For most of Infinity War, the theater I was in was rambunctious and cheering at every impressive battle and laughing at every one-liner. They were engaged. Most knew that there would be a few deaths in the 19th Marvel movie, it was basically marketed in a way that would prepare its non-forum reading audience for heartbreak.
Then Thanos snapped his fingers.
One by one, heroes began to turn to dust. The audience’s gasps grew louder with each star breaking away into nothing. Star-Lord and Black Panther elicited groans from the darkened viewers, then Groot turned to nothing. Finally, Peter Parker said: “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel good.”
At this point, a few kids in the audience screamed and started crying. I’m sure it wasn’t like this for the majority of moviegoers, but the silence in the theater as Parker clutched Iron Man and said “I don’t wanna go” was a blow no one expected. It was a real, emotional moment with gravitas unheard of even in the darkest of DC superhero movies. This was a child, bright-eyed and willing to use his powers because everything always works out. He’s got a team of superheroes on his side. He’s brave but probably thinks everything will work out in the end. Mr. Stark is always there to catch him if he falls. Always.
Tom Holland’s performance was absolutely mesmerizing. It was real. A lot has been said about the stakes, or the lack thereof, with many of the disappearing heroes slated for movies in the future, but in the context of the story, the only thing that really matters here, we were watching a boy flake away and die in the arms of his mentor. All Stark could say was: “you’re fine.” The theater was shook. It was a human and heartbreaking moment and according to director Joe Russo, it was improvised.
It’s been a running joke between the army or Marvel actors, writers, and directors that Holland will accidentally let plot details out into the wild.
The directors went so far as to give Holland a “fake script” in order to prevent spoilers from the actor.
“They trust us enough that they understand their motivations on set, we can give them enough of a hint as to where they’re coming from and where they’re going. A lot of it is relationship-based so it’s just about behaving truthfully when they’re on camera together and the objectives of each scene are contained in the scene. There’s no reason for anyone to know the overall goal of the villain other than my brother and I.”
This seems to have led to a heavily-improvised set, which provided us with Holland clutching to Downey’s armor, knowing he’s dying, possibly knowing that Aunt May is dying, that everyone is dying. That performance sold the moment and that moment sold the stakes, even if they do end up being temporary.