For a 160-minute epic that unifies a far-flung superhero universe that took a decade to build, packs 76 characters into one story, and has four to six plotlines cooking at any given time, "Avengers: Infinity War" hangs together pretty well. The plot finds the intergalactic bad guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his army of Green Goblin-looking warriors bouncing from star system to star system, torturing and killing various adversaries in order to gather six super-powerful Infinity Stones and embed them in Thanos' oversized glove. Once he's collected all six, Thanos will be able to achieve his dream of wiping out half the population of the universe in order to preserve its precious resources and restore "balance." The only thing standing in his way are the Avengers, led by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest. Plus all the characters from "Black Panther." And the ones from "Guardians of the Galaxy." And a few more Marvel characters who are new to this film.
Co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, their small army of actors, and their hundreds of filmmaking collaborators have managed to get on the same page and stay on it. The film's running time doesn't fly by, exactly, but it rarely seems to stall out, which is impressive when you consider how many of the movie's big scenes consist of people talking, sometimes emoting, in close-up. The Russos swagger headfirst into melodrama here, more blatantly than in any previous Marvel film they've directed, though there are problems with their approach that I'll outline in a moment. The gambit works, mostly, because the story is an operatic tragedy that necessarily has to end with the heroes in a deep, dark place. In light of all this, it's inevitable (and in no way a spoiler to reveal here) that not every character makes it out alive, and that if you come away from the movie feeling bummed out and anxious rather than elated, that means "Infinity War" has done its job, just as "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One" did their jobs.
If only the film were better modulated, or perhaps longer, or more elegantly shaped, or ... well, it's hard to say exactly what's wrong here. But something's not up to snuff. This is, as many have pointed out, one half of a story broken in two, but it feels like less than half somehow. Until pretty recently, MCU films have suffered from collective curve-grading—each film seemed content to settle for "better than expected," as opposed to being really, truly good—and that feeling returns here, unfortunately. "Infinity War" faced so many challenges, many of them unique to this particular project, that it's a small miracle that it works at all. On some level, it feels ungrateful to ask a movie that already does the impossible to do it with more panache. But what are superhero movies without panache really good for? If there was ever a moment to swing for the fences, it was this one.
I like how the movie builds everything around Brolin's CGI-assisted but still fully inhabited performance as Thanos—an oddly wistful and lonely figure who is, essentially, a religious fanatic, yet carries himself with the calm certainty of a military man who's read the ancient Greeks and speaks tenderly to cadets while stepping on their necks. (Thanos' second-in-command, the snide and hateful space wizard Ebony Maw—played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor—makes an equally strong impression, though he doesn't have many scenes.) Some of the movie's most affecting and/or frightening moments see Thanos tormenting captive heroes (including Zoe Saldana's Gamora and her sister Nebula, played by Karen Gillan) until they disclose the location of the stones, or forcing them to consider killing themselves (or having others kill them) to stop Thanos from achieving his dream.
The movie treats Thanos as an agent of pure chaos, like an Old Testament curse come to life, picking people up by their skulls, deconstructing them into three-dimensional puzzles with a wave of his hand, even rupturing the structural integrity of the universe. He seems to have the brute force of the Hulk and the conjuring skill of Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange, one of the only characters who routinely manages to counter his destructive power. At various points, characters wonder aloud if they'd have been better off not fighting him. These are action heroes, but the threat facing them is so daunting that they contemplate an alternate reality in which they don't act.
Vision (Paul Bettany), who has one of the stones embedded in his forehead, gets attacked while he's off the grid in Scotland, enjoying the company of his beloved Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); after they fight off Thanos' goons at great personal cost, he quips, "I'm beginning to think we should've stayed in bed." Peter Parker/Spider-Man springs into action during a class trip after spotting Thanos' enormous, doughnut shaped spacecraft descending on Manhattan, then gets the stuffing kicked out of him and says, "I should've stayed on the bus." The movie has wicked fun foreshadowing the possible demise of our heroes. In the only scene featuring Tony and his partner Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), they discuss Tony's dream that they had a baby; it feels like the superhero version of one of those scenes in a war flick where the young draftee shows off a photo of his fiancee and declares, "Ain't she pretty?" Thanos' assault on Wakanda, where Cap and the gang take Vision in hopes that Shuri (Letitia Wright) can preemptively extract and destroy his Infinity Stone, is depicted as the logical, awful result of revealing the once-hidden country's location, and aligning it with global defense organizations after centuries of neutrality.
And yet, despite the movie's embrace of pain and fear—exemplified by a scene where Thor lists all the loved ones he's lost, and appears to be battling PTSD like Tony—it almost never feels as special or as powerful as it ought to. The direction is part of the problem. Marvel's conceptual artists, visual effects technicians, colorists, and sound designers and mixers are operating at what might be their aesthetic peak here—as well they should be, considering how long this company has labored to perfect a consistent style and tone; the panoramic vistas showing wrecked cities and space stations and distant planets and alternate dimensions, a jumble of psychedelic ironwork and watercolor clouds, seem as strongly influenced by the legendary Marvel illustrator Jack Kirby as Taika Waititi's disco lark "Thor: Ragnarok."
But rather than match their support team's inventiveness, the directors avoid risk. They capture both the violent (sometimes cruel) action and the emotionally intense private moments in either a boringly flat or frantically hacky manner (snap-zooms on falling figures; herky-jerky camerawork and fast cutting during fight scenes; the same stuff you see in most action films made during the past decade). They use the camera in an expressive or poetic way so rarely that when they do bust out a heartfelt flourish (like the long, slow camera move that reveals the Guardians in their spaceship engaged in a sing-along, or the "wipes" that reveal the reality that Thanos' illusions hide, or a climatic fight between Thanos and multiple heroes) it's as if somebody had briefly sparked a dull wedding reception to life by going out on the dance floor and demanding a song with a backbeat.
This would all be a lot less grating if the MCU hadn't produced two back-to-back hits, "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Black Panther," which had vivid directorial personalities (Waititi and Ryan Coogler, respectively), and took as many stylistic/tonal risks as Marvel's brand would allow. The studio is too bottom-line driven to permit the sort of eccentricity that would've made this project truly pop (Joss Whedon's ungainly potluck "Avengers: Age of Ultron," with its spiky wit and nihilistic robot philosopher baddie, is looking better in retrospect). But it's no compliment to the Russos to say that it's tough to tell just by looking at the movie if they were were on a tight corporate leash the entire time, or if they decided to minimize the innate risks of a project this huge and eagerly anticipated by making vanilla choices.
Another issue—and I'm getting dorm room-philosophical, so bear with me—is that the format of a blockbuster MCU movie with 76 characters exposes the limitations of telling a superhero story via this now-well-established cinematic template, as opposed to telling it on the printed page, where the only limits are the writer's imagination and the illustrator's flair for presentation. The storytelling vocabulary of superhero movies doesn't have to be constricted (FX's extravagantly inventive TV series "Legion" is proof) but it feels quite constricted here; it always has been, notwithstanding occasional outliers like "Thor: Ragnarok," "Black Panther" and "Ant Man." There are an infinite number of striking or subtle ways that comic book writers and artists can convey exposition, character details, psychological states, and simultaneous events occurring in parallel storylines; you can do stuff like expand a single decisive instant so that it fills up six pages, or show Spider-Man swinging through midtown Manhattan in a full-page splash panel dotted with thought balloons that summarize a year's worth of his life. But in the sorts of Marvel films that the MCU has released since 2008, we've mostly gotten stuck in linear time, which is where most commercial narratives unfold. Most of the scenes in "Infinity War" fall into one of two categories: (1) scenes where people go into rooms or out onto the street and talk to each other, and (2) action sequences where characters banter while punching and zapping each other and dodging falling rocks, buildings, and spaceships and trying not to get sucked into time-space portals.
There's only so much information that can be put across when you've limited your storytelling in that way. The ticking clock proves a more formidable enemy than Thanos. There are only so many moments or lines that "Infinity War" can give, say, to Tony and Pepper; or to Bruce and Natasha, who had a powerful connection in "Age of Ultron," got separated soon after, and are confined to a couple of brief exchanges here; or to Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who are stuck doing comic relief when they aren't suffering greatly or setting up Peter to make some very bad, dumb choices. Heimdall (Idris Elba), The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) are barely in the film. Cap gets maybe two dozen lines and a few meaningful glances, mostly aimed at Sebastian Stan's Bucky/Winter Soldier, who has even less to do. Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa/Black Panther, who anchored his own marvelous feature just a few months ago, is reduced to a glorified field general in "Infinity War," standing alongside Okoye (Danai Gurira) and M'Baku (Winston Duke) and watching Thanos' troops burn, trample, and otherwise disfigure the countryside (an image that's more upsetting, for various reasons, than a lot of Thanos' violence against individuals).
Another downside of packing so many people into one film—so many that they apparently had to cut a few; the film's IMDb page lists numerous major players who are nowhere to be seen—is that you start to notice that certain characters are redundant variations on/photocopies of other characters, a realization that you might not have had if you were were watching them star in their own self-contained movies. Putting Tony, Peter Parker and Peter Quill in the same scenes, for instance, might sound like a slam dunk, but once you spend a few minutes with them, the barrage of wise-assery becomes grating. It's like being stuck at a party where every other guy in the room mistakenly believes he's the funny one. (The scenes between Thor and the Guardians are much better because Thor plays the straight man to Quill, who is threatened by his awesome masculine beauty.)
As is often the case in Russo-directed Marvel movies, the humor comes across more vividly than the action. ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier," with its paranoid thriller stylings and brutal, close-quarters action, is still their zenith.) The movie makes excellent use of Thor and his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and gives Hemsworth more chances to show off his formidable deadpan (when Rocket expresses amazement that he can speak Groot's language, he explains, "They taught it on Asgard—it was an elective"). But the joking around doesn't so much complement the film's dark material as clash with it and undermine it. The self-aware humor that the MCU has always done so well ends up working against "Infinity War" in the end. Marvel's "just kidding" sensibility was a refreshing counterweight to the fashionable darkness of early DC Universe movies, as well as to the "dark & gritty" mode that became a global pop culture default after the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. But if there was ever a time for Marvel to bust out the Zack Snyder-style, heavy-metal gloom and slap the smirk off its own face, it's here, in a film that's mostly about summoning the courage to fight battles that you know you can't win, and accepting the likelihood of dying on your knees with your head held high.
This movie shouldn't just engage and amuse and occasionally move us; it should shock and scar us. It should kill Ned Stark and Optimus Prime and Bambi's mommy, then look us in the eye after each fresh wound and say, "Sorry, love. These things happen." The last 15 minutes have the flavor of that sort of trauma, but without the actual trauma. Deep down, we all know that modern superhero movies are operating with even lower dramatic stakes than Star Wars or James Bond movies: beloved characters rarely stay dead after they've been killed, and no plot development, no matter how grave, is irreversible, so there's no possible way that what seems to be happening on the screen could really be happening. But we shouldn't be thinking about any of that as we watch Thanos hurt characters we've grown to love and cast the universe into ruin. The very sight should rip our hearts out.
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