NB: This post contains spoilers for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen and/or read them).
I came out of Infinity War with mixed feelings. It’s exciting, non-stop entertainment. There’s been a lot of hard work put into it, and it shows. I didn’t see any blatant plot-holes, bad acting, or boom-mikes hitting Iron Man in the noggin.
Yet I also feel like saying it’s not a good film. And it’s taking me a while to parse out why I feel like that. Even reviewers seem undecided as to whether it’s a nuanced story told from the villain’s perspective, or an action ronp1 with the emotional depth of a teaspoon.
Quite a few people have compared it to the Harry Potter series. I agree that it’s similar; in particular to the first Deathly Hallows movie: there’s a “collect them all!” MacGuffin fetch-quest; chaotic, reactive action with little time for proper plans; magic, especially illusions2; the villain causes pain by touching the last MacGuffin in a hero’s forehead; a thrown weapon, and its target teleporting away; the heroes are left slumped, mourning their losses; and the final shot is of the successful villain.
It’s a downer ending, leaving you wondering “How are they going to come back from this?!”. It worked pretty well for Harry Potter, so why not here?
Because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the Harry Potter series. I think where they differ is in tone and expectations. Harry Potter had been gradually becoming darker and more mature; the most recent Marvel films (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther3) have been comparatively light-hearted and fun (even though dealing with weighty issues). There were plenty of fun moments in Infinity War, but as things progressed they were either too mild to lighten the increasingly bleak tone, or they felt awkward and out-of-place.
It’s an unexpected and significant darkening of the tone, especially with the tragic cliffhanger ending. The difference with Deathly Hallows part 1 is that a) everybody already knew (roughly) what was going to happen next, and b) the movie adaptation stuck fairly closely to the books. Infinity War is (afaik) a new plot loosely based on elements of a few different storylines from the comics. Even avid comic-readers don’t know what’s going to happen in the next Avengers movie (though they have more references to back up their speculation)4.
This is a common problem with the second-book/movie-in-a-trilogy. Inspired by The Empire Strikes Back5, things go bad and it seems like the villain(s) have won, only for the heroes to rally and turn things around in the third book/movie. This works a lot better if you can immediately move on to the next one; when you have to wait a year, not so much6.
The way we remember experiences (particularly negative ones) is based on a combination the most intense part and the end part7. By forcing the audience to stop at the most tragic beat of the story (half of the people in the universe have just been disintegrated), we remember the gut punch of “No, not Groot!”, “No, not Spider-Man!”, “No, not T’Challa!”, “No, not <insert applicable>!”.
I don’t know how I’d change Infinity War to fix this, but there needs to be a hope spot. Empire doesn’t end with Luke alone and bloodied, hanging off the bottom of Cloud City: it ends with him in the hospital, with a new hand, watching his friends set off to try to find Han. That moment is what’s missing.
1 Misspelling intentional. 🙂
2 A detail I noticed is that Loki and Dr. Strange hand over their infinity stones in the same manner. I’m not sure what it means, but it feels intentional.
3 It seems like everybody came out of Black Panther feeling psyched. Then, he gets disappeared.
4 I find it an interesting titbit that they consider the intended title of the next Avengers movie to be a spoiler. For what? I don’t know enough to speculate, so we’ll have to wait and see.
5 Star Wars seems to be the go-to series for cribbing a structure for your epic fantasy/adventure.
6 I do suspect that Infinity War will seem better if watched back-to-back with its sequel (for the reason explained in the next footnote, if nothing else).