Wednesday 2 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War - Hero-stuffed MCU juggernaut is hugely entertaining

Chincredible: Thanos has come to destroy the MCU... well, half of it 

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War (but none of the really big ones)

Avengers: Infinity War
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin
Running time: 149 mins

I've read enough comic-books over the years to know exactly what makes for a successful multi-part, multi-character, multi-team superhero crossover event. You need a huge threat, you need genuine stakes, you need a crazy-arsed story that nevertheless makes some kind of sense, you need beloved characters (who perhaps haven't met before) interacting entertainingly and, of course, you need colossal action scenes. Avengers: Infinity War – the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – delivers on nearly all those counts.

Forget the company's previous big crossover movies, such as Captain America: Civil War, and the first two Avengers films, none of them can hold a candle to the sheer dizzying scope of this film's ambition. Nor its quality. Yes, at two hours, 29 minutes it's punishingly long. Yes, there are a ridiculous number of characters to keep track of (all 20+ heroes on the movie poster, plus various villains and supporting cast). And, yes, you probably need to have seen a good few of the previous 18 MCU films (starting with 2008's Iron Man) to understand exactly who everyone is and get the most out of what is going on. It could have been a sprawling, confusing mess, but instead is a pristinely crafted epic. 

The stakes in many superhero movies rarely seem particularly high. If Black Panther loses the throne of Wakanda or The Avengers have to do as the government tells them, is it really that big a deal? Even in those films when the fate of the Earth/galaxy/universe is at stake, you never believe for a moment anything truly bad will ever be allowed to happen. Here, all of that goes right out of the window. There's a palpable sense of dread that grabs you by the short and curlies within the film's first 10 minutes, as Thanos (Josh Brolin beneath some seriously impressive CG) and his minions lay waste to the survivors of the Asgard conflagration we saw at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, including The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the thunder god (Chris Hemsworth) himself. That sets up Thanos very nicely as the most imposing threat The Avengers and their allies (the Guardians Of The Galaxy, Dr Strange, Black Panther and Spider-Man) have yet faced, especially when you discover our Big Bad's end game is to gather six super-powerful infinity stones (they fit into the big gold gauntlet he wears on his left hand) and use them to wipe out half the universe.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo the brothers who brought us the last two Captain America movies and take over The Avengers franchise from Joss Whedon here keep that sense of foreboding at fever pitch as the action switches first to Earth as we see Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and the newly-returned Hulk face off against more Thanos minions, before zipping back into deep space where the Guardians encounter a beaten and bloodied Thor. Ahead of a climax in Wakanda that couldn't possibly be more sturm und drang if it tried, we also undertake a whistle-stop tour of the universe, visiting a variety of places with names you only ever find in SF or fantasy (Knowhere, Nidavellir, Vormir). It's breathlessly paced but that works to the film's advantage. There's a palpable sense of panic here – of time running out – as our far-flung heroes race to stop Thanos's insane master plan.

The thunder god's encounter with the Guardians is a particular delight, provoking as it does jealousy in Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and awe in everyone else (Dave Baustista's Drax: "It's like a pirate had a baby with an angel"). In fact, many of the film's highlights are contained in interactions between characters who we've never seen on screen together before Dr Strange and Tony Stark relentlessly bicker, Thor and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) make an instant connection, Thanos and his "daughter" Gamora (Zoe Saldana) undergo a heart-breaking reunion. You could argue some characters are a little too marginalised (and a couple of notable MCU luminaries are missing altogether), but that's balanced by previously uninteresting heroes Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) not just being allowed a turn centre-stage, but flourishing in that spotlight.

Oddly enough, though, my favourite thing here is something that doesn't happen rather than something that does. Iron Man/Tony Stark and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) two characters who we're desperate to see together again after their massive fall out and punch-up in Civil War are deliberately kept apart for the duration. Obviously, there will be an emotional reunion in next May's as-yet-untitled Avengers 4, but that will be a full three years since they beat the tar out of each other at the end of 2016's film. It's a canny piece of storytelling and something that speaks to the patience with which this decade-spanning story has been put together. 

Stark reality: Star Lord (Chris Pratt) meets Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr)

Another impressive element of Infinity War is its tone. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's script expertly manages to juggle GOTG/Ragnarok-style humour with the darker material a plot in which 50 per cent of the universe is about to be wiped from existence requires. At times it reminded me of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer in its pomp, which is ironic seeing as how Whedon, who wrote and directed the first two Avengers films, never came close to matching his work on the iconic TV show in either movie.

One of my issues with the MCU has been that its villains rarely live up to expectations. Loki was great but all-too-quickly converted into a loveable antihero, even with James Spader's voice The Avengers' comic-book arch-nemesis Ultron disappointed, while Zemo was resourceful, vengeful... and thoroughly ordinary. Thor: Ragnarok's Hela and Black Panther's Killmonger were big steps in the right direction and Thanos continues the trend. In fact, the "Mad Titan" is far more intriguing and complex a character than his various cameos in MCU films over the years have suggested. He may be a homicidal maniac, but at least Thanos is conflicted, can feel proper emotion, and has a point of view, as flawed as that may be. He believes that halving the population of the universe will make life better for everyone who is left and restore balance to all things. Although that doesn't make him "sympathetic" as some reviewers and commentators have suggested, it makes him Super Hitler.

And, while we're on the subject, Thanos's plan doesn't actually make a scrap of sense. Thanos tells Strange that by wiping out half of existence he'll ensure the survival of a universe threatened by overpopulation. To which you can only say, "Dude, you do know just how BIG the universe actually is, right? I doubt overpopulation is going to be a big deal any time... ever." Besides, even killing off 50 per cent of everyone still wouldn't eradicate poverty, exploitation and the scarcity of resources because political systems – including capitalism – depend on precisely those things to thrive. If half of the US population was somehow killed off tomorrow, people would still be poor because the rich wouldn't suddenly become more benevolent and keen to share their wealth. Yes, you might have a period when wages and conditions would improve because work would be plentiful, but it wouldn't be long before things were back to normal. In fact, with even more resources up for grabs, the 1% would probably become even greedier and more venal. Perhaps The Avengers should have given Thanos some Noam Chomsky to read instead of punching him in the face.

I was also left wondering how this "destroying half of all existence with a snap of his fingers" schtick was meant to work exactly. What if Thanos killed off too many doctors or nurses or teachers or engineers or builders? And how are the peoples of the universe meant to come to terms with the massive collective shellshock of losing half the population of their worlds, including friends and families? How does any of that translate into the "paradise" Thanos boasts his actions will result in? How exactly does it "preserve the balance of the universe"? Or perhaps I'm just overthinking it...

We've had enough superhero team movies now for certain tropes to have become somewhat overused. All three Avengers movies feature our heroes having to battle an army of some kind – the Chitauri in The Avengers, killer robots in Age Of Ultron, and alien monster thingies set upon them by Thanos's minions here. It gives the CG guys a chance to run wild and allows our heroes to actually let loose with their powers and kill something, but has already become something of a cliché. In fact, it would be an interesting exercise to count up just how many times this type of sequence happens across the various MCU and DCU movies. In a third of the films? Half? More?

Without going into details, Infinity War serves up some genuinely shocking moments and a cliffhanger finale devastating enough to make Han Solo being sealed in carbonite at the end of The Empire Strikes Back look like small potatoes. But along with all the horror of those final minutes must come a warning. Marvel (the comic-book publisher) has become increasingly derided for the fact they "kill off" their characters only to bring them back months, years, or, in some cases, decades later to the point where death has become meaningless and, at times, no more inconvenient than a bad cold. I'd hate to see the MCU go the same way and hope that whatever reset button is coming in the next film it doesn't undo everything that happens here. That would be a terrible cop out.

Rating: WWW

* Check out my review of horror movie Pyewacket at Film Inquiry here.

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