‘Infinity War’ is to ‘The Last Jedi’ as a blade of grass is to expired antibiotics
Reading these two articles is like watching a group presentation on Disney franchises. They are identical by-products of the same observation: Infinity War pulled a Loki and not only made bank, but built several of them, while The Last Jedi took narrative risks and watched its stable retirement fund suffer a minor loss (it’s a sign of the times when we equate suffering with not making the box office gross 2 billion instead of a measly 1.3 billion). I can feel the critical angst of late 2017 waking, assembling itself into some vague humanoid shape capable of pointing out the coarse mind of the general movie-going public, how it is uncomfortable with a daring and transcendent narrative, one that elevates a stale fantasy into the realm of FILM, that rarefied strata to which few can claim membership.
Let’s not pretend Last Jedi accomplished some elaborate refresh of the Star Wars franchise. This is the same story from 1981 with better visuals and dialogue patterned after regular human speech. The reason why Last Jedi is so divisive goes deeper than Rey’s parentage and Luke’s anti-climatic return. The reaction is a symptom of the problem we can trace back to the tepid reception to Force Awakens: failure to live up to the hype of a female hero and a hero of color engaging and transcending the heroes we know. We were presented an entirely new vision in teasers and trailers for Force Awakens, and what we got was a remake of A New Hope. The Last Jedi continued in this vein, and when the hope wasn’t realized, when the stakes remained unchanged and the heroes followed the same trajectories of old, a vocal contingent of fandom cried foul.
To say The Last Jedi is a “unicorn” because it ends with their heroes failing without a back-up play is straight-up ridiculous. This isn’t a standalone film. It’s not even the last movie in the trilogy. It is episode VIII of a nine-part saga, and, from the way it’s been telegraphed, episode II in Disney’s master plan to inhabit this galaxy in perpetuity. If anyone thinks that moxie and a change of heart won’t defeat the First Order in episode IX, then they are a fool. If you’re looking for narrative stakes in a Disney film, dust off the VHS and pop-in Hunchback of Notre-Dame or Lion King. Even though you knew Scar would get his due, it was looking pretty damn dire for a minute. And it was believable. It was believable because you wondered how.
Infinity War promised two things: war and Thanos. That’s it. Even if you’re not a Marvel Wiki mage, you could possibly infer someone vital to killing Thanos gets caught in a thorny situation at the end of volume one, warranting a volume two. Infinity War made good on those promises, then exploded the whole thing by having these people we’ve been following for what feels like fifty-six films fail to do the one thing they were told not to fail at doing. The surprise is the failure. Infinity War and its scheduled sequel (and Captain Marvel) will make buku money because we, the audience, will wonder how they will triumph over a villain who sacrificed the one being he loved to achieve universal balance. A villain who, after he prevails, does not return to his throne room, a wicked smile on his face, but to a hut on a grassy, upland plateau, scarred and weary, looking out at the sunset, knowing what he has sacrificed to do so.
Excuse me, but that is fucking magic. An ending like that, even with the knowledge of a sequel, does not cater to anyone, especially fans. Now that we know the result of fourteen million plus possible outcomes, now that we know Thanos ranks up there with Eric Killmonger as one of the most problematic MCU villains, we can anticipate that the one chance the Avengers get to win will be appropriately epic in story and style.
The last time Star Wars was provocative in a good way (bad way: Jar-Jar Binks, stultifying dialogue and delivery), was Revenge of the Sith, or, as I like to call it, Birth of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker’s overall arc — Chosen One, Conflicted Subordinate, Uber Villain, Bad Dad, Seething Subordinate, Conflicted Dad, Tragic Hero — makes Revenge thrilling to watch. We know that he is Darth Vader, he is the principal antagonist of this saga, but we learn the nature of his fall, we see the methods, we witness the pieces coming together to form a complicated picture of a disillusioned hero turned bitter, broken enemy. There’s heartbreak, there’s death, there’s irrevocable damage done — this is a story designed to make you question.
The same cannot be said for episode IX. True, no one knows what will happen. But the challenge is caring about what does. Or how. Or why. There’s no mystery here. It’s all been spent.