Early on in Thomas Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the main character Oedipa and her lawyer Metzger get drunk and watch a children’s adventure film. It follows “this kid and his father, who’s drummed out of the British Army for cowardice […] He and the kid follow the old regiment to Gallipoli, where the father somehow builds a midget submarine”, which they use to “torpedo the Turkish merchantmen”. It also features a St Bernard who “sits on periscope watch, and barks if he sees anything” (p. 18–9). Metzger notes that it ends with them all drowning. Oedpia is sceptical:
‘This is absurd,’ she said, ‘of course they’ll get out. All those movies had happy endings.’
‘That cuts down the probability,’ he told her, smug. (Pynchon, p. 21)
Metzger ends up being correct. The submarine fills with water; the St Bernard drowns; the father’s “suffering eyes” fill the screen and “strange thirties movie music” swells. THE END. (Pynchon, p. 28)
The ending of Marvel’s Infinity War reminded me of this. This is my first experience with a blockbuster, unabashed pop culture, explicitly dragging that what-if scenario straight from the subconscious and on to the screen — what if the heroes lose? What if the baddie’s unimaginably terrible plot is executed? But then the classical narrative structure swoops in to save the day and the bleak hypothetical reverts back to being an impossibility. Except here, wherein the villain’s stated goal of eradicating half the universe happens. Spiderman drifts into dust; Steve Rogers is left shell-shocked; Thanos stares into the sunset. Credits roll.
On a certain level Infinity War’s refusal to follow this formula is refreshing. One could consider it congruent with the times — Thanos’ plan is essentially an ecofascist plot, of “necessary” genocide for an ill-defined ‘greater good’ on a cosmic scale, a madman’s answer to the problems of the Anthropocene. And conceptual analysis aside, on a technical level it’s also intriguing to see the same old action-film apparatus, the same plot-beats, employed for the ‘opposite’ cause. When we watch Thanos succeed, we also watch the childhood nostalgia of millennials (a generation with nascent cultural power, if we loosely follow Strauss-Howe’s theorem) become weaponised in an effort to reflect a decidedly complex, crisis-ridden and fractious adult world. It’s a fitful kick-back against expectation, yet another appeal to the never-ending urge to subvert expectations and detach from narrative, as craved by postmodernity — but to what end? What results from this so-called subversion? What’s the reward? I would not argue that films necessarily have a duty to certain generations, but one wonders the impact of such contrarianism on children wanting to see their favourite superhero save the day. The gritty and monochromatic palette of post-9/11 films that pervaded the first wave of the superhero genre — Iron Man (2008), The Dark Knight (ditto) — may have been replaced with technicolour costumes and bright-pink explosions, but the cultural trauma remains. This self-reflexivity leads to pop-nihilism. Ten-year olds come across the void as entertainment.
As for the film’s action, although enjoyable at times, and intriguing to see the zenith of this unprecedented global cinematic experiment that is the MCU, it can be described as incomprehensible. But if Infinity War is incomprehensible, maybe it can be analysed with incomprehensible theory. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe their concept of ‘the rhizome’ — a system of thought inspired by the botanical stem, wherein “any point” connects “to anything other, and must be” (Deleuze and Guattari, p. 7), compared to a more straightforward A-to-B process of understanding. In this sense watching Infinity War is like watching a rhizome — rather than remaining as its own totalised film, start to middle to end, references to other films flit in and out with erratic abandon. The battlefields of Wakanda become a digital plane to drop in set models from other texts; the Hulkbuster suit from Age of Ultron (2015) stands out in contrast to the wildgrass, as references and remembered characters swoop all over the diegesis. The boundaries of the film are not entirely broken, but permeable, the nexus of the MCU; a crossroads multiple texts walk over to foster a spectacle. However hard it attempts to justify cameos with meticulous precedent, it feels like fanfiction, because it operates on the same bombastic fusion of character relations which doesn’t happen. Until now. Another what-if, unrealised for decades, coming to fruition.
Marvel’s cinematic universe distorts the medium of cinema into one more akin to television, in which each film is a digestible component of a larger and sweeping narrative arc. Hence Infinity War’s rhizomatic nature — films within this continuum can’t be a contained vessel. They need to branch out and connect, forced into intertextuality by the will of the MCU. Thus two layers of narrative emerge, often with asynchronous story beats, and so issues arise. Saturation, for one. Four planes of action emerge, four different groupings of pre-described heroes that battle or plot or race across the planet of Titan (not Saturn’s moon, confusedly enough) to New York to star-forges and more planets to Edinburgh, Wakanda too (four ‘any-space-whatevers’, if we still want to flick Deleuze into the mix). These flippant cuts between cosmic distances puts Kubrick’s infamous montage of bone to rocket to shame.
But it’s the film’s need to remain coherent on some fundamental level that brings about a visual language that signifies that contrarian ending, the realised what-if. With sixteen or so main characters all flying across the screen at lightspeed, the one stoic character who can be followed throughout the chaos is Thanos. As A.A. Dowd refers in his A.V. Club review of the film, the most comprehensible scenes of the film are the ones that painstakingly show the titan’s plan coming together and succeeding. Thanos becomes the focal point of Infinity War’s rhizome; the Hero’s Journey becomes the Villain’s Journey. There is the pretence of difference, but really all that has occurred is the switch of particular subjects in an ancient model. Which I would argue is emblematic of pop-nihilism in general. Because, unusual as the ending is in the context of stand-alone films, this is but the penultimate step before resolution in the MCU. It’s an impressive spectacle in the series but bewildering on its own terms.
Infinity War has its moments. The full rainbow of explosions here are a welcome change to gritty palettes, of petroleum-fuelled flicks of orange, and Doctor Strange’s aesthetic brings about some arresting visuals (a large object bursts into a murder of crows during one battle). But as this global experiment of mass-culture goes ever-onwards (plans, however vague, are for Marvel to continue the franchise until 2025), Infinity War signals a shift in the blockbuster film, the loosening of its boundaries.
Pynchon, Thomas The Crying of Lot 49 (Vintage Books, 2000 )
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix A Thousand Plateaus (Athlone Press, 1996 )
Dowd, A.A. “Infinity War is just way too much movie for one Avengers movie” (A.V. Club, 2018)