Here are three facts that should not all be possible at the same time: it took me six months from release to actually watch Avengers: Infinity War.
I volunteer at a youth group full of superhero-obsessed teenage boys who get great joy from getting a reaction out of me.
And I didn’t hear a single spoiler about this movie.
It’s a miracle.
That’s why I waited so long to write about the latest installment in the Marvel Universe, not because I needed to think deeply about it or was trying to give a spoiler gap for others. (Several not-highly-specific spoilers will follow, so be warned.)
So. That ending.
Listen, I don’t require my stories to have happy endings. I appreciated the gray-area triumph of Dunkirk, with its flawed heroes and realistic grief. The bittersweet, open-ended conclusions of Home by Marilynne Robinson and The Long Road Home by Louise Penny were both fantastic, and I’ve read several of Shakespeare’s tragedies this year and greatly enjoyed them.
So, why didn’t I like this particular sad ending?
No offense, Marvel people, but you dragged us through two-and-a-half hours of introducing all fifty dozen superheroes and having them do things that were supposedly important to saving the world and such. (My rallying cry throughout? “Cut the side-quests. The people demand more witty banter!”) We at least expect to get some narrative satisfaction after the smoke clears.
But instead, we ended in the middle, in that moment where all hope seems lost. Not even the moment when our heroes decide to rally and make one last desperate stand or we see some glimpse of lessons learned or justice vowed. Nope. The moment before that.
Every now and then, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger that will be resolved later in a series, if the author has good enough payoff. (Brandon Sanderson, I’m looking at you.) But I don’t like being left in despair.
I was reading reviews of Infinity War to see if everyone else thought the ending was artistic and bold and I’m just crazy. One had this gem when explaining why the movie was hard to watch: “Plans fail. Character fails. Even sacrifices fail.”
That’s it. That’s exactly it.
“Plans fail.” We’re used to that, to plot twists and obstacles. Here, though, all the plans fail, even the ones that required multiple configurations of heroes working on a long-shot goal. So that’s a bit of a downer.
“Character fails.” This one hurts. We feel instinctively that good choices and good people ought to be rewarded. Cowards aren’t supposed to escape unscathed, vows of undying love aren’t meant to be broken, and the villains shouldn’t gain ridiculously overpowered rocks and kill half the people in the universe.
“Even sacrifices fail.” This is the last and worst, and I like that the reviewer who constructed this sentence knew it. Whether you’re a kid watching Inside Out, a high schooler forced to read A Tale of Two Cities, an adult listening to the soundtrack of Les Misérables, or a kid, high schooler, or adult re-reading the Harry Potter series, we are taught through stories that sacrifice always triumphs.
Not in Infinity War. Sorry.
And that is probably where I found the movie frustrating instead of daring.
You have to be very careful when you break this trope, I think, because it’s deeply tied to the way we understand love. Like, Rogue One can get away with a tragic ending in a genre that never has one because the characters are sacrificing for a great good.
But when the real tragedy is that the sacrifice happens and is totally useless…that’s a different level of sad.
That’s like if Gandalf fell off the cliff after the balrog and then a cave troll bashed the hobbits’ heads in anyway. Or if Anna had never thawed and Hans stabbed Elsa before she could throw an icicle at him. Or if Katniss volunteered as tribute to save her sister and the Gamemaker had said, “Eh, let’s toss them both in just for fun.” The End.
It is not how things are meant to be. We know this.
For most people, the promise of a sequel transforms Infinity War from a riot-inducing outrage into an inconveniently-divided five-hour blockbuster with a year-long gap for an intermission. And if you genuinely liked the ending, as a Part One or even standing on its own, that’s fine with me. (Not everyone has to have my exact emotional reaction to movies, hooray!)
It feels like the creators were trying to cash in on the ol’ John Lennon trope: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” And for me, that’s not quite enough. I want to see some hope in the midst of the darkness, not just at some possible future date. I want 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Besides giving me a super-vivid attachment to sacrifice because of Jesus’ death for our sins, my faith also gives me high expectations for hope, that it should be present in the terrible circumstances and not just promised somewhere at the end of them. The sad endings in books and movies I mentioned liking earlier all contained that element of courage and hope. Infinity War cut out before we could get to it.
Will I still watch Avengers 4? Probably (though maybe six months late again). But despite its zinger lines and cool special effects, Infinity War won’t be getting on my list of movies to re-watch. Some endings I just can’t forgive.