Infinite Verses, One Chorus

~ an essay on Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War is much anticipated. Needless to say, this anticipation has been well cultivated. It is the climactic apex of Marvel’s franchise set forth ten years ago. All the movies that came before it, all the storylines and characters, all the origins and convoluted plots and history, both of the comic book and box office variety, are at work here in Marvel’s cinematic mythos. There is so much to consider for the audience walking in to see a movie like this. Not unlike a TV series, if you aren’t caught up, then expect to be confused, overwhelmed, and guessing at the CGI arrivals and departures of the vibrant cast of enhanced individuals. The threads across all these films are both complex and simple. It is difficult to coherently follow through these films to this endpoint, but also easy to buy the mythic significance of these disparate heroes coming together to try to defeat a singular, cosmically powerful foe (once again). For the filmmakers at Marvel, it is quite an ambitious feat to try to make this movie at all, in the capacity it appears on the pages of the comic. And it’s a triumph to make it well. And in my opinion, they did it. Somehow, some way, it delivered on its lofty promise of being the cogent culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given the conditions of this film’s release here in 2018 and my own history of being inspired by the fantasies and artistry of comic books for most of my life, I wish to speak on Infinity War, specifically its context as a passage in the medium of comics & film.

The Moments // The Verses

Comic books are primarily about the big moments, and the lead ups into bigger things. A good comic book, whether it be a solo superhero iteration, or a detective story, or a weird tale of supernatural intrigue — is always building. You are learning something new on every page.  Origin stories, bloodlines, tragedies, secrets, the wars of the past, the foreshadowing of the future — it is all in play. This build up implies an inevitable reveal. This reveal, this moment, is what comic book writers, artists, and readers live for. These stories are fascinating because they’re so much larger than life. And this visual medium allows for the art to come to life. The best passages in comic books are when the reader is bestowed with these sparks of imagery with some kind of thematic confluence. Everything leads up to them, and their consummations provide cornerstones for the narrative to pivot from, informing all future sequences. These panels, in their recurrence and steady construction of the narrative, provide the verses to the song being played.

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Meaningful full page art is the ultimate objective of each chapter of a comic book. We need to get the reader there, and have it be something that is satisfying because it has been earned. It represents the keynote at the heart of the message being crafted with the story up to that point. Or it is the kind of revelatory turning point which “changes everything.” Either way, the desired effect is achieved, with words or without them. They are striking in the same way that comic book covers are, or movie posters are. But its more significant because it is coming directly in context of the story being told.

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Not unlike other mediums meant to sell, comic books were, and are, designed to keep kids turning pages. The cliffhangers, cryptic messages and unfolding mysteries, are in part meant to keep you engaged to continue getting to those big moments, and consequently, keep buying the new issues. But in this chosen style, within this simplistic formula, there is some kind of magic. It works because it’s in our nature to be curious, look forward, and navigate our way through stories filled with rich characters and compelling themes. We are reading the comic because we wish to be taken away by these incredible moments presenting themselves before us to uncover. And these moments can be as beautiful as they are devastating. This is the great advantage of the visual medium.

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Crafting, building, and timing these great comic book moments is something Infinity War does incredibly well. With so many extraordinary and arresting characters in play all at once, the film manages to balance it all by spacing them out (literally). In both time and space, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America — each a separate locus of the MCU — are given their threads to operate within and their moments to truly shine. The Space Demigod, the self-made snark genius Overman, and the Good All-American Hero Boy. Each of our primary heroes, at this point, have been through serious character_development.jpeg, arcs of light and dark stages, hubris and humility, and are veterans of all manner of emotional turmoil and high stakes fight to the deathery with several nemesi. They carry the load in Infinity War, and it is through their eyes which we see this grand conflict, truly spanning galaxies and decades, come together.

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All the ancillary characters (it pains me to call Spidey ancillary) are given over to these character loci in a logical manner, and allowed the time to develop in unison. The goofy cosmic defenders are paired with the last Asgardian, who has lost everything and is on the verge of breakdown. Brainy bros Strange and Stark duel with wit, tech and magic before an aloof Peter Parker who is just happy to be there (and finally named an Avenger, now out of necessity). Cap’s civil war comrades team up once more and head to Wakanda to mount Earth’s defenses and try to figure out what the hell is going on. And in the midst of each of their spiraling paths into narrative cohesion, and towards the big bad Thanos, each defining moment given to each group builds the stakes of the conflict into new tiers, as the whole of Earth’s mightiest heroes head towards the endgame.

Through all of this, in and out of the necessary verses of exposition to guide us along, our franchise paragons are given their magnificent moments:

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The Spectacle // The Bridge

Putting aside any lofty ideals for the moment — of heroism, of altruism, of justice & Truth (we’ll return here) — it is supremely important to remember that comic books were originally 1) meant for kids, and 2) supposed to be fun. This concept seems to be something Marvel understands, and takes to heart. Marvel makes its movies fun; it’s entirely clear, the comedy is just as important as the violence (e.g. Thor Ragnarok, Ant-Man, any of ’em with RDJ/Iron Man). And whenever possible the filmmakers try to make the screen appear as if it is jumping straight off the familiar pages of a comic book (especially the Avenger films). I would be willing to bet somewhere in Marvel studios, that exact mantra is written in big letters on a whiteboard — “Whenever possible, bring the comic to life!” This is all true, despite the obvious fact that the MCU has updated the source material to be grounded to modern times, a tad more realistic, and chooses to deal with more mature themes (such as war & foreign policy, mass government surveillance, and the power of family, responsibility… and power).

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This isn’t to say classic comic books don’t deal with mature themes; they do and they have for years. But it’s different when you bring A-list actors, a few hundred million dollar budgets, and endlessly bankable franchise films into theaters every summer. Unlike comic books, these films are being made for everyone. Having a message matters, certainly, and I think a large part of these films’ success lies within their philosophical depth and their heart.

Now all of that being said, I want to discuss fight scenes, or more generally action scenes. Namely, their importance to the medium — both in comic books and action movies. Criticisms voiced often concerning these comic books films are how ridiculous the special effects are, and that it takes away from what the film is trying to do. “It’s violence porn, it’s obfuscating the message.” “It is a loud bash n’ crash collection of chaos with no meaning and the film industry is dying — no, culture is — because these pictures are having so much success”… I can almost see where these extremely misguided perspectives are coming from. Except I think films should be judged based on what they are, and not necessarily on what someone thinks they should be. This may not be a universal rule, but I think it should certainly, probably apply to comic book movies. This should be obvious, but comic book movies heavily rely upon and model themselves after their source material. Something like Avengers: Infinity War should probably be judged and enjoyed in the context of its telos — that of being a movie animated within the spirit of the medium from which it was resourced. And needless to say, some of the best moments in Marvel (and DC) comic books are intricately crafted, explosive, and grandiose fights between heroes and villains. For the sake of the effectiveness of these film adaptations, it is imperative that they get the action scenes right, using CGI or practical effects or otherwise. Let me try to explain why I think this is.

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The fight scene is a spectacle tasked with viscerally conveying the underlying conflict at the heart of the story. It is similar to ‘the moment’ I spoke of earlier, but different because it’s more complex and thus takes more time to impart (several pages/minutes instead of a singular, striking image or notion). This obviously isn’t true of all action movies or comic books; sometimes the punches and explosions and violence are in place for their own sake, and there might be nothing else there. But in the mythic hero’s journey-esque tales within comic books and manga/anime, there is generally a deeper meaning to those clashes between Demigods and monsters, vibranium-infused Princes and super-serum laced soldiers.

If you look for it, there is some conspicuous symbolism in Cap’s shield throw and reliable return, in Iron Man’s latest Mark suit model armor-up sequence, in Thor’s mighty swing of Mjölnir, and in Spider-Man’s dextrous maneuvering through the cityscape, avoiding the grasps of men driven mad by their ambitions. Each of them, alongside their villainous counterparts in these dances, in their endless battles — across arcs, writers, reboots, through the use of new techniques and growing powers — are manifesting their agency as forces of change and power within the story. Instead of trying to be convinced entirely with words from character conversations and expository exegesis (such as in other forms of fiction, or real life), we are periodically treated to the dynamic imagery of their competence within combat. The fight is simple to enjoy and serves as a visual representation of the conflict at hand. And in this familiar modus operandi, across interpretations of the character, this is the ley line from which we can understand the character, i.e. no matter what age of comics we are in, we know Iron Man is going to shoot repulsors, Spider-Man is going to sling webbing, Thor is going to throw his hammer. These heroes will always do battle in some form or fashion. We bear witness to where they stand in their choices as the moral agents within the narrative by witnessing whom they choose to do battle with.

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The fight scene, the chase scene, the grand escape from the maw of hell — these action sequences also serve to bridge the gap between the build-up, exposition, and resolution of the conflict. In the world of high powered heroes and devious forces of evil, the conflicts will rarely be resolved through diplomacy alone. The paragons of order and chaos, or freedom and control, or love and hatred, must eventually face off against one another on the precipices of a great mountain, with everything at stake and with nearly equivalent competence. This is the way it must be. Why? To quote Tarantino, because it’s so much damn fun. In these stories, we are existing in fantasy, resting on the shoulders of larger-than-life heroes who are capable of practically anything. It’s a sandbox for conflict resolution of the grandest possible flavors; why not craft spectacles rising to meet your wildest imaginings?

Infinity War, especially with the level of power that Thanos and the infinity gauntlet bring to the table, presents some of the best fight scenes from the entire MCU. The final fights on Earth in Wakanda against Thanos’ army, and against Thanos himself on Titan, are cinematically marvelous. Coming from someone who is especially critical of CGI and its excessive use at times in modern films, Infinity War does it right. The technology is on par with what they are trying to convey in these battles. The war occurring on these two fronts simultaneously, while Thor forges his destined weapon from a dying star, raise the stakes for the third act of the film into quite the demonstration of how far these characters, and this technology, can take us.

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Doctor Strange vs. Thanos, and Iron Man vs. Thanos’ 1v1 battles are easily some of my favorite moments from the film. We get to see the full scope of cosmic power afforded the user of infinity stones. Throughout the film the audience is given an enlightening education on just who Thanos is, what he is fighting for, and now — how well he fights. Thanos absorbs the hellfire from missiles and fires it back with ferocity; he bodies up with Hulk and KOs him in round 1; he sends shockwaves of destructive energy and levels squadrons of superheroes with ease; he brings down a moon onto his home planet with a fist pump. After a well-planned and well-timed simultaneous attack ultimately fails because of Starlord’s emotional instability, it falls upon Avenger MVP Stark and resident wizard who-is-probably-the-most-powerful-one Doctor Strange to try to bring down Thanos before he can make it to Earth and to the last infinity stone.

We get to see the full gamut of Strange’s arcane powers as The Sorcerer Supreme brought to bear on Thanos — reality bending mirror world blasts and transcendent copies of himself trying to restrain the big purple guy. In the end, Strange runs out of tricks, and Thanos neutralizes him after tossing a blackhole his way (although Strange’s most vital role lies in his 5D chessmastering outcomes well beyond the events of this film; “this is the only way”). Then, we get to see Iron Man, in his new bleeding edge armor and host of new tech, go head to head with the Mad Titan, very much as the Avengers’ last line of defense. Stark has his own ingenious brand of combat — flying, launching, punching, and rebuilding his armor as it gets shredded by the gauntlet. By the end, we see more Stark than Iron Man, as Thanos rips away nearly all the iron, dramatically bringing our first Avenger to the brink of his mortal coil (and the audience to the brink).

After this fateful fight with Thanos, steeped in thrills — the hope of victory and the dread of defeat and potential hero death are portioned out in equal measure. The action sequence on Titan provides the definitive feeling that this adept contingent of the Avengers gave it their all, and still lost. An effective fight scene, and a powerful moment foreshadowing the ultimate resolution of this film.

The Heart & The Message // The Chorus

Now in the nucleus of any good story, including comic books, there lies emotion / philosophy / a message. The comic book story elicits a simple structure — a protagonist with origin borne of some manner of tragedy, the mythic hero’s journey ensues, the good vs. evil conflict, the 3-act play. The hero displays some level of hubris before or during their ascension to the status of hero, and the malady is rectified through the attainment of power or its use, or its loss. The conflict is deeply personal to the hero, or their family, or their lands. The villain is often ironically created by the hero in some way. No matter how dire the odds, the good guys always win in the end. It’s a formula and it works for the purpose of these superhero stories. Not a ton of mental energy need be spent here; the creators designing these comics wished them to be easy to enjoy.

Over time, however, comic books have grown up as a medium. Heroes have been rebooted into something darker (but not always better), new takes bid onto old stories, more mature themes are covered on the nature of violence, war, death. The villains and their schemes have become more nuanced, and often more sympathetic. While some of this existed in the beginning, all of it has more fully come along for the ride over the years as modern comic books continue to grow. With new writers and increasing ambitions, comic books and graphic novels have learned how to wield their heroes with artistic grace, imbuing them with distinctive philosophical underpinnings. Every hero and every villain is striving for something, something they think will make things better. The villains sees themselves as the hero, as savior, and so should the writer, to create them effectively. Whether it’s a single loved person or an overarching philosophy deeply concerning all sentient life in the universe, this increased complexity in motive serves to imbue the absurd scenery and outfits and interplanetary warfare with the necessary context to make it a little more persuasive.

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We can all understand that each Avenger is a good guy or gal. But how they arrived there, and the emotional burdens they carry into battle and into their sometimes paradoxical stances, are informed by rather robust story arcs filled with all kinds of moral ambiguity. In these ways, the MCU has succeeded in melding blockbuster entertainment, heightened by production values and advanced visual technology, with the heart of something more. And given the circumstances and our expectations, it’s probably more than we ever hoped for from these films.

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At the end of the battle, we know where the heroes and villains stand. We understand the decisions that brought them to the crisis at hand and the conflict wading into their world is one that weighs on them. We give a damn because it is especially clear that they give a damn. This is the difference maker. It’s not difficult to surrender some emotional investment into young Steve Rodgers and his heart of gold. The survival and rebirth of Stark at the hands of violently ironic circumstances is existentially inspiring. The lessons harbored onto Thor through the mortal experience force us to belay our arrogance and our pride. Spider-Man’s tale inspires us to always act in the face of tragedy and evil, because we are capable of doing so. The key to good story here is to bake these universal attributes into the narrative’s course in mythical, Shakespearian proportions. Infinity War does so, giving each hero, and most importantly the villain, the appropriate time to play out their purpose within the struggle. This is stuff that inspires kids, concerning dreams of what is possible in this world through the lense of the impossibly ideal hero; this is the stuff that inspired me.

“In Time, you will know what it feels like to lose.
“To feel so desperately that you’re right.
“Yet to fail all the same.
“Dread it.
“Run from it.
“Destiny still arrives.”
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Here in this film, originating from the build-up of all the previous films, the many momentous verses and impassioned bridges over these past ten years, is given ultimate release. In their continuous conflicts, victories, defeats, and now in the endgame: a message is conveyed. It’s the chorus to the song being composed all along, the prevailing thread in the tapestry nearing completion. It is the same one we have heard before but more powerfully now. And it’s familiarity is integral to our final appreciation of it. The collective moments gather up this message, and we find it deals with the human condition. It’s larger than any of the movies, or any one character. Through rather ridiculous plots, perhaps laden with holes, and extraplanar entities and cosmic rays and ancient evil and all manner of fantasy and unrealism — we learn something alongside the hero and the villain. It — this chorus — is something we can take with us. ~

See you in 2019. ~