This post contains spoilers for The Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, The Avengers, and other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
One of the best features of the MCU films is the characters. We love watching them learn to overcome their struggles and shortcomings, and we love their witty dialog and interactions.
Remember the characters interacted in the first Avengers movie? Where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner bonded by talking shop about science? Where Captain America celebrated finally understanding a pop culture reference? Where Loki tried to pull his god status on the Hulk and got himself tossed around like a rag doll? We remember these moments because of how the characters made us feel. Joss Whedon’s tight screenplay and each of the actors’ standout performances made this connection possible.
Infinity War did not leave such an impression and not for the reason you’d think. While the deaths of certain characters (Loki, whyyy????) can be difficult to watch, Infinity War’s marketing insinuated that people would die. The movie handles this well by making each death impactful and by having the characters acknowledge and care about them.
Despite the problems (which I will address), there were several great character moments in the movie. My favorite was when Rocket tried to talk to Thor about how he felt after losing his entire family. It showcased Rocket’s growth and acknowledgement of family (which he learned from Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). It also showed Thor’s tendency to not let familial loss distract him from accomplishing his goals (which we saw in Thor 2 and Ragnarok).
With so many heroes to keep track of, none or them had enough time to shine as they deserved. One of my biggest complaints was how the movie treated Wakanda, equating a proud nation to a company of nameless, expendable shock troops. The problem with Wakanda stands for the greater problem with Infinity War. We were promised a movie about the MCU heroes, but what we got was a movie about the villain.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with humanizing Thanos or addressing his backstory. His ideology is alien to both the audience and the heroes, so it’s necessary for him to explain his point of view. The way writers integrated his story failed for three main reasons.
1. Thanos’ sociopathic worldview dominates the movie
He takes too much screen time away from the heroes, and the scenes that include him fail to further his viewpoint or contrast it with anything other than, “Don’t do that.”
Compare this to the conflict between T’Challah and Killmonger in Black Panther. Both Killmonger and the Wakandan government express clear, conflicting viewpoints. A significant part of the narrative focuses on developing these viewpoints, gaining support for each side. T’Challah’s character arc concludes when he realizes that each side is both right and wrong, and he finds a compromise for the good of his people.
Thanos explains that he wants to kill half the population to save the other half. The Avengers don’t present an alternative to Thanos’ plan, making the conflict one-sided. Not every detail and counterpoint of Wakanda and Killmonger’s viewpoints are explored. Instead, the audience is given relatable context that makes it easy to understand the value of each side. There is no real-world context the average moviegoer can relate to Thanos’ viewpoint. The closest thing you get is Hitler’s mass execution of the Jews during World War II. If you use this point of comparison, humanizing Thanos becomes even more disturbing.
2. What was the point of building up all the heroes’ stories?
Disney and Marvel produced 31 hours’ worth of movies before Avengers: Infinity War. There are about 20 characters from these movies who feature in Infinity War. Many of these characters have compelling story arcs. The audience had a vested interest in these characters going into this movie, and the marketing promised a massive crossover of all these stories.
I remember having a hard time enjoying Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers because of how the movie had to switch back and forth between the three different groups. I would lose track of everyone and forget what had happened to certain characters by the time we cut back to them again. Infinity War has a similar problem.
The first and second Avengers movies worked well because the narrative focused on all the characters working together. By splitting the characters up like this, the narrative works against itself. While each of the characters share a common goal (stop Thanos), it can get confusing trying to figure out what the hell anybody’s plan is. Instead of a single narrative, the movie tried to build a series of narratives converging on a singular premise (stop Thanos).
This might have worked better if the MCU had used their own format of converging singular narratives into a crossover. Each group could’ve had their own movie telling how they met, setting up their arcs, and developing their plan to stop Thanos. Then these movies would converge into the big crossover where everyone’s plans combine. The lack of a cohesive plan (or any plan other than Thor’s plan to get a weapon) makes the characters look stupid, reactive, and diminishes the power they have both individually and together. I mean, seriously, Captain America was supposed to be the leader of the group, but I can’t remember him doing anything useful in the entire movie.
The Avengers already learned how to work as a team before; this should’ve been their opportunity to prove they knew what they were doing, with the twist that they were in way over their heads (giving the tragic ending even more power as the audience roots for the heroes throughout and witnesses their demise).
3. Why would I want the heroes to lose?
This brings me to my final and most important point. The extent to which the movie seeks to humanize the villain creates the effect of manipulating the audience into sympathizing with him.
There are two problems with this. First, there is little about Thanos that is human or worthy of sympathy. You could make a case for his love for Gamora, but everything we know about Gamora and Nebula from the prior movies has already turned us against him. There is even a scene of him torturing Nebula to coerce Gamora into giving up the location of the Soul Stone. Knowing Thanos’ perspective does little to endear us to him and effectively tells us we should forgive abusive parents.
The other problem is that it made me question whether the writers wanted me to want Thanos to win. By making the villain so overpowered, making the army of heroes so impotent, and going to such lengths to make us sympathize with the villain, the movie gives us little room to feel anything by the time Thanos uses his ultimate move and defeats the heroes. The last shot of the movie where he stares contentedly off into the distance is neither tragic nor satisfying. It sent a confusing message that I hope is cleared up in the sequel in some way other than time travel. Fixing everything by going back in time (which I’m afraid is what they’ll do since there was some setup to suggest it), is the biggest writing cop-out since “it was all a dream” and shouldn’t be used unless the writer really knows what they’re doing.
Then again, it was still better than Justice League. At this rate, my brain is so filled with superheroes, I just want the party to end.