Avengers: Infinity War
Has it really only been ten years? Ten years, since Tony Stark and that US Army convoy was rolling down an Afghan desert to the strains of “Back In Black”? It seems like a lot longer, and yet a decade it has only been. A decade of 18 films, TV series, streaming series and a re-writing of the blockbuster playbook. And after ten years, the franchise to end all franchises has reached, as one character in this film says “the endgame”. Maybe. Kind of. Not really. But it is an ending of sorts. Or the beginning of an end.
My opinion of the MCU has wavered a bit in recent years, as the films swung towards all-out comedy, exemplified by Thor: Ragnarok, something I simply couldn’t get engaged with. But then Black Panther proved a bit of a redemption for the series, and it got me suitably interested in Infinity War, despite my feeling that we would be getting an overloaded 160 minute quip-fest. But how could I not stick with the MCU this far? For better or worse, these films have made a gigantic impact on the medium, and Infinity War is the apex, at least for the moment. So, is it the epic triumph that the Russo Brothers promised? Or is it the flavourless laugh-obsessed slog I feared it would be? Has the trip from the Afghan desert been worth it?
God-like Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has a plan: to gather the six infinity stones into one all-powerful gauntlet, and use its powers to bring balance to an imbalanced universe. Standing in his way are the Avengers (Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, et al), the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista et al), and a host of other heroes (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, et al), who must come together to face the biggest threat they have ever faced, with half of all life in existence at stake.
I really liked this film. It’s fair to say my expectations were subdued, but Infinity War is, at its very worst, a fun summer blockbuster that any fan of the MCU will love, even if parts of it continue to underwhelm as other aspects of the series have. Infinity War had epic pretensions, and this is an epic story, an inter-galactic thrill-ride, that surprised me about as much as the first Avengers film did.
It might sound strange to start off with it, but I have to note that this film is paced remarkably well. I can’t say that I even noticed the immense running time too much, so well-broken up was the flow of things between dialogue, exposition and action. The MCU has long since mastered the proper balance of action set-pieces and the necessity of characters actually talking to each other, but Infinity War is the magnum opus of their work. The dialogue flows well between long-established characters, the action scenes are inventive and vibrant, and there is never a point where you feel affairs are being dragged to a halt by excessive plot elaboration or overly-lengthy CGI carnage.
And its undeniable that the film is a fun-ride. For someone like me, who has been with the franchise since the very start, it’s a little bit thrilling to see these characters share scenes and get into big superhero battles. Indeed, part of what makes Infinity War work as well as it does is the manner of the split-ups that the Russo Brothers undertake. Some of them are on Earth organising resistance; some are on alien planets tackling Thanos directly; some are even further afield, seeking devastating weapons capable of turning the day. The combinations are random, but work because of the excellent script: Rocket attempts to counsel a grieving Thor; two Sherlocks bounce off each other in Strange and Stark; Cap and Vision debate the nature of sacrifice. But they are all the supporting cast, because this really is the Thanos story.
I used to have a big problem with MCU villains, it being the repeating Achilles heel of the franchise, but we must contemplate the idea that not only has Marvel fixed this, but they may be making their villains the most interesting characters on show. Spider-Man: Homecoming had a brilliant Vulture, Black Panther had the enthralling Killmonger, but then we got Thanos, perhaps the MCU’s finest antagonist since Loki’s initial appearance (and quite the passing of the torch here).
Thanos is fascinating. It would have been very easy to make him just a power-hungry alien despot, out to take over the universe and crush all who oppose him. It might have been easier still to fall-back on the traditional comic interpretation, that of a mad Titan obsessed with death, but that would probably have been too obtuse for the audience. So, instead they went something a bit different: making Thanos an isolated psychopath with immense physical powers, who has decided to employ them to stop the scourge of over-population.
Over-population! How about that? Thanks largely to some stellar CGI work (much better than some others, like the poorly rendered villain Proxima Midnight) and an excellent VA from Brolin, Thanos comes to life wonderfully, becoming Infinity War’s must well-rounded character, going on his own, rather epic, character arc, from his first desperate appearance onboard the Asgard refugee vessel right down to the unexpected finale. Much like Killmonger, Thanos enthralls because his overall goal isn’t actually all that bad a thing, its just his method of going about it that’s opposition-worthy. And, while the scene where it happened was as close as the film got to rambling exposition, Thanos has the backstory to solidify his aims and methods of achieving them. Every time Thanos was on-screen, Infinity War was better for it.
The other performances are all fine too, with the asterisk that only a few actually get enough screen time to make a serious impression. Downey Jr is phoning it a tad, and Evans is subdued, but that’s about as much as I can criticise: Pratt, Cumberbatch, Holland and Olsen are especially worth seeing. What’s not as great is the films relegation of female characters and principals, with the exception of Saldano’s Gamora: Gillian and Johansson are present and make some waves, but they lack the kind of impact they should be having. And I’m sure Marvel would prefer people not focus too much on the racial side of things, with Chadwick Bozeman only joining things late on, and Don Cheadle, Benedict Wong and Danai Gurira firmly in the role of “also there”.
But inevitably in a film with this many characters, too much is going on, and too much is attempted. The Russo Brothers would be well-advised that not everyone needs a sub-plot, because when you’re trying to give something to everyone, everything becomes stretched out, shallow and largely immaterial. To give you an idea of what I mean, outside of the main plot and Thanos’ whole deal, here is the full list of the presented character sub-plots I remember that get some amount of time:
-Tony Stark wants to have children with Pepper Potts, and has that recurring surrogate parent thing with Peter Parker.
-He’s also still got some lingering problems from the Battle of New York that are effecting him here.
-Thor wants revenge for some opening scene heartbreak.
-Peter Quill has his romance sub-plot with Gamora.
-Including that, Gamora has her whole thing with Thanos.
-Bruce Banner is having some “performance issues” with Hulk, and is meeting Black Widow again.
-Steve Rodgers has to confront the meshing of his opposing “greater good”/”no man left behind” philosophies.
-Black Widow is meeting Bruce again, and has some kind of guardian thing going with Scarlet Witch.
-Dr Strange has trouble sticking to his sacred vows to defend the Time Stone instead of destroying it.
-War Machine is getting back into the field after being crippled in Civil War.
-Peter Parker still wants to impress Stark and become an Avenger, exhibiting some reckless actions in the process.
-Black Panther is trying to unite Wakanda and deal with more international attention.
-Vision has his relationship with Scarlett Witch, and his confronting of his own mortality.
-Scarlett Witch is part of the same sub-plot.
-Bucky heads back to war, and its commented he might not be ready.
-Nebulae wants revenge on Thanos and wants to protect her sister.
-Drax is still searching for a final vengeance for the death of his family.
-Groot is a snotty teenager who might still have a heart of gold.
-Rocket has to face-up to the less glamourous realities of being a leader.
And this doesn’t include Falcon, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, the numerous “Children of Thanos” (most notably Tom Vaugh-Lawlor as the excellent Ebony Maw) all the supporting characters from Black Panther, Pepper Potts, Wong, Mantis, The Collector, Loki, Heimdall, and a few others whose identities would constitute a spoiler.
The thing is, none of the above is necessarily bad. It’s possible to have a sub-plot that doesn’t amount to much in terms of lines or screen-time, that can be conveyed in look and reaction. But that’s not the case here. Infinity War relies a lot of what’s come before in terms of characterisation and character arcs, because there is simply too many people who have to be acknowledged to do such things here, in the moment. Any one of the things I listed above could have been fleshed out and made an interesting plot-line for this film, or any stand-alone film. Maybe some of them will in the future. But mashed into this 160 minutes, it’s all so much fluff, that lacks any serious impact. It’s passable, but it stops Infinity War from being truly great. Would it not have made for a better film with a more reduced cast of characters, with greater scope to dig-in to some of the ideas ventured above?
And then there is the humour. I think I made the point as well as I could have when I reviewed Ragnarok, but again, and time and again, the MCU infests its serious moments with quips and jokes, sucking the life out of them in the process. And the lines are funny, I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. But every time I did, there was that moment when the laughter subsided, and you’re left wondering “Wait, was I supposed to take that devastating moment seriously or not?”. The comedy extends to absurd places at times, such as when Thor witnesses the apparent genocide of what’s left of Asgard very early on, but doesn’t mention it again, instead taking to sparring verbally with Peter Quill and calling Rocket a rabbit and Groot “tree”. LOL! Wait, are you the last Asgardian now?
The film generally looks spectacular, even with the teal and orange colour scheme making up every other shot. There are re-used elements of course – superhero battles in New York streets, a furious battle in Wakanda – but there are plenty of new ones too, like Thanos’ home moon of Titan, a planet where gravity doesn’t play by the normal rules, or the barren home of the Soul Stone, a place haunted by grim spectres. While the CGI gets a bit overloaded at times, like in the big finale battle, it’s pretty forgivable. The Russo Brothers shoot Infinity War in their competent style, with nothing especially flashy outside of the computer realm, and its fair to say they are more restricted, speaking from a cinematography viewpoint, here than they have been in previous efforts. But only to the extent that Infinity War, like other Avengers efforts, can’t be considered a visual triumph from just the camera’s perspective.
And in terms of production deficiencies, much more problematic is the score. I liked the score of the first Avengers, but since them the bombastic notes and skittering drums have become bland and forgettable, and Infinity War is another in a long-list of examples where the musical side of things, this time from Alan Silvestri, seems to be mere placeholder.
Then, of course, there is the ending. For non-spoiler thoughts, I will say only that it is a large mis-fire from Marvel, attempting to imbue their story with larger emotional weight than it needs, and botching the attempt entirely.
In terms of more spoilery thoughts, I have nothing to really add that others have not already said and said better, but I will sum-up: the deaths of all those characters meant absolutely nothing to me, because it is plainly obvious that it will end up being reversed in Avengers 4 next year. They could have at least played around with it by not “tree-barking” (my girlfriends term) Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who will be heading franchises for a while to come, and instead focused on people who are probably moving towards the exit door eventually, like Stark and Rodgers. As it was, I had no engagement for what Infinity War did in its final few minutes, and it left a slightly bad taste if I’m being honest. After all, Marvel Studios insisted Infinity War’s two-part structure had been abandoned, but that has turned out to be a staggeringly blatant lie, dressed up as “We wanted to surprise you!”. Well, I was surprised, not by the “twist” but by the MCU’s balls in presenting it so unashamedly to the audience.
As it is, Infinity War is something akin to The Matrix Reloaded or Kill Bill: Part One: half a story, a five hour+ epic being told in two segments, that cannot be properly appreciated or, perhaps, even fairly evaluated without seeing what the second half of the story is going to be. When whatever Avengers 4 is going to be called closes off, then I will happily give an assessment of the stories emotional impact, its treatment of character death, the weight that it has. But on its own merits, Infinity War is a damp squib on that front, its commentary on sacrifice and the greater good a bit immaterial.
So, there are bad things, and some of those are repeated bad things that I have given up on the MCU solving. But they are outweighed by the good. Infinity War may have a bit of an overreliance on CGI, it may resort to humour for humours sake a bit too much, and the ending is a major black spot. But it also manages to craft an exciting, mostly engaging action film around a multitude of characters, has come up with arguably the MCU’s best antagonist ever to anchor the whole experience, features a cast with an endearing comfortableness in their roles and demonstrates an understanding of long-form pacing that deserves some serious praise.
I wouldn’t say that Infinity War has cured my general feeling of malaise when it comes to the MCU, but I feel a bit better about the franchise coming out of it than I did coming out of Civil War or Ragnarok. Next is Ant-Man And The Wasp, which I am looking forward to, and then the vitally important Captain Marvel, MCU’s remarkably belated first female led offering. Then, this time next year, we’ll be back for Infinity War – Part Two, and I’ll be there, looking forward to what I hope will be the true franchise defining offering, that has been set-up so well, if not without its stumbling blocks, here. If reading this, you’ve probably already seen Infinity War, along with half the planet, but still: Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).