Brain Teeth / The Audacity of Hopelessness Part 3: There Is Hope but Not for Us


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Warning. Contains spoilers for Avengers Infinity War. But at this point it seems as if everyone on the planet has already seen it so erm yeah whatever. Do not read it if you have not yet seen Avengers Infinity War please I’m going to write some stuff that’s going to spoil the hell of it for you. This Warn You. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. Etc. Only the penitent man will pass. You will not be saved by the holy ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Writing all this down I can hear that droning nasally voice again saying: “Actually… you can talk about all this narrative wrongness and Mark Millar stuff all day but we all know that all the heroes are gonna be saved/resurrected in the next movie so what’s the point – it doesn’t mean anything.”

captain

Again yeah: looking around at the top of the hill at the beautiful expanse of the internet this seems to be a pretty commonly held view among all the smart thinkers. This communal collective shrug. Everyone being a wise-ass / wise-man and coming out with “…well of course this too shall pass.”

And of course wasn’t it me that just said: “Superhero comics are all about the appearance of change with no real change taken?” (Yes. Yes I was).

But I’m afraid that this all misses the point.

Because here’s what you have to understand: even if you’re experiencing a story where the characters aren’t growing or aren’t learning or aren’t getting anywhere, even if a whole bunch of people die in one film and then get brought back in another, even if it’s all just an infinite loop that gets them all right back where they started from: you will still experience all of it.

Even if they don’t change – the act of watching them will still have an effect on and will still change you.

I’m sorry if this shatters anyone’s Godlike perspectives of themselves but some home truths: human beings do not experience space and time all at once (I’m know. I’m sorry). We’re finite beings and unfortunately (it sucks I know) we all experience reality one moment at a time – one after another. Yes I know that you’ve read Watchmen a thousand and one times but no matter how much you might wish it – you’re not Dr Manhattan and never will be.

Dr Manhattan

Yes. It’s sad I know.

The next Avengers film can undo everything that we’re already seen. Dr Strange and do the time warp and whatever. But at this moment in time (*checks watch* so… 2018) it doesn’t exist for us yet. All that exists for us right now in your brain and mine is Infinity War. Thanos triumphant. Check and mate. And if you were lucky enough to be in a packed cinema like I was when it happened you know exactly what that experience was like.

Whole crowd be like Drax:

drax

Now yeah yeah Mr Crit Hulk (and all the other wise-men out there) at the moment it happened were obviously all like:

Which of the main four will go? Tony? Cap? Thor? Hulk? It could be anyone! And then…they took away Black Panther and you realized exactly what they were really doing…I grimaced immediately.

But in my cinema there was shocked silence punctuated only by shocked gasps. You wise-asses obviously saw the ruse straight away but then that just makes me wonder if you’re able to experience a single genuine moment in the cinema at all. I mean I know that I’m a cynical and bitter and twisted misanthrope. But you guys make me feel like I’m Father Frigging Christmas.

Like I don’t want to over egg this this point: but here’s the important thing that I think is lost in all of the “well yeah I wasn’t impressed / it’s obvious what’s going to happen / I’ve realized exactly what they’re really doing” blah blah blah: I think that the experience of watching Spider-Man die in Tony Stark’s arms and slowly turn to dust is a proper real cinematic moment. And even if in the next Avengers movie they push that big red button / Infinity Stone in the first few minutes and it erases all of the consequences of everything and Spider-Man pops up again fresh as a daisy and fighting fit (“Mr Stark? I feel great”) – it can’t and never will erase the moment when you / all of us watched that poor little kid die / turn to motherfucking dust.

Huh

Sniff.

Even if all the deaths are undone – the experience of watching them die will stay with you for the rest of your life.

It’s an actual piece of solid gold life-advice that we bump into sooner or later: you can’t undo the things that have happened – the past is permanent. And nothing you can do can take it back. And that goes double for the movies. Not the actions that happen within the movie a magic wizard can always come and turn back time or whatever. But whatever happens on the screen is there forever. Not only has Spider-Man died in Tony Stark’s arms the one time – but that’s a moment that we can rewind and watch again and again and again and again – all the way to (well…) Infinity. (We might not be Dr Manhattan but our technology actually lets us all get pretty close hooray).

That’s why they call it a movie experience.

And yeah I know that obviously the reasons why Marvel have done it this way is so that we’ll all queue up to see the Captain Marvel and next Avengers movie in 2019 (gotta catch ’em all!). The reasons seem as cynical as cynical can be.

And yet and yet. That moment when it happened…

yum

So very very sweet.

There are a few other examples of big budget mainstream movies doing the whole big cliffhanger thing. But not many.

There’s the two Back to the Future films. The first one being “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need…roads.” which was apparently just meant as a joke but then told into a whole thing. Then there’s Back to the Future Part II where Doc is struck by lightening and Marty running right back to the climax of the first film. There’s the end of The Matrix Reloaded which was so incoherent that I can barely remember it (something about Neo being knocked out and then he’s lying next to Agent Smith or something?). I don’t know – it’s so bad that I don’t think I can even be bothered to find it on youtube. And then there’s the big Daddy of them all which is The Empire Strikes Back which has Han frozen in carbonite (“Actually… I think you’ll find that he’ll get out in the next movie.”), Luke with his hand chopped off and the Rebels scattered around the galaxy.

Bare with me: but Avengers Infinity War pretty much pisses over all of them like Donald Trump in a hotel bedroom.

I mean yeah sure you could easily construct an argument about how all of them are better movies that Infinity War (even the Matrix sequels if *sigh* you really really wanted to and wanted everyone to hate you). But in terms of actual business of cliffhangerness all of the movies above pretty much pull their punches. I mean yeah ok a BAD THING has happened (Doc’s in 1885, Han got caught etc) but the movies still go out of their way to leave the crowd feeling good and hopeful. Back to the Future Part 2 ends with Marty reuniting with 1955 Doc (and then a trailer of Back to the Future Part 3) and Empire Strikes Back ends with this happy image:

everything is ok

Subtitle: ok – everything might be bad but at least we still have each other.

(Admittingly: The Matrix Reloaded might be the outlier here but that’s because like pretty much all of the rest of the movie I frankly have no idea what feeling The Matrix Reloaded was supposed to leave you with. Apart from maybe confusion. I think?).

Infinity War tho goes all the frigging way. To such an extent that well… ok. Here’s a thing that I haven’t seen remarked upon yet: Infinity War kinda presents itself in such a way that if you didn’t know better and wasn’t aware that of course there’s going to be a sequel and of course Marvel are going to keep making movies forever (kinda reminds me of that Dylan Moran line: “When have you met a child not in need? ‘Actually that’s enough raspberry tart for me thanks. I’m just going to go and clean the car ok?.'” MARVEL WILL NEVER HAVE ENOUGH RASPBERRY TART).

Thanos clicks his fingers. Half of everyone in the universe gets turned to dust. And the last shot of the film is him sitting happily on his own watching the sunset.

Here comes the science bit: There is nothing in this that suggests that there is anything more to come.  Which is exactly why it’s so powerful and exactly why it works like gangbusters (for this human anyway). Presented as such it feels like an ending. Which I’m guessing is a big part of the reason why it’s rubbed up so many people the wrong way. It’s not that they know that “well actually they next movie will undo all the death” it’s that the movie doesn’t give them what they wanted. It feels wrong. Everything on the screen – how it’s shot / edited / filmed / music etc is telling them that the bad guy won and it’s over. There’s no shot on the remaining Avengers holding each other’s hands and saying something like “Don’t worry guys – we can beat this.” They’re literally nowhere to be seen. In the same way that you don’t see Biff Tannen after he’s fallen into the pile of manure. All the superheroes have been defeated and they’re now an afterthought and no longer worthy of consideration. The new status quo is now lighter 50% of the all the people in the universe. Sorry about that.

Groot

It should go without saying but what the hell: this is all pretty damn incredibly audacious.

I mean: looking around at every single other big budget mainstream action film that I’ve seen in the past forever the lesson seems to be to pander and be as bland and as inoffensive and dull as it is possible to me. No risks. No craziness. No nothing. Just give the people exactly what they want and then everyone goes home.

Whereas before you get power fantasy after power fantasy after power fantasy with no consequences and everything beautiful and then – whoops – right of the middle of the rollercoaster to end all rollercoasters it gets to the bit where you think it’s going to stop right before it crashes into the ground in a huge flaming fireball and then it just – doesn’t.

Which is all down to the extent to which Marvel have trained us. There’s about 4 times in Infinity War the goodies almost come back. They almost get the gauntlet; Thor gets the biggest hammer in history; they destroy the Mind Stone; Cap is strong enough to keep his fingers apart. And we have 18 movies of the goodies rescuing the darkest hour using their pluck and smarts. We are like Pavlov’s dogs, where the orchestra kicks in and we know, this is what the last stand looks like. And they not only fail but then vanish. No tearful speeches, no novel sacrifice. Not even a reunion washup meeting. And not even the hint of any sort of Shawarma at all. Harsh harsh harsh.

And mummy Disney just refuses to kiss it all better.

(Thanks be to Hoppo for this line).

(Am actually kinda looking forward to the next few decades when the kids who saw this stuff and got such a concentrated blast of big budget studio film nihilism actually grow-up. I mean: this kinda stuff it going to have a pretty big crazy psychological effect no?)

Throughout everything I’ve written here I’ve just being using “Marvel” to refer to the directors and writers which isn’t quite fair. I mean – yeah Marvel is the entity responsible for the 19 films (and counting…) so far. But Infinity War was directed by Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who ooooh also wrote Pain and Gain which is most excellent and – LOL! – Thor: The Dark World which is… not). What I would absolutely love to know is which one of them was responsible for the decision about the exact way Infinity War ends. Which boardroom meeting was it when someone put their hand up and said: “Actually we had an idea – what if we let Thanos win and kill off half of everybody?”) Because the whole thing very much feels like a creative decision and the cynical part of my brain says: “Actually… creative decisions aren’t really allowed anymore. Especially when they come in the climax of the biggest multi-billion dollar movie series of all time.” The aim of the game is to leave the audience feeling satisfied – not leaving them feeling bereft. Right guys?

team

Right.

Except well – I guess when you’re almost 20 films into a series it becomes time to do something new. When the movie is supposed to be the climax of 10 years worth of work and a spectacle the likes of which no-one has ever seen before then I guess it wouldn’t really be enough to just have Tony Stark being the one that gets killed off. Like: some people might be sad – but there’s going to be a bunch of other people who aren’t going to care and a whole other bunch of people (cut to: me and my flatmate) who’ll say that they saw it coming.

So the best solution is escalation. Different people are going to be attached to different characters right? So let’s kill a wide a selection as possible.

You can almost actually see them all sitting down and trying to work it out:

Them all in a boardroom with a the Big Problem written on a whiteboard:

HOW DO WE MAKE THIS FEEL AS EPIC AND AS MOMENTOUS AND LIFE-CHANGING AS POSSIBLE WHEN EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT IT’S NOT? HOW DO WE MAKE THIS FEEL LIKE AN ENDING WHEN EVERYONE KNOWS THAT IT’S NOT? HOW DO WE MAKE IT FEEL REAL WHEN EVERYONE KNOWS THAT IT’S NOT? 

And then they basically  sat down and checked all the stuff off.
The more I think about it the more it seems to me that the ending is all centered on how they’re gonna get you to feel what they need you to feel and how they can make you feel it to such an extent that in the moment a whole cinema audience will forget what they know (that this isn’t the end), and that that knowledge won’t creep back till after. (Unless of course you’re Mr Crit Hulk and whatever – but then I’m not quite sure anything would do it for those guys: expect maybe killing people off for good but erm – that’s not really much of solution because then you don’t have any film franchises anymore obvs).

This is where the creative decision actually becomes a corporate one and vice versa and why it’s not water but Coke. Yes it’s refreshing and tasty and cold and sweet – but you can see the corporate logic behind it. But in a strange kinda twisty paradoxical loop for this chump – that almost makes the whole experience feel even better. That the concerns for the brand and the hope of making the movie into a big of an event as possible (something worth all the build up) actually resulted in something fresh and daring and risky and an actual leap into something new and uncharted waters. And even if the next film completely reneges on what’s come before I don’t care. It still happened. It still exists.

And there’s a small part of me that hopes against hope that maybe with Marvel being so daring and it only making them even more popular that other movies of this ilk decide to follow suit… Maybe not every movie needs to be so damn cookie-cut and boring and dull.

Yes The Last Jedi I’m looking at you.

(Wait – did The Last Jedi even end with a cliffhanger? I remember Rey moving some rocks around and then I guess I must have fell asleep…?)

jedi

In terms of what I hope the next film does do (and I know I’m setting myself up for a fall here but whatever) is keep pushing itself into strange new places. Like maybe the film starts 50 years later in a world where it turns out Thanos was right and everything has become a utopia but then The Avengers find a thing and they’re all like: “Oh well – fuck it. Let’s go and save everyone.” You know – show them living with the consequences before taking them away or something similar. I know I spent a whole bunch of time playing up the Mark Millar angle – but to be fair the first person that popped into my mind after I left the cinema was Steven Moffat. I mean: it’s very Doctor Who no? Like: it’s not quite every star in the universe slowly winking off but it’s pretty close. The best of the new Doctor Who 2-parters always act like two separate stories with their own momentums and trajectories – fingers crossed the Russo brothers are fans and have something halfway elegant planned.

Of course in all of this I’ve overlooked that Infinity War’s little post credit sting scene with Samuel Jackson (Did anyone else have a: “oh yeah! I totally forget he was in these movies too!” moment) and erm – thingie – Maria Hill? Whatever. I mean – it’s still Marvel on “audacious” mood as when the scene starts your first expectation is that both Sam and Maria are going to do / say something cool to start the fight back – “I have HAD IT with this motherfuckin’ Thanos on this motherfuckin’ plane (of existence)” or something similar – only for ooops! them to go all Buffy Vampire too. With the only incredibly small sign of hope being something that basically amounts to “GO WATCH CAPTAIN MARVEL NEXT YEAR BITCHES” which again is that sweet delicious artificial Coke-taste as we’re basically left with the impulse to not only want to watch one film but two.

captain marvel

Maybe this is next and most important phase of the Marvel cinematic universe? In the past they crowbarred in their characters into films where it didn’t really felt like they fit – that whole Hawkeye bit in the first Thor film; Black Widow strutting around in Iron Man 2; Dr Strange for some reason in the last Thor film – all to help cultivate the whole “shared universe” drive (look! They’re all connected! They’re all connected!). Only now it seems like they’re going the full fat comics route where what you’re watching just won’t make sense unless you go off and see the other designated movies. In fact I don’t understand why they haven’t yet got to the point where they have an “Editor’s Note” that flashes up on screen (“To find out what happens next – go see Thor: Four!”). The first technique comes from a position of weakness and the attempt to get people to buy into the idea that all these movies are interlocked but now it seems that maybe they’re operating at such strength that it’s no longer about Marvel trying to convince you to take part – it’s about the audience having to do the work aka you’d better keep watching all our movies suckers.

In fact in fact in fact… this from a friend on facebook:

“The shocked audience thing was particularly delicious. It helped that at the post credits sting people were hoping for some sort of reassurance and all they got was more heartache and a confusing final frame – the person next to me “what the fuck is that?””

I mean: shit – I run Comic Forums and Comic Book Clubs and Film Clubs and am currently on to Part 3 of a thing all about Avengers Infinity War and my reaction was exactly the same – “what the fuck is that?”

Answer – it’s Marvel treating the Captain Marvel logo as if it were the fucking Batsign and them knowing with 100% certainty and accuracy that instead of us rebelling and saying who can be bothered with all this shit? We’d instead lap it all up like it was…

Well.

yum

So yeah – that post-credits sting just kinda totally brought out the Kafka in me…

There is hope – but not for us.

Please forgive me for such an obvious and cheesy rhetorical move: but we’re through to the point where Marvel is basically Thanos and Thanos is Marvel. With the Infinity Stones as each one of the movie franchises it’s created so far: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Ant-Man (who wasn’t even in this movie!) am I forgetting anyone? Oh right – Doctor Strange! And Infinity War is the point where it pummels us with it’s combined might and we’re powerless to defend ourselves. They can bend space and time and story logic itself to the point where they can do anything they want. To the point where we’re no longer even discussing the idea whether or not these are good movies or not anymore. No of course not – don’t be silly. The assumption that we’ll be watching Marvel films forever has already buried itself down deep into our frail human brains. The droning nasally voices are all saying: “well of course they’re not dead” which seems like it’s oh-so-smart and arch. Run it through the translator and you’ll get “Well – Marvel sure aren’t fooling me. No sir. I’m far to clever to fall for their clever tricks.” But of course of course that’s exactly in the position that Marvel wants you because we all know you’ll be at the head of the queue next year buying your ticket so you can see exactly how you were right.

Well done you.

Marvel knew that for this movie they had to go as big as they possibly could and that anything too obvious would have resulted in a mass eye roll emoji. If it had ended with Iron Man tied to a train track with a train approaching or Captain America with a giant rock about to fall on his head or Thor in a room with spikes on either side about to be crushed inbetween we would have all been less than impressed. (I mean – your reaction to any cliffhanger can always be: well of course I know they’re all going to be ok and everything will work out alright).

In 1918 you could just have Allan Quatermain hanging off a cliff and that would be enough but now in 2018 you have to do 20378528572395 things to make it the hero cliffhanger of hero cliffhangers that a 1918 audience couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

hi

But as audiences we more jaded and we’ve seen too many things and anything on too small a scale would only leave us laughing at the obviousness of it. And so – with Infinity War the trick is to overwhelm us with an event so big and so huge that it completely overwhelms us. (Or attempts to at least). Where the skill is in making you feel what you know not to be true (that this is the awful end and evil has won and Thanos has won). Where the ending is to the nth degree / apotheosis / cultural fulfillment of the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers.

Of course yes – I’m an culpable and as complicit with all this as anyone. I mean – here I am: writing all this weeks afterwards while I’m guessing most of the rest of you have already moved on towards other concerns (something Trump did maybe? Or the Royal Wedding!) and of course the only way to win is not to play etc etc and so on. But yeah regardless of that: Infinity War did it for me. And if a monolithic corporate monstrosity is going to bestride our planet and suck up all the energies and talents of some of the world’s most talented actors and film-makers and writers and etc I must say that I can only be appreciative when it actually goes something that makes me sit up in my seat and go “holy actual fucking wow.”

Because I guess all we really want is to entertained. To see something new. To go to the cinema and be given an honest-to-god real life visceral / emotional experience. Something that doesn’t mollycoddle and reassure but instead gives you that cold blackness of infinite space kinda feeling and to do all that right in the place where you’d expect it the least.

And here’s hoping (however unlikely it may be): maybe Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and whoever will find a way to play with our expectations again and the next Avengers film manages to play a whole new different game in a way that still feels satisfying. Yes – 50% of the population of the universe will return but maybe instead of us feeling like that’s an invitation to eyeroll: maybe it’s a chance to create something that feels truly triumphant and victorious?

Because if Avengers: Infinity War tells us anything then it’s this – anything is possible.

 

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