NOTE: This post is all spoilers all the way down. If you’re one of the six people who hasn’t seen Avengers: Infinity War, you probably ought to click the “back” arrow and nope on out of here. Come on back after you’ve seen it.
“We’re now in the Endgame.”
Infinity War spoilers and speculation follow…
Okay. I’m going to discuss this on three levels to unpack where we’re going. Competitive/game strategy, narrative themes, and filming choices.
I have been predicting for several years now that this film HAD to end with Thanos winning and annihilating half the life in the universe. Why? Because those are the established stakes with Thanos. In a story that basically centers on playing God, you have the potential to have a worst case or best case scenario play out for someone.
When constructing a story, especially a visual or acted out story or simply when “breaking story” on a script, you identify the moments you need to hit. “Need” is subjective. But you identify the things you can do in a given moment that would be hard to do later. Are you doing a TV show where an actor is leaving? The strongest choice is probably going to be to get the biggest performance you can on their way out, maybe something you would never do if they were staying. In this case, the moment you can do with god powers in play is to have Thanos win and snuff out billions of lives. Why? Because you have the means to fix it in a story with omnipotent weapons.
On to strategy: Dr. Strange has played out 14 million versions of the battle. He’s identified one where they win. He gives up the gem willingly. This is a key point. He’s not giving it up because he loves Tony Stark; the movie makes that abundantly clear that he doesn’t like Tony Stark and that he would let Tony or Peter die to save the universe. That’s explicit dialogue, people. So when Strange says, “We’re now in the endgame,” he’s talking Endgame. Chess. Giving Thanos the Gauntlet and allowing him to wipe out half the universe gives the heroes advantage.
He’s talking Endgame. Chess. There are several key elements of Endgame in chess. You can’t just enter into Endgame strategies until the right pieces are in position. At that point, several key things happen. The Kings tend to go from a defensive posture (flanked by allies) towards the center of the board. Sacrificing major pieces to save pawns becomes a part of the strategy. Much of Endgame theory in chess is about either extracting a win from an unwinnable scenario or forcing stalemate. Strange’s death is a sacrificial Bishop move. (By the way, this is consistent with how Strange beats Dormammu in his own film.) From there, the focus tends to be on aggressive use of kings in the center of the board (which we get when Thanos “comes out” from behind his followers, switching from a defensive posture) and allows himself to get to the center of the board.
So we move from here assuming that allowing Thanos to complete the gauntlet and collect the time and mind stones — the way that he does at the time that he does — and wipe out half the life in the universe? We assume that this is actually the weakest strategic move for Thanos to make and that it creates an opening for the heroes that will result in half the life in the universe NOT being dead. (Half the universe being dead is clearly, explicitly a thing which Strange clearly does NOT want so allowing Thanos to do it means that the WAY Strange lets him win is subject to undoing. Strange is creating a vulnerability against Thanos.)
So sliding just a bit into narrative, what advantage do the heroes manage to get from all of their efforts throughout the film, from Tony, Peter, and the Guardians’ actions through Gamora’s resistance against Thanos or Thor and Rocket building the weapon to T’Challa, Steve, Wanda, and Vision’s moving around the board?
The advantage is that they delay Thanos enough that he is not able to get the last stone. He fails to get the mind stone. And then he uses the time stone to turn back time to get it. This is key. If we assume the heroes’ action in the film have any meaning, we have to assume that it is reflected in the concession they force Thanos to extract that he would not have to make otherwise. The big thing that the heroes’ actions ALL contribute to is that Thanos is delayed JUST ENOUGH that he actually loses in a standard sense and has to use the time stone (remember: the one Dr. Strange knows best) in order to win.
The key to Thanos’ defeat must lie in the fact that he was forced to use the time stone to complete the gauntlet. And completing the gauntlet in any other way would fail to create the necessary opening to defeat him. Meaning that it somehow positions Thanos on weaker ground that he was delayed enough that he had to use the time stone and that he used the time stone at all.
This was the strategy analysis. Next up are narrative themes and filming considerations, where I unpack what has to happen next…
Okay, on to themes and how Infinity War is basically the horror movie SAW (which I’ve never seen but which I’m comfortable enough that I know the premise of to make this analogy).
There is a sledgehammer subtlety theme throughout this film.
“Could you explicitly murder someone you love to get what you want?”
It’s right there. It’s central to every arc in the film. I feel as though I have to illuminate it to make my case, though.
Because the radical thesis of this movie (which is really a movie starring Thanos and which I’m sure will be echoed and inverted in the next film) is that, yes, you should murder your loved ones.
That’s why I kind of have to walk you through the recurrence of this theme. Because this isn’t just a standard pro-murder movie. Unlike Starship Troopers, which advocates killing some kind of faceless other that you hate, or Fight Club, which advocates murdering your own ego, this movie adopts the non-Hallmark friendly theme (probably unique among almost all Disney movies) that proactively and literally killing someone you love is a good thing and that not doing so makes you a loser. And is therefore explicitly about fascism and how romance is both necessary to the rise of fascism and the death of romance is necessary to the success of fascism.
Also, to be extra subtle (sarcasm), it has a LITERAL NAZI GHOST standing in between a paper-thin allegory for the twin towers of the World Trade Center TELLING YOU that this is the theme of the movie. It is no fluke that this is the Red Skull. It’s not that this was the only actor they could get. They actually RECAST the Red Skull specifically so they could have a Nazi ghost standing in between the World Trade Center towers telling you that killing your loves ones is a source of fun and profit. (Although “fun is not something one considers when bringing balance to the universe”, yeah, yeah. And I THINK that line was only in the trailer and not the movie.)
Loki is presented with a choice. Give up the stone or your brother dies. He starts off ready to choose his brother dying. (Because he’s Loki.) He backs down from this choice. He loses. Winning would require killing his brother.
Thor and Gamora and Starlord have a verbal contest about which of them has been forced to kill more loved ones. Again, the winner of this discussion is the one who’s killed the most loved ones.
Tony is forced to choose between his life with Pepper and being Iron Man. It’s something we’ve seen before but they made an extra effort to get Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie to foreground this choice. More on this later but it’s an explicit choice by the filmmakers, like the Red Skull appearance.
Thor warns Rocket that the kind of weapon he’d want would drive him insane and destroy his mind. Rocket: “Is it weird that I kind of want it more now?” Thor: “A little.” Same theme.
Gamora asks Star Lord to kill her and kisses him when he agrees to. He does not follow through later and we get another loss for the heroes because of it. He also costs the heroes another chance at a win when he finds out Gamora died and engages Thanos rather than dispassionately let the plan work.
A big explicit use of this theme: Thanos literally murders his daughter Gamora to get the soul stone because a Nazi ghost told him to. A soul for a soul.
Dr. Strange, as I outlined above, sacrifices his stone and his duty, which is precious to him, because it secures victory.
The creatures Thanos’ servants use literally commit suicide to breach the force field.
T’Challa opens the wall, exposing his beloved country (Wakanda FOREVER) to ruin in order to gain a tactical advantage by forcing the creatures through a choke point.
Thanos does his master plan exposition, talking about how his own people died because they were unwilling to implement his plan of killing half your own people at random as a strategy for dealing with resource scarcity. And the theme here is that it would have worked and that failing to murder what you love led to death.
Wanda murders her lover Vision to try and save the universe. Worth noting: this is the first time that murdering your loved ones is not portrayed as the best strategy. And it’s heart wrenching. This is a turning point.
Tony — who has paternal concern for Peter and tries to protect him — watches Peter die. Again, Wanda killing Vision marked a turning point. Having the blood of your loved ones on your hands is suddenly neither cool nor effective in the context of the movie.
Trust me, for now, that I’m not suggesting that I (or Kevin Feige or the Brothers Russo) actually believe it is a good thing to literally or figuratively murder your loved ones. However, this movie (part one of two) has introduced a series of arguments in favor of it. In doing so, it’s making some really deep statements… so let’s unpack what those are and what those mean for the next film.
At the core of the “kill your loved ones” IDEA is whether we are what we DO or we are what we BE. DOING. BEING. ACTION. THOUGHT.
In film and storytelling in the United States, this is expressed on the side of action in the writers’ motto “show, don’t tell” (which was popularized by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States). Also, Hemingway. Also, modernist art as a movement. Also, CBS network exec William S. Paley for whom the Paley Center for Media is named.
And, also, what you may not realize is that all of these things have something in common. They were all used as agents of the CIA for propaganda. This isn’t some conspiracy theory. It’s cold, hard, declassified fact. Also that the CIA was co-founded by Nazi defectors after WWII who fundamentally shaped the philosophy of the intelligence agency. We had a different intelligence apparatus with a different MO in the United States prior to that and, after WWII, invited the Nazis to run our intelligence and domestic propaganda efforts (along with our moon program).
The Soviets did the same thing. We didn’t just split Germany in two after the war but both sides took in and gave leadership roles to actual German Nazis who were pivotal in both sides of the Cold War. I think most people know that we did this with scientists. I think fewer people realize we had Nazis running and assembling intelligence agencies and propaganda efforts and in charge of literally trying to shape popular art like dime store fiction and sitcoms and the artwork displayed in office lobbies.
But this isn’t strictly about Nazis except that we had a LITERAL NAZI in this movie.
This is Sparta vs. Athens, Greece vs. Rome, The Roman Republic vs. Caesar. The Enlightenment vs. Kings. Napoleon and Cromwell vs. the chaos of revolution. Friedman’s economics vs. Keynes’.
One side says, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Or “This isn’t who we are as people” (even when it IS what “we” DO as people.
The other side has its own expressions:
– Fortune favors the bold.
– Actions speak louder than words.
– Money Talks, Bullshit Walks
– Show, Don’t Tell
– Show Them Who You Are
– Don’t Be An Art History Major
– Dating A Broke Artist Is Fun Until You Have Bills To Pay/Want To Have Kids
This is basically a rift at the center of western civilization and thought. The Nazis and assertive powers take one side while the more academic philosophers take the other. It also totally informs how you see Hamlet, and if you hear someone say it’s a story about an indecisive guy who doesn’t act, then that’s literally a pro-fascist propaganda line.
Don’t feel bad. I’ve used some of these too.
The question is whether it is better TO DO or TO BE. And at the extreme, it is seen as better to let go of what you ARE and what you THINK to enhance your material presence in the world.
Or, as we say about musicians, to “sell out”.
If you kill the thing you love to get what you want then you are making the statement that what you WANT is more important than what you ARE. It’s DOING over BEING.
And this gets us around to evil. And Nazis.
Nazis are deeply romantic on one level (also, Communists — the tyrannical version of socialism — could be similar). You have these beautiful ideals about prosperity and culture. Nazis LOVED Wagnerian opera. It’s ROMANTIC. But when push comes to shove, all those romantic notions go out the window if they get in the way of GETTING YOURS and HAVING THE OUTCOME YOU WANT and PROSPERITY.
If you choose prosperity over “the dream”, you choose action and material power over all that gooey romance and love stuff.
It’s also echoed when people say things like, “I loved horses as a hobby until I got a job that involved horses.” That thing that makes you miserable is probably all the moving parts of the job that don’t actually involve your love for horses, when the ACTIONS become more important than the CONCEPT.
And this gets us down to a fundamental meditation on evil. The Judeo-Christian tradition says, “Avarice is the root of all evil.” (Sometimes translated as “love of money” but that’s a weaksauce translation.)
Avarice. What is it? Well, it’s basically wanting something to the point where you no longer want it and still chasing after it. It’s loving something so intensely that you want or need it more than you actually care for it.
And that is what Thanos is doing in this film and what this movie keeps pushing — UNTIL you hit the climax and you see Wanda kill Vision and STILL not save the world. Until you see Tony’s mentorship of Peter end with Peter disintegrating. You do all the work, you sell your soul, and you still don’t get what you want — because somebody else wants it more.
And that’s hollow.
And that puts us in a position to do a deep dive into where Infinity War has to go from here.
Okay. Thanos’ moral argument is hollow. Because if you have to become a monster to get what you want then you never really get what you want. Being has to trump doing. Losing is better than winning if you can cling to love.
If you kill what you love to get what you want, you’re like the dog with a bone who sees a dog with a bone reflected in the lake… and drops the bone trying to get the reflection’s bone… and then neither the dog nor its reflection has a bone. You get what you want MAYBE (Wanda didn’t) but you’re no longer YOU.
And this is key to understanding where the story has to go.
Thanos won. Victory is hollow.
Strange giving up the time stone and half the universe dying must somehow strategically mean that Thanos will lose and that half the universe won’t be dead.
Most importantly, the fact that Thanos had to use the Time Stone to get the Mind Stone from Vision (because everybody delayed Thanos, because of the order he got the gems in, etc.) must be the reason that Thanos loses in the next movie.
And the solution has to involve both a sacrifice born of love — and a sacrifice born of love that morally refutes Thanos philsophically.
And am I saying Feige and the Russos necessarily hashed this all out explicitly the way I am? No. But it’s where the intuitive work leads.
So my take is this:
Thanos using time manipulation to get a gem-introduced time manipulation as a weapon that could be used in this struggle.
The heroes now know where all the gems were hidden.
The heroes can theoretically go back in time to retrieve the stones from where they were before Thanos got them. This will either erase Thanos getting the gauntlet or allow the creation of a second gauntlet that can be used against Thanos’ gauntlet. And then whoever has the gauntlet can snap their fingers and undo whatever damage to history that messing with time like this causes.
There are several possible mechanisms for the time travel. It could be a literal machine Tony and Shuri cook up. It could be something brought by Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson in the upcoming movie which leads into Avengers 4 and is set in the 1990s). Personally, I think Dr. Strange pulled a trick. We saw him mess with time and probability a lot in that fight. My thought is a fairly simple cheat: The Dr. Strange who gave Thanos the time stone was from, say, 24 hours in the future. Which means there is a Dr. Strange who STILL HAS the time stone for 24 hours. And he can use that to time travel. Which makes Thanos’ Gauntlet somewhat imperfect in that regard because it relies on Strange having 24 hours to use the stone himself before handing it over and Strange can use those 24 hours to further mess with time and try to prevent himself from ever giving Thanos the stone.
Having The Red Skull and Pepper Potts around probably points to the next movie actually revisiting and altering scenes from the last 10 years of Marvel movies.
This also lines up with random changes like Thor’s short hair, Cap’s beard, Black Widow’s blonde hair. The point is that so you can easily distinguish the present versions from past versions. (Also, to sell more merch.)
The (unrevealed) name of the next movie is probably Avengers Forever, the most famous time travel Avengers story about a team assembled from different time periods of the team’s history.
But getting the soul gem has to have a cost for the person who retrieves it. You have to “give up what you love”, a “soul for a soul”.
And that cost is baked into the theme here. Loved ones and especially lovers sacrificing one another. Infinity War was about that. And the sequel is about someone giving up the thing they love not by throwing them off a cliff or shooting their lover in the head.
It will come from self-sacrifice.
Tony Stark will go to Vormir in the past. Where he will be asked to give up what he loves to receive the stone. A soul for a soul.
And that will mean an action that calls off his marriage and ends his relationship forever with Pepper Potts. And he doesn’t have to throw her off a cliff. Maybe all he has to do is make sure that he never met her.
And in selflessly giving up that love, he gets the final stone needed to assemble the gauntlet.
And with two gauntlets in play, you have the kind of chess that Dr. Strange specializes at: Endgame strategy. The two kings face off and you either have an underdog victory or a stalemate.
And the universe gets rewoven without the stones.
And I have a thought or two on where that could lead but I’ll save that for awhile.
Okay. I’ll offer just a taste of what that could mean. This is all just my speculation.
Without the stones ever having existed:
Asgard (and Loki and Odin) are reborn.
Dr. Strange goes back to studying under the Ancient One, who is alive.
A lonely Tony Stark looks to young Peter Parker as his legacy, knowing he will never have a child of his own. He leaves Peter a special package with a new suit.
The Guardians meet under somewhat different circumstances but still band together. Peter and Gamora have a dance.
Wanda and Pietro work out a living on the streets of Sokovia. They’ve been genetically altered by Wolfgang von Strucker but without a stone. She’s sad and doesn’t know why but something makes her smile and she also doesn’t know why.
Cut to Wakanda, where T’Challa oversees Shuri and Dr. Banner, who are making a synthetic lifeform for the first time. His name will be The Vision.
And Steve Rogers — Captain America — never descends into that iceberg to save the world from the Tesseract. He lives to a ripe old age with his friend Bucky and his true love Peggy at his side. She dies… and he dies shortly afterwards, thankful for the years they spent together.
And at his funeral, we see many of our characters gathered to pay tribute to Captain America, a man who lived a full life and died of old age.
And the funeral turns into a wake. Stan Lee can be spotted in the crowd blowing his nose with a handkerchief, which lightens the mood.
And Nick Fury arrives with an offer for the people gathered there. Because the world will always need Avengers.
For me, if I were writing this, a big scene would be cutting to a sepia-toned apartment in Brooklyn where a vinyl record is playing. Maybe some Ella Fitzgerald.
And we see aged Steve Rogers bringing aged Peggy Carter breakfast on a tray. Or a shield. And he walks into the room. And we see the tray spill. And we see him trying to wake her. And the record skips. And we see him crying and holding her hand. And the record skips. And we see that she’s died smiling. And the record skips. And we see him clutch his chest. And the record skips. And we see him smiling too, unmoving, eyes open.
And the record plays on, seguing into Captain America’s funeral and the scratching old record fades into a fanfare version of the song.
If we’re just gonna engage in speculation to the point of fanfic.
And the hell with it, the song is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and in between seeing dead Steve at dead Peggy’s side, it cuts through all the other stuff I mentioned. Because what better song to use to smash cut to a restored Asgard and lots of silent slo-mo scenes of people not being dead and falling in love.
Somewhere over the rainbow. Smash cut to Asgard. C’mon. I feel like we’ve earned that pun.