(Warning: This entire damn column is a spoiler. If you don’t want “Avengers: Infinity War” spoiled, please don’t read it until after you’ve seen the movie.)
Watching the shockingly downbeat ending of “Avengers: Infinity War” — or, rather, taking it into your system — is a two-step process. The first step is the cathartic one, the one that knocks the wind out of you and makes you go “Whoa!” Thanos, Josh Brolin’s towering stone-bodied mauve villain, having gotten hold of the sixth Infinity Stone and placed it, along with the other five, onto the knuckles of his gauntlet, wastes no time unleashing the atrocity he promised, killing off half the life in the universe, which includes (either by design or sheer math, I wasn’t sure which) a good number of our heroes. One by one, they go up in smoke, disappearing in a charry poof! of atomized fragments. Dr. Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy…gone! Black Panther…gone! It’s a true jolt, because the film seems to have broken the basic laws of how big-ticket franchise movies work.
But, of course, it hasn’t done that at all. The second step of the two-step process — this is where your mind kicks in, maybe a minute later or possibly within a second and a half — arrives when you realize that the dread-ridden comic-book wipeout we’re witnessing, which appears to be a kind of superhero genocide, isn’t merely bad. It’s too bad to be true. We know this based on sheer commercial common sense, and on the reality of projects that have already been announced. Director James Gunn confirmed that he’d be making “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” weeks before “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” even came out. And how likely is it, just months after “Black Panther” became an American pop-cultural earthquake, that the hero of that movie would bite the dust?
It seems improbable, if not impossible. And if it is indeed impossible — which is to say, if we see it in “Infinity War” but can’t believe our eyes — then the same dynamic applies, theoretically, to the entire rest of that wave of death, or to any single part of it.
You could argue, as many have, that this means the doomsday climax of “Infinity War” is a colossal fake-out (I called it a card trick), a sequence designed, with more cynicism than conviction, to get a temporary rise out of us. You could argue, persuasively, that it’s a “dark” ending built on a false bottom: the fact that death has no meaning in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — or, indeed, in any contemporary comic-book movie universe. (See Superman’s “demise” in “Batman v. Superman.”) Death, in these movies, is reversible, so in effect we’re being toyed with. And who needs that?
Yet to watch a movie is to listen to your senses. And though I can do the math, and try to calculate the calculations of the behind-the-scenes masters of the MCU, I don’t entirely distrust the “Whoa” factor inspired by the end of “Infinity War.” It’s telling us something. That all these characters are dead? Almost certainly not. But what it’s telling us is that they won’t be with us forever, and that’s ultimately a statement about fan worship.
It’s worth recalling that before the “Star Wars” revolution, when the prospect of a movie hero’s demise wasn’t linked to the question of whether a franchise would continue, it still had a fundamental commercial connotation. Audiences, it was said, didn’t like to see a film’s protagonist die in some needless downbeat way, and that’s why it generally didn’t happen. That was true even in the cinematically grown-up ’70s, an era launched by movies (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider”) that had the guts to deep-six their main characters with brute nihilistic finality.
As the ’70s rolled on, that kind of movie death still happened, but it was much more the exception than the rule. The bloodbath that ended “Taxi Driver” could easily have finished off Travis Bickle, but didn’t. Michael Corleone, having died inside, is still alive at the end of “The Godfather Part II.” The end of “Chinatown” stood out, and remains singular and haunting: the ghastly murder of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray becomes the film’s statement about the re-assertion of evil. But the decision to kill off characters at the end of a major Hollywood movie is one that’s never been taken lightly.
What’s novel — and, I would argue, dramatic — about the ending of “Infinity War” is that its meaning is driven, quite knowingly, by everything connected to it that exists outside the frame. Our awareness that the MCU is a commercial behemoth, that it has sequels in the pipeline that aren’t going to be denied — in a funny way, Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of “Infinity War,” have figured all this in. They aren’t stupid, and they haven’t made movies by underestimating the intelligence of their audience. They know that we know what they can and cannot do.
What they’ve done in “Infinity War,” with an ominous pop poetry, is to foreshadow the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve set up a new sensation in their audience: What will it feel like when these characters are taken away from us? I don’t mean because they’re dead, but because their tale has been told.
It’s easy to get jaded about that — and, if you don’t happen to be a comic-book fanboy or fangirl, to feel oppressed by the Disney-Marvel juggernaut, which seems at times to have reorganized the molecular structure of Hollywood. Yet let’s not give it that much power. The MCU movies have come along roughly twice a year (there have been 19 since 2008), and their cycle is reaching its climax. The executives in charge of it may keep trying to shoot out tentacles from this sprawling franchise, but they’ve now strip-mined a century’s worth of American comic-book iconography, and nothing lasts forever. As hard as it is to imagine, moviegoers will finally move on. The end of “Infinity War” is an FX elegy that plays like a warning. It says: You may think you never want to let go of these characters, but they will let go of you.
Of course, you could argue that we now have a permanently arrested culture, and that the only thing people will move onto is a franchise that’s bigger and broader and louder and emptier. Yet that leaves a crucial element out of the MCU equation, which is that it has wound up in the hands of unabashedly exciting filmmakers. Ryan Coogler isn’t going to want to compromise his vision for a “Black Panther” sequel, James Gunn remains a wizard of space pop, and the Russo brothers have now created several movies — the Deep State surveillance parable “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the galvanizing “Infinity War” — in which something is at stake.
That’s why a charge of feeling went through me at the end of “Infinity War,” one that hasn’t stopped resonating. Will the next film betray that feeling? Will all that death come to nothing? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m betting on the audacity — and, let me just say it, the integrity — of the Russo brothers. For a few suck-in-your-breath moments, they created a feeling of drop-dead awe in the audience. They made a genuine inspired cliffhanger. (If they let us down now, it will be like falling off the cliff.) The key question going forward may not be whether this or that character is dead, but whether the sensation created by the ending of “Infinity War” — that what happens in the MCU actually matters — is allowed to live on.