Infinity War: Consequences and The Times In Between
Avengers: Infinity War is a culmination of a decade of shared universe filmmaking. Whilst there have been cause and effect consequences throughout the franchise, none is more impactful and of the same epic scale as the ending of Infinity War. In its concluding moments over half the main characters vanish into nothingness, whilst the remaining half express shock at the momentousness of what has just happened, and the audience is meant to feel the same way. However there is a fundamental problem in all this. A universe where resurrection and uncertain demise are frequent, where a nebulous magic system can conveniently erase plot holes, somewhat lessens the overall impact of death. Death is a consequence, but only so far as it creates the illusion of consequence, and only so far as this consequence matters in the moment, always the moment. But even when it seems like death matters, are we left with sufficient time to grieve?
Even if it becomes retroactively averted, the magnitude of the death seen in Infinity War is impactful all the same. As the titular theme of the film plays out over the credits, we are left to mourn the loss of so many characters in such a sudden and upsetting way. Ironically, this is the only point in the film in which we are left with space to do so. The plot momentum has been so relentless so far, and like the characters, there has been barely any time to slow down, process and reflect. Like many cliff-hangers, we are left with time to wildly speculate, time to contemplate the consequences of the film’s ending. Whilst there is speculation stemming from Jim Starlin’s 1991 The Infinity Gauntlet storyline, there is no guarantee this blueprint will be followed. Thus we have time to speculate on how the filmmakers will avert these consequences, rather than how these consequences made us feel, because we fundamentally doubt they have any lasting impact to begin with.
The Stakes are Real?
The thing is, this macro and cosmic change hasn’t actually happened. Unless the ramifications of Thanos’ actions are accepted as set in stone, the idea of macro change remains in stasis until the events of the subsequent film potentially undo these changes. But the stakes in Infinity War seemed so real. Characters started dying from the outset, previously overpowered characters were nerfed (Vision), and Thanos literally ripped through the major and supporting cast like they were insects. The MCU has had a long track record of upping the stakes in each film’s final act, but they have been less successful at having these takes mean much in either the moment or the aftermath. The world may be ending, or it may be the galaxy, or the universe, but this threat is always averted. We only see the death of four named characters in Infinity War before Thanos flicks his fingers. Considering three of these are in question based on the ambiguous manner of their deaths, suggests maybe the stakes haven’t hit home. Loki is a trickster who has ‘died’ before, Gamora is tied to a mysterious Infinity Stone, and Vision’s data was saved before his demise. People are sceptical. There is doubt. Can the MCU have real stakes? The question then is, if suddenly half the characters disappear at the conclusion of the story, what has convinced us from the relationship between previous films that this will have lasting impact? The end of Phase Three should have the gravitas and stakes to be expected of the end of a book, however, this book has planned sequels, and it also has a seemingly infinite lifespan. So unlike the end of a book, it feels more like the end of a chapter, albeit a twenty film spanning chapter.
What Have I Done?
Consequences in the MCU might seem contradictory. Can there really be consequence in a world of serialized instalments, an endless stream of episodic adventures without concern for lasting impact or end, but a series of micro changes that culminate in a larger semblance of change? From Iron Man’s ‘Clean Slate Protocol’ in Iron Man 3, to Captain America’s defection from the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, the microcosm of change is often reversed or its impacts inexplicably left unexplored. By the time the next film rolls around, often these changes are undone in minutes. Whilst these changes may seem like engaging character development, often enough time has passed between films to facilitate the character’s return to somewhere within the range of their original archetype. This convenient time lapse technique works, it suggests larger change whilst justifying not having to concentrate with the aftermath of the previous film, having more time to focus on the incoming threat. Excluding the tv show Agents of Shield, did the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier really have much of an impact? Did Natasha Romanoff’s choice to expose her personal history really impact her character much? If it did we didn’t see it. Yes SHIELD collapsed, but they had multiple seasons of Agents of Shield to build it back up again, and Nick Fury managed to find a Helicarrier because of it whilst filling a plot hole in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes you could argue it informed character development, but did we see its effects on Steve Rogers? We assumed it happened, but we didn’t get to see him grapple with these consequences on his psyche, we didn’t get the payoff, we got a time lapse to skip over it. Coming back to Infinity War, Captain America is reunited with his teammates within minutes of first appearing in the film. His exile is ended in order to save the world, the time in between only mentioned in dialogue, his character changed but the damage only surface level, because that’s all the plot has time for.
For many characters, such as Black Widow, many of her strongest material is left off-screen. Mentions of her time in Russia, mentions of her complicated relationship with her would be executioner Hawkeye, mentions of her countless covert operations. These tastes of detail suggest more than is actually explored. We get fragments, but they never extend to anything larger. We get glimpses of the wider MCU, but often these smaller moments are eclipsed by the game-changing material, the world or universe ending stories.
So whilst there is only finite screen time for the MCU to develop, what has been shown so far has only been the macro, not the micro. The larger story, not the smaller details, at least on the big screen. Whilst the Netflix, ABC, Hulu and Freeform shows exist to show smaller stories, they have arguably had less success feeding into the larger narrative. The consequences of events in these TV shows become so divorced from the larger MCU at large that they could almost be in a separate universe. The fundamental problem here is if the tv shows have too much world building, the casual moviegoer audience will be left even more confused. Simultaneously, if they have too little world building they seem inconsequential to the larger narrative. Sometimes this is an interesting compromise, The Defenders for example raises the stakes but still keeps the conflict grounded at the street level so that these character’s personal storylines will continue to stay small scale. However despite the stakes being raised, their is only brief and vague mention to the MCU at large, even though several characters from the MCU would be in New York at the time of these events. Agents of Shield in its fifth season goes to opposite lengths. In the final arc of the season, the story plays out against Thanos’ pursuit of the Infinity Stones, with General Talbot striking out to defend earth from Thanos. However the season concludes before Thanos has a chance to snap his fingers. Whilst this decision was made to end the show on its own terms should it not be renewed, this illustrates how there will always be compromise in the integration of the micro and macro, and not always for the betterment of the wider MCU. The world building is always bottom up, and this means the shows always struggle to meet the demands of the top down in meaningful ways without compromising their own storylines.
With a film like Infinity War, there is a very finite narrative real estate, under three hours to tell a story with numerous named characters. The space afforded to tell these smaller stories is limited, but that shouldn’t mean the consequences remain unchecked. The challenge is to integrate the consequences and aftermath of certain events better, and this requires something that has been strangely only now being implemented better, interconnectedness.
Time to Grieve?
In Infinity War, the film moves at a breakneck pace, introducing and dispensing with characters’ stories left, right and centre in order to reach its dramatic conclusion. During its run time, the film’s slower sections where the looming threat is momentarily forgotten stand out, for example Vision and Scarlet Witch in hiding, Rocket and Thor bonding over loss. Besides the frequent quips, the only time the plot slows down is during quieter moments or moments of heavy exposition. The time to process what is happening psychologically is not given near enough space, not just in Infinity War but the MCU as a whole. Events happen so quickly that characters would be forgiven for not having time to come to terms with what’s happening. In the context of the film it makes sense, the eventual and arguably inevitable conclusion means there’s no time to waste. But what do we lose in the process? Time to feel, time to process, time to mourn.
When it comes to mourning, the consequences of death can show us a character’s grief, that he or she is real, just like us. In Infinity War, with the exception of Spider Man, we don’t get this time. Arguably real life is the same. Sometimes things happen and there isn’t time to pay respects or send off people the way we would have wanted. The film’s ending comes in such a way, sudden and shocking. We see the surviving character’s react, we see them mourn if only briefly. But what we don’t get, is closure. If this were the end, would we take longer to mourn? While slowing down the narrative hasn’t been a priority so far, the sense of aftermath afforded to the ending is left in stasis. There is finally catharsis, finally mourning, but it comes with uncertainty, not if what has happened is real, but whether it can’t be undone. Should the film focus on grief if grief will be reversed? The lack of time left to grieve makes us think like most consequences in the MCU, we will need to time jump in order to move the plot forward. In setting up a finale, the consequences hit home, but only so far as they need to, just enough to give a reason for everything to be undone. Because you can’t spend your time grieving when there’s Avenging left to do.
What do you think? Leave a comment.