Vanity of Vanities! aka Growing Older (not Up) with "The Avengers"
While scrambling to make arrangements for the screening of Avengers: Infinity War (aka Avengers Part III, Marvel Part oh whatever) a crisis murmured to me. I wasn’t only getting older, but getting old. Days before, I had resigned to putting off the screening, which conflicted with my day-job hours, but came around (with the collusion of a dental appointment) when I was certain that I was going to see the movie sometime anyway, and if so, must I pay for it? I don’t enjoy these movies much; or rather, I do find myself enjoying bits of them, but in the most basic fashion. I’m not sure that my long-held fast-food analogy for Marvel necessarily holds up (something tasty and empty, often super-sized when I choose to indulge, and then forgotten with the risk of some bellicose digestion afterwards) so much as to what one becomes increasingly accustomed to while aging in a sinecure position: the morning bagels and donuts, potluck sweets, mandatory birthday pitch-ins, and leftover pastries and salties from meetings, sitting in the neighborhood center, demanding to be grabbed before their room temperature expiration. Turning away from such earthly delights when one has nine hours of check-ins and phone calls and placid data surveillance becomes an intensive task of solid resolve. Eating the cake, I’m wondering, “Why?” And take another bite. “Oh the cake,” I whisper with a breathy baby-talk cadence. I grab a bagel. A bowl of peanut M&Ms waits nearby. While aging, such treats become like sex, and when offered (assuming it’s edible or enticing), hard to turn down. Why not? “Oh the cake.”
Before one knows it, after all the leftover cake and almond bars and gluten-free strawberry shortcake, you’re ensnared in middle age, over the hill and still with no great destination save to be back in the office the next morning for more work, processing ring-fingers of the opposite sex like an automaton before moving on to some French silk. “Oh the pie,” again the breathy baby-talk. So it goes with film criticism, lapping up our screenings, assuming Disney doesn’t read this and damns me into the inferno of emptying my pocket. The body begins to fall apart, retirement funds add up to something, and I’m “happy” playing golf with stiff joints. The Lipitor allows one to keep eating the food, indulging in a cream-basted Ham Pie for the retirement party, with some tater-tot hot dish on the side which I am resolved to keep wholly to myself; it’s my party, shut up. I go home, sit down, swipe on Seniors’ Tinder, and forget where I put my keys. Anyway, I haven’t eaten since the Ham Pie hours ago, and am buoyed by the Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch in the cupboard. It’d be great except I’m out of almond milk. Too tired to walk to the mart a half-mile away, too obtuse to learn a delivery method on the net, and still having not found my keys, it’s ok. I just sit back with the Cap’n as my crowned teeth crunch on the unsullied pellets. “Oh the Cap’n,” breathy baby-me whispers. A glimmer of childhood flashes through me. I’m Pac-Man, I think, and chomp deliberately. On the YouTubes are some old pro-wrestling things from the ‘80s and I settle in and zone out. If I go to the bathroom I’ll be careful to avoid any and all mirrors.
So, Avengers: Infinity War. The crossover event of the century, where a hundred hours of movie and television foreplay finally begins to pay-off, and quite quickly in the opening minutes even! Before Ryan Coogler’s solid Black Panther there was perhaps the best franchise offering, Thor: Ragnarok, which worked because it was the first of these fantastical comic book movies to nearly fully embrace the ironic mode with which it’s been flirting since Day 1, the bombast of its spectacle undercut successfully by a consistent succession of yuks, not even tainted by the worst variable in the Marvel movies, their ineptitude for melodrama (Old Dad Odin [Anthony Hopkins] dying and floating off into the distance even feels pretty cheeky). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) get the Asgardians off the planet before Cate Blanchett unleashes hell, in effect leading a refugee mission to Earth. Surely, Thor 4 would continue the riotous fun as the refugees settled into an open-armed Scandinavia. More laughs with some apposite cultural commentary.
Or not! The humors are at an end, and serious shit goes down in a way that’s the antipodal negative reflection to the comedy of Thor 3’s in mesias res opening. Alpha Bad Dude Thanos (Josh Brolin) has hijacked the ship and killed just about everyone. With ease, Thanos and his cultish followers overwhelm even the god man Thor, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Hulk, and warrior Heimdell (Idris Elba). Thanos is looking for the “Infinity Stones” which, when placed on his gauntlet, will make him the most powerful being in the universe (as happens in these stories). In the big picture, this means Thanos and his droogs will be heading to the far corners of the universe to complete the mission, including Earth, where a stone is kept by Vision (Paul Bettany), the advanced artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who by the way hasn’t talked to Captain America (Chris Evans) since they had a bitter disagreement a few films ago, oh and also Vision, who’s basically a dude now, has a thing going on with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and they’re just trying to be cool lovers unburdened by this super hero stuff. Oh, also there’s Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Todd Holland), Stark’s protégé Avenger, precocious and learning the ropes. Another Infinity Stone is kept by Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the guy who can manipulate time and space, and grasps the severity of Thanos’ threat. Elsewhere in the universe, Thanos has a run-in with the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, David Bautista, Vin Diesel), who in turn run into Iron Man and Spider-Man, who run into Thor. Plans are made! Stuff happens! Death, destruction, sandwiches, blarghy blarghy blam!
Yes, there’s some satisfaction in seeing this crossover; it hits the pleasure nerve, just as it confounds an awareness of how logistically unlikely this all is (thankfully, directors Joe and Anthony Russo are able to make it flow without the discord of [the deliberately funny] Wet Hot American Summer reboots, or last fall’s Justice League patchwork of two irreconcilable directorial voices). But the pleasure principle goes only so far, as the soap opera aspect of Marvel—serious exchanges between lovers, parents, friends—are void of dynamism, the famous faces voicing the agonistics lacking all conviction while showing up for their over-qualified investment of talent. As Infinity War’s second hour kicks in, so does the zoning. In this, the intersection of television of moviedom becomes more apparent. For while the Russos are more deft in staging and set-ups than their predecessors and colleagues (Ryan Coogler, who smuggled some worthwhile aspects into Black Panther as much as he was overwhelmed by it, is an exception; hopefully his Pyrrhic victory has bought him and co-star Michael B. Jordan some agency in the industry), these films, for all their spectacle, are tailor made for a smartphone generation (of which I’m admittedly a part) craving the company and flow of information (or stimulation, rather) provided by our accompanying tools. The vacuous plottiness of it all lends itself not to sitting rapt in a big, dark room with strangers, but watching while getting some cleaning done, paying credit card bills, checking in on your parents, and Tinder swiping. And I guess that’s fine (or insidious, but I’ll play good cop), considering the characters in these abominations have infected our day-to-day. As Marvel/Disney puts up its grandest of opuses in the franchise, it’s hard to put off the ersatz reality we’ve found ourselves in.
As these individual characters collide in a single 160-minute feature, the narrative, as you see, acquires the amusing convolutions of the soundtrack of Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Doug & Bob in medias res recap (and I’ve only mentioned a fraction of characters who either appear or are referenced). I won’t “spoil” anything, not that the spoilers really matter. The ending of Infinity War is ostensibly shocking (tonally, the most superior one in the Marvel universe, aside from Robert Downey Jr.’s affirmative “I am Iron Man” from the very first “episode” in this long-running serial), but then again, following the money (and the purpose of those Infinity Stones in the plot), the stakes are as solid as most of the CGI backdrops ornamenting the proceedings. Meanwhile, we have to hang out for another year as Infinity War’s sequel comes out in 2019 (maybe we’ll get some peripheral updates with Ant-Man and Wasp this July).
But what the hell, man. Vanity of vanities! By 2019 you’ll be another year older. And you’ve hung on this long, as the seeds for a whole new garden of franchises within the franchise are sewed, summoning you back like the lemon cake goodness. There’s a flashback to 2006, watching a DVD of the 1986-1988 television drama Crime Story. You figured, at the time, “this was 20 years ago,” and then convulse with fear by the tangibility of that time, because you remember, as a kid, seeing this show way back when. You understood how easily another twenty years would come. And, by 2018 as you sit and watch Avengers (on the 10th anniversary of this Marvel movie push), fucking twelve have. Dude! Eight more and you’re at that much-feared mount that materialized in 2006. The days of fecund youth have gone the way of your morning wood. The sadness is enveloping! You could read Ecclesiastes or The Death of Ivan Ilyich…or sit and wait for more Avengers. A heavy exhalation. Robert Downey Jr. has been 39 since like 1994. You’re older than Tom Cruise when it seemed like Tom Cruise had been around forever.
Thanos' comfortable solitude at the conclusion feels like the pithy satisfaction one has after a good dump. It's the satisfaction and surrender to basic instincts buttressing the blows of time. It's arguably the truest moment in the whole Marvel enterprise. Temporal bookmarks—e.g. Facebook reminding you of a pic taken seven years ago (damn, seven?!)—make this mortal stumble feel like a staccato thudding on the stairs leading to a mute, dark basement of your own obsolescence. Maybe this wouldn’t matter if there was a TV in that basement. And some pizza and crackers with cheese and chocolate cake and every kind of cereal with an abundance of milk. But I don’t know, it’s really flipping dark down there.