Thursday, April 26, 2018

Zaki's Review: Avengers: Infinity War

It was just under ten years ago -- an eternity! -- that the Marvel Cinematic Universe sprang into being with the first Iron Man film and The Incredible Hulk. Back then it was considered an audacious and risky move for the comic book company -- still smarting after a recent bout of Chapter 11 -- to pursue dreams of Hollywood glory by self-funding movies and putting its own characters up as collateral. Well, that was eighteen films, one corporate buyout, and several billion dollars ago. Nowadays, "risky" is just about the last thing that springs to mind when one sees the "Marvel Studios" logo in front of a movie.

From Iron Man and Captain America to Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy. From Ant-Man and Doctor Strange to Spider-Man and Black Panther. It's been an astonishing run of extraordinary success for the Disney-owned superhero factory -- one that other studios have desperately struggled to match -- and it's given them an unprecedented level of audience buy-in for the characters, the actors, and the world. This leaves us perfectly positioned for the release of Avengers: Infinity War, which not only marks the studio's tenth anniversary standing astride the cinematic landscape, but also begins to tie together many of the threads woven over that time.

This is an experience that really lives or dies by the surprises therein, so I'll keep the synopsis extra light: For several years (and several films) we've seen a purple behemoth named Thanos (who looks and sounds exactly like Josh Brolin) scouring the universe for several multi-hued ingots called "Infinity Stones," which can reorder existence when wielded collectively via the Infinity Gauntlet, a giant metal glove. His quest for the gems has him headed directly to Earth, and it's up to the Avengers -- still shattered after the events of Captain America: Civil War two summers ago -- as well as a motley assortment of various other Marvel heroes and hangers-on to stop him from completing goal.

While my inner fanboy was left reeling after the impressive airport battle in Civil War, that pales in comparison with the sheer volume of characters populating Infinity War. As directed by Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier's Joe & Anthony Russo, it hums and whirs efficiently along as it lays out the stakes, introduces the cast, and bounces from set piece to set piece. People sometimes complain about superhero origins having become tedious and rote, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but man, once they’re out of the way, they’re out of the way.

And when a franchise is this successful, that means there's a pretty big pool of people who are already caught up. This is movie nineteen for Marvel Studios, and it has the weight of accumulated mythology to match. There are times when it's so “inside” it might as well have been filmed on the floor of a comic book convention. One concern I had when the size of the cast for this film was announced was that many of them would be reducing to flitting to and fro across the screen in glorified cameos, colored blips against a computer-generated landscape.

This turned out not to be a problem at all. While Downey's Tony Stark and Chris Evans' Captain America anchor much of the proceedings (understandably so), none of the other Avengers feel underserved. Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner and Chris Hemsworth's Thor both get nice moments, and theres's a (bitter)sweet love story for the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and the android Vision (Paul Bettany) tossed in for good measure. We also get to catch up with Cap's sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as well as Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and too many other characters to bother listing here.

Beyond the main Avengers team, it was somewhat of a surprise to me that Benedict Cumberbatch's Strange and the Guardians cast (led by Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora) both get significant story and screen time, as does our latest big screen Spider-Man (Tom Holland, wearing the webs for the third time). No glorified cameos here -- including Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther, returning to the screen for what feels like a victory lap after his eponymous movie's still-unfolding box office success. That said, for all the time we’ve spent getting to know the heroes over the last decade, the same can’t be said of the villain (a familiar complaint if you've been watching these things long enough).

It's truly a wonder to behold just how effectively Josh Brolin’s performance shines through the CGI and motion capture used to create Thanos, but the character as written isn't particularly well developed, with a motivation for his genocidal goal to wipe out half the universe’s population that's borderline incomprehensible. Now, just to be clear, he's imminently watchable whenever he's onscreen, but that’s as much or more a result of Brolin’s performance than the script (by Marvel Cinematic Universe vets Stephen McFeely & Christopher McFeely, nominally based on the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet comic book series by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim).

Another complaint we often hear about these MCU entries is that they're overloaded with humor. And while there's definitely a heavy laugh quotient in the Guardians flicks (as well as the third Thor from last fall), I've often felt that these complains are a bit overstated, and that applies to this one as well. There are some big, genuine laughs in Infinity War, but they all feel situationally appropriate. In fact, one of the joys of the film is in seeing characters who’ve never shared the screen before interact and banter back and forth. Some of the pairings they've come up with are just delightful. (For one, I'd gladly pay full ticket price to watch two hours of Stark and Strange trying to out-snark each other.)

I mentioned above that this film begins to tie together several plot threads, and I feel like I really need to emphasize the "begins" part of that statement. Although the ads have been positioning Infinity War as an event unto itself -- This is it! The big wrap-up! It’s all come down to this! -- I think it's really important to realize going in that this is most definitely not that. This is a two-part story. And not in the way that The Empire Strikes Back leads into Return of the Jedi, or the way the second and third Back to the Future are two separate adventures connected by a "to be concluded." This is one movie chopped in half.

It doesn't wind down to a conclusion so much as it comes screeching to a halt. So while it's fun, it's not necessarily fulfilling. I have a feeling a lot of people will walk in expecting a big culminative experience, and they’re liable to walk out disappointed and/or frustrated when they realize they need to repeat this ritual a year from now (certainly that seemed to be the case in my screening room based on the funereal silence when the lights came up). I guess what I'm saying is that it's helpful to think of this less as a series finale, and more like a season-ending cliffhanger, which I suppose is entirely apt considering the way the Marvel Studios machine is essentially a continuing TV series for the big screen.

And speaking of that cliffhanger, while they've engineered stakes big enough to make you want to come back next year, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that they're almost too big to make the conclusion satisfying (which is all I can say without spoiling anything). Ultimately, Avengers: Infinity War is like a Thanksgiving feast for Marvel fans. It's the characters we love in action together on a scale we've never seen before. But as a complete experience in and of itself, it just isn’t. Not unlike Star Wars: Episode 7 from a few years back, this is a really good first act that relies on what comes next to properly contextualize how well it accomplishes its goal. So, what did I think? Come back to me in a year when it's all said and done. A (so far)

For more MCU talk, check out the MovieFilm Podcast's latest commentary track on 2008's Iron Man. Listen via the embed below, or download at this link.

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