Film Review: “Avengers: Infinity War” and the Perverse Fantasy of Annihilation

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks mulling over Avengers: Infinity War, what I thought of it, and I think it is saying about and to us. Though I haven’t really figured out for sure what I believe, I’ve got enough to at least sketch out the broad parameters of an argument. So, here goes.

Some time ago, I wrote some thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron and the way in which it can be understood as a melodramatic myth for our current era, in which the processes of climate change that we have ignited threaten to destroy us. Ultron, as the product of human engineering, is the essence of this fear congealed into a single figure and he ultimately seeks to trigger a cataclysm to wipe out humanity, which is averted just in time to prevent absolute catastrophe. The film ultimately proposes that it is not too-late for collective humanity, though it teases us with the possibility that it might be (hence the melodramatic affect it produces).

While Thanos is not driven by the same robotic logic as Ultron, he is just as ruthlessly determined to see his own vision brought to life, no matter how many lives are destroyed in the process. His goal, however, is (in the macro-level) to save the universe from its own rapacious consumption. In Thanos’s vision of himself, he is a savior but also a destroyer, and one term is not possible without the other. In many ways, Thanos seems to exhibit exactly the sorts of egomaniacal tendencies we have observed in real-world politicians. Indeed, his argument that he alone can fix the problems afflicting the universe and that his decision to wipe out half of all of humanity is a necessary act is eerily reminiscent of Trump’s claim that only he could fix the intractable problems facing a broken country.

The terrifying thing about Thanos is that, like it or not, the film really is about him. Brolin brings to the role a measure of both gravitas and charisma that draw us toward him, even as we recoil at the horrors that he perpetrates and the relentlessness with which he pursues his genocidal goals. The fact that so much of the film’s narrative is scattered–split among the various Avengers and Guardians–ensures that it is Thanos’ particular narrative thread that holds together the most coherently and cohesively.

Once again, the Marvel universe channels our anxieties and deepest dread about the anthropocene onto a singular figure, though admittedly one whose powers are such that he cannot be defeated in the normal ways. As Hollywood films typically do, they posit that humanity is beset by forces outside of itself, that the catastrophe that will result in the deaths of billions of people is something so vast and beyond human comprehension that it can only be apprehended through the actions of an individual. That is, essentially, the paradox at the heart of the anthropocene, which the superhero films of the 21st Century seem uniquely poised to capture.

Yet there is also a perverse pleasure in indulging in Thanos’s fantasy solution to the problems afflicting the universe. If manmade climate change and the host of other problems afflicting contemporary subjectivity (and politics) remain intractable and difficult to solve via traditional policy solutions, a film like Infinity Wars allows us to indulge in the idea that yes, indeed, these things can only be fixed by a superhuman figure like Thanos. There is, then, a sort of perilous utopian logic at the heart of this film, one that allows us to give in to our innermost self-destructive fantasies at the same time as it provides us a way out, a way of disavowing that moment of sacrifice. I might even go so far as to suggest that Thanos is the epic hero twisted into a new form, one that commits atrocities in the name of a greater good and that must nevertheless be stopped.

Of course, the truly heart-wrenching part of the film comes when Thanos succeeds in his efforts and literally half of the universe is wiped out, including several members of the Avengers, and the film has a curiously pessimistic conclusion. The downbeat nature of the ending is, of course, a bit of a teaser, as it is almost certain that it will prove temporary and our beloved heroes will somehow be restored to the mortal plane. However, beneath that certainty, I think, there lurks a darker, bleaker awareness that even our superheroes–the ego ideal that we all desire to be–are not immune from the destruction that lurks at the edge of our collective unconscious. What’s more, it also reminds us that, while heroes may return from the dead, that is a privilege denied outside the realm of fiction.

Just as importantly, I do think that the MCU, more than perhaps any other cultural product of recent memory, expresses our collective sense of never-ending catastrophe. It’s hard not to feel that we are enmeshed in a perpetual cycle of bad news and global crises that can never be fully resolved. Though we know that the Avengers will continue in some form, they will have to confront another set of issues in the future. Their work is never done, and this begins to wear on the bodies of the superheroes. As a friend recently pointed out to me, even Cap has begun to show the signs of strain, his face bearing witness to the strain of always having to defend the world (and the universe).

In the end, Avengers: Infinity War is utopian Hollywood entertainment at its finest. It forces us to experience both the pressing problems of our current historical moment and provides (temporary) solutions to those problems that highlight their ultimate intractability. Once again, an Avengers movie has held up a startlingly clear mirror to our own world, forcing us to confront the monsters that haunt our collective imagination.

Who could ask for more than that?

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World Building: “The Song of Princes” and the Fall of Old Korray

The following is an extract from Alexias Korenas’ A History of the Korrayin People, Their Customs, and Legends. Compiled roughly 200 years ago, it remains the definitive work on the Korrayin people.

Among the Korrayin, there is no tale more sacred nor terrifying than the Fall of Old Korray. It is related in full in an epic text known as the Song of Princes, and while no complete copy has survived to be investigated by either Imperial or Haransharin authorities (that we know of), enough pieces have been recovered that we can relate the events that took place in at least some detail.

It is said that Old Korray was a land such as had never been seen since the dawn of the world. Larger by far than the distant Middle Kingdom, more lush and verdant than the continent upon which the Anukathi dwell, and far more civilized than any culture in Aridikh, Old Korray was the envy of the world. Indeed, dignitaries from the world’s powers came to the court of their High King–the Melkh, as they called him–to offer their alliances, their daughters, and their riches. Old Korray was, then, the center of the world, the axis around which the other great powers of the world revolved.

The first sign that all was not well began, the Song asserts, when the 29th king of the Uzurite House, Shavid, died in a tragic accident, leaving his numerous sons to squabble over the inheritance. Four of them quickly rose to the top: Kilab, Ethream, Elishua, and Avnon. They at first attempted to divide the kingdom among them, but it was inevitable that they should start to feud among themselves, each seeking to reclaim all of the patrimony for himself. Soon all of Old Korray was torn apart by war.

That war was arguably the most terrible event the world had seen, not to be rivaled until the civil war that brought down the reign of the Old Ones here on Aridikh. There were many great and terrible deeds committed by all sides during those dreadful years, but the end result was that Old Korray was soon an irreparably fragmented kingdom. No House, no matter how small, was able to avoid being pulled into the orbit of one of the Princes. Nor, for that matter, was the royal family, whose ranks were decimated as assassinations and battles flourished.

In the seventh year of the conflict, so the chronicle tells us, the Darkness fell. Perhaps, had the Korrayin not been involved in a feckless war with one another, they might have been able to resist the tide that swept them away, but as it was it took each army one by one. Finally, pushed to the sea, the four brothers–the last of their House–decided to set aside their feuding for the good of their people (a bit too little, too late, it must be said). They commandeered the great ships at the harbour city of Kivala and set sail with their followers. It is hard to say now how many perished as the Darkness overtook Korray, but it is clear from the Song that far more were left behind than were able to be taken in the ships. Truly, it was a dark day, and it haunts the Korrayin to this day.

Some speculate that it was an invading army from either the Middle Kingdom or the Old Ones of Aridikh that were responsible for the collapse of that mighty kingdom and the flight of the Korrayin. It is possible that such a strong attack might have been transformed by the myths and legends of a people into an abstract concept. However, it would have taken a truly mighty army to overcome the Korrayin, even divided as they were.

In my own professional opinion as a trained historian, it is far more likely to have been some sort of natural disaster. The lands to the west, what little we know of them, are reputed to be extraordinarily volatile, and so it seems to me likely that a great volcanic eruption is the source of the myth of the Darkness.

It is also unclear just how much time the Exiles spent on the seas, but it was probably no more than a matter of months. They soon spotted land, and when they came ashore they found a continent almost as prosperous as their own: Aridikh. They landed in the north of what is now Haranshar, very near the border of what is currently called Korray. They quickly found, however, that the mountains just to the west (what we now call the Mountains of Korray) were more hospitable for them, and they began their colonization efforts there. Some few, however, did move southward into the desert regions of Haranshar, where they remain to day.

Thus, as uncertain as many of the facts are surrounding the fall of Old Korray, it is certain that the incursion of the Korrayin onto Aridikh triggered the titanic series of conflicts that brought about the demise of the Old Ones. They landed in their great boat -and immediately set about marrying and conquering the various kings and queens of the Old Ones. Some of these had already established contacts with the Korrayin in their own country, and so the solidification of such alliances was only natural. Of course, by the time of the landing, the first cracks in the Hegemony of the Old Ones had already begun to show, so it was to be expected that a sudden influx of new peoples would exacerbate existing conflicts. And so it proved. Within a generation the Old Ones were mostly gone, and it would not be until the rise of Karyush the Great that the continent of Aridikh would once more find unity.

Since the subsequent history of the Korrayin is recounted elsewhere, I shall end by noting that the priests of Korray, regardless of what faith they follow, continue to hold the Song out as a warning and a promise. An entire body of prophecy has also sprung up, proclaiming that one day a Meschach, a saviour, will arise to unite them and lead them to conquer the continent of Aridikh, restoring them to the greatness that was once theirs.

Such things are, of course, laughable, considering how divided the Korrayin remain and how few of them there are compared to either the Imperials to the west or the Haransharin to their east. Still, one cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to those myths.

But since such things are better left to the Alchemists and their stargazing, I shall end this part of my chronicle here.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and the Puncturing of Hegemonic Masculinity

Billy Wilder is one of my favourite classic Hollywood directors. All of his movies–from Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard–crackle and snap with an energy all their own. Wilder had a keen eye for searing away the patina of conformity and niceness of American culture to lay bare the hypocrisy and rot beneath. While at first glance a comedy like The Seven Year Itch may not seem to have the same bleak outlook on the American psyche as some of his earlier films, lurking beneath the surface of this film, however, is an awareness of the fundamental shortcomings of postwar American society.

The film’s ostensible protagonist, Richard Sherman is a middle-aged man in a thoroughly middle-class life: he has a wife, a son, and a gray-flannel suit type job at a publishing house. Unfortunately, he’s miserable, his house is a prison, and all romance is gone from his marriage. After his wife and young son go to Maine to escape the New York summer heat, a bubbly, vivacious, and very blonde young woman (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs, and he immediately sets out to seduce her and inject some new vivacity into his humdrum existence.

This being a Billy Wilder film, it’s almost too clever for its own good. It moves with an almost frantic pace, thanks in part to the twitchy, spastic energy that Tom Ewell brings to the role of Sherman. In fact, his performance verges on neurotic, in that he constantly twitches, grimaces, and indulges in fantasies that have no bearing in actual lived reality. Indeed, the juxtaposition of his fantasy self–as a sex-god who is irresistible to women–with his very plain real self highlights just how delusional he really is.

The Seven Year Itch also turns its razor-sharp wit on the fictions and myths that structured postwar American life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sherman has, on the surface, embraced everything that hegemonic American culture had dictated was “normal,” from the 9-5 job, a wife and son, etc. However, 1950s middle-class domesticity and the bread-winner role have left Sherman thoroughly alienated and disenchanted. He is surrounded by the trappings of midcentury consumer culture, but rather than providing him fulfillment, they become a prison and often cause him physical harm, as when he twice trips on his son’s roller-skate. His apartment is also full of the clutter of a consumerist culture, each piece of clutter highlighted by the film’s vibrant color palette.

What’s more, the older model represented by his boss Mr. Brady is no more satisfying. He is a gruff, rather blustering older man who feels even more entrapped by his years-long marriage to his wife. While Sherman wants to return to his wife and possibly find respite from the corrupting influence of the city (and nubile femininity), Mr. Brady embraces the freedom and even intimates that he might pursue an adulterous encounter while his wife is up north. Though the scene is obviously played for laughs, it’s an uncomfortable sort of laughter.

Thus, I would argue that The Seven Year Itch punctures the myth of midcentury hegemonic masculinity. It ultimately becomes not just a prison for the male subject, but a dysfunctional ideal that he cannot fulfill and which encourages him to destroy the things in his life that should matter: relationships with his wife, his child, and even what could be a great friendship “The Girl.” Men in this world are chronically unable to articulate their feelings in any meaningful or sophisticated way, and even the last shot of the film shows Sherman still fumbling about, a complete mess right up until the end.

Understandably, many modern viewers of the film find its gender politics disgustingly regressive, I think this is a rather reductive reading. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that a surface reading does support the idea that this is a deeply misogynist text that treats its female star as largely an object for the male gaze, something to be fetishized and largely ignored as an agent. However, there is also something disruptive about Monroe’s character, and the fact that she seems so blissfully unaware of the effect she has on men suggests that there is far more to her than meets the eye, a force that resists attempts to control her.

The Seven Year Itch ultimately reveals that beneath even the most seemingly misogynistic comedy lies a kernel of subversion.