood this long. Instead, in every scene they share, their respective archives of knowledge are reversed. He's portrayed as the one who knows her so well that he can tell when she's lying. She, bizarrely, appears to know nothing at all about him. Gamora should have known exactly what Thanos' vision of love is, and how insistently he applied it to her. She's lived with the burden of his love her whole life. She would, accordingly, have instantly realized that she was the beloved thing Thanos needed to kill to get the Soul Stone. Her speech and tactics should have reflected that. Instead, the scene got garbled into incomprehension, with her raving about him nothing him [sic] while he looked on in omniscient self-pity--ahead of her once again.
- Still on the subject of Thanos, there have been a few articles along these lines, but "Thanos Didn’t Have a Point and Someone Should Tell the Writers", by Kylie on Fandomentals, is the most comprehensive, both in how it spells out the errors in Thanos's overpopulation bugbear (and how they connect to racist policies and worldviews), and in how it expresses the feeling that, rather than depicting a villain who is misguided, Infinity War doesn't seem to realize just how wrong Thanos is.
For Infinity War? The writers seemed unaware that anything needed to be condemned. Overpopulation…it’s obviously a problem! And a universal one at that, in the most literal definition of the word "universal." Otherwise, why would Thanos, this rather mild-speaking individual who experienced horror thanks to an overcrowded planet, be willing to sacrifice the daughter who he
abusedloved and take on the mantle of this burden? Sure his solution was too much, but there was suffering, and the test-results of randomly wiping out half the people worked great! Why wouldn't he continue pursuing it? Why wouldn't there be anything but great results? Fewer people means everyone gets more things and that's good! There would have been no recovery period with mass panic and devastation or anything.
Also good if you have anyone in your life who think Thanos and Killmonger are the same because "they're both villains with a point".
- A brief comedic interlude: a botanist answers the hotly-contested question of whether teen Groot is the original Groot or his son.
- And now, the motherlode: hands-down the best essay about this movie, by, unsurprisingly, Aaron Bady, is "Post-Shawarma: On Avengers: Infinity War" at the LARB. I'm going to quote a whole chunk because it's really that good, but do read the whole thing.
Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how "half" his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda's survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T'Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.
My point is that there's a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person "can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field"; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.
Let me put it this way: There's an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers "team up" movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it's the "job creator." But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the "team up" movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: "Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!" they say; "Look how it makes you feel!"
- Speaking of Gerry Canavan, he offers his own take: "Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Show Us a Story, But Can't Tell Us a Plot".
- Tom Holland ad-libbed his "I don't want to go" death scene. It seems really fitting that the one scene that keeps being held up as an example for how, even though the film's deaths are clearly going to be rolled back, they still have emotional resonance, wasn't even in the script.
- Netflix Breathes Sigh of Relief as Iron Fist Disintegrates During Infinity War Finale
- Not content to let their work stand (or fall) on its own merits, Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have gone on the record that the deaths in the film are real and that fans should "move on to the next stage of grief". This in total defiance of the fact that Spider-Man 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 are already on the books for 2019 and 2020, and that Marvel has been hard at work trying to get Ryan Coogler back for Black Panther 2. And look, clearly there's wiggle room here--someone on twitter laboriously tried to explain to me that the deaths are "real" in the current timeline, but when it's rolled back using the Time Stone or whatever they will never have happened. (I am not a lawyer, but I think I'm on solid ground in saying that if a writer ever offers this sort of excuse to your face, you are legally permitted to kick them in the shin.) But what I find disturbing here is the brazenness of it. Markus and McFeely are lying. We know that they're lying, and they know that we know that they're lying. And yet they still do it. Why? Do they have so little confidence in their writing that they think they need to resort to outright, implausible lies to get butts in seats next year? And if so, what does that say about them as writers, or about the movie they've written?
It's not surprising that a lot of the reactions to this interview brought up the comics' HydraCap kerfuffle from 2016-17, in which Marvel turned Captain America into a Nazi sleeper agent, solemnly announced that this was not a trick or a fake, and then revealed a few months later that it was a trick and a fake. Once again, it's not that anyone--and certainly not anyone likely to be reading comics news--believed the original assurances. But that just makes this behavior worse. At best, it feels like a bunch of writers who see genuinely smart works like The Good Place or Jane the Virgin pulling off audacious twists (or even just-OK shows like Westworld whose twists aren't great but are at least totally committed-to) and think they have a shortcut to that kind of delighted, exhilarated audience reaction through bald-faced lies. At worst, it's something far more sinister, Marvel trying to dictate how its stories are to be read, and whether audiences are permitted to bring their own knowledge and experience to bear when they react to those stories.
- A similar dynamic seems to be on Alex McLevy's mind when he asks "How the hell are we supposed to care about Ant-Man And The Wasp now?" and wonders how we're supposed to take an interest in a light-hearted crime caper when we know that, five minutes after the credits roll (the film is apparently set before Infinity War), half the cast will crumble into dust.
Thanos may be sitting back and watching the sun rise, content in the completion of his genocidal mission, but the rest of us are left here asking how the remaining Avengers are going to save the day. Yes, it’s just another superhero movie, but when you commit to a shared universe and do as good a job as they have at making it all feel of a piece, you also commit to an audience that expects stories that don't just meander about, dropping one narrative and picking up another to wave in our faces, assuming it's all the same. It's not. This was a huge decision, and it’s the only thing people invested in the Marvel universe have on their minds, for obvious reasons. To expect us to go, "Well, sure, nearly everyone we care about just crumbled to dust, but whatever, let’s see what this shiny thing in the corner is!" assumes that we don't actually emotionally invest in these films. It's a betrayal of precisely what movies should do, even ones that are manufactured to be four-quadrant popcorn entertainment.
A lot of people seemed to misread McLevy's argument, assuming that he doesn't understand how light, fluffy stories can coexist with dark ones. But that's clearly not what he's saying. If we're to take the ending of Infinity War seriously, then everywhere in the universe has just suffered a calamity that, realistically, will be almost impossible to recover from. There's no story that can be told within the MCU that doesn't address that fact, unless you're willing to admit that the destruction at the end of Infinity War isn't really supposed to matter. By which I don't mean that it's going to be rolled back (though clearly it is), but that we're only supposed to take it as seriously as Marvel wants us to, no more and no less.
Once again, this is about Marvel wanting to control not just the narrative, but how we react to that narrative. We're supposed to be gutted by Infinity War, and pay no attention to the 2019 and 2020 movie slate behind the curtain starring multiple characters who have just been disintegrated. But not so gutted that we can't buy tickets to Ant-Man and the Wasp and laugh at Scott and Hope and Luis. To me this is disappointing not only because it reveals, as Aaron notes, the mercenary heart beating beneath the surface of this media juggernaut. But because until this year, this kind of behavior was something the MCU was above. They didn't try to rope us into seeing their movies through pavlovian loyalty and the sunk cost fallacy. They did it by making movies we wanted to see. I'm really starting to wonder whether that wasn't just a way of getting us in the door.
- In conclusion:
Does anything so completely encapsulate the brokenness of geek culture as the fact that The Last Jedi has met with concerted fan backlash, while Infinity War hasn't?— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) May 10, 2018
I'm not crazy about TLJ, but between it and IW, I know which one embodies habits I'd like to encourage in long-lasting, highly-profitable IPs, and which one treats fans like ATMs who will put with anything for just another hit.— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) May 10, 2018
Thursday, May 10, 2018
Somewhat surprisingly for a film that has so little time (and possibly also inclination) to explore any interesting ideas raised by its premise, Infinity War has resulted in a rather vibrant conversation. I'll say from the outset that most of the links I've collected proceed from the point of view that the film is at the very least flawed, if not genuinely bad. This is probably my selection bias speaking, but I really haven't seen any interesting positive discussions of the film--any in-depth engagement with it, it seems to me, must inevitably grapple with the film's myriad, foundational flaws. Also rooted in my own preoccupations is the fact that a lot of these links end up talking less about the film, and more about how it exposes some uncomfortable truths about how Marvel sees its franchise, its long-term goals, and its audience.
Monday, May 07, 2018
My latest Strange Horizons review looks at E.J. Swift's time travel novel Paris Adrift. I've been hearing Swift's name spoken with admiration for several years now, as more and more readers I trust became absorbed by her Osiris Project trilogy (Osiris, 2012; Cataveiro, 2014; Tamaruq, 2015). As a standalone, Paris Adrift seemed like a perfect opportunity to hop on, but unfortunately what I found was a classic case of what is good is not interesting, and what is interesting is not good. Paris Adrift is a rather slight story of a lost young person becoming even more lost when she discovers the ability to travel in time--the sort of thing that would probably have worked very well as a novella but is stretched into shapelessness by the novel length--combined with a political story that doesn't really bear much scrutiny.
It's perhaps unsurprising that a novel so rooted in the notion of special people will also filter its politics through the lens of great men and women, whose life or death determine the course of history. I haven't said much about Hallie's adventures in time, but one of them in particular left a bad taste in my mouth. In it, Hallie travels to 1942, and finds herself sharing a crawlspace with a young Jewish woman, Rachel Clouatre, who has just barely evaded the roundup of French Jews by Vichy officials. It's obviously not Swift's fault that the subgenre of "time traveler helps to save a Jew from the Nazis" has been at the forefront of Holocaust fiction's devolution into Holocaust Kitsch, but one might have expected a little more awareness of this fact in 2018.
Paris Adrift clearly thinks of itself as a deeply political novel, but its ideas about politics are simplistic and in some cases genuinely dangerous--a charismatic political leader who urges non-specific niceness and is too good to stand for office is a particularly worrying plot point. I'm sorry that my first encounter with Swift was so disappointing, and I may yet give her earlier books another shot, but if, like me, you were hoping to discover her with Paris Adrift, I wouldn't recommend it.
Sunday, May 06, 2018
My latest Political History of the Future column takes the opportunity of the BBC having released a miniseries adaptation of it to discuss China Miéville's The City & The City, a novel about two cities that exist side-by-side but have erected a convoluted mechanism of psychological self-deception to "unsee" one another. When I reread my 2009 review of the book, I was struck by how much it emphasized Miéville's poking at core fantasy tropes over what feels now like a blatantly political premise. But as both that review and the miniseries have reminded me, that imbalance exists in the book itself.
despite a surface feeling of relevance, the premise of The City & The City doesn’t map to any real-world political situation. Unseeing isn’t a way of ignoring an inconvenient or ugly reality, but a hefty psychic burden that the citizens of the two cities undertake out of ingrained habit and fear of retaliation. And despite multiple attempts to read it as such by reviewers, it is impossible to compare the Besźel/Ul Qoma split to real-world instances of ethnic strife, because that strife doesn’t exist in the book—as, indeed, how could it, given that Besz and Ul Qoman citizens are rarely allowed to acknowledge each other’s existence. The City & The City‘s ability to comment on real instances of political division shading into geography is thus quite limited. More importantly, Miéville’s handling of his setting, once he’s established it, doesn’t push against any of the things we’ve been trained to read as “bad”.
The miniseries seems to miss this fact. It gestures at relevance--though it has shockingly little to say about Brexit--but is ultimately undone by the fact that the ending of the novel takes the story in a direction that most political readings can't accommodate. It's a disappointing handling of a novel that is much more complex, but also much less immediate, than most readers assume.