This essay contains many, many spoilers. Avoid reading if you haven’t yet seen Infinity War, or, honestly, if you’re a tertiary member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe who maybe hasn’t been paying attention. I’m looking at you, Hawkeye. —Ed.
The MCU cycle began when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were created in 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidency. They are set against the backdrop of wars—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—that never seemed to end, and as such, are fables about the military industrial complex, artifacts from an era when people were still talking about “blowback,” when we still remembered (or cared) that the CIA had helped to create the conditions for Al Qaeda, and when “end the war” was a thing people promised, said, and demanded. To watch them now is to remember a time when we could still remember a time before we were at war, forever, with terror.
And so, those very first movies gave us Iron Man’s discovery that he is his own worst enemy, that Bruce Banner’s experiments have created a monster: himself. They are stories that take the salience of these stories for granted. Like Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which came to us around the same time, they are stories that ask a single, basic question: what if we are the enemy we’ve been searching for?
Since the answer, unavoidably, is yes, the next phase gave us The Avengers: with Thor and Captain America in 2011—leading up to The Avengers in 2012—the movies started to tell a larger story, about building a team of super-heroes out of this disparate set of “special” individuals; as fucked up as they all were, separately, maybe, together, they could be something… more? These are still stories in which the enemy we are searching for might turn out to be us, of course; they are still movies where anxiety about the self gets exorcized by violent combat with a double, just as Iron Man fought an even more iron man and The Incredible Hulk fought a bigger, more incredible hulk. And they are right to be anxious! What is Nazi-fighter Captain America, after all, but a genetically-modified Aryan super soldier? What is Thor’s quest to be “worthy” if not a conquering despot’s desire to justify the unjustifiable, to insist that he rules for some reason other than force? On some level, these movies always know that their protagonists are hypocrites, that the things they are fighting are basically themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. H.Y.D.R.A… what really is the difference?
But they are also stories in which “we” comes to take an interesting centrality, where the individual might be saved by the group, by friends, by family, by work. What if—in the course of human events—we the people could come together and form a union of super-special people? What if together we can become more than the sum of our individuality?
Alas! It only lasts as long as the alien invasion, and by the time we eat the shawarma, there’s not much to talk about. In Iron Man 3 (2013), we learn that terrorism really is just the MIC tail wagging the democratic dog; in Thor: The Dark World (2013), we learn that the Asgardians really are just conquering bastards; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. actually are the same thing; in Age of Ultron (2015), we learn that keeping the peace with drone armies is a truly terrible idea, and it’s the only thing that Tony can think of; it’s the only thing ANYONE can think of. By the time of Civil War (2016), we’ve learned that “Us” is an unstable combination, that blowback is still real, and that no one really transcends their deep flaws. Even the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies tell a version of this story: if the first (2014) is about finding a new family, the second (2017) will be about remembering just how toxic family can be, and how long-lasting its wounds are.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, as the Avengers broke up and as the movies started to proliferate beyond narrative control—Ant-Man? Doctor Strange? Black Panther?—the people making them started to think about the next story they would tell. And so, it turned out that in the margins of these stories of American Empire—always the subtext for the original Avengers—they had begun planting the seeds for a different story, particularly in the post-credit sequences; there were hints and rumors and whispers of the larger story that was already taking place just off-screen, that had been from the beginning, a complex and nuanced and revelatory story—the very Grandest of Grand Narratives—about how a dude named Thanos was trying to acquire the six Infinity Stones so he could blow up the universe. This would be their big idea, their magnum opus, their greatest and most consequential story.
For a long time, only the super-fans saw it coming, only the people that already knew the story could see the groundwork being laid. If you weren’t a serious fan, after all, would you know that the “Tesseract” was the “Space Stone” back when Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) fought the Nazis to prevent them from using it? Would you realize that since Howard Stark was Tony Stark’s father—and since Howard Stark gets a good look at Tesseract-powered tech in that movie, and massively improves his own technology as a result—that the original Iron Man suit is, in a roundabout way, the result of Space Stone-enhanced technology? Would you be aware that Loki’s scepter had the “Mind Stone” in The Avengers (2012)—given to him by Thanos—and that he used the “Space Stone” to open the portal allowing the Chitauri army to attack? Would you realize that the “Aether” the evil elves in the second Thor movie are using is actually the “Reality Stone” (2013) or that the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie revolved around the struggle to find the “Power Stone”? Did you notice—as super fans did—that The Age of Ultron (2015) was always implicitly about the coming threat posed by Thanos and how earth could prepare for it?
Probably not. I wasn’t; I had watched a bunch of these movies, and after Black Panther I watched a bunch more, but it was only in preparation for this movie—where we were explicitly told that it would be based on the Infinity MacGuffins—that I watched them systematically, and then watched internet theorists break down how the backstory for Infinity War had been retroactively threaded through the variety of previous films that were ostensibly about something else. And it is true that, on some level, the Avenger movies are often about the Infinity Stones, even when they seem to be about something else. But it’s not all they are about, of course. Ant-Man, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3… these have nothing to do with the Infinity Stones. The villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming builds his tech from the wreckage of the Chitauri invasion, so without Loki’s use of those two Infinity Stones, that story wouldn’t have happened; Doctor Strange has a “Time Stone,” and uses it, but is it really what the movie is about? Meanwhile, Black Panther is not about Infinity Stones at all, and other than occasionally exporting advanced technology, it barely fits into that broader story at all. There had been much speculation that the “Soul Stone” would turn out to be the basis of the vibranium that powers Wakandan tech, but that turned out not to be the case… which not only makes the attack on Wakanda in Infinity War annoyingly unmotivated—as it requires Wakanda to volunteer for destruction and sacrifice in ways utterly alien to their demonstrated sentiments—but also demonstrates that tightly weaving these stories together hasn’t really been a priority.
“About” is a strange word, though. On some level, it is certainly true that without the Infinity Stones, these stories play out very differently, and perhaps not at all. Though only implicit in Infinity War, it can be inferred that Odin’s death and the destruction of Asgard, in Thor: Ragnarok, are what made Thanos’s attack possible: a fully-functioning Asgard would have stopped him from forging the Infinity Gauntlet in the first place. We can also guess that the death of Doctor Strange’s mentor, The Ancient One, leaves Earth particularly helpless, making now a good time for Thanos to put into motion the plan that Gamora says he’s been working on for the entire time she’s known him (but mostly, um, doesn’t seem to have been). Still that doesn’t mean that Doctor Strange or Thor: Ragnarok are “about” the Infinity Stones.
Think about how little ground-work those nineteen movies laid for the story of Thanos, the real protagonist of Infinity War. When did he get the idea for the Infinity Stones gambit? Why is he so naturally powerful as to be able to wield them himself? Who even IS he? What is his deal?
These are not questions with answers. Or rather, there are answers, but they are so stupid, so ludicrous, that they come apart in your mouth if you try to say them out loud. Do you know what Thanos’s real motivation is? Put aside the nonsense in the movie, the almost half-plausible-seeming Malthusian thing about culling the universe of its excess populations; Thanos’s real motivation, in the comics, is to kill half the population of the universe because he is in love with the embodiment of death and wants to get a date with her, and then, to retire as a farmer.
That is not an answer, but at least it’s honest about what it is: totally absurd.
“The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing,” as Alfred Hitchcock once put it. And the best MacGuffin was “the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd…boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”
Why would this be a useful narrative device? One reason, I think, is that it allows the audience to disentangle their own desires from that of the characters; if we know that what they are struggling for is a meaningless, absurd, and contrived doo-hickey, we can detach our sympathies from them; we can regard them cynically; and we can understand that what the movie we are watching is about is not what the movie we are watching is about. They might want something in particular—a Maltese Falcon, say—but we are just watching a story about people who want.
What we want is not a particular, arbitrary thing, in other words; what we want is to want, in general.
Though there are many examples of the narrative device in question—the holy grail being one of the oldest, though unobtainium is my favorite—the term itself comes from a story that Hitchcock told about a story told by Angus McPhail:
A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.
“What is that?” the first man asks.
“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”
“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.
“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin.”
A MacGuffin, in this version, is a thing which cannot exist; only in a world where there are lions in the Scottish Highlands could a “MacGuffin” obtain as an object. Since it doesn’t exist, it registers an absence, a lack, something we could—if you’ll pardon the pun—find wanting. But again, when we are watching characters want—and when we know that the thing they want is not the thing we want (because the thing they want isn’t even a thing)—it helps clarify that what we want is simply wanting: we desire desire itself.
In this sense, it’s worth observing that Infinity War can’t really be “about” the Infinity Stones. They are the object of Thanos’s quest, and all the action revolves around them, but they are also, as six of the most MacGuffinny Macguffuns ever to guff their mac over the story, ridiculous in that very specific MacGuffin way. They are too absurd to be what the story is about; other than the Collector’s ridiculous monologue in Guardians of the Galaxy, we never learn what they are or why they are or who made them or anything about them; they just are, so that the story can revolve itself around them. They are there so Thanos can want something, and so that—in using them—he can make everyone else find themselves wanting something: the lack of half the population.
Destroying people we like is something the movie can do to make us feel. And so it does. That is what the Infinity Stones are for, and what Infinity War is a machine built to do: channel the power of the Infinity MacGuffins to make us feel bad. The worst words that came to mind when I first watched it were “narrative sadism,” and a few days later, I still find that first impression to be broadly correct, with the caveat that “sadism” does not necessarily explain why we would voluntarily place ourselves in a position to be made to feel so bad. I heard people weeping at the end of this movie, and I myself feel about watching Peter Parker turn to ash the same way I feel about the time I saw someone get hit by a car: days later, the image flashes into my brain and my muscles tense and I feel really shitty about it. Why is this what Marvel chose to do with their power?
A better question than “Who is Thanos and what are the Infinity Stones?” would be: why has Marvel Studios made twenty movies about MacGuffins? Or, rather, why would Marvel pretend that this is what these movies are all about? Why would someone want to say that all of these stories have been leading up to this one, final, climactic story?
On a certain level, as I said, they aren’t about the Infinity Stones, not really; marketing claims about how Infinity War and Infinity War 2 (or Avengers 4 or whatever) are the climax of a twenty-movie epic are, well, marketing claims. Credit where it’s due: Kevin Feige and company have done an impressive job of connecting these very different movies—made by very different people in very different contexts—and they’ve been very patient and careful in how they’ve done it. But it’s a loose association at best, and for good reasons: most of the most interesting things in the most interesting movies have nothing to do with the Thanos plot at all. Black Panther is currently the most popular character in the franchise and there was never an Infinity Stone in Wakanda until Captain America brought Vision there (thanks, Cap!). More to the point, if there had been—if the Vibranium mound had turned out to have been the “Soul Stone” all along—well, it would have made the entire Black Panther story a lot more… pre-textual. It would have cheapened it. It would made a second Black Panther movie a lot harder to imagine.
If the eighteen movies leading up to Infinity War I & II were only about the Infinity Stones, the franchise would never have gotten there; the first Captain America movie is about an Infinity Stone, kind of, but the second one really, really is not. In fact, when you get right down to it, most of the movies have nothing to do with the Infinity Stones. They tell very different kinds of stories; if there technically are Infinity Stones present, that’s not really what those stories are about.
To pick a few random examples: Thor: Ragnarok was about emigrants fleeing a lost home, about how you carry home with you wherever you go. Spider-Man: Homecoming was about choosing not to be an Avenger, but simply to be a modest, humble, neighborhood hero (and also to be a kid). Black Panther was about blackness undefined by, conquered by, enslaved by, or beholden to whiteness. Guardians of the Galaxy is about finding a family among other people whose families hurt them.
Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how “half” his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda’s survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T’Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.
My point is that there’s a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person “can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field”; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.
Let me put it this way: There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”
But it’s a bad movie. It’s a bad movie in the way extractive economies are bad stewards of their chains of production; it takes interesting, complex, and very delicate stories and it reduces them to extremely simple versions of themselves, massively degrading the underlying system. They are complex ecosystems, these stories, their development a function of careful nurturing and adept pruning. Infinity War looked at those stories and saw fields, turned the fields into grain, turned the grain into money, and then spent the money. Infinity War learned the lesson of Game of Thrones: people are so desperate to feel something that they will mistake narrative sadism for powerful storytelling.
And it works, the way a strip-mine “works.” Spider-Man: Homecoming did interesting stuff with youth and with a youth’s relationship to a figure like Tony Stark—and with Tony Stark’s burgeoning feelings about playing a “parent” role—and so Infinity War brings that to a climax by making Tony Stark watch a terrified young man die in his arms. Black Panther came out of nowhere to be the biggest movie in the franchise, by far, a character whose narrative was rather uniquely tied to actual world history—and uniquely detached from Marvel’s historical timelines—and so Infinity War put him in his place by making his death meaningless, random, and utterly disconnected from everything that his story had been. Gamora’s relationship with her father was a mix of complicity, love, and hate, all forced on her against her will as a child; her death was her (inadvertent) assistance to his plan where he kills his darling. And Loki is a character who has died many times and always come back; when Thanos kills him, it means something that he declares, “No resurrections!”
So on and so on: if we feel things with these deaths, it’s because they are climaxes to stories that other movies have carefully developed. But only as end-points, only as final withdrawals. Infinity War has nothing to add to what those previous movies say about youth or about complex feelings about parents or about the African diaspora; moreover, because all of its deaths are transparently going to be taken back, it has nothing to say about the finite nature of life. Indeed, even though Thanos’s pseudo-Malthusian motivations would seem to be related, on some level, to Tony Stark’s discovery of a perpetual energy source in the first MCU movie—and his decision to make it into a weapon, instead—it doesn’t develop the problem of societal limit points that it might otherwise seem to be thinking through; other than linking the two characters in their final battle, the fact that Thanos can only understand power in terms of the power to destroy is a fitting climax to Iron Man’s story without doing anything interesting to develop it.
Thanos’s motivations, after all, are wildly nonsensical. Infinity War tries to imbue Thanos with tragic nobility, making his loss something we should have feelings about: As terrifying as his violence it, we learn, he thinks he is doing the right thing! But: with the gauntlet and the stones, he has become omnipotent and omniscient and he could do whatever he wants to make the universe a better place. The finger snap of doom is dramatic and terrifying and it’s also really, really dumb. It’s so dumb that the comic-book plot where Thanos is in love with Death herself, and kills half the universe to get a date with her, is actually less dumb.
It’s dumb because this movie doesn’t want to tell complex stories about the nuances of existence in an endlessly expanding and surprising multi-verse; it wants to pound us with stories about violence as simple and clear as a literal roller coaster. It doesn’t want to keep building a franchise; it wants to sell off the parts and pocket a percentage. It looks at a house and instead of a place for people to live and grow, it sees a real-estate property.
No one has an unironic relation to a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is not the thing that MacPhail’s original story about the guy on the train is about, because the story only exists to explain what the word means. There is no MacGuffin without the story; MacGuffins are the things whose nonexistence the story was invented to explain, but which the story actually calls into (non)existence. This is a paradox, which is what MacGuffins are, paradoxical.
However, since the very definition of the thing includes its own incoherence—to define it is to explain why it doesn’t exist, but it only exists because of its definition—the MacGuffin, rather uniquely, is not something you can ever take seriously. To name it that is to know what it is—that it isn’t—and like trying to explain to someone that Thanos has a crush on death and THAT’s why he wants to blow up the universe, these are words and sentences that drown out their own meaning when you speak them.
Thanos is humorless and lacking in self-consciousness. He has an image of himself as the man who does what no one else will, and so that’s what he does. He does not quip; he does not get angry; he is patient and even selfless in his way; because he cannot see that he is ridiculous, he cannot be self-conscious. His tragedy is this lack of irony, his total commitment to a destiny from which he cannot obtain even the slightest trace of detachment. If he could, he would see how ludicrous it is. But he can’t. He is exactly the sort of person who would misunderstand what a MacGuffin is for, because he has an unironic relationship with it. He is the sort of maniac who would set out to be a farmer by burning the world to the ground; he knows costs but not value, because he farms but does not eat.
He is the people who made this franchise, on a certain level, or they are him: from the beginning, from the first Iron Man onwards, we’ve seen the development of powerful technology out of apparently limitless energy sources, and what is it that our heroes have done with that power? What Tony Stark does with his arc reactor—in first and subsequent versions, as it develops into ever more powerful and sophisticated iterations of the same idea—is not provide humanity with a clean, renewable source of endless energy; this possibility is raised multiple times, and then, instead, he make a death-robot suit for his ego to enjoy. He is the hero of that film, as Thanos is the hero of this one; as Thanos sets out to bring order and peace by culling the herd, arbitrarily, what is it that Tony Stark has been doing, since the very beginning? Has he not, as Iron Man, been killing the bad guys in the name of the greater good? Has he not, since the beginning, been arbitrarily deciding which is which?
My first reaction to watching it was that Infinity War is trash; my second has been that it’s a film which explores how the entire franchise is bullshit. But at least the first few films understood that Tony Stark was the problem, that his was the very same smirking rich frat-boy military masculinity that had gotten America lodged in wars which never end, which resulted in meaningless death for untold multitudes, and for no reason at all; ten years ago, the film still remembered that wars that last forever are a bad thing, that they were our fault, and that something had to change. But then nothing did; Tony Stark became the foundation for a franchise, and now, Thanos has been its logical endpoint: endowed with infinite power, he does not empower the universe, he culls it. And unlike our flawed heroes, who make spontaneous decisions that affect the fate of millions, he does it randomly. They are arbitrary, but him? He is unbiased.
So let’s come around to the beginning. What is bullshit good for? What the filmmakers know about what they have made is its value, but apparently not the process by which it came into existence, or by which it could continue to thrive going forward. They know what they can get from it by killing it, but not what its life could continue to do. Like Thanos, they have misunderstood the value of disorganized growth, of the commons, and of a wilderness where new things can happen that you didn’t plan for. Instead, they only seem to understand their property as a site to be mined of value as thoroughly as possible; they do not see that stories are the reason why value is valuable in the first place.
Most of all, Thanos is like the people making these twenty films: exhausted, over-burdened, and longing for the relief of peace and quiet. Can you imagine how exhausting it has been to make these films, and then to integrate them all—all these characters with all their different aesthetic textures, genres, and stories—into one single movie? No wonder the filmmakers killed their darlings by chewing and mashing and digesting them into a consistent narrative paste.
And so, this is the lesson of Infinity War: if this is how you think, this is what you get. If you build an entire movie around MacGuffins, the material embodiment of wanting, insufficiency, and lack; if you fill every beat and narrative space with the problem of those MacGuffins, leaving no space for anything else; if you crush every story down to the problem of how it relates to those MacGuffins; and most of all, if you find all the chatter and babble and noise to be tiresome, wearisome, and in need of organization, well, then this is what that will get you: a demonstration of why capitalists are bad farmers. They get it all backwards, and they don’t know what you use organic matter for. MacGuffins aren’t the crop, they’re the fertilizer; guff is the bullshit you put in the ground to make the plants grow. And if you think that shit is the thing that you’re growing in your garden, well, bon appetit! You are what you eat.