Death and Consequences in the Marvel Multiverse

As Avengers: Infinity War finished and the theater lights came up I was already past anger and working my way towards acceptance of what I had just seen. There were parts of the movie that felt weak but overall it was absolutely at the level of average Marvel fare. The cast, direction, action, and visuals generally delivered. Some things came as pleasant surprises, and actually delivered more than I was expecting. But as I stood up and checked my pants for popcorn, one thing struck me about the previous two and a half hours of superhero story.

And that is the fact that not a single moment of two and a half hours of that movie mattered in the least. That that was infuriating. What really rubbed salt on that wound was when another Marvel property absolutely nailed what Infinity War attempted later that week. On TV. On Basic cable. But we’ll get to that.

Major Avengers: Infinity War and minor Legion spoilers to follow

On its own, A:IW has a lot of issues. The direction of the fight scenes is a bit weak, some of the pairings don’t work as well as others, and the tone leans so far in to Thor/Guardians that the Wakanda segments fall flat. It felt both drawn out and overstuffed. There are plot-holes galore. Seriously, I counted at least three ways that Doctor Strange could have won the day on his own, and one way that Scarlet Witch could have defeated Thanos. Five minutes of planning and Thanos would have been able to win the Wakanda battle. And suddenly Avengers 1 and 2 make even less sense than they did before. There’s also the discomfiting running gag of watching Mantis constantly hate herself, as well as the “too little too late” focus on (wonderfully acted, woefully written) Gamora.

But all of that falls away with the realization that not a damn moment in Infinity War makes a bit of difference to anything. A movie that has been billed as the culmination of a decade’s worth of build-up is a waste of time. If I knew what was in store, if I had been spoiled, I would have bought a ticket to another movie and maybe gone to see the part two next year instead of this one.

You know what I’m going to say: that the deaths don’t matter because it will all be undone in the next movie. And you’d only be partially right.

Your retort would be that they do matter because of the emotional impact. After all, these are fan-favorite characters that we’ve grown attached to over the course of ten years. And again, only partial credit will be given.

Because some of these characters are dear to me and watching them die or mourn those they love could have been touching. But not here and not like this.

I will flat-out admit that it’s not the permanence of the deaths that are problematic here. These people could die and come back and still have made a huge impact and told a great story. I get that. But every single death in A:IW has all possible impact undercut by insane amounts of dramatic irony due to Marvel’s advertising methods. Going in to the movie, I was laying out my predictions of who would live and who would die. And one cornerstone of my guessing was that the Guardians, Spider-man, and T’challa would all be fine. I knew this because of how Marvel loves to announce things and brag about how planned out their film structure is by way of phases. And because before Infinity war even came out Marvel was crowing about their upcoming films:

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 6, 2018)
  • Captain Marvel (March 8, 2019)
  • Avengers 4 (May 3, 2019)
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 (July 5, 2019)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2020)
  • Black Panther 2 (TBD)

So right there they’ve gone and spoiled the emotional impact of when many of those characters die.

I get that showing people how tightly plotted their large arcs are can instill confidence in the entire franchise’s structure, and dropping early news like that gets fans excited for things a long way down the road, but the major issue is that these upcoming movies are part of Marvel’s official marketing. And like trailers that spoil too much mystery, they cut all of the tension out of A:IW.

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters in a story do not. This can be used to build tension (like when we know that there’s a killer hiding in a closet) or humor (like any joke involving Buzz Lightyear thinking he’s an astronaut), but sometimes it’s not used as a story-telling tool. Sometimes the author has just revealed too much, too soon. And in this case, it’s painfully clear that the “author” is not (just) the people who that wrote Infinity War, but Marvel as a production company.

And the movie suffers from it. Because of the irony I don’t feel for the characters that we “lose”, and I don’t sympathize for those that survived. I shrug because the dead are contractually obligated to return before the next installment of their franchise, which means either the end of Captain Marvel or sometime in Avengers 4. As for feeling bad for the survivors; look, this entire movie takes place over the course of a day. I have to wait a year for part two, but to these people everyone that they lost could be back by the end of a long weekend, depending on how long it takes the events in the next Avengers to unfold. There’s no impact on me because there’s a guarantee that there’s no impact on the world of Marvel, and there will likely be very little impact on the characters. I’m not mourning with them, I’m impatiently waiting for them to catch up to the rest of the audience.

So I guess it’s time to just write off Marvel when it comes to creating emotional impact on deaths we know to be impermanent ahead of time.

Yeah, I mentioned that a completely different Marvel property managed to one-up Avengers right behind its back. That other property is FX’s LEGION. For those that don’t know, Legion is a show about David Haller, an a man who is either very mentally ill, one of the world’s most powerful psychic mutants, or both. Episode 5 of season two ends with David finding out that he’s lost Amy,  his sister. While she’s been on the show before, she’s not part of the main cast and has been absent for a while. It’s a loss for David, but it does more to show the cruelty of the one who took her rather than create any sort of sense of loss on David’s behalf.

And then the next episode happens. The episode starts with no context, jumping from sub-plot to sub-plot. And they all involve David, though he looks different in each one. In one story he’s a corporate lackey, sitting in on an important meeting. In another he’s a homeless man talking to himself as he pushes a shopping cart. In one story he’s a heavily medicated, dull-eyed stock boy. As the episode progresses it becomes apparent that these are all essentially alternate timeliness, visions of what could have been. As the each of the Davids’ stories progress we see how his relationship with his sister factors into his life. She’s always there, always important, often supportive. When the mini-episodes begin to wrap up things collapse in each narrative. Sometimes David hurts her. Sometimes he goes to extreme lengths to protect her. But with each stand alone climax and conclusion we’re shown a deeper facet of their love and devotion to each other, and we know that the David and Amy in the central world of the show shared this bond as well.

The episode ends with a short montage of the normal story-line so far, running right up to David discovering the loss of his sister. It ends with the same scene as the previous episode, but this time we have spent not a single moment on the person that took her. Rather, the current context is the culmination of lifetimes of connection, and then it’s all gone. When the scene plays out in this episode we feel for David in a way we couldn’t have last time.

The whole hour we spent watching them interact and die over and over again shares some of the dramatic irony of Infinity War. When David dies we know that’s not permanent because he’s the main character of the show and he wouldn’t get killed off. Not mid-narrative, anyway. When his sister dies we know that she’s already dead. And when she survives we are aware that this too is impermanent. But each death, though just as clearly transient as those in Infinity War, has a point. The only way Infinity War could echo the same sort of impact with their stunt deaths would have been to devote the last third of the movie to watching the main characters enter into deep depression and mourning over those they had lost.

The audience isn’t stupid, for the most part. Very few people will be worried about whether or not Spider-man or Black Panther will ever show up in a Marvel movie again. But what Legion did was to give us time to join in with mourning, to feel the emotional equivalent of a eulogy for the people who died. Not just a speech or an obituary lauding their accomplishments, but a grim and messy eulogy where the person speaking trails off, loses their words, and breaks down. Infinity War tells us these people are gone. Legion shows us what the world it inhabits is now missing.

Legion isn’t perfect. It too has a problem with some of its female characters. Like Gamora, David’s love interest Syd is constantly undercut when she could and should be holding her own narrative. Jeremie Harris’ character, Ptonomy Wallace, is one of the few people of color on the show and could always do with more screen time. But one thing the team behind Legion is jaw-droppingly good at is creating a narrative language that ends up being used to convey deeper emotional levels of the story. From the interpretive dance psychic battles to the alternate universe what-ifs, everything ends up in service of creating a deeper understanding of the emotional lives of the characters.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has also created its own visual shorthand, but almost exclusively in the service of being able to wrap new characters around familiar action tent poles. Be it faceless CG armies for a large battle, clinging to the back of a fast-moving vehicle during a fight and chase, having the same negligent father figure to elicit sympathy and depth, or taking the here’s power center and making it into a super-simple foil villain. All of those things make any story, from Iron Man to Peter Quill to Black Panther, and creates a level of familiarity to make all the disparate characters fit. But those familiar touchstones are in service to homogeneity and action sequences, not emotional denouement or distinct experiences.

That is why I was so deeply disappointed by Infinity War. It wasn’t any particular thing within the movie that ultimately killed it for me. It’s that a film that was lauded as the culmination of a big, broad tapestry lost its thread and had no big picture in mind. Though I can’t demonize Marvel too much for being too large. That sprawling aspect of their characters being spread all over is one of the reasons I was able to leave a theater incredibly disappointing and then experience one of the best hours of television I have ever seen, both from Marvel.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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