On the Spoiler Special podcast, Slate critics discuss movies, the occasional TV show, and, once in a blue moon, another podcast, in full, spoiler-filled detail. In this week’s episode, Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens, Slate senior editor Jonathan Fischer, and Slate culture editor Forrest Wickman spoil Avengers: Infinity War. Who’s really dead and who’s just “dead”? Does the ending raise the stakes or simply undermine them? Does Thanos have facial hair?
Listen to them discuss these and other questions, or read the episode transcript below. You can also check out past Spoiler Specials, and you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts. Note: As the title indicates, each installment contains spoilers galore.
Podcast production by Daniel Schroeder.
Below is a transcript of this Spoiler Special episode. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dana Stevens: That was the big bang.
Wickman: Of course there’s been other movies based on the Marvel comics, but they haven’t been part of this universe.
Stevens: So they’ve known? Has the company known for 10 years that they were going to work toward this, or was it only because the movies were such a success that they decided to branch out?
Wickman: I think it’s inevitably contingent, but I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, but the original Iron Man famously ended with that post-credit stinger where Nick Fury shows up, played by Samuel L. Jackson and says, “I’d like to invite you to join the Avengers,” or whatever. That launched this whole universe. Of course, if the original Iron Man had flopped, I don’t know if they necessarily would have moved forward at this scale.
Stevens: The seed was already planted in the first of these movies, so it’s been going on since 2008. I have to say I’ve missed a few in there, which at the time I wasn’t really aware of whether I was missing them or not, but then when you get to some moment like this in the cycle that’s gathering them all together, I realize there’s some real lacuna in my Marvel knowledge, so I’m glad Jonathan [Fischer] is here to fill them in.
Wickman: I think I have seen all of them, and yet there are still moments in this movie where I guess we can just start spoiling. For example, Red Skull shows up on a distant planet in the middle of nowhere and I have no idea how to explain that but I’m guessing that-
Stevens: The villain in the Captain America movies you mean?
Wickman: Yeah. Jon knows the comics in a way that I don’t at all, so perhaps he will be able to explain some of those things that even the movies don’t really explain very thoroughly.
Jonathan Fischer: I think it depends on what standard of physics you want to apply to Marvel. It may or may not makes sense, but I think probably to fans who have been invested all along, it was probably a nice little pay off.
Stevens: Would you send your best friend to spend two hours and 40 minutes, if you include the credit sequence, which of course you have to watch in a Marvel movie so that you can watch the obligatory stinger at the end. Would you send them to see this movie?
Wickman: Yeah. I would give this movie I guess four out of six infinity stones. It is totally less than the sum of its parts, its structure is basically just like checking off series of boxes, but those parts are generally pretty good. At the end it goes somewhere that is genuinely surprising and kind of shakes up the formula for these movies a little bit. It doesn’t necessarily shake up the formula if you count how the comics work, but I had never seen a movie that ended quite this way — say something like maybe The Empire Strikes Back.
Stevens: I can’t wait to get to the ending because to me it was essentially the only interesting part of the movie. As I said to you afterwards or maybe I was just tweeting this. I thought that I wasn’t going to stay for the credit sequence the whole time because I was just resentful of how long the whole thing was taking. I don’t know if I’m going to see the next movie or not. Do I really need it? I was not planning on staying through the credits but after that ending, hell yeah, I wanted to see what was being set up for next time.
Wickman: Yeah I think people are just desperate for hope through those credits.
Stevens: Jonathan, what about you? General overall reaction good or bad?
Fischer: I had a five infinity stone experience. There were some probably inevitable frustrations, mostly because of how much stuff they tried to cram in, but generally I thought it wasn’t the best Marvel movie or the best Avengers movie by any stretch, but it was thrilling, it was fun. It did more for me than just check off boxes. I’m not sure that the genuinely thrilling ending will result in some actual changes to the overall Marvel formula, which I think we’re stuck with probably for another 10 years of movies.
Stevens: It’s so inevitable.
Fischer: Despite that, I thought it was very good. If you came for character development, that was what the last 18 movies were for. I did think that it moved me in a few surprising and edifying ways.
Stevens: I want to set up who made the movie, because the makers all have some history with Marvel. The brothers Joe and Anthony Russo were the directors. What else have they done in the universe?
Wickman: They did the second and the third Captain America movies. They did Captain America: Winter Soldier, which a lot of people loved, including me, because of the way it evoked the spy thrillers of the ‘70s. That was probably one of the best ones in the whole franchise. Then they did Captain America: Civil War, which was really an Avengers movie. That was two years ago and that did the work of breaking up the Avengers. They battled against each other, which sets up some of the conflicts that exist going into this movie.
Fischer: All of these guys worked on various franchises. I think Joe and Anthony Russo came from TV, and I think they’re very skilled at coming in and tweaking the formula just a little bit, but not imposing a particularly strong sensibility of their own. I think that’s true of both these directors and these screen writers. I agree with Jon. I think the second and third Captain America movies are among the best, if not the best of all of these movies.
Stevens: So with a movie like this, I think it’s kind of hopeless to go in chronological order and restore everything. I think we should sort of go story by story and establish all the story lines we’re following in this movie. We can start with where the movie begins.
Fischer: Or even just stone by stone. I feel like that’s almost the only way to go through this movie, that’s what I meant really by checking off boxes. Of course this movie has to check off a number of boxes and that it has to give each beloved character at least one key scene, although it doesn’t really give any of them much of an arc, but mostly the structure of this movie is just Thanos collects one power stone then on to the next one.
Wickman: What’s impressive is not only does it cram in like 30 characters, it has not one but six different McGuffin’s.
Stevens: In case you happen to be watching this movie without having followed anything in the universe so far, can we establish what the infinity stones are? They are the McGuffin of the movie.
Wickman: I think this is more evidence that they have been planning this for a long time.
The infinity stones are these cosmic magical objects that have been appearing in the Marvel movies I think all the way back to the first Captain America movie. Basically, each of them were created by the big bang in the universe and each other controls some different aspect of the universe. There’s a reality stone, a power stone.
Stevens: Time stone.
Fischer: Yup. Time stone, mind stone, soul stone—
Wickman: Space stone. The space stone, which is the tesseract, or it’s at least part of the tesseract, which I think you’re correct the tesseract first appears in the first Captain America and then later shows up in the first Avengers.
Stevens: Unlike in say Wrinkle in Time where a tesseract is sort of an effect in space, which I think is what the word was originally coined. It’s at least the kind of conjectural idea of some sort of event. A funny moment at the beginning at this movie is when Thanos, the villain, who we’ll talk more about, finally gets the tesseract, this long sought-after thing — he immediately cracks it and it breaks into shards and all he cares about is this tiny little glowing stone inside, so it was really just at a stone holder. A.O. Scott has a great line in his review of Infinity War about the stones and how they look like something you’ve been meaning to give away — [it’s like something] that your child got at birthday party when she was seven. They really do remind me of something you would just get at Claire’s and your kid would hot glue them onto a crown or something. They’re just cheap full colored jewels.
Wickman: Yeah I think Sam Adams and his review for Slate compared them to Fruity Pebbles, which almost exactly what they look like.
Stevens: I really want to talk about Thanos, because he’s actually my favorite Marvel villain. I think he’s one of the high points of this movie, but let’s get to where we are at the very beginning of the movie in time and space. Do you want to take that one Jonathan?
Fischer: Yeah, at the beginning of the movie, we were out in space and we hear a distress signal from the — I think they call it the Asgardian refugee vessel. At the end of the last Thor movie, which was Thor Ragnarok, which was kind of a goofy and apparently consequential blast, the survivors of Asgard, who are these space gods based on the north mythology, they’ve escaped their world which was destroyed and they’re out in space led by Thor and his brother Loki. In between then and now, we quickly learn in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, they’ve encountered with Thanos, and he’s basically killed all of them and he is torturing Thor and Loki to get his hands on the tesseract. What it is, is the second of six infinity stones — he already has the first.
Wickman: That just happened off-screen right? The first one is the power stone from Guardians of The Galaxy and I think he just defeated the planet where it was stored in some off-screen event, is that right?
Fischer: Yeah at some point they say, “Yeah he got that one last week.” I guess they just didn’t bother with that, which is fine.
Stevens: That’s a hole they can fill in with another whole movie later on — just travel back to that time.
Wickman: Five battles for five stones was enough.
Fischer: Yeah I think that’s right. But anyway, in this opening scene he gets the second stone, he kills Heimdall, who’s the Asgardian played by Idris Elba, whose in the movie four minutes.
Wickman: Can I just say quickly I was initially very disappointed and concerned that this was a literal case of the black guy is always the first one to die.
Stevens: Yeah the same thing struck me.
Wickman: I think black people do a really disproportionate amount of the suffering in this movie. When we get to Wakanda, later by the end of the movie, it was like spoiler alert — almost everybody in this movie dies so maybe it’s not quite as bad as I initially feared.
Stevens: But it is also true that a major white character dies in the very first scene too, and that’s Loki? Which I think is the biggest surprising death maybe in this movie because he’s been a really constant presence throughout.
Wickman: Right, and then we get this line, well I guess it’s from Thanos, who says something like, “No resurrections this time.” At the time, I was like, “Okay, this is cool — they’re breaking up the formula a little bit.” Then by the end of the movie there’s so much death that it’s clear that actually there are going to be quite a lot of resurrections, they’re just going to happen in the next movie. I think basically anytime we use the word “dies” in this discussion we should consider it being in scare quotes.
Stevens: I’m very curious about that, and we’ll get to the ending and who actually is dead and who has some sort of reversible death situation. As we set it up then—Thanos has two of his little gimcrack gems, Loki is dead, and how does Thor get out of there?
Fischer: Well actually first we should probably say that they have the Hulk with them because the Hulk was in the last Thor movie for reasons that don’t matter. The Hulk is also on their ship, and with his dying breath, Heimdall decides to send Hulk to Earth, I suppose to warn everyone else. Hulk is rainbow ridged off to Earth, basically after Thanos get the gem from Loki, he kills Loki, he destroys the Asgardian ship, and Thor is left to float in space.
Wickman: Yeah and I don’t really remember why he’s spared. Thanos just seems to occasionally and very conveniently be like, “Eh — I’m just going to move onto the next thing without bothering to finish you off.”
Stevens: That was something I wondered about a lot. It would have been easy for him to just eliminate people quickly, especially if he ever used weapons, all he ever does is punch people out.
Fischer: I wonder— and this is important, and I think we really need to talk about Thanos the character, and Thanos’ motivations, but unlike most villains who want to destroy the entire universe, Thanos only wants to destroy half the universe.
Stevens: Alright well since the movie starts with Thanos, let’s talk about him. He is a really interesting villain. Unlike in many of these movies, he’s a pretty significant character in the story. He doesn’t just show up to be mean once in a while, you actually know something about his motivations and his past.
Wickman: I would argue that he is the lead and main character in this movie. In retrospect, this is basically a movie about Thanos — he gets the most substantive character arc in the movie, or the most character development. Although, I wish it were more of an arc. Instead it just feels like we slowly come to understand him over the course of the movie, rather than understanding him from the beginning and then seeing how he interacts with everything else to change him. I don’t know that he changes so much as we slowly understand who he really is.
Fischer: That’s true. I do think the only other character who really has an arc in this film is—and this was a nice surprise—was Gamora. Character from Guardians of The Galaxy.
Stevens: Played by by Zoe Saldana.
Fischer: She’s great in it. I do think that the interaction between the two, which we’ll of course get into, I actually thought it was impossible really to give any other character a real story. I think each of them really gets these moments. There is some pretty consequential box checking, especially some of the things that happened to Thor and Iron Man. But for the most part the real story is just Thanos and Gamora. It’s true that Thanos does not change. What changes is that we—I don’t think we ever sympathize with him, but we begin to understand what kind of conflicted and warped figure he ultimately is. I don’t know that it makes him at all sympathetic, it just makes him confunding and I guess just interesting in a way that the villains in this films almost never have been.
Stevens: A part of that is just Josh Brolin’s voice performance is really excellent. I didn’t recognize who it was. Has he done the voice in every one of the movies?
Fischer: Yeah. Back in the first Avengers he showed up at the end in one of the post-credits or mid-credits sequences at the end of the Avengers.
Stevens: Outside of Josh Brolin just being a good actor, what is it about this character that’s particularly compelling for a Marvel villain.
Fischer: I think a lot of that has to do with his motivation. He wants to destroy half the universe [because] there is a resource shortage in the universe and he must restore balance to the universe by killing half of its population.
Wickman: Right, he’s an Malthusian.
Fischer: He is an Malthusian.
Stevens: And he’s very insistent that it’s a randomly chosen half. He has this random obsession with the fairness of a random selection.
Fischer: In the comic books I think he is more of a zealot — it’s slightly more, almost religious than it is here. In the comic books he worships and has maybe a kind of romance with the manifestation of death. She’s either called “Death” or “Lady Death”, but basically he wants to destroy half the universe as a romantic gesture, which is maybe deliciously evil but I think less interesting. I think what’s interesting is that while he’s a kind of zealot, there is a certain rationalism to what he wants to do.
What he wants to do does have grounding in both what seems like slightly coherent thinking, as well as his real experience. We learn that he warned his own planet that they were doomed because of their population, and then because his words were not headed, his planet, Titan, was somehow destroyed or came upon ruin.
Wickman: Yeah he strikes me as somewhat of a villain similar to Erik Killmonger in the Black Panther movie, where you could almost think maybe he’s right, or he’s a too radical version of something that could be right, and so that worked for me. Over the course of the movie you come to understand that he’s this character who has a traumatic past, somewhat similar to Killmonger
Stevens: In a weird way the person I was thinking of with regard to his model of good governance with Paul Ryan. He has this completely wrong headed and evil idea, but he sort of has an idealistic fervor about it. He’s not one of those—he’s not The Joker, he doesn’t just want to watch the world burn. He has an ideology behind it, which is utterly wrong-headed and cruel, but is not for the sake of cruelty that he’s doing it. He says it in some way as being for the sake of kindness.
Fischer: What sort of deepens that is he does have actual attachments in his life. He has two adopted daughters, one of which he is very happy to torture, and the other of whom is Gamora, who it turns out he does in fact love and ultimately will sacrifice when his mission and I guess his adopted family come in conflict. He has to make a choice.
Stevens: Sacrifice is a really big thing in this movie, we’re going to get a lot of moments where somebody has to choose and sacrifice. And there’s other moments where characters come down philosophically against sacrifice. I forget who it is who says, “We don’t trade lives,” and then that gets quoted later on. But in fact, there’s quite a bit of life trading that does happen.
Fischer: Obviously that’s Captain America.
Stevens: And who does it say to?
Fischer: I think maybe he says it to the Vision? One of the infinity stones is in the foreheads of one of the characters — the Vision, who’s an android who was created in the last Avengers movie, Age of Ultron.
Stevens: Played by Paul Bettany.
Fischer: Played by Paul Bettany. He has the mind stone in his forehead, and they know ultimately Thanos is going to be coming to Earth or Thanos’ minions will try to remove it from him to pop into the Infinity Gauntlet, which is Thanos’ glove which has little holes for all these stones and is what he wants to use to kill half the life in the universe.
Stevens: Once he pops each of these little cheesy stones into his specially made glove he’ll have all the power. Alright we haven’t even gotten to any of our heroes yet though, and we have like 15 of them to check off at least. Let’s get to planet Earth and the first people that we met there, after the Hulk, who is ordered to shoot through space and land in the lair of…
Fischer: Doctor Strange — Benedict Cumberbatch — who has just an incredibly sweet apartment in New York. I guess it’s not technically his apartment, it’s like some sanctum where they protect the stone or whatever, but mostly I would just like to live there. Yeah I guess at Doctor Strange’s sanctum — is that what they call it Jon?
Stevens: I’m going with lair. Maybe only evil people have lairs. Wait, quick question about Doctor Strange. Has he been in the series before and I missed it?
Wickman: Oh man, Dana—he had his own movie.
Stevens: He did?
Called Doctor Strange. It’s pretty good.
Fischer: Yeah that was one of the good ones you should see it. I think you might like it.
Stevens: He was one of the more funnier and more interesting characters in the movie, so maybe I’ll go back and fill that hole in. The Hulk goes falling through the apartment of Doctor Strange and he lands there to deliver the news that Thanos is on his way and who else is around?
Wickman: The Iron Man is there. He has to stand up with Pepper Potts, a.k.a. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, and run off to try and save the universe and then you get the battle of the goatees between Doctor Strange and Tony Stark.
Stevens: Who really can’t stand each other.
Stevens: Has that been established before, that they can’t?
Wickman: I think this is the first time they’ve met?
Fischer: Yeah they’ve never met before.
Wickman: There’s a lot of that in this movie. Later we get Thor versus Star-Lord. You get all the alpha males. Most of these characters are alpha males, let’s be honest. But they take a lot of the most alpha maleish characters and they put them in a room together to fight and have a little bit of a pissing contest.
Stevens: A quick point about that Pepper Potts scene at the very beginning. There’s a little romantic scene between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow [who plays Pepper Potts]. I believe that may be the only extended interaction between a human and a super person. I think this is a real problem with this movie—that there are so many superheroes to jam in because it’s this big synergetic convergence event. There’s very little sense of the people on the Earth that they’re trying to save, and I think Pepper Potts, might be practically the only one of them who wasn’t just a generic service person or passerby in the street.
Wickman: Yeah I think this could have used a Happy [Hogan], for example. I believe that’s the name of Jon Favreau’s character, who serves that purpose in a lot of these movies. He’s just like the goofy guy who drives the taxicab or the limo I guess. Maybe not that normal but it could have used that kind of character.
Stevens: I have another question too about this early setup. There’s this big establishing of the fact that Cap and Tony — Tony Stark and Captain America — are on the outs. And [there’s a question of] will they or will they not make up and come back together in order to save the universe? I didn’t see Captain America: Civil War so I’m not sure what the big problem is.
What was the falling out about?
Fischer: It’s almost too complicated but basically—
Stevens: But Captain America just doesn’t seem like a guy who would hold grudges. It must have been something pretty bad.
Fischer: Basically a few things happened. There was an international accord that was passed so all the superheroes have to register, I guess with their own government, and be sanctioned superheroes. Tony Stark wanted all these superheroes to sign, and Captain America didn’t. That caused a rift and half the superheroes became fugitives.
Stevens: He’s such a rules guy, why would he not want to sign an international treaty? He just seems like he’d be very rules following in that way.
Fischer: I don’t know.
Stevens: I’m asking for motivation, what am I thinking?
Fischer: I think that Captain America feels like his duty is to-
Stevens: To all mankind.
Fischer: A higher patriotism and not necessarily whatever the concerns of the U.N. Security Council in one moment are. Then more deeply it turns out, and not that this movie gets into it at all, that Bucky [Barnes], who was Captain America’s buddy in World War II and then became the Winter Soldier, it’s revealed in that movie that he killed Iron Man’s parents so then Tony Start is mad at Captain America because Captain America knew but didn’t tell him. That causes their final rift at the end of that movie.
Stevens: Why I ask is that was an opportunity for a dramatic moment in this movie that was just left on the table. I don’t understand why you would plant over the course of several movies this major falling out between two of the most beloved and major characters in this group, and then you even set up a scenario at the beginning of this movie [that’s like], “If they could just call each other,” and Tony Stark’s got his flip phone out and he’s about to call Captain America, but then of course there’s of course the invasion of Thanos of New York and it ends up getting called off. I don’t know why you wouldn’t just have that phone call happen, it would be a possible character development moment that is moving needs desperately.
Fischer: We have one more movie.
Wickman: Right, this movie was originally called Avengers: Infinity War Part One, which is one of the most hilarious movie titles of all time. Part one of infinity? This movie just doesn’t have enough time for any of that stuff. Another example of that is the Hulk and Scarlet Johnson’s character, Black Widow, had this big tragic love story in the last Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, and here they are finally reunited and they exchange a total of three words or something. There’s a knowing glance and there’s a beat, but those five seconds at the most time you get to became reinvested in the love story and feel something for a second. This movie just has way too many people.
Stevens: Yeah it’s like the screen writers at traffic cops just directing each other to not crash into each other. That was another moment I was really waiting for—when Bruce Banner and Black Widow see each other again. I’m thinking, “Great, so they’re setting up a moment where they’re going to have this deep conversation about what it all meant,” and of course that never happens at all. As somebody who likes these movies, if only for the character moments, I found this to be a big flaw in this movie. If the fights are your favorite parts all the Marvel movies, this is going to be one of your favorite ones. I was keeping a tally in my notes of how many big action scenes there were—not just somebody punching somebody else out, but large orchestrated battles with multiple cars flying through the air, and I lost count at about seven. I’m sure it got up to 10 or 11.
Fischer: Basically this is a movie with no quiet ruminative late second, early third act. It’s just like pound, pound, pound, pound, and may be based on who they take off the table and leave on the table, some of those character moments are being saved for the next movie. But if we consider this thing on its own, it’s just a lot coming at you all at once all the time. The only character moments are jokes — instead of emotional beats, we get funny beats. That’s what they give us in order to show us some personality.
Wickman: Yeah and I think the jokes in this movie are generally pretty good. It’s much darker than the typical Marvel movie, and yet it still manages to sneak in a couple of jokes per scene. This was sort of frustrating as a critic in some ways, but it’s really good at anticipating what your criticism will be, and then making the same burn as good or better than you would. For example, Thanos we haven’t talked about what he looks like, but he looks extraordinarily silly. He has purple, he has some weird stone goatee on his chin that somebody described like looking a car catcher. We have a whole post of all the descriptions of Thanos from the various reviews.
Stevens: I didn’t think of his chin as being like an outgrowth, I thought that was just the flesh of his chin. I didn’t think of it as a beard.
Wickman: It’s confusing. I think most people think of it as a goatee and yet it’s not hair so what the fuck is it?
Stevens: In fact there’s stubble on it. When you see close ups of him, and I love this—there’s stubble within the cracks, which makes you imagine the razor, the scalloped razor that he would have to use to stay clean shaven.
Fischer: This is just how people look on Titan.
Stevens: You’re right, you’re body shaming.
Fischer: It’s not just me though I think it’s Chris Pratt, Star-Lord’s character, who refers to him both as having a testicle for a chin, which is a pretty good burn — that is exactly what he looks like. It’s very good at those self-critiques.
Stevens: Alright Forrest you happy excellent idea of structuring our discussion stone by stone because otherwise if we tried to go through either chronologically or superhero by superhero, we will be here for infinity. Do you want to take it stone by stone you seem to have taken notes in that direction?
Wickman: Yeah I think I can get us moving pretty quickly through the stones. I think we’ve been here like 30 minutes and we’ve talked about the power stone, which Thanos got off-screen, and the space stone which he gets in the first few minutes. We have talked about the mind stone which is on Vision’s head, but which will be the last one that he goes for. So what’s left is we have the reality stone, which is on this, I don’t know if you’d call it a planet? It’s like this area called Knowhere—this place in space that we’ve seen in The Guardians of The Galaxy movies, and there it’s with this dude called The Collector, who’s played by Benicio Del Toro, is grossly underused by these movies. He just acts vaguely offbeat and has crazy white hair but is killed in this movie, I think we are to understand.
This part is a little bit mind-bending. We eventually realize that Thanos has already obtained the reality stone, again off-screen, and everything that we see for the first five minutes or 10 minutes of this sequence it’s actually just a hallucination that he has projected. Is this correct? Is this how you guys understood it?
Stevens: No, not at all. Wow, I guess I wasn’t watching it right.
Wickman: If you recall, they show up and then they actually managed to—Gamora, the Zoe Saldana character actually manages to kill Thanos, or so we think. Then everything evaporates away and Thanos reveals that he already has the stone. That’s how we learn what the reality stone does, which is just you can change everyone’s perception of what’s going on.
Stevens: I thought that he had created his own double, but it’s same basic idea — he fakes them out, that they had killed him, when in fact they haven’t. They being—we haven’t established who goes to Knowhere to get this stone. It’s the Guardians of The Galaxy gang appearing. To me this is one of the most clunky parts of the movie—that they’re trying to incorporate essentially a spoof of the Marvel universe into the Marvel universe, and there’s these interactions between the two of them. Thor, who we last saw floating through space after having been hurled off of whatever planet it was by Thanos, ends up by pure chance slamming into the windshield of a ship of the Guardians of The Galaxy crew.
Wickman: I agree, it’s jarring, but it’s another case where the movie kind of anticipate that criticism and then makes it into a joke. Where the way we realize that we are heading towards the tonal universe of The Guardians of The Galaxy is that this—it’s like a ’70s funk song by-
Stevens: The “Rubberband Man.”
Wickman: [The song is] called “Rubberband Man.” It fades in and the audience laughs because they immediately know that retro ‘70s or ‘80s or funk, whatever it is, must mean the Guardians, and the title along the bottom of the screen just says “space,” which was a good joke.
Stevens: In the Guardian ship we have Chris Pratt’s character, Star-Lord, Gamora, Zoe Saldana, who we’ve already talked about, the space raccoon guy voiced by Bradley Cooper, who I’ve always found it annoying character and he continues to be annoying in this movie. And there’s Drax, who I love, he’s the very dopey, hyper-tattooed Dave Batista character.
Wickman: You’re forgetting not baby Groot, but now teenaged Groot.
Fischer: Groot is the tree thing who is hilariously voiced, even though he only has one line of dialogue that he repeats over and over again in different inflections, but he is voiced by Vin Diesel. In the first Guardians movie he was an adult space tree thing. Then he died and came back as a baby tree thing in the second Guardians movie, and now he is a moody teenage tree thing. Still voiced I think by Vin Diesel. Then the last member is a new character from the second Guardians movie, Mantis who’s played by Pom Klementieff, she’s an empath who can sense and to some degree control what others are feeling.
Wickman: Anyway that was the reality stone. I think we should probably keep moving. Jon do you want to take that soul stone?
Fischer: Yes the, soul stone. Leading up to this movie every single stone made an appearance in one of the movies or maybe in several of the movies, leading people to speculate how Thanos would collect them and so on. The one stone that never appeared was the soul stone. We learn that the one person who knows the location of soul stone is Gamora. Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos. We get some back story in which we learn how she was adopted, which is to say it happened after Thanos committed genocide on her planet.
Wickman: Oh, Dad.
Fischer: At some point Thanos gave her the task of finding the soul stone. Later, she in the first Guardians movie she would rebel against Thanos and join with the heroes, but in this film we learn early on that she knows where the soul stone is and then she asks Chris Pratt that, should it come to pass that Thanos gets his hands on her, he should kill her. Now, for the last time in this movie [Chris Pratt’s character] Peter Quill will not do the thing that will stop Thanos from getting what he wants. He can’t do it—he can’t kill Gamora. Thanos, after getting the reality stone, hops through space away from them with Gamora and takes her back with him to his ship.
Wickman: Though to his credit he does try. So I’m remembering now that it is how we learn the reveal about reality stone, and Thanos is sort of distorting reality and so on because Peter Quill actually does try to shoot Gamora as he has promised to do, but what comes out is just bubbles—it’s just like a bubble gun. Which makes me realize that it must not be that Thanos only can control perception with the reality stone, it’s that he can just control reality within a set area.
It’s not clear how long the effects of it stick, because at one point he basically turns Drax and Mantis into legos, but then when he leaves their bodies reform. But Thanos takes Gamora back to his ship where she lies and refuses to reveal the location of the soul stone, but then it turns out that her sister Nebula is already Thanos hands his torturing her and out of that he gets the location. They go to this planet that looks pretty barren and then at the top of the mountain is the supposed a location of the stone. Thanos and Gamora go up the mountain, which has a Stonehenge vibe to it. I guess there they find the keeper of the soul stone, who as it turns out, is the Red Skull.
Wickman: Jon I need your explanation here — all I recall is them saying something about how it was the will of the infinity stone that he be exiled on that planet or something?
Fischer: Yeah that makes no sense, but—
Wickman: But is that really all there is to it?
Fischer: So the Red Skull in the first Captain America movie had the—
Wickman: The tesseract.
Fischer: He had the tesseract. The end of the movie, I think, and I haven’t seen this movie in like seven years he tries to do something with the tesseract and it basically ends up zapping him out of reality. I guess where he ended up is-
Basically it’s his job to tell Thanos, “Here is the soul stone but in order to get it you’re going to have to trade a soul for a soul.” I guess it has to be a soul that he truly loves. As it turns out though he is cruel and evil and bent on destroying half the university he does love Gamora, and then in this scene he shoves her off a cliff and she dies, and then the scene out. Then when we next see him, he has the soul stone. I’m not sure we learn what the soul stone does if it does anything. I guess you just need a complete set.
Wickman: Yeah—maybe that’s why they save it for last so that he doesn’t have to reveal any powers.
Fischer: Yeah, I guess that’s five, so then that takes us to the mind stone.
Wickman: Sorry I didn’t mention before, but we did already talk about the time stone, which was the one that was with Doctor Strange. So he actually gets the time stone next, and it’s a similar deal where all of the Guardians of The Galaxy plus Spider-Man who has essentially hitched a ride on a spaceship, plus Iron Man who has hitched a ride on that same spaceship, plus Doctor Strange who has been captured on that spaceship by Thanos minions—
Fischer: Their names are amazing, and I just want to say all of them. Thanos has four minions, he sends them to Earth in his place to get the stones. They’re called the children of Thanos, and their names are Cull Obsidian, Ebony Maw, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive
Stevens: One thing that I never forgot existed but kept wanting to go back to was Wakanda. We haven’t even touched on it yet. Especially after the huge success of Black Panther and what a cultural touchstone it immediately became. I couldn’t believe how little time this movie spend on Wakanda.
Wickman: Yeah in the defense, this movie had entirely been filmed and completed by the time Black Panther came out. Perhaps they should have anticipated how big of a deal Black Panther would become. Certainly a lot of people were expecting that it would become a huge deal from the moment that they signed on. Black Panther came out two months ago and then they moved up the release date of this so that there was only two months in between them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went to the cutting room floor and found every single piece of footage they had of Wakanda and were like shit, “We got to put this in.” You don’t get a ton of it.
Stevens: The flying doughnut gang. That’s what Robert Downey Jr. nicknamed the spaceship that they’ve hijacked and are trying to fly to get what stone? You’re way beyond me at this point.
Wickman: It’s because Doctor Strange has the time stone and he’s been captured on the flying doughnut. Now they’re trying to prevent Thanos from getting the time stone, which is the second-to-last stone.
Stevens: They’re not going anywhere in particular, they’re just trying to avoid being captured essentially?
Fischer: Yeah I think one of Thanos’ henchman is one on the flying doughnuts with them, and then they dispatch him as they note in the manner of how they get read of the alien in one of the Aliens movies.
Wickman: Right which is to say they blow a hole in the spaceship’s hole and he gets vacuum sucked out into space. That was a affective joke I thought.
Fischer: Yeah I thought so too. Basically they decide we’ve got one of the stones but rather than going back to Earth where we don’t want Thanos to go, why don’t we go to Thanos somewhere else and fight him there. I think the reason that’s one you won’t expect, as heroes always do. Doctor Strange has the time stone which he got in his own movie, so they go to Titan, which is Thanos’ planet. This group of Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man meet up with the members of The Guardians of The Galaxy that aren’t with Thor. Thor has gone off separately with Rocket Raccoon and Groot. The rest of the Guardians, which is Peter Quill, Mantis, and Drax, we no longer have Gamora because she’s with Thanos — sorry this is all confusing — they gather on Titan in anticipation of Thanos arriving where they will perhaps use the time stone to defeat him. They hatch a whole plan how to take on Thanos.
Stevens: If I recall correctly that’s the part of the movie that’s intercut with Wakanda.
That’s where the basic two stories were cutting in between is them fighting him on that planet and everything that’s happening in Wakanda, which we haven’t even gotten to yet.
Fischer: Yeah pretty much. I think it starts by intercutting and then everything ends on Wakanda because that’s where the last stone is. Too quickly summarize how Thanos gets the time stone, all of our heroes come up with this elaborate plan to essentially restrain Thanos and then pull off his glove the infinity gauntlet and then there’s a pretty good, pretty clever fight sequence. The various schemes they come up with what’s tricking Thanos and coming at him from all directions at once are pretty entertaining. They’re about to succeed when Star-Lord finds out that he has killed Gamora and basically can’t restrain himself and starts attacking Thanos which wakes him up from the sleep—Star-Lord wakes Thanos from the sleep that’s Mantis has put him in. And then I guess there is really a significant part here, which is that Doctor Strange says he’s glimpsed all 14 million possible futures from this one point.
Stevens: This was a really, really fun special effect I just have to note here—it’s one moment I absolutely love. A goofy CGI effect was when Doctor Strange travels forward in time to see all the possible outcomes of the plan. For a minute he becomes an Indian many armed god which is hilarious, just seeing Benedict Cumberbatch floating in the lotus position with many arms. Then he turns into a bunch of hymns and there’s a whole sky of Doctor Stranges floating, and just the idea that you can go forward in time and foresee the possible outcomes is a really great superhero power I love it.
Wickman: Yeah youv’e got to see Doctor Strange because it’s just all trippy dippy stuff like that. Vaguely eastern mysticism that’s really just America’s understanding of eastern mysticism in the 1960s or ‘70s, which is when the character was created.
Stevens: Another fun effect that his cloak can be personafiedwithout him. Does this happen in this movie?
Stevens: I love his cloak as a character.
Fischer: I think it’s worth very briefly saying that if you loved them really trippy late ‘60s comic book artist Steve Ditko, who drew Doctor Strange at the time, the movie challenges it in a really great way and that is the number one reason why I endorse that film.
Stevens: Yeah you guys have sold me. If there’s one of these I’m going to go back and what it will be the Dr. Strange movie.
Wickman: Yeah so he’s seen all 14 million possible futures and he says there’s precisely one in which what they win?
Stevens: Yeah. Basically they have a successful outcome in one universe.
Wickman: This becomes very important because of what happens at the end of the movie. I think that in retrospect that line actually takes all suspense out of the cliff hanger at the end of the movie because we essentially already know that Doctor Strange has foreseen the future and that they’re going to win, and while that is reassuring, I think it does lower the stakes dramatically. I think we essentially learned they’re on that one path in which they’ll win because Doctor Strange having seen the future decides to just give over his time stone in exchange for the life of Iron Man, Tony Stark. Who I think briefly we all think is going to die and that could have been a whole other version of the movie but he’s saved.
Stevens: There’s at least one more thread in the main part of the movie before we get to Wakanda and the final fight sequence and who buys it and who doesn’t. The small subplot is Thor going and getting a new weapon, because of course his hammer was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok, his last movie, so he needs to go about getting himself a new unbeatable weapon, and there’s a really funny little side plot about that. Should we describe it?
Wickman: Yeah with Peter Dinklage.
Fischer: Basically in the last movie I think Thor got torn into pieces in all kinds of ways. He lost his hammer, he lost his eye
Wickman: And his hair.
Fischer: And his hair. And while this movie does not restore his hair, it does restore all the other parts, which I think is a clue to how serious it is about really dismantling these heroes. Thor gets his eye back in a really funny callback to the Guardians movies. He realizes that he needs some kind of super weapon to take on Thanos.
He goes to Nidavellir, which is like a cosmic forge where I guess space drives make weapons for Asgardians and we learn that Thanos also visited to Nidavellir —he had them make the gauntlet, and he then put out the small star at the center of it that powers of the forge. But Thor and Rocket and Groot arrive at to Niðavellir where they look for the dwarves. There’s only one of them left and it’s a dwarf named Eitri who is played by I think kind of delightfully and surprisingly by Peter Dinklage.
Stevens: Totally agree it was late in the movie, I was really tired but he really made me laugh.
We should mention that an element of space dwarves is that they are huge in comparison to humans. Maybe for their planet they were dwarves. To see a very large CGI Peter Dinklage is such a good joke. His voice is just fantastic, he’s just got this great deep rumble that’s so perfect for the great weapon forging dwarf.
Fischer: Basically they go there and they have to reignite a burnt out sun in order to power the forge, which they do somehow, I guess I’m not really clear on how they do it, but it involves Thor nearly dying because he has to hold open a window so that the sun can power the forge, but they finally get it to work. They forge the axe, and then in the last moment Groot cuts of his own arm because he can do that and regrow a new one and that becomes the handle of the axe. We learn in this scene that the ax can channel the Bifrost. The Bifrost is the inter-dimensional or cosmic bridge from the Thor movies. Basically they’ve reforge Thor’s hammer, they make a new hammer, and then he transports himself, Rocket, and Groot down to Wakanda wear this sort of great, climatic battle is happening.
Wickman: This huge battle is kind of is undermined, I think, when Thor shows up with his super powerful hammer that seems to be really more powerful than either of the armies combined. And I just want to nit-pick about the Thor space forge sequence. This movie is too long and you easily could have cut that part, which probably takes 20 minutes and then all of a sudden this movie would be a tight two hours rather than an overlong two and a half hours or at least it would be closer to it.
Second of all I just don’t understand wy this new hammer is so much more powerful. As powerful as his hammer was before, this new axe seems so much more powerful. It’s just like why didn’t you get this previously? I guess just to end that whole Wakanda sequence, once Thor shows up the battle is pretty much settled, until Thanos himself shows up who seems to be the only thing more powerful than this ax.
Stevens: I have to say I found that battle in Wakanda incredibly — for having been built up to for so long — just so dull. It was really one of those almost like one of those Lord of The Rings sequences where all you see is digitized armies from very far up and only in a few scenes where they’re actually encounters between individuals that you could care about.
Remember how I was saying earlier that there was a dramatic setup that was left on the table between Captain America and Tony Stark? Another huge one is that it’s set up early in the movie that Bruce Banner has lost his ability to convert into the Hulk. In this final battle sequences he’s not the big green Hulk, just the normal Bruce Banner, but he’s inside this super suit that I guess the Wakandan’s gave him. Is that where he got it from?
Wickman: No—that’s a suit that Iron Man designed essentially to be able to contain the Hulk. In previous movies we’ve seen it as something that used whenever they need to restrain the Hulk, this giant suit attacks him and restrains him.
Stevens: But now it’s kind of become his exoskeleton that he fights in. Which is fine, that’s actually a good dramatic setup, but then you need to have the moment where somehow Bruce Banner’s anger takes over and he does convert or else he decides to never be the Hulk again. Instead he just relies on the exoskeleton and it seemed like another opportunity for something cool to happen that would actually advance a character’s growth and it doesn’t happen.
Wickman: I assume that would happen in what used to be called Infinity War Part II and is currently without a title.
Stevens: Let’s get to the ending because the ending really did kind of blew me away, and I was way more patient with his movie then you all were. I’m not crazy about these Marvel movies, but then suddenly to my amazement I was really moved, maybe not to the point of tears, but really genuinely moved by the last 10 minutes or so of the movie. Let’s get into what happens at the end of the battle for Wakanda.
Wickman: Basically Thanos defeats the group of heroes that are on his own planet, Titan, and after the heroes on Earth and Wakanda have defeated all of the children of Thanos and it appears that the battle is won, Thanos himself shows up and one by one each of the heroes attacks him. He quickly dispatches them and then he gets his hands on the Vision. At this point Vision has decided he has to sacrifice himself the only one we are told who was powerful enough to kill him is the Scarlet Witch, his girlfriend.
Stevens: That’s because she’s his girlfriend in a way right? Isn’t the idea that she is this empath too and she can only she has the connection with his mind where she can explode the stone or something like that?
Fischer: I took it to be that she’s just that powerful, but I think it’s possible that’s true too.
Stevens: Because it’s definitely a big setup that it’s really hard for her to kill him. I mention this because it is one of the few moments in the movie where someone’s prior relationship or character has to do with the action.
Wickman: I think it’s meant to be a total mirror of the Peter Quill-Gamora, where Peter Quill has to kill his girlfriend and Scarlet Witch has to kill her boyfriend. Basically the central disagreement of this movie is whether or not they “trade lives” — most of the Avengers are like, “No, we don’t intentionally kill anyone even if by refusing to kill we might lead to as much or more death.” Whereas Thanos is like, “No I will just kill half the universe in order to save the remaining half.”
Fischer: Yeah, so she kills him and it seems like Thanos will have been prevented from completing the [stone] set and killing half the universe. But as it turns out, he has the time stone, so all he does is he rewinds a nearby pocket of time by 30 seconds. Vision is I guess unkilled, he grabs the stone off of Vision who it appears then dies again, and then Thor finally shows up. I don’t know where he was 30 seconds earlier, but Thor finally shows up and puts his new powerful axe into Thanos’ chest, and it appears that all is done, everything is saved, and then Thanos says something like, “You should have gone for my head.”
Stevens: Why would going for his head made any difference?
Wickman: Well he would have been killed more quickly, and he would have been unable to do what he does, which is snaps his fingers. Which I have to stay the entire time they keep saying, “Oh man, all Thanos has to do is snap his fingers and half the universe will die.” Which I thought of as a sort of metaphor. But it turns out I guess that literal the code for destroying half of the universe is snapping your fingers. I don’t know that’s kind of nit-picky but it struck me as funny. So yes Thanos destroys half of the universe, which includes half of the heroes in this universe.
Stevens: We see first how they die and what it looks like when they die. It’s a beautiful effect, it actually is great—I think if it weren’t for the effect it wouldn’t have been as moving as it was.
After the finger snap of death what happens to the randomly selected half of the population that dies is that they turn into this ash, this brownish ash-
Wickman: I feel like they blow away like dead leaves or something.
Stevens: Right and I love that it’s not a puff of smoke. It’s almost like they turn into this garden mulch and drift away on the wind and there’s a real sense with the slowness of the effect and seeing the body gradually dissolve into this brown matter that you see the actual loss and grieving of that person. It feels very permanent even though they’re all going to be brought back in part two.
Wickman: Yeah so the first one who dies at least according to my notes is T’Challa, I have to say, they should not have done him first I think. I immediately felt — there’s no fucking way that these movies are going to kill off the Black Panther, who is responsible for their single most successful stand-alone movie that just made over a billion dollars, and granted they didn’t know that ahead of time, but it seemed like there was no way they were going to kill off Black Panther.
So yeah, they kill of Black Panther, Groot, Bucky, Scarlet Witch, Drax, the Empath.
Fischer: Star-Lord dies, so does Mantis. Doctor Strange is one of them and then I think there’s a bit of pathos there because knowing the future he also knew that he himself would have to be sacrificed.
Stevens: Does Natasha make it, the Scarlet Johansson character?
Wickman: I think the last major one until the post-credits that we haven’t said in Spider-Man.
Fischer: Yeah Spider-Man is one of them. So is Sam, the Falcon.
Stevens: We’re left at the end with only just Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, the Black Widow, who else is still standing?
Wickman: There are still so many.
Fischer: I think consequentially, the ones who are left are actually, as luck would have it, all of the core Avengers. Which tells us that I think the next movie is actually going to be much like tighter Avengers plot and movie.
Wickman: Yeah and there’s again a little meta textual stuff we can bring in because there have been some set photos from Avengers four and they show the battle of New York, the battle from the original Avengers movies, with all of the Avengers back there with their original costumes on. I believe the Antman is also on set there, and the Antman is one of the only new characters who is not killed in these movies. I think there are lots of different ways we can interpret this. My guess is having not read the comics, the next movie is going to be either a time travel movie or a parallel universe movie or some spin on those. I know this kind of thing has happened in the comics before so Jon you probably have a more informed guess.
Fischer: This story is based on the Infinity Gauntlet story, which was in the very early ‘90s. It was a major Marvel crossover and it’s basically the story here — Thanos collects the stones and wants to kill off the universe. I think I failed in my research for this podcast. I meant to re-read the series and I didn’t. What I remember, because I did read it as a kid probably a little bit after it actually happened, is that Thanos in that series did succeed and he killed half the universe and half the heroes disappear and then they somehow undo it.
I would very much Expect for something like that to happen again at least because Spider-Man and Black Panther were among the ones who died, and of course they have planned movies. There’s a third Guardians of The Galaxy movie coming, and all of the Guardians are dead. I think some kind of time travel in the 4th movie is a good bet. Some sort of hopping in between realms of realities probably also on the table. Or maybe they just somehow get their hands on the gauntlet and unsnap that finger.
Stevens: I have just one observation about the feeling of the end of this movie. I think this is why it really did affect me. The end of this movie has a real note of failure and melancholy, and it also just seemed strangely even if not deliberate appropriate to the Trump era. I just made me think of election night and just the disbelief that the bad guy won. This movie is really willing, for however temporary it maybe, it’s willing to sit with that mood. It’s willing to be that huge Marvel blockbuster that ends on a really downer note.
Fischer: Yeah I mentioned Empire Strikes Back earlier on. I think that’s the best precedent for this the movie, in terms of all-time great dark cliffhangers. I was legitimately chilled and disturbed and spent some time grappling with whether I was just in denial that people died and so on. The further of gotten from the movie the more that somber tone feels phony to me.
Stevens: I agree.
Fischer: Those people aren’t actually dead we are grieving for nothing.
Stevens: In fact, you’re doing exactly what they want by grieving because then you’re going to buy the ticket for the next movie.
Fischer: The question is how many of them they’ll be able to un-kill? Some of them they might not be able to until, like will they be able to save Loki, who dies much earlier in the movie? I don’t know, so I think some of these deaths are real but, I can’t find myself mourning for anybody who died in this movie because the end of this movie made it so abundantly clear that they would in fact be resurrections again in the Marvel universe.
Stevens: Yeah, you’re right it’s not a matter of actual loss I think it’s just … I’m just even impressed that day movie was willing to send you out in a bad mood.
Fischer: I imagine you guys had similar experience in your screening in New York, but in D.C., the feeling was just like — people were just stuck in their seats and just stunned after the ending.
Stevens: As our producer was saying, we practically got into a real-time reproduction of the movie.