Darling, everything is as usual. An unhappy attendant gives us our 3D goggles, which means we will soon witness yet another immensely enjoyable lame fiction on IMAX where good will defeat evil after some tense twists. Surely your circle of nine-year-olds was exaggerating a bit when they said “it will be impossible not to cry in the end". How grim can Marvel Studios be?
Five minutes into Avengers: Infinity War, maybe you cannot see it yet but I have to accept that something is not quite normal. It is not just that the arch-villain Thanos is already extremely powerful because villains usually are at the start of a story. What is odd is the absence of dignity in the heroes. In the first 5 minutes, Thor screams as Thanos tortures him, that too with one hand. He looks baffled and helpless. Loki, who is related to Thor in some form that I don’t understand, is squished and killed by Thanos. Hulk is thrashed and would have been killed had not a dying hero beamed him away. Other minor superheroes die.
I can feel all the joy in you vanish. I want to say “this is only a film" but I know that would be a foolish thing to say. Also, you will then say about that part of life which is not a movie, “This is only real." There is no argument against that.
The thing is, I can see that the writers love Thanos more than they love the heroes. Writers do usually love the darker guys. Thanos is serious, majestic, deeply unhappy and he has a glorious purpose. He believes that the problem with life in all the worlds in the universe is that there is too much of it and very little of what they need to survive. So he seeks the six Infinity Stones that will give him the power to destroy half of all life in the universe. It will not be a genocide because genocide discriminates. What Thanos wishes for is just random halving of populations. Thanos may not have heard of a man called Thomas Malthus who once said the number of people grows when things are good, which soon results in so many people that things are not so good any more, but Thanos is driven by the same view. Actually, most people who wish “to control the population" too are talking about the same thing even though they may not wish to massacre the living, rather they would like to deny life to the unborn. Strictly speaking, Thanos is slightly fairer than a former chief economist of the World Bank called Lawrence H. Summers who once signed a memo in 1991 that said toxic waste from factories should be moved from the US to poorer countries because the value of life is cheaper in poor countries. When the letter got leaked, Summers said he was only joking. Maybe it was just a joke but I know you don’t trust people who are hurtful first and then say they were only joking. Also, you are right, “a joke has be funny".
I like the fact that Thanos loves his daughter, Gamora, the green alien, who was blue in Avatar, and that Thanos insults her boyfriend, by just enunciating the word “boyfriend", or maybe you didn’t find it as funny as I did. Somehow I like the fact that Peter Quill says his relationship with Gamora is too deep for him to be called a “boyfriend". But then soon everything begins to turn grim. You finally press my shoulder to ask, “Is this a sad movie?"
Of course not, I say. Avengers is too expensive to be sad. That is the price every successful story pays—it is doomed to be naïve and happy in the end. A superhero movie is a lot like Indians doing something—everything will go wrong but “in the end" it will all work out. Yes, there is a lot of death and violence. That is how a story tries to be unpredictable these days—through deaths. Otherwise, it is hard to beat the viewer. We know too many stories, we know what is going to happen most of the time. Every story, after all, is the sum total of all stories ever told. Storytellers have to find ways to surprise us.
But, towards the end, when I suspect that some heroes will die, I want to whisper to you some advice—“Never be a minor superhero franchise in life." But then, as Thanos wins all the Infinity Stones and with a click of his fingers dooms half of all life in the universe to turn into ash, and half of the avengers and their allies collapse into dust, among them are the big ones too. Dr Strange dies, Black Panther goes. But what breaks your heart is when 15-year-old Spider-Man clings to Iron Man and cries, “I don’t feel so good Mr Stark" and “I don’t want to go, please, I don’t want to go Mr Stark. I am sorry, Tony, I am sorry".
Now we wait for the resurrection and justice. We have seen too many movies not to wait for the turn that will bring back all that is lost. But then the film ends. Half the universe is dead, and evil has won. That is it.
There is stunned silence in the theatre. The few who rise to leave receive cold stares of hatred from those who sit in mourning—we need to show more respect to the departed. There is funereal stillness in the hall. Adolescents weep. A teenaged girl, who is sobbing, is held by both her parents. Are you amused at the fall of the teenagers? After all, your arch-villain is The Teenager. Just a few hours ago, a teenager had scolded you in school, “Shut up and eat your f-wording food."
“What a bad movie," you say. “What a bad movie." Outside the hall I see a teenager weep and I chuckle. You glare at me. “That is rude." You fight back your own tears but they now flow.
There is no way this story can end like this. These days the end is never the end. There is always a sequel, you know that. Marvel has already announced the sequel. Only they and Dr Strange know how it is going to end. But I think we can guess—all the superheroes, at least the big ones, will rise from the dead. Have faith in capitalism. There is sorrow only in art.
Yet, I accept, the statements from the boss of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, are very disturbing. He has hinted that some of the deaths of the big superheroes might be permanent. The directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, too have said disturbing things: “The audience can tell you they love chocolate ice cream, but if you give it to them every day, they’re going to get sick of it real fast. You’ve got to stay ahead of them….
“You have to go to very difficult places for the stakes to feel real, for the characters to feel like they have something to lose, for the audience to feel like they have something at risk."
But if you wish to believe me more than them, which is unlikely, I think almost all the superheroes, especially Dr Strange, Black Panther and SpiderMan, are coming back. Apart from the trap of popularity and commercial success, a story is doomed by another factor—the good have to win in the end, that is the con in every successful story, there is no escaping that. That is the demand from everyone, including you, and that is what the storytellers will supply.
What is going to happen in the next Avengers is that there will be some time-travel trick or alternate reality.
“If you travel at the speed of light, it will change time," you say. “But that is so obviously not true. Nothing can change time."
The dead Avengers will return and whatever path they take, it is going to be lame, and a form of cheating. The sequel is already doomed. That is the price the storytellers have paid for telling a great, bold story.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan