Saturday, April 28, 2018

Film Review: Avengers - Infinity War

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Watching this movie on the big screen, I marveled at its sheer audacity of scope.

For a comic book geek like me, stories of universal power and peril are common.  For the cost of a few dozen printed pages of art and words, you can be transported to the furthest reaches of the cosmos and populate your story with dozens and dozens of the biggest heroes in your shared universe.  But the idea of translating that to the big screen seemed impossible, not only in terms of budget, but of balance between characters, plot, theme, pacing, and spectacle.

But Avengers: Infinity War pulls off the impossible.

Trying to sum up the the entire MCU up to this point is a challenge.  If you count all of the Marvel films as part of a series, Infinity War is part 19 of the story.  (To give you an idea of how amazing that is, the James Bond films are up to 24 official films, and they have been making them since 1962).  But in order to give the most basic plot summary, this is a necessity.


-Asgard has been destroyed and the last survivors of the destruction, including Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) , Heimdall (Idris Elba), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) escaped on a large space ship only to be accosted by the villainous Thanos (a CGI'd Josh Brolin)

-Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the sorcerer supreme of Earth and is the guardian of the Time Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that holds cosmic power.

-Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is engaged to be married to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and he has been mentoring Peter Parker (Tom Holland).

-Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olson) are have all been fugitives from the US government since the events of Captain America: Civil War.

-Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is king of the technologically superior nation of Wakanda

-The Guardians of the Galaxy, which includes Thanos' adoptive daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), travels around space getting in to cosmic adventures.

-Vision (Paul Bettany), the synthetic hybrid of Tony Starks AI Jarvis and Ultron, is fused to another Infinity Stone: the Mind Stone.


Infinity War centers around Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet, a metallic glove that is specially made to channel the power of all six infinity stones.  If Thanos gets all six stones, he will be effectively omnipotent and be able to fulfill his life-long quest: to kill half of the living beings in the universe with the snap of his fingers.  The Avengers face down Thanos throughout the cosmos and especially on Earth where two Infinity Stones reside.

One the keys to making this movie work is its villain.  Many superhero films suffer because their villain is either uninteresting or not sufficiently threatening.  Not so with Thanos.

The movie does two things very smartly that I was not expecting.  The first is that Thanos and his entire retinue of lieutenants are terrifying in their power.  The opening scene of the original Star Wars makes you feel like Vader and the Empire are an unstoppable juggernaut that will mow down any resistance.  Infinity War firmly establishes the same with Thanos' group in the first few minutes.  Other villains display their raw power in these types of films like Hela, Ego, or Justice League's Steppenwolf.  But the way Infinity War shows you the strength of Thanos' raw malevolence, you feel the shadow of doom looming over the entire movie waiting to cast everything into darkness.  Most super hero films leave little doubt that the heroes will triumph.  That is not the case here.

The second is that they somehow were able to extract pathos from Thanos.  This is extraordinary because he is a genocidal CGI villain.  How do you make genocide even remotely relatable?  And yet, there is a logic to his method that is understandable.  And after the above-mentioned Steppenwolf, I was worried about another flat, cartoonish animated adversary.  But I never really felt off-put by the graphics on Thanos.  You can tell that they were incredibly careful with him (though not so much with his lieutenants).

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have created a script reminds me of two other classic movies: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Empire Strikes Back.  Let me be clear, those two are better movies than Infinity War (which I will explain momentarily), but the DNA of both is in this film in a few ways.  Like The Return of the King, Infinity War juggles multiple story tracks for our heroes in vastly different times and situations.  In that film you had to juggle the ring to Mount Doom, the Paths of the Dead, the Steward and his son, the defense of Minas Tirith, Eowyn and Merry secretly joining the fight, Arwen's fall, and others.  It is a very fractured plot that has to be balanced properly.  Infinity War has several disparate story groups that occasionally converge and then re-diverge.  And the groupings are often ones that you would not expect.  But you get so caught up in a particular story arch that it is almost a surprise when you return to another story thread.

I have already heard a number of people comparing this film to The Empire Strikes Back.  Very often when this comparison is made it means compared the previous film, the current movie is better, darker, and more complex.  And this is true of Infinity War (at least compared to Avengers: Age of Ultron).  The tone is definitely one of a seemingly hopeless fight against despair and death.  And the complexity of keeping all of those plot and character elements moving in an entertaining way is a real feat.

The script also caries with it Marvel's signature Whedonesque wit.  There are some who feel that this makes the stakes seem trivial.  I understand their point, but disagree.  Putting humor in relief against fear and sadness can be an effective dramatic tool.  But the reason why the Infinity War script does not rise to the same level as Return of the King or Empire Strikes Back is because the story does not go deep enough.  The other two movies pushed for some amazingly strong character development.  In this movie their are two many heroes to have a complete heroic arc.  Ironically, Thanos probably has the most well-developed emotional arc of the entire film.  Instead, Infinity War trades character depth for chemistry.  Part of the joy of this film is watching characters we love interacting in new and exciting ways.  And while this is enjoyable, it just misses the mark in making it best of the Marvel movies.

But even in that misstep, it is still one of the best top Marvel movies I have seen.

The movie is thematically about the war between two opposing ideals: Life and Death.  One of the things I saw in Thanos was the embodiment of what Pope John Paul II called the Culture of Death.  He is willing to kill any number of innocents in the name of practical prosperity.  And our heroes, by contrast are willing to lay down their own lives and defend the lives of all the innocent.  The hero's motto in the movie is "We don't trade lives."  I thought this was a beautiful summary of the value of all life.  And this view is challenged in our heroes and they may not pass the test. 

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo take a cue from Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and give the movie a hand-held gritty feel which makes the CGI spectacle feel a bit more grounded.  And they use this style to effectively make you feel the chaotic world that our heroes find themselves in.  You almost feel at times like you are watching disaster footage and it has that same emotional effect.  All the while, they dazzle you with fantastic visuals.  They are also able to get great performances out of everyone.

Downey Jr. never ceases to amaze me as Stark.  You can feel his practiced coolness crack when his worst fears, the fears that drove him to make Ultron, come to life.  Hemsworth more drama to Thor than I have seen in a good while.  Cumberbatch was actually even more enjoyable in this film than he was in his own solo film.  And you completley become heart-breakingly invested in the romances between Vision/Scarlett Witch and Star Lord (Chris Pratt)/Gamora, in no small part due to their performances.  Pratt particularly makes Star Lord both infuriating and endearing at the same time.  And I was surprised at how much of the emotional weight of the film had to rest on Saldana's performance.  Her conflicted feelings for her evil adoptive father are contradictory and honest.  And the same is reflected in Brolin's surprisingly sympathetic performance.

I have more to say, but cannot for fear of giving anything away.  But when the credits began, everyone in the theater with me understood that they had never seen a Marvel movie like this.

Avengers Infinity War will leave you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and leave you with the desperate desire to see what happens next.

image by Yasir72.multan

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