This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.
With Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther crushing box-office records, and a Han Solo movie opening in just a few weeks, Disney is once again asserting its big-studio dominance through two seemingly unstoppable franchises: the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars. Marvel appears to have the upper hand in the office competition for now, both in revenue and presumed fan satisfaction—which is to say that the Russo brothers’ Infinity War doesn’t appear to be dividing its fan base like Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi did at the end of 2017, despite a similarly risky undermining of the series’ status quo.
Both movies take their cues from the gold standard of surprise bummers, The Empire Strikes Back. The Last Jedi, like its cinematic cousin, is a trilogy’s middle chapter that ends with its heroes outnumbered, outgunned, and less certain of their victory than they were at the end of the previous installment. Infinity War, if anything, goes darker; not only does the movie end on a cliffhanger that leaves its villain, Thanos, ahead of its army of superheroes, many of the superheroes disintegrate into dust at the snap of the big purple guy’s newly empowered fingers. The movie ends with its villain basking in the glow of a job well-done, and its heroes counting their dead.
Despite reports of younger viewers bursting into tears, this twist (expected by some comics devotees, but not general audiences) leaves most Avengers fans breathless with a combination of exhilaration, surprise, and anticipation. (Reviews have been generally positive too.) The Last Jedi, meanwhile, divided fans with its depiction of a surly, disillusioned Luke Skywalker and its pointedly anticlimactic answer to the question of its heroine’s parentage. The Last Jedi is, however, a much better film and an object lesson in how a talented filmmaker can work around, or simply push past, the inherent limitations of a single entry in a modern forever franchise.
As big a swing as it is for Infinity War to apparently kill off major characters, Marvel’s upcoming release schedule guarantees that some of those deaths won’t be permanent. This is just the act break before next year’s follow-up. In both Infinity War and The Last Jedi, the heroes fail, but only one of the movies gives that failure a chance to sink in. The Last Jedi’s younger heroes, full of can-do spirit in The Force Awakens, get a chance to save the day in their follow-up adventure, and they blow it: Poe Dameron leads a mutiny that turns out to be unnecessary, and Finn and Rose’s side quest is a bust, at least in terms of hacking into an enemy ship’s tracking software. Even Luke Skywalker re-enters the story not as a hero full of wisdom to be passed on to the next generation, but as a man haunted by his past mistakes. We learn that in a moment of fear and despair, he came close to killing his dark-leaning nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), inadvertently sending him further down a Vader-emulating path. The Last Jedi’s characters, both heroes and villains, struggle with whether the past can or should define them, and that past includes failures, not just chosen-one victories.
In Infinity War, failure is merely a plot device. Few of the movie’s characters go through any meaningful change—and that includes most of the characters who wind up dead. They start the movie wanting to stop Thanos, they try to stop Thanos, and they fail to stop Thanos (at least until next May). Their final failure isn’t something the characters grapple with for more than a few moments, and while the lack of falling action increases the shock value, it also blunts the movie’s emotional charge; little about it lingers. Despite all of Infinity War’s elaborate visual effects and coherently staged battles, there’s not a single image as striking as the shots of Luke in a cave on his remote island, receding into the shadows, or Rey gasping for breath after approaching the darkness within her—maybe because there’s little of thematic interest to inspire any. Only Thanos gets a moment to reflect on the death of half the universe, and even then only briefly, because to really dig into the specifics of this massive change would make the ending of Infinity War less of a mic-drop cliffhanger. This ending has been lauded for its daring, but its ultimate goal is to keep audiences on the hook for more Avengers adventures.
Even taking Infinity War’s ending on its own terms does the movie no favors. Confronting the audience with the deaths of beloved characters isn’t especially impressive when those characters are beloved mainly because of previous, better movies. Serving up their demises to invested fanboys amounts to a perverse sort of audience flattery: Congratulations, you’ve collected enough feelings about Black Panther or Spider-Man to access this special prize! The movie might as well be taking place inside of a vast cereal box.
Granted, at this point it’s hard to draw a distinction between fans of these all-consuming franchises and general audiences: Is anyone not a Star Wars fan? Is anyone who’s not an MCU fan still paying attention? And it’s hard to blame those audiences for enjoying a funny and fast-paced superhero blowout like Infinity War. Even to a skeptic, Infinity War offers a pleasurable buzz of anticipation about what might happen next and whether it can possibly be equal to its cataclysmic setup. But The Last Jedi requires no such waiting period; it’s not up to Episode IX to make Johnson’s movie worthwhile, any more than it was Johnson’s responsibility to pay off every plot thread from The Force Awakens. Jedi ends, in fact, in a way that could easily serve as the capstone for the Star Wars series, even though it has no pretensions of finality. Disgruntled fans threw this achievement back as an insult: After Last Jedi, they were done with Star Wars! What could be worse, after all, than a movie series that’s not trying to immediately lure you back? When thinking of Avengers 4 and which character deaths it may undo (no less than “some” and, hell, possibly as many as “all”), it’s hard not to recall internet commenters wishfully theorizing how Episode IX might write Johnson’s developments out of existence altogether. (“Actually, Rey, I was wrong about your parents being nobodies. Psych!”) Infinity War practically invites that fannish tinkering: Its final twist inspires not thoughts of how its heroes will mourn the death of half the universe but how they will undo it.
But as frustrating as Infinity War is, it does have the advantage of bringing the successes of The Last Jedi into even stronger focus, offering reassurance that a talented filmmaker really can make distinctive art out of a franchise crowd pleaser (and The Last Jedi is no more an experimental anti-film than Infinity War is; this is a movie that generously provides the sight of BB-8 driving an AT-ST). Perhaps in its way, The Last Jedi is setting up Avengers 4 too by keeping hope alive that Marvel can pull back from the brink and let its filmmakers experiment, not just with superficial shifts in the status quo but with movies that express a particular point of view—even if that means risking genuine failure.