Death and narrative stakes

The immediate motivation for this post is John Scalzi’s response to Infinity War, and it’s going to have spoilers for that film. So if you haven’t seen it yet and wish to avoid spoilers, go no further.

Short form: I don’t often wildly disagree with Scalzi, but this is one of those times.

And the short form of “why” is: Apollo 13.

I’ve watched that movie easily a dozen times. Furthermore, it’s based on real history. So I know, every time I sit down in front of the TV, that the astronauts are going to get home safely. They won’t die in outer space. Everything will be okay.

Despite that, I’m still on the edge of my seat, every goddamned time.

This, btw, is why I’m generally not too upset by seeing spoilers. I’ll make a reasonable effort to avoid them (I didn’t open any of the Infinity War posts in my RSS reader until today, because I didn’t see the movie until last night), but I won’t go into a total social media blackout or anything like that. Because, as Marissa Lingen recently said, any story whose value is lost by knowing in advance how it ends was pretty cheap to begin with.

Apollo 13 holds up even on the twelfth watching because while I may know how it ends, the characters don’t. The story isn’t whether the astronauts get home safely; it’s the tension and fear of everyone in that tale, waiting to find out whether the astronauts get home safely. It’s them clinging to each other during the radio silence, and then dissolving into tears of joyful relief when it ends.

Which is why I don’t care that yeah, I know half the characters who went poof are already slated for sequel films, which means they’ll come back. It’s like knowing the Apollo 13 crew won’t die. Heck, if anything, I’m glad to know that: because the last thing I need right now is a film that goes, “welp, sometimes you just lose and there’s nothing you can do about it, haha, eat that, suckers.” But the characters did lose . . . and they’re going to have to live with that loss for a good long while (probably through a goodly percentage of the next movie). That moment — the hollow shock as they realize they brought to bear everything they had and more, and it wasn’t enough — that, not “will all those people stay dead?,” is where the impact lies.

Now, I will grant the impact wasn’t quite as big as I would have liked. There were so many “oh no person is dissolving!” moments that none of them individually wrung as much pathos from the loss as they could have; the one that came the closest was Peter Parker, and that’s because he had a chance to express his fear. For the rest, you mostly have to read between the lines, Okoye realizing she failed her king, Cap losing Bucky, Rocket losing Groot. Basically, the emotional work there was done in other films: you need to bring those to the table for the full effect. So it’s possible that the correct way to gloss Scalzi’s post is not “this didn’t move me becaues I know there are more films coming,” but rather “this didn’t move me enough to turn off the part of my brain that points out there are more films coming.”

For me, though, the impressive thing here is the willingness to commit to “the heroes lost” for more than a few seconds. Contrast it with, for example, the end of Doctor Strange: Strange and his allies realize they arrived too late to protect the Hong Kong Sanctum, but that lasts for, what, a couple of minutes? Strange is able to fix it almost immediately, so he never really has to live with the knowledge of his failure. The surviving heroes of Infinity War will (I presume — I could be wrong and the opening sequence of next year’s movie will make it all better, in which case I’ll be annoyed). And, if the storytelling in the sequel is good, fixing this mistake is not going to be easy or cheap.

We’ll see, next May. In the meanwhile, I’m interested in Ant-Man and the Wasp (which I think is set pre-Infinity War) and Captain Marvel, not least because both of them will help rectify the still-massive gender imbalance in the MCU. (When are we gonna get a Black Widow movie, dammit? Red Sparrow doesn’t count.)

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