REVIEW: ‘AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR’ IS A CUMULATIVE WONDER (WITH A FEW PROBLEMS) *SPOILER-FREE*
If there is a primary theme to Avengers: Infinity War then it is one of being hopelessly overwhelmed. This not only applies to our plethora of heroes facing by far their biggest challenge to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also to the audience itself. What constantly struck me while witnessing this universe-spanning spectacle is that the frankly batshit crazy scale of this decade-long project is landed with the kind of confidence that can only come from knowing that some 100 million plus viewers will lap it up over the next month.
Although Infinity War occasionally falls victim to its unprecedented ambitions and some familiar issues inherited from the franchise, the perpetual conviction on display always pulls it through.
A DEPLORABLE EXCESS OF PERSONALITY
It would have been impossible to conceive when the plucky but simplistic Iron Man hit screens way back in 2008 (it could now even qualify as a “really old movie” in Peter Parker’s mind) that ten years later such a multitude of protagonists would be brought together in an almost seamless fashion. What’s even more astonishing is the majority of the characters involved in Infinity War would have been considered B-roll at best before the Marvel Movie Machine kicked into gear. Yet there will be whoops and cheers in every theater across the land this weekend as mainstream audiences gleefully greet this deluge of previously obscure characters in a rapturous glow of familiarity.
The emphasis on character has always been Marvel Studios’ guiding light which has consistently led the Disney subsidiary through the difficult territory of sustained continuity that has claimed so many other studios attempting to replicate the MCU’s success. World building, in general, has also been handled just as adeptly but at times it has wearied certain entries to the point where their only necessity became pre-awareness for later movies. It all pays off handsomely here, though, and Infinity War makes it difficult to look back on the MCU’s back-catalogue with any real sense of wastefulness.
To say that Infinity War hits the ground running would be a massive understatement. We pick up where Thor: Ragnarok left off as the film goes from 0-60 in the space of just a few frames as we are left in no doubt as to what is at stake with the arrival of Thanos and that all bets are off as to who will survive it (absolutely no spoilers here as to who that will be, though). This remains the driving force throughout proceedings but of course what we’re really after is the culmination of 18 films worth of origin stories, team-up events, break-ups, and the occasional stop-gap sequels. And Infinity War certainly delivers in this regard.
With the Avengers as we knew them in the previous two Avengers films in disarray, flung to the far corners of the Earth and the universe, there is a permanent suspense as to who is going to meet-cute next with previously unencountered heroes. There is an almost disconcerting ease with which these characters fuse into various combinations, though some do work better than others.
Thor literally dropping in on Starlord and co. is a match made in comedy heaven with Peter Quill being particularly perturbed by the Norse god’s masculinity while the now cycloptic Thor hands out hilariously rudimentary nicknames to the Guardians (I would have been quite satisfied if the rest of the film had consisted entirely of these intergalactic misfits’ bonding sessions). However, Tony Stark’s thorny relationship with Dr Strange feels like something of a re-tread of the ironclad billionaire’s tribulations with Steve Rogers and lacks the fresh, effortless chemistry of other encounters.
There are far too many characters being introduced to each other for the first time to assess all of them here, suffice to say that the one time indisputable talisman of Marvel, Spider-man, is reduced to a mostly bit part (and you don’t even notice) is a testament to the stellar work Marvel Studios have done in developing the rest of their roster over the last decade. While this summation of beloved heroes is clearly what Marvel is counting on to fill theaters, there can be little doubt who the directing team of the Russo brothers want the real focal point to be.
It is perhaps too early to permanently redeem Marvel Studios from their “bad at bad guys” reputation, but two compelling villains in a row makes a convincing case for it. After Michael B. Jordan’s powerfully nefarious Killmonger in Black Panther finally put a stop to the rot, Josh Brolin’s Thanos brings a whole new level of bad to the MCU. The concerns about this long-gestating antagonist being little more than a California Raisin with a chip on his shoulder (if you’re under thirty, you might want to google that reference) are quickly put at ease as Thanos reveals himself to be a villain of nearly Shakespearean proportions.
There was an almost bafflingly ironic self-critique when Agent Phil Coulson chided Loki for lacking conviction in 2012’s Avengers as that has been a problem that has plagued virtually all of Marvel’s evildoers. It’s certainly an accusation that couldn’t be leveled at Thanos, however. His devastating plan for the Infinity Stones is refreshingly straight-forward and his motivations are made abundantly clear. But what truly makes him tick is the personal cost of his ambitions which become painfully visible to him at one juncture.
In this sense, he is a genuinely tragic character blinded by his purpose and unable to stop himself as his insurmountable power accumulates with each Infinity Stone gained. This is all aided magnificently by Brolin’s stoic performance under all the CGI – much improved from what we saw in the early teasers – of which it wouldn’t be hyperbole to suggest it is the actor’s best work since No Country For Old Men.
Thanos remains a constant and very real threat throughout the running time and is only slightly undermined by his henchmen who hone a little too close to the indistinct Dark Elves of the MCU’s low-point, Thor: The Dark World, In fact, he is so well-formed as a character I was prepared to forgive the rather clumsy flashback to his adoption of the Guardians’ Gamora as his daughter, which really should have been placed in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 if you ask me (strangely, Kevin Feige wouldn’t return my calls on the matter, though).
So, with one of Marvel Studios’ most prevalent bad habits cured (at least for now), does Infinity War purge the rest as effectively as they did in the sublime Black Panther? Not quite…
A PRODUCT OF ITS ENVIRONMENT
Anyone fearing for another dour affair under the Avengers’ moniker like Age of Ultron can rest easy. Infinity War is a breathless sprint from one action sequence to another, all of which serve the furtherance of the plot to some degree. I wouldn’t say any of them set a new standard for the franchise and mostly conform to the usual MCU form of always being effective, sometimes imaginative, rarely ingenious. But this is obviously a film designed to sell as much popcorn as tickets and it achieves that goal admirably. What is more remarkable is that Infinity War retains a fairly resolute structure keeping a seemingly unmanageable amount of players in check as they engage in an overabundance of conflicts across the galaxy. Unfortunately, in doing so, repetition does eventually creep in.
If there is one standout issue in Infinity War it is the constant deployment of the mantra “One life lost, saves a Stone entire” which must have been emblazoned on every wall in the writing room. At first, this plot device of either giving up the soul of a friend or one of the Infinity Stones is devastatingly effective. But by the third time, not so much. It lends an air of predictability to a film that is otherwise full of surprises. Of course, it would have been hopelessly optimistic to hope that Marvel would rid itself of its second most prominent bugbear of sticking too closely to a formula when they’ve cranked up their machine to full power. However, familiarity breeding contempt seems to be a lesson Marvel have forgotten as quickly as they learned it in Black Panther.
A more divisive potential issue is the return of a liberal sprinkling of bathos. A quickwitted quip undercutting the drama is undoubtedly a Marvel trademark and while it is used more judiciously here than in most other MCU titles, it can still grate as much as it can delight at times – especially when the stakes are as high as this. Commendably, Infinity War does restrain this aspect entirely during the annihilating climax, which would have been ruinous, but the MCU taking things a little more seriously at times would be the best demonstration that the franchise is genuinely evolving at this point.
Speaking of which, and this by far my most petty grievance, Infinity War does feel slightly mistimed. IW very much feels like an end of an era, as it should, but after Black Panther felt like something of a fresh start for the MCU, it is a little jarring in terms of progression. It doesn’t help that we’re given hefty reminder of the MCU’s cultural phenomenon from just two months ago as we revisit Wakanda for something of a rehash of that film’s climax. This is obviously why it preceded Infinity War but it does leave this flagship entry ultimately feeling like a small step back after such a giant leap forward for the series.
Most of these gripes are academic in the grand scheme of things, however, and schemes don’t come much grander than Infinity War. In its entirety, this penultimate closing chapter for the MCU is most likely everything everyone was hoping for and it amply provides the first half of a stunning climax to arguably cinema’s most ambitious project ever.
With its immense scope and frenetic pace that only occasionally takes a break for some rather heavy-handed exposition, God only knows what someone would make of this if they had managed to remain immune to Marvel Studios’ charms over the years. That such a person is in the minority as millions of fans flood theaters across the globe to be enveloped by this sumptuous spectacle is perhaps the highest testimony that can be paid to Marvel Studios’ mostly exemplary output over the last decade, of which Infinity War is somewhere near the top.