Falling Left – Permadeath in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Or: How I Learned to Stop Theorizing and Trust Cinematic Convention
Time to get film buff. One of the most lovely and subtle, tried and true tricks of cinematography is the use of lateral motion to convey positive and negative emotion. The key idea is surprisingly straight forward. If the action on screen moves from left to right your audience tends to feel positive and senses progression. If it moves from right to left, they feel negative or sense regression. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be motion. Character positioning, orientation, and even facing can do similar things.
This isn’t a small effect. A number of tests and studies have shown purposeful uses of lateral motion can sway a wide audience’s perception of a scene quite potently. But most audience members are not really aware of this convention as a practice, so it can be done subtly.
(Every Frame a Painting is a great channel on YouTube and I wish they could have kept putting out more content! Their video: Snowpiercer: Left or Right highlights a brilliant example of the use of this convention. I highly recommend both the channel and that video in particular! There is also a great little Video Essay documenting one of the studies on lateral motion. It gives some solid examples of its use and effects!)
Now, let’s look at the various deaths in Infinity War!
Loki’s death is of course the one most fans suspect is false. But it’s the first death in Infinity War so we start there. The scene leading to Loki’s demise is both subtly heroic and, if genuine, deeply tragic. It contains several brilliant echoes that bring perspective and closure to his various character arcs, which help sell its genuineness in my opinion. But in terms of its cinematography and framing it is curious. There are several quick perspective shot changes that switch between Thanos and the bound Thor leading up to the moment of Loki’s death. Despite this flexibility, the final shot of Loki’s demise, and the one that definitively comprises his “fall” when Thanos tosses him to the ground, has him fall from right to left. He then remains in that orientation for all his remaining screen time. (With the exception of a single, very brief, wide shot) This sudden change lends a finality to his death and the left facing fall lends a subtle emotional weight. But he is not alone.
Heimdall is quickly killed in that same scene. Again, despite several changes in camera orientation, the moment when the death blow comes, as well as the moment when his life fades, show him falling back to the left. Just like Loki the camera then locks, keeping this perspective on him for the remainder of his screen time.
The next death in Infinity War is Gamora’s but hers is a bit more complicated, so we will skip over that for now to the last of the “natural” infinity war deaths, that of Vision.
Vision dies twice. The first death leaves only a crater, but the one that sticks is at the hands of Thanos after he undoes Scarlet Witch’s destruction of the Mind Stone. This is a particularly interesting one that caught me by surprise when I looked at it closely. I remembered that Vision fell to the left, but what I did not remember was that after ripping the stone from Vision, Thanos tosses his greying body away to the right. Despite this fact, vision is then shown falling left.
Vision is given the same post death treatment as the other two.The camera locks to this left orientation and does not deviate.The film even uses his fallen form as a focal point of the last shot of the remaining defeated Avengers on earth.
Lastly, let’s handle Gamora’s death. Her fall is decidedly more complex, but it is a key turn in the story and it may be tied to a few things about the soul stone we haven’t been shown yet. Let’s look at the setup. Approaching the cliff face we get several angles on the mountain, both during the arrival on the planet and on the climb up. But once they reach the plateau the camera cements itself out over the edge, establishing a left/right setup that it keeps for the rest of the scene. The furthest they get from that established setup are some vertical shots, but they never invert that left right setup. Left remains linked to solid ground, and right is out over the abyss.
Looking at the character motion within this setup is curious.Once Thanos has made his decision he pulls Gamora from left to right and throws her, not left, but right.
However, just like vision, despite the rightward throw, she is shown falling oriented left.
Here is where it gets interesting. Unlike every other death so far, the camera does not keep her locked this way. The final, and only other shot of her body, is a rotating shot. It is nearly vertically oriented and it slowly rotates bringing her body from a leftward fallen orientation, toward a right one.
Let’s talk dusting! We will make it quick. This works better in motion than in still images so I suggest watching it yourself, but each and every character that dusts does so by flowing away to the right!
Now honestly there are two exceptions to this. There are two Wakandan soldiers that are running left when they dust. As a result, their dusting is a little muddled. The other more substantial exception is Wanda who is bent over the fallen Vision. As she dusts she sinks down and back to the left and her dust is drawn up and overhead.
This is an interesting exception and certainly may break the whole thing. But I am willing to entertain the idea that it may say something about her desire to follow Vision more than following everyone else wherever they may be going.
Ok, What in the world do I think this all means?
I think the difference in the lateral direction the cinematography used to present the deaths indicates a difference in their nature. Clearly all the dustings are the same, but the strong juxtaposition between left and right in cinema implies more than just “dead” and “differently dead.” I have three major conclusions.
1 – The rightward motion of all the dustings lends credence to the “Soul Stone Theory” that many people have advanced and supported in so many ways. Rightward motion is forward. Especially when it is in opposition to the leftward falling of several other characters. I think it implies moving on as opposed to just disappearing. I expect to find that all of the dusted characters are not dead but exist in some way, maintained within the Soul Stone.
2 – The deaths of those that fell left were actual deaths. Whether or not some or all of them will be undone by time travel (via the quantum realm, Time Stone, etc) or other means, those deaths were designed to look and feel real. They had real weight and were entirely meaningful to the characters in the moment as well as to the audience.
3 – Gamora’s death was somewhere in the middle. She did indeed fall left, but because it was mixed up in the retrieval of the Soul Stone it may have been shifted toward the dusting side of things after the fact. This could be supported by the fact that Thanos sees her as a child later in the film in the orange glowing area many believe is “inside the Soul Stone”
For Endgame: Looking Forward to Death.
I am beyond excited for Avengers Endgame! There is a great deal of meta context for this film and I expect a number of characters will be leaving this franchise, one way or another. Character death is something the Marvel films have addressed lightly. Major non-villain deaths have been rare, but they have been among the most powerful and potent moments in the series. The deaths of Agent Coulson and the original Groot come to mind despite the fact that both were pseudo resurrected. (Yes, I know the Agents show is not MCU cannon and Groot is a different Groot, effectively his child.) Lost characters that have not been resurrected in some form are rarer still. Quicksilver, and Yondu are two of only a very few. (Thor: Ragnarok is a rather drastic exception to this, stripping Thor of his father, his band of friends, the majority of his home world’s population, and even Asgard itself.)
But that changed quite suddenly with Infinity war. The MCU had been turning up the dial on themes of loss and personal tragedy for the last few films and they had done so with a skill that had me delighted and riveted. They were able to keep their characters heroic and inspiring in the midst of these themes, not falling into despair or nihilism. Instead, as they turned up the loss, their characters shone brighter.
The Russo brothers have an amazing setup coming off the combination of Infinity War and Civil War, and they have some fantastic places to take these characters. Each of the core heroes is in the midst of the darkest part of a deep personal battle with their biggest, most intimate challenges and their most personal losses. I did a review of Captain Marvel that ended in some thoughts on why the MCU’s brand of super hero film is so powerful. I discuss how it is a result of what they do with their characters, but here I will simply say that I cannot wait to see where the arcs of these stories go.
I suspect at least one will end in death. But death in a comic world is so very hard to make stick, and it can be almost impossible to make that death believable to the audience and give it the weight and staying power it needs to be meaningful.
Which leads me back to falling left. Many of the deaths we saw on screen in Infinity War may not stick. I fully expect to get back practically everyone who got snapped away, and maybe even a few of those who fell left, but I think the Russos were doing something else with those scenes. Those few deaths that happened in Infinity War packed a punch. They hit hard and the cinematic convention they used to reinforce it did something else. It gave us a language. Because if it happens again, if we go back in time, if we get to try it again, and Loki falls left…If the camera locks, and does not move, and we see that form, in that way, we will know he is lost.
They did something brilliant. They planted a short hand in us to let us know they mean it.
So if…when Cap falls, when he finally gets to make the sacrifice we have always known he would make…When Iron Man gets to make that final choice, the choice to become what he always hoped he could be…to be what he knew he had never been, I am going to be watching. And I am going to be looking to see, do they fall left?