Avengers: Infinity War snaps the Marvel Universe
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo Starring: Everybody. Running Time: 149 minutes
Ten years ago now, there was an idea. To bring together a group of remarkable characters and see if they could become something more. There was a time, unbelievable as it is now, that having a ‘shared universe’ of various franchises seemed like a massive risk rather than the movie studio holy grail. A time when people wondered how the first Avengers film was possibly going to manage a story with six superheroes. Infinity War has twenty. Plus sidekicks and supporting cast members, absentee Avengers, love interests, a few surprise appearances, the army of an entire country, and a new mass of villains. And Stan Lee. The Universe has grown and grown, developing an enormous, enamoured audience along with it. Marvel know they have most every blockbuster-loving film fan in the palm of their hands at this point, so to keep them captivated, what’s the best thing they can do at this point? Make a fist. Or snap their fingers.
In picking up more or less exactly from where one of the most recent Marvel movies left off, Infinity War sets its stall out early doors: for better or worse this film is all climax; often raging, occasionally draining. We’re finally at the fireworks factory, even if every stop along the way was also an explosion of fireworks and the two and a half hours of film here is, for the most part, big action scenes and long built-up moments, with the occasional quip break in between. Nobody will be surprised to hear that. One can’t fault a film for something it isn’t trying to do, and while for example, Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther could be criticised and praised respectively on the strength of their ideas, the latest Avengers film never claims to have an idea in it’s head beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if all the Marvel heroes fought a super strong baddie?”
That super strong baddie is Thanos; the often spoken-of, sometimes glimpsed in post-credits, big purple dude, played by Josh Brolin. Thanos is on a quest to collect Marvel’s ultimate MacGuffins, the Infinity Stones, which will make him all-powerful. Besides a visual design that isn’t especially appealing, Thanos cuts a dignified figure throughout, a thoughtful, even regretful villain who is nevertheless the most determined in the MCU to date, with the ability to back it up. He beats the oft-cited “villain problem” of Marvel movies by being imposing (both physically and in terms of screen time, it’s ‘his’ film as much as anybody else’s) but also by having a very clear goal. To wipe out exactly half of all the life in the universe, in the name of ‘balance’. Which sounds like a vague and un-engaging ambition, until you realise that pretty much half of this universe is made up of characters from all the audience’s favourite movies of the last ten years. Thanos and his minions (including The Leftover’s Carrie Coon and, no messing, Nidge from Love/Hate) spread out across Earth and various planets to find the remaining Stones, and sub-groups of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy crossovers come together to try and stop him. Laugh along with the Thor/Rocket Raccoon buddy cop team you never knew you wanted! Understand, but tap your foot impatiently at the Iron Man/Doctor Strange/Starlord jerkoff stand-off! Ask “Who the hell is Bucky?” all over again.
The canny replication of a comic book “event” for a mass audience carries over a lot of what makes them appealing. People generally like seeing these familiar faces paired up, and when Infinity War is working, it’s fun to watch them combining to beat up villains with creative combinations, trade jokes, or even just catch up, and Marvel are happy to dish out the fan service in large helpings. And make no mistake, this is a Marvel Studios™ offering through and through, Anthony and Joe Russo are dependable in the directors’ chair no doubt, but action occasionally overwhelms them, and too often they play if safe, zoomed in with a wildly moving camera that focuses on nothing, leaving some (not all) fight scenes without a sense of flow, or a coherent sense of who is winning, or what they’re doing to win, until the dust briefly settles. Essentially cutting between a small group of mini-movies throughout, having to introduce so many different groups and locations vaults between being fun and being unwieldy, a Subspace Emissary, an excited child rattling off names like a list. “There’s a Spider-Man and an Ant Man?” to quote an understandably lost Bruce Banner. With House Style visuals and a sense of humour that mostly works but is definitely well-worn by now, the Russos have about as much of a personal stamp on this film as Best Boy Electrician Ryan Rodriguez does. Which brings us to some of the drawbacks of the comic book event crossover as brought to the big screen.
In narratives like this, character development and even the basics of where the various players were at when we last saw them are sacrificed to the great looming god of Plot. Among the vast cast, the presence of a great many of them turns into box-ticking and table setting, putting them where they need to be to have a splashy fight scene without any consideration as to why they want to be there. Peter Parker’s decision to not join the Avengers and the personal growth it was meant to illustrate are shrugged off. More damningly, pretty much every aspect of Civil War, the last time Marvel tipped out its entire toybox, ends up coming to nothing after all the drama. Inevitably some characters are sidelined. While Thor earns some spotlight, suffering from an overwhelming sense of loss and going on a pretty Metal, Walt Simonsen-y quest to get a new weapon, Captain America’s lines veer dangerously close to double digits, his own journey as a character simplified to some “what are you gonna do about it?” posturing to the authorities that were after him in his previous film, his all-important relationship with precious Bucky little more here than a bro nod. The light has dimmed some in Chris Evans’ eyes and he’s not the only one. Many of the leads are given little to work with and act accordingly. When everyone is here for the plot but only a few have an actual story, a film becomes lopsided, and it present a problem in the final fifteen when Infinity War curls that fist for its biggest gut punches. Your mileage will vary considerably when it comes to the emotional effect of the biggest, most ‘Spoiler Warning’ sensitive events.
Those events-without scaring anyone off with detail, not everyone makes it out okay here-are the crux of what this film is going for, but there are fundamental problems with how it goes about it. The great televisionification (to upset spell check) of blockbusters, the ongoing, episodic inspiration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its appeal to viewers that, these days, are more inclined to binge watch a series in their sitting room than watch a movie at the multiplex, reaches an inevitable conclusion in the ‘season finale’ of Avengers films: killing off characters. With a precedent long since set by the likes of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and even further back to this television series of MCU Founding Father Joss Whedon, it can be mistakenly assumed that the most shocking and therefore interesting thing you can do with a character is kill them off. And as a logical extension of that, to kill off more than one at the same time makes things more ‘epic’. Maybe it does, but that isn’t an automatic entry to ‘better’.
The most compelling thing about a character is not what point marks the end of their journey, but what kind of person they are when they get there. Too many of the cast are doing very little really before the fade to black, apart from being moved around like pieces on a board of Risk. When the actual film that we are currently watching takes it time with a character, builds up their relationship with other characters, and then takes them away, its emotionally effecting. For others, it feels more like deleting names from a spreadsheet, and there are no shortage of names to go around. Away from the film, the nature of this franchise can make it hard to care. When you announce whole phases of films years and years in advance, you create characters that are potentially harder to invest in in the moment. Their sequels are coming, they’re too popular to lose, the studio won’t have it, etc. When behind the scenes looms too large, its harder to be moved by the scenes themselves, particularly when it comes to comic book characters. Comic book nerds will tell you, nobody ever stays dead. Not unless the top brass want them to.
For fans though, the impact of Infinity War is likely to be shock and awe. The big, bright blockbuster giving them everything that they want and more, before walloping them with everything they were afraid of, but were expecting. Which is one way of saying that it provides more of the same. And as always with the promise of even more of more to come, this film a ‘Part One’ in all but name (in fact it was part of the name for some time). Infinity War might be a bridge too far for some, but for die-hards that bridge stretches on into, well, infinity. When the next Avengers rolls around, there might be a little less certainty involved. Things have been shaken up for sure, but it’s hard to avoid a skepticism that they will remain shook for too long. If they were it would be an impressive risk on Marvel’s part, on the other hand, to row things back could be alienating enough to be an even bigger risk. But as previously mentioned, the MCU has made mockeries of risks, in more ways than one, for a long time now.(3 / 5)