The Avengers and the Infinite Movie War
Hitchcock once claimed that one of the main advantages to working with Cary Grant (or stars of a similar calibre) was not just the fact he sold movie tickets, but it meant he didn’t have to waste precious minutes telling the character’s back story. Everybody knew who Cary Grant was. Then you could of course play with that in many ways, even subvert the audience expectations of the star.
But now, half a century on, the movie star is dead. Daniel Radcliffe, Gael Gadot and Chris Hemsworth don’t sell many movie tickets, Harry Potter, Wonder Woman and Thor take care of that. These days the characters are the stars, they sell the tickets. Not just any characters, of course, they have to be well known or at least part of a well-known fictional world.
If you look at the most popular films of the last few years almost all of them have in common to be either a sequel, a remake or an adaptation of a novel or a comic book. The last part is the most recent development, adaptations have always been around but usually it happened something like this: the first film was made and then the aftermath depended on its success. It had to have a life of its own – and even if there was usually a possibility of a sequel it was rarely built into the film.
Hollywood therefore thought Peter Jackson and his producers were taking a big gamble when they decided to film the entirety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one go around the turn of the century, making three three-hour films. “But what if the first film flops?” every film producer on the planet thought. A decade on Jackson filmed The Hobbit, a short novella that came before the epic Lord of the Rings, and that was also expanded into three films that were three hours each. Hollywood had stopped thinking in single films.
It takes a village to make a Hollywood film
At the same time a total of 8 Harry Potter films were also making a fortune and instead of looking for scripts for people like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt Hollywood started looking for untapped sources of famous stories yet to be told on the screen and found two goldmines. One was Star Wars, a tremendously popular sci-fi saga that had nevertheless only delivered six films in 38 years. Now it seems we’ll have six films in six years, and more are said to be on the way. The other goldmine was the old superheroes of comic book lore. Just like Star Wars this was not an untapped gold mine, superheroes had graced the silver screen for decades. But the visual effects were finally catching up with their stories and the films got better – which ended with Marvel (and later DC, with less success) going all the way and creating a cinematic universe with tens of leading characters and hundreds of smaller ones, just like the comic books had been doing for most of the 20th century.
This wasn’t obvious at first. Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor each got their solo films that seemed only loosely connected – the heroes found a way to wave at each other across the screen but then just kept going and kicked villainous asses on their own. But then the first Avengers movie hit theatres and after that everything become more interconnected and it became more and more common for one hero to be a guest actor in another hero’s film – and the heroes quickly multiplied.
One of the first things Marvel did to connect the films was to sneak one scene at the back of the credit list, and perhaps even another one near the middle of it. Until then only the most dedicated movie buffs would sit throug all the credits – but while watching the Avengers in a giant multiplex every single person stuck around to learn the names of the first grip, his assistants and the hairdressers of Scarlett Johansson and Chris Pratt. And so on and so forth.
OK, I’ll admit I didn’t get all of those names, but if you sit through the entire credit list for a blockbuster like that you start to realise just how big they really are. You may know what they cost, but all those names make you realise it takes a village to make those films, even a whole city. I didn’t count but I’m pretty sure my hometown of Akureyri (second biggest urban area of Iceland, you know!) would fit within the credits.
And the films have developed a certain community awareness through all this, even if it’s hardly at the forefront. During the first Avengers film downtown Manhattan was ruined while fighting the villains, in the next one an entire fictional city in Eastern Europe, Sokovia, was demolished. But this destruction has consequences. The destruction of New York is the setting for the Netflix Marvel shows, where real estate schemers see a possibility of remaking a city to meet their ends, becoming strangely familiar villains in the process. The destruction of Sokovia brings the superheroes into the realms of politics, where truth and justice are often the first victims. Having learned their lesson they manage to transfer the big fights of the new Avengers film either away from Earth, into long forgotten waste planets, or to the fields of Africa.
But if you’re one of those few people on the planet who haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War yet you must know two things: I’ll definitely tell you about the ending and this film is as far away from being a standalone sequel as possible. You perhaps remember this term, standalone sequel? It was used for most sequels once upon a time, where the film companies expected an audience with no memory that had to be spoon-fed every relevant information over and over again.
And before seeing this one it wouldn’t hurt to re-watch the latest Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films. But to truly experience it you really must have watched every MCU film made so far, all 40 hours of them. Not so much for the plot, but because with so many heroes each and every one gets only a few minutes of proper screen time. Not enough for any real character development. But like Hitchcock said in his way about Cary Grant; that won’t be necessary. It’s already been done. You’ve already spent a few hours with all those people – and aliens – before. You know them, you’ve developed empathy for some, apathy for others, and everything in between.
In fact this film is a bit like the cinematic version of a family reunion. You know many very well, are vaguely familiar with the rest – and there are invisible threads that bind you. Or wait a bit, the analogy is flawed – reunions lack purpose, here the heroes are forced to fight together. Perhaps it’s more like a funeral – or even a major birthday for the head of the clan.
Thanos marches on
Because despite everything the film does have a main protagonist, Thanos, the grumpy titan who wants to destroy half the universe. Only half, mind, he’s not completely insane! Thanos has until now only been seen in short scenes, we didn’t know much about this brooding alien except that he was one of the most dangerous villains of the universe. But aren’t they all? But here he acquires an unexpected depth and becomes a surprisingly involving main character – all despite the fact he’s incredibly simple at his core.
Because what does Thanos do? Yes, he marches on – clobbers people on the way, certainly. Has the occasional dark moments of the soul and some foes are more difficult than others. But mostly he just marches on. He’s simply unstoppable and stands for determination, the patriarchy, the rule of the fist and pure reason (which very quickly can turn into pure insanity), all at once. While Thanos marches on the heroes repeatedly ask each other to kill them before Thanos gets to them, to save the universe. But none of them does. He who is ready to make sacrifices wins. It’s not the smartest team that will win this war, it’s the most brutal.
Because Thanos wins this war. This is a story about how the villain conquers all. Not just some crook robbing a shop, even a bank, even killing a few thousand people along the way – no, this is a film where the bad guy wins and trillions die. Of course we know there are sequels planned and the laws of nature tend to be bent in films like this. Some characters will rise again, somehow. But still, half the universe just died and that is a bold move for a dream factory, better known until now for happy endings. And despite all the action this apocalypse is strangely quiet, oddly poetic after all the clobbering – this end is more T.S. Eliot than Stan Lee, where the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper.
The Myths of the Age of Science
One interesting side-effect of the film is that most critics who didn’t like the film emphasise with the villain. Because Thanos wants to kill half of all life in the universe, since its resources are not infinite, so no one would go hungry. But the film’s main weakness happens to be the overpopulation of characters, won’t it all be better when only half of them remain, so they’ll all get enough lines, just like in the old days?
But what is it that connects all those superheroes – and why do we connect with them? Most of them were born in the 20th century, in the new world, America, and many have superpowers that remind you of gods – yet they are very humans in their failings.
They were born in a new world that was trying to make its own myths – and at times when gods stopped being central to the worldview of the masses. But people still needed new myths – but those myths now needed to be in touch with the new world of science and progress, and yes, also the new age thinking of the flower children as the century got older.
Bruce Banner and Peter Parker are both scientists (or science-minded teens) that acquire superpowers by accident, when experiments go wrong. Doctor Strange is a surgeon that starts dabbling in unconventional science of the East when his body fails him. Iron Man, Captain America and the Black Widow are all in fact highly developed weapons, who also develop a conscience and humanity.
The exception to this are mainly the gods and the aliens, who are allowed to have unexplained superpowers – and its worth bearing in mind many of those stories originated around the time Erich von Daniken pseudo-science about the Gods being astronauts was popular. Which might explain why Asgard, and other places mentioned in the Eddas, turn out to be planets of superior technology where muscular men use technology mankind can only dream of. Technology like Mjölnir and other weapons of mass destruction. And we haven’t even mentioned the mutant X-Men who are still stuck in another superhero realm due to rights issues.
Then those superheroes developed and became the icons of the 20th century (something artists like Andy Warhol and Erró soon realised), a logically illogical reaction of pop-culture to a new world view, new laws of nature and new ideas. All those characters have since been reborn through numerous new authors, who have made them into circus clowns and back to existentialist loners and everything in between, the eternal regeneration of the archetype is built into those heroes and they’re not going anywhere.
Some even worry that they will destroy the film industry and everything in it, so nothing will remain except for Marvel, DC and the occasional Star Wars film. Those are understandable worries – and the monopoly that goes with all the biggest film sagas being owned by the same company is dangerous. But those are not lesser films then the Rambos, Rockys and Lethal Weapons of yesteryear, the films that us children of the 80s grew up with (while readings the comics, of course). The problem is more the concentration of power that has continued for more than 30 year now, where 3 films are screened in 30 screening rooms and 30 films screened in the remaining 3. Because the world is actually producing more then enough good movies every year, enough for us all for all nights of the year and more then that. Because there are thousands of films made each year, probably more then a hundred of them good – but most of us can only see a fraction of them unless we travel regularly between film festivals or are lucky enough to live in one of those big cities with many, but not just one, art-house cinema. So perhaps Thanos is after all just a symbol of a frustrated distributor, who dreams of a world with only the half the movies so they can all find a home in the cinemas of the world.
Texti: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson