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‘Avengers: Infinity War’: Is Marvel’s Blockbuster a Reflection of Our Time or Mindless Drivel?

Superheroes are big at the box office, but not everyone agrees on the message they offer for the world today.

“Avengers: Infinity War”

With “Avengers: Infinity War” topping the box office, a few IndieWire writers traded emails about how the movie taps into our current moment. NOTE: Spoilers follow.

DAVID EHRLICH: So, as most of the world’s population seems to have learned over the weekend, “Infinity War” ends with Josh Brolin sticking his hand into a bedazzled glove, snapping his big purple fingers, and wiping out exactly half of life in the universe. We see the randomness of Thanos’ plan unfold in a sadistic finale where many of the Avengers turn to dust before our eyes — the Russo brothers shoot it in a series of group shots that make the whole sequence feel like a bizarre game of Russian roulette. We’re so invested (or preoccupied) with the fates of our favorite superheroes that we don’t think about the effect that Thanos’ victory might have on the rest of the planet the Avengers are trying to protect. On the normal people. On us.

While the sky-high fight for Sokovia was all about collateral damage, and the Battle of New York focused on a waitress character (complete with her own backstory!) to provide the civilian perspective, the duel against Thanos takes place… well, I can’t remember exactly where it takes place, but it ain’t around here. Toto, we’re not in Stark Tower, anymore. It isn’t until after the credits, when we cut to Nick Fury and Maria Hill running around the downtown area of a major city, that we’re asked to consider the havoc back home.

Of all the ways that “Infinity War” departs from the previous installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the extent to which it forces us into the background might be the most striking. Even “The Dark World” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies had a stronger connection to Earth. I was surprised how fast the movie leaves our world behind (the brief glimpse of Peter and Ned on the school bus made me want so much more of that whole “Homecoming” vibe), and how seldom it looks back. It’s a jarring change of pace from the previous “Avengers” movies, which were so invested in earthly concerns like the moral use of power, the evolution of A.I., and the degree to which America should continue to police the rest of the planet.

“Infinity War,” on the other hand, seems comparatively detached from our world. While I appreciate how the value of sacrifice emerges as a theme (especially re: Vision and Scarlett Witch), and I think that Eric hit on something real when his review posited Thanos’ rise as a Trumpian metaphor, I can’t help but feel like the movie takes Marvel away from the clear-eyed urgency we saw in “Black Panther.” It’s clear that the MCU can speak to the world today, but “Infinity War” feels like dumping all the characters in an echo chamber where everything they say (and they say a lot) has no weight or meaning outside of the moment at hand.

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..Thanos (Josh Brolin)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

“Avengers: Infinity War”

Marvel Studios

Am I being too literal-minded about this, or does making “the most ambitious crossover event of all time” mean that there’s no room for us in the story?

ERIC KOHN: Big Hollywood movies are expected to either reflect our current times or provide an escape for them. I’d agree Marvel’s movies have achieved the ultimate coup: a self-made world that can afford to ignore our concerns because it adheres to its own. At the same time, “Infinity War” seems to funnel contemporary anxieties through its own digitized logic of fast-paced superhero showdowns. No matter your political allegiances, it’s safe to say that we live in one of the most divisive moments in American history, so of course the Avengers are split up across a fragmented battleground, and the obvious villain exploits the chaos to win the day. Wait, he won the day? Yes, that can happen now!

Josh Brolin’s quiet study of the sunrise in the movie’s final shot sure felt a lot like the eerie morning after the 2016 election, when suddenly traditional rules no longer applied and the obvious narrative of good-versus-evil went careening out of balance. I’ll concede that this reading may include some projection on my part. But these movies are all about projection. They’re ludicrous fantasies that resonate because they draw on the very real emotional stakes of hope, survival, heroism, and other attributes that tend to turn out far messier in real life than they do in storybooks.

Comic book heroes have been tussling with modern threats ever since Superman fought Nazis. Now, we know Thanos won’t get away with victory, even after he’s obtained it. The next battle could bring the closure that this one lacks for strategic purposes. (Higher stakes means greater anticipation.) But for the time being, “Infinity War” sure feels like a snapshot of our current moment, in which partisanship has created a terrible rift in society as many reliable characters have gone careening into the abyss. Like the “Avengers” saga, this story’s just getting started. Don’t believe the hype. Nothing ever ends.

JAMIE RIGHETTI: On the one hand, “Infinity War” is something comic book nerds like me have dreamed about seeing for years on the big screen, and in that way it doesn’t disappoint. Having now seen the film twice, I’m still in awe of the scope, of how the film captures the tone of each individual film and synthesizes it all together into one big movie. It’s big and bold and everything a comic book fan could hope for, including a shocking ending where your favorite heroes die.

"Avengers: Infinity War"

“Avengers: Infinity War”

Marvel

But it would be a disservice to pretend that comics don’t speak to politics or offer social commentary. “Infinity War” is no exception. While I agree with a lot of the points that Eric raised about the 2016 election, I also see “Infinity War” as a commentary on the environment and many of the fixable problems plaguing the world due to greed and hatred. While Thanos’ form of random genocide isn’t a viable option to the real-life problems of overpopulation, pollution, famine, and more currently affecting our planet, it raises the question of what we are doing to help future generations.

As anyone who has studied evolution knows, life has survived catastrophe before. In the face of extinction, nature finds a way forward. But that doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing to help the odds.

Our place in the universe is minuscule, and while “Infinity War” might lose sight of us regular humans, it’s because we are quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But in recognizing that much, these movies also suggest that we have the power to step up and become superheroes in our own right — taking care of one another and addressing the real problems we face with on a daily basis. One small act can cause a butterfly effect that can make a positive change towards a more hopeful tomorrow.

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