Joyous escapism. Fortunately, Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it can possibly be. The result of ten years (and nineteen films) worth of character development and masterful world-building/connectivity rivaled only by Yeezy’s “College Dropout — Late Registration — Graduation” 2000s album progression. Each superhuman personality is given important things to do and moments to shine, and the inter-woven plot hums with efficiency. The in-universe jokes/quips fly left and right and find yourself grinning ear to ear through your mouthful of popcorn. Unfortunately, however, the film sinks beneath the weight of its copious characters and story-lines — the inevitable sum of its voluminous parts — and suffers from a late case of missing stakes.
The summer blockbuster to end all summer blockbusters (and least until the Untitled Avengers 4 in 2019) is finally here: The Russo Bros. directed Avengers: Infinity War. You will be relieved to know that it’s good. Not great, but good. Infinity War is far from a flawless movie — nor is it even the best Marvel movie — but its deficiencies are not entirely the filmmakers’ fault.
I should begin this review with a few important caveats: (1) I have read exactly zero Marvel comics, so my world with these heroes has been purely defined by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU” to you rooks); (2) Sweaty Freddy and I re-watched every single MCU movie in about twenty days in preparation for this release, so I was acutely aware of the confines of the universe, the quippy callbacks, and character mindsets that may otherwise escape the casual moviegoer. All this to say, if you have about forty extra hours laying around, I’d strongly suggest running this junt back before snuggling in and screening Infinity War.
After the GIF of dancing Baby Groot: SPOILERS. There will be no turning back…
Last we saw, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were bickering amongst themselves over government regulation. Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man disagree and parted ways, creating a schism between the super friends that is not yet mended when this film begins.
Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) now finds himself motherless, fatherless, and sisterless (the villainous God of Death Hela perished in Thor: Ragnarok). Towards the end of Ragnorak, after Thor’s world was destroyed and the remaning citizens float through space, they happen upon a spaceship in a post-credit scene. “That’s Thanos’ ship,” whispered an excited and awestruck Marvel fanboy during my viewing of Ragnarok last year. And boy was it ever…
Though separated and at odds, the heroes better mend the fence quickly, because a super-powered god-like villain is en route, and he ain’t taking any prisoners.
Was Thanos Worth the Wait?
The Josh Brolin-voiced Mad Titan Thanos is the big baddie of this movie, and has been alluded to as the ultimate threat for the past six years. Not surprisingly, Thanos has a few bees in his bonnet, and his ultimate goal is to obtain the six all-powerful Infinity Stones so that he can — and I’m not making this up — literally snap the infinity gauntlet’s fingers and immediately eradicate half of the souls in the entire universe. Putting it simply, Thanos is a pretty big a-hole. Someone tell this “Grimace”-lookin’ dude not to keep time to the music (a little infinity gauntlet humor for you).
The most important question remains: is Thanos an a-hole with a vision? After all, the best villains have clear and understandable motivations and don’t actually think they’re villains — they think they’re right. As Marvel Studios head, Kevin Feige, told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year:
He’s from a planet called Titan that’s no longer inhabited because of things that he thought he could help prevent, and he was not allowed to do that. What he feared most happened, and the planet and everybody on it basically went extinct. He vowed not to let that happen again. He thinks he sees the universe going down the tubes. He thinks he sees life expanding outward unchecked. That will bring ruin, he believes, to the universe and to that life.
Thanos is taking his crack at “balancing the universe.” Notwithstanding the fact that Thanos’ math seems off, the man has a clear mission. The character is rendered via CGI, which is incredibly impressive but also left me slightly tumbling into the “uncanny valley.” Brolin’s performance, however, was excellent, and he presented a villain with some pathos. It wasn’t all loud action and punching — Brolin had an opportunity to chop up the scenery with a few gut-busting emotional exchanges.
At the risk of comparing an MCU movie to an American cinematic classic, I was most reminded of Brando’s famously unhinged Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, a man who felt betrayed by the “system” and adopts a radical mentality. Above all, Kurtz believed he was right. Brolin is able to channel these shades of cynicism through a motion capture suit: an impressive feat. Both Kurtz and Thanos are monsters of homicidal self-indulgence.
A Balancing Act:
There’s a lot to like here. In particular, the exchanges between the Peter Quill/Chris Pratt-led Guardians of the Galaxy, finally entering the fold as space-mile distances between the characters are closed and the MCU begins to come together. The quips abound as jokes from the last eighteen movies are ripped. Particularly impressive was the screenwriters’ ability to give everyone character something to do and meaningful “hell yeah” moments (yes, there are some excellent Drax moments — Bautista is an endearing fan favorite). But there’s almost TOO much going on, and this shortcoming isn’t the writers/directors’ fault — they were tasked with about twenty main characters and had to fit an entire plot into a sub-three hour movie.
In addition to the evil Thanos, look out for Thanos’ “Black Order” — essentially his hype posse that he sends to collect the remaining Infinity Stones on Earth before he decides to get his hands dirty. The rail-thin Ebony Maw (voiced by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) is delightfully and enjoyably evil. Operating as the “mouth of Thanos,” Maw delivers twisted sermons from his pulpit — “rejoice, for your pitiful lives are about to be given meaning as you will be a victim of the Mad Titan” — before Thanos commits genocide. I loved these scenes, and the fanatical devotion of the Black Order to Thanos really tied together how he’s less a villain and more a religious fanatic.
But the movie belongs to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. Having lost everything, Hemsworth is able to give the usually cocky and surefooted Thor some incredible pitch-perfect poignancy — a man finally coming to terms with the losses piling up. Holland is an absolute home-run casting as the young Peter Parker, and his father-son interchange with Downey’s Tony Stark provides a surprising amount of emotional resonance despite their limited screen time. But Gamora. Oh, Gamora. As Thanos’ adopted daughter — and we’re treated to some backstory in the film — Gamora has a… er, complicated relationship with the Mad Titan, and their scenes together are some of the film’s best.
The Case of the Missing Stakes:
I don’t purport to be a better scribe than Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the writers of five [mostly excellent] Marvel movies thus far), but shouldn’t the goal — especially in a comic-book movie as bombastic as this — be to constantly raise the emotional stakes? Ergo: raising the stakes equals conflict. Conflict equals drama. Drama equals riveting storytelling.
I’ll just say it: at the end, Thanos wins. He collects the final infinity stone — the mind stone in Vision’s noggin — after an epic climactic battle in Wakanda. In a last ditch effort, Olsen’s Scarlet Witch attempts to destroy the mind stone (and thus Vision) and succeeds! But Thanos uses the time stone to turn back the clocks, restore the mind stone back to existence, and kill Vision, taking the mind stone from the dead Vision’s forehead and completing the infinity gauntlet. Before Thor can deliver the killing blow, Thanos SNAPS HIS FINGERS. The audience is then treated to half of their heroes dissolving to grey dust — including fan favorites like Spider-Man and Black Panther. Notably still living: Tony Stark and Cap.
Now successful in his plan, as Thanos sat on his front porch and raised his cup of Folgers coffee to his lips (okay, no Folgers) and the credits rolled, the word “cheated” — while maybe too hyperbolic — entered my mind. The film’s show-stopping, hand-to-mouth !GASP! ending undercut by the very magical elements that make these films so enthralling. When the grey human dust settled, instead of sadness over these characters’ supposed deaths, I felt apathy. As I pictured a simple narrative action drafted in a screenwriting program for Avengers 4 — [insert non-dead character] hoists the green-tinted time stone, turns it thrice in hand, suddenly Earth’s Mightiest Heroes live to fight another day as if nothing happened — I thought to myself, “who cares, they’ll just bring everyone back in the next movie.” Perhaps our modern world of announced sequels at Disney shareholder meetings and publicly disclosed actor contract negations have been a curse rather than a blessing. In other words, our dudes T’Challa and Spidey ain’t dead — they’ve got two more cash-cows each to helm.
Ending criticism aside, in sum, is it enough for Infinity War to be just good and not great? Who cares. Even though the film isn’t great, it IS great fun, so grab your popcorn, head to the movies, and get ready for an adventurous escape from the doldrums of daily life.
[banner image via Forbes]