*THIS POST CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR “AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.”
There are many who look at the MCU as a fairly emotionless world. While characters often “died,” many have accused the film franchise as a world with no stakes. Frankly, critics have been pretty spot on about that issue. Look no further than Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died and was almost immediately resurrected on the small screen in “Agents of Shield” on ABC. Then there’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who appeared to die and come back on at least two occasions. Even the man who would never return, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) came roaring back in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 2014. Stakes are a tricky thing to balance and are often necessary to create a visceral reaction to the events of a film.
This is what makes the reaction to “Avengers: Infinity War” so shocking. How does a universe, known for its ability to detach from its characters emotionally, so drastically change course? In a combination of incredible storytelling by the Russo Brothers and their screenwriting team, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the group was able to capitalize on the split universes of the MCU, and cash in on its greatest moments. This imbued “Infinity War” with a heart that many of the other films lack. Perhaps most visible is the way in which parenthood and love comes roaring into the MCU. By focusing attention on fatherhood in both a literal and meta sense, the MCU took the next step towards cementing itself as the iconic film franchise of a generation.
The concept of fatherhood and parenthood, in general, has been mostly pushed to the side in the MCU. We got a Spider-Man (Tom Holland) who never mentions an Uncle Ben. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) occasionally touches on his relationship with his old man, but the character of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper/John Slattery) was far more fleshed out in “Captain America” and the “Agent Carter” TV series. Even though “Thor” touches on fatherhood through Loki and Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) relationship to Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the films were some of the weakest in the MCU.
Then, in 2017, a sudden change occurred. Fatherhood and our relationships with parental figures were put front in center of the MCU. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” questioned if we are the result of who our fathers are, and answered emphatically that we are instead the product of who raises us. “Thor: Ragnarok” sought lessons from Odin, but it was Thor’s ability to move beyond his father’s failure that ultimately saves the people of Asgard. “Black Panther” is the film that deals with the sins of the father most directly, and as such is the most emotional film in the MCU to date. In the aftermath of “Infinity War,” it feels like these films were primers for the real show. The result has been Marvel shaking off the shackles of the “Good time” brand they were known as. Now, there’s a true emotional heart to the films that resonates even as the films are met with divisiveness.
“Infinity War” takes the concepts of fatherhood, but this time places us in the point-of-view of the father. The easiest one to understand is Thanos (an incredible Josh Brolin) who is here to destroy worlds. Yet this is not the psychotic ramblings of a madman. He is instead someone who wishes to benefit all of existence by giving those who survive the ability to thrive. Then there’s Stark, who begins the film talking about the dreams of becoming a father. Subtextually, there’s the Avengers, whose own success birthed this larger world we’re now experiencing.
Behind all of this is James Gunn and Kevin Feige, who have worked tirelessly to promote the MCU since 2014 and 1998 respectively. That’s right, Feige has been a producer on nearly every Marvel movie dating back to “Blade” with Wesley Snipes. This has been a twenty-year journey for him, and while only the last 10 years are canon to the MCU, it’s been arguably the most successful studio run over the past decade. With Gunn’s expansion of the MCU to the Cosmic side and Feige’s stewardship of the 19-film franchise, we finally reached the “Infinity War” event. Their partage and care towards these characters are just as essential to the film’s success as the literal characters themselves.
Throughout the film, we watch our beloved characters fight and die. First, we see Heimdall (Idris Elba, who never got his due) and Loki (finally) die. We then witness the Mad Titan’s backstory in stunning fashion, laying the groundwork for an emotional core to his story. Even as we hate Thanos, there’s something relatable about his message and feeling. This makes it all the more stunning as he throws the only person he loves in the galaxy to her death. For Thanos to complete his mission, the bonds of family and love must be destroyed. In the closing minutes of the film, Stark holds a young Peter Parker, trying his best to reassure his surrogate son that everything will be okay. It may be one of the Downey Jr.’s greatest moments on screen, as you watch him hold Holland and know that a man who literally create artificial life, a man who fixes everything, can do nothing but watch someone he loves, disappear into dust. This moment works because we’ve never heard the name Uncle Ben. This moment works because of Holland’s chemistry with Downey. It works because this relationship is real, something that few superhero films have ever pulled off.
Yet they’re not the only ones who experience loss. Audiences around the country screamed as the characters they’ve begun to love disappeared in front of them. There’s an ownership that we’ve collectively embraced. As I walked out of my theater, I saw young boys crying that Black Panther had faded away. A girl wearing a Bucky shirt was sobbing. Even grown men around me were tearing up. As an audience, we’ve each gravitated toward our own favorite characters. That’s the benefit of having so many of them. One was bound to make an emotional connection.
It was a moment that the MCU had been working towards for years. Gunn and Feige’s willingness to let their characters be who they were, even as they punch a Titan in the face, destroy their robot boyfriend, or open a shield that could lead to the death of Wakandans, is just as important. After all, we don’t want to watch our children make mistakes. To stay true to that story, even though it would hurt the audience of the film shows true devotion. It would have been easier to let Thor had saved the day once more, just as all hope was gone. Then with a finger snap, Thanos destroyed it all.
Say what you will about the permeance of what occurred in “Infinity War.” Frankly, it might last less than a calendar year. Yet there’s no doubt that this moment is something that audiences will often think of when they imagine these films. It was a deeply emotional ride for many. I personally did not cry for the characters on screen, making me heartless I suppose. Yet to deny the fact that this was one of the great emotional blockbusters of all time would be equally absurd. We’re gearing up for the last ride, one that may not be able to live up to the expectations. Yet expect more tears as core five Avengers (and a few friends) go for broke and attempt to save the universe. If they can’t, you can be damn sure they’ll avenge it.