Here’s the honest, unvarnished truth about “Avengers: Infinity War.” It compresses all the dark moments from ten years’ worth of Marvel movies. It reveals that Marvel was never about the silly jokes and inane dialogue, but about our fears as a society: And now they’re all on display in an unrelentingly gloomy story. The movie kills characters we like, almost to punish us — but really, to wake us up to our secret guilt, that we have abandoned faith in our humanity.
Don’t let reviewers or fans blind you. This is a story where murder is personal. How do you feel about children murdered by their parents? I’ve been warning that this was coming, that our blockbusters subtly thematize orphanhood and the fear of the young that our society is about child sacrifices. Well, we’re past subtle. Now, a billion dollars’ worth of fans will see it in theaters and finally realize we’re in a serious crisis. You’ve never seen this before in a blockbuster and it’s scary and must be sickening for teenagers. And there is no happy end here, because finally Marvel is true to the times.
So let’s embrace the fear, but let’s see it clearly. The first thing everyone will notice is, only the villain Thanos (a play on the Greek word for death) is at all interesting. His idea is simple and terrifying, because we ourselves half-believe it. He says, all living things want to live, but the universe has a limited capacity to tolerate life. What if half of us need to get rid of the other half in order to thrive?
Genocide for the greater good should be childishly stupid. But the writers aren’t stupid — they are simply looking around at our society, where trust and friendship are collapsing, where solidarity collapses, and the well-to-do worry about achieving success, happily ignoring the vast numbers who self-destruct in the agony of drugs, jail, alcohol, etc. Of course, “Avengers: Infinity War” is a melodramatic caricature of reality, but only the willfully blind could ignore the seriousness of the gloom. It’s about us; it’s always been about us.
Don’t we half-believe that we need to get rid of half the country to have any future? Do we ever think about making it through the crisis together? Thanos is only different because he doesn’t take sides in our quarrel; death by chance will be our final justice, if he has his way. To disagree with him really would mean to stick up for the other half, too — to believe and act as though we understood we need each other, that those unlike ourselves are not disposable.
Thus Marvel reveals the big idea of our times: For some to be successful, lots of others have to be abandoned. You’re either part of the future or you’re toast. For example, we don’t even try to hide that we believe the robots will take jobs away from most people, perhaps forever. All those people without jobs — it’s over for them. Much less is there any generosity in our politics, any sense that those who do best among us should help those who do worst. This is the atmosphere that’s makes the story plausible to our children. This is how the vision of the villain and the gloomy emotions add up.
Thanos is the terrifying, impersonal necessity that’s coming to doom America. We all half-believe in it, whether it’s the economy or global warming — something’s putting an end to the American dream and half of us believe it’s the other half’s fault. The only thing left would be to join the few successful and leave the rest behind and, indeed, every year, the markets bet more hysterically on a few tech corporations as though they’ll be the last few islands of prosperity in a sea of misery.
How about the rest of us? In the grand scheme of things, most of us are deplorables. So the Avengers are back to deplore our fate. What makes them unique and all-American is that, unlike our real-world elites, they’re actually on our side.
This is much stranger to see than you might think. In a massively liberal Hollywood, the heroes are still more all-American than our real-world elites, who are mostly thinking of abandoning us. Who believes anymore that our elites would work for us, much less that they would ever sacrifice for us? That’s the secret driving the moral conflict in the movie. For all the bad plotting, for all the terrible shifting between character and exotic locales, the constant thing is this dread — no one will help us when the bad things start happening.
But I’m only now getting to what makes the movie gloomy. This was completely predictable, but we’ve always preferred not to see it. Marvel has specialized in stories about unspecified, vague, uninteresting villains. Some abstract terror strikes, then the heroes eventually dispatch it. Then they make jokes and we forget about it. We forget every plot as soon as Marvel distracts us with an end-credit scene. There are no ideas there. But now, for all the mindless fighting, people are tortured and loved ones face each other’s destruction. You cannot unsee that; or forget it.
So now we have to ask, what’s wrong with our heroes? This is the secret we don’t want to disclose. Why cannot they help each other? They’re supposed to be friends! Marvel has always been about our lovable heroes and now we finally have to face the fact that they’re just not enough. They’re too much like us.
We’ve seen them for ten years now, quarreling over politics, abandoning and betraying each other over personal anguish and self-obsession — anything from love to duty turns in their hearts into another way to break up friendships. Individualism is always their curse and they’re always half-ready to die rather than help each other.
They always made it to an implausible happy end because we couldn’t bear to see them fail like we might. We thought we weren’t going to the movies to be reminded of some friend or lover we had betrayed or had betrayed us. Well, that fake success is over now — they’re out of time, like we’re afraid we are. We won’t let go of the anger and hatred and suspicion about each other, so how could they? You see, the Avengers, unlike our politicians, really represent us!
That’s why there’s more heartbreak in this movie than in all the previous ones. We all know it’s eventually bound to turn out alright. We know the Disney corporation will sell us another illusion. But not today. This weekend and for another month or so, we get two hours and a half of the ugly truth and very little relief. So we might as well learn what Marvel’s trying to teach us.
Unlike what makes for corporate profits, what makes for peace of mind is trust in humanity and work to help real human beings. We don’t know how to do that. We find it as hard to be true friends as the Avengers do. Their bad sitcom relationships are ours. Their unreliability and imprudence are ours. And how could we change?
If we stopped blaming each other, would we really know how to get along? If we’re not sure who has a future and who doesn’t, how are we going to risk tying our fates to each other? That’s what faith in humanity would require. That’s what it would mean to be all-American.
The Avengers, like us, have good intentions. But they aren’t really good. And we don’t really believe we are either. Every time they lose one of their own, their grief is mixed with justified guilt. They really could have done better. But they didn’t and now it’s all catching up with them. So this is really the perfect movie for 2018.