Movies

Thanos, the Dark Avatar of Movies in 2018

Welcome to the Movie Club!

Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.
Thanos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marvel Studios.

Welcome to the Movie Club! In this annual feature, Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema.

Dear Bilge, Kam, and Amy:

At the risk of welcoming you to Movie Club (hi!) with a question that’s grown so familiar in 2018 it’s surely been put on a list of things not to say on a first date: Can you believe how long the past year has seemed? Something strange seems to be happening to time in our time: Our psychic experience of its passage has been stretched like taffy by the peculiar pressures of the political and historical moment. Headlines of momentous import about gravely urgent developments around the world are piling up faster than unwatched Netflix series—not to mention movie screeners, several dozen of which are stacked to my right and left right now in teetering cairns.

Just to fry your cortexes further: Tully came out this year, dudes! And Annihilation! And Isle of Dogs! All of them, to my mind, accomplished if imperfect films that may or may not come up again in the pages of this club (that’s up to you), but that by their early 2018 vintage alone share a certain quality of remoteness, like runes on some ancient temple. At what point in the year did Blake Lively show up in those slamming three-piece suits in A Simple Favor? It was just over three months ago, while we were first taking in the news of Paul Manafort’s plea deal, but it already seems so far in the past Blake’s gold pocket watch might have been an au courant fashion accessory. This excess of speed and volume can contribute to a paradoxical sense of stasis, a feeling of standing in a fixed spot while everyday life streams past you on platforms too multifarious to be comprehended or even perceived all at once.

I don’t know about the three of you, but this year I’ve tried to tune out some of the less urgent subplots on the widely loathed but somehow compulsory reality show in which we are now all unpaid and ill-used extras. I want to keep as much time and space as possible open for movies, the medium of popular expression that still, for me, has the most concentrated power as—what? An escape? A respite? An antidote? Those are weak words, too transactional and anodyne to suggest the potential movies offer us for real risk and real rescue. A good movie lets the viewer journey to another realm (and not necessarily a fantastical or escapist one, as in the cheerily unhinged Mission Impossible: Fallout; it could be the plain-as-dirt reality of a small Georgia community in the quietly perceptive documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening) and back to her theater seat in the space of one afternoon.

The darkness of the cinema and the work of extended attention required by theatrical screening have a part to play in this unique transformation. It may sound nostalgic to cite those endangered features of moviegoing as two I’d miss—the cinematic equivalent of eulogizing the smell of warm newsprint or the crisp “ding” of the carriage return on a typewriter. But in 2018 that big screen/small screen distinction remained a live question in the entertainment industry, beginning as early as January with the acquisition by HBO of Jennifer Fox’s widely praised Sundance child-abuse drama The Tale. Released in theaters at the right moment and given a strong push by its studio, that female-driven tour de force—starring Laura Dern and directed by a woman who had lived through its harrowing story in real life—might have captured the attention of a public raw from a year of soul-grinding #MeToo revelations. Instead it was chucked onto HBO to little promotional fanfare and sank, though Dern’s performance was recently honored with a Golden Globe nomination for best actress … in a TV movie or limited series.

And now, late in the year, we see the phenomenon of persnickety film critics (including, fine, me) extolling Roma’s pristine widescreen image and novel use of sound-mixing technology to prospective audiences who might be tempted instead to watch Alfonso Cuarón’s much-praised, awards-garnering autobiographical drama from the cozy couchside perch that Netflix, the film’s financing entity and worldwide distributor, has been offering its subscribers since Dec. 14. Do these crossovers between traditional film financing and the streaming service-as-studio model suggest that the only way to save the theatrical experience may be to destroy it, or at least to increase its value through scarcity?

When I try to think of a mascot for this year in film, an on-screen face that most definitely belongs in at least one quadrant of the 2018 coat of arms, the character who first comes to mind is Thanos, played by Josh Brolin in The Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos, who lived on for months after his April debut as a versatile mood-expressing meme, was a rare example of an unforgettable Marvel movie villain, with his complexion of dull lilac, his vertically furrowed mega-chin, and his anguished (but obstinately held) beliefs about the necessity for strict utilitarian ethics. Like one of those best-selling 1970s pop theorists of “overpopulation,” who would rarely permit complex moral questions of colonialism or global inequity to mar their abstract mathematical projections about projected population size, Thanos has found himself a belief system and he’s sticking to it.

One snap of those begloved fingers, he warns petulantly as he scours the cosmos for a handful of craft-store gemstones, and half the universe’s living beings will vanish in an instant, transformed for some reason into windborne columns of finely ground mulch. Ours not to reason why; ours but to last until the end of this two-hour-and-40-minute Marvel epic and see who dies. What clearer or more nightmarish image could there be of the powerless public space so many of us feel ourselves to inhabit right now, with our health care, education, citizenship, and bodily autonomy subject to the whims of less lavender and, frankly, less introspective leaders? Even knowing some of our heroes’ seeming deaths may be reversible—they’re really going to kill off Black Panther only one movie in to his lucrative and history-making franchise?—there was a salutary ambiguity to that grandly bleak ending. Even in the Marvel-verse, it seems, sometimes great power is not handled with great responsibility, and at least for the first half of a two-movie arc justice does not prevail. To quote a memorable movie villain from a different year, chaos reigns, and we just have to wait and see.

Whoa, things got dark there—sorry. Let me end this first post more cheerily with my top 10 movies of the year:

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Eighth Grade
First Reformed
Leave No Trace
Minding the Gap
Roma
A Star Is Born
Support the Girls
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Zama

These were the films that lifted me out of Thanos’ zero-sum binary logic and into a place sustained by hope for more than just survival to the next franchise installment. Kam, when you look back over the year’s releases, which films would survive your mighty finger snap?

Happy New Year,

Dana

Read the next entry in the Movie Club.