Monday 14 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After many long years of planning and machination, the alien despot Thanos (Josh Brolin) is ready to initiate his ultimate plan: Gather all of the Infinity Stones and, with their combined power, wipe out half of all life in the universe. As he and his lieutenants make their way to Earth, where most of the Stones now reside, the now-scattered Avengers have to reunite and, with the help of the Guardians Of The Galaxy, stop Thanos from decimating the universe.

Since doing my usual run-down of every main actor in this film would likely take up the entire review all on its own, let’s just stick to the new faces for now. Brolin is fantastic as the villain, giving an immediate air that this being is the puppetmaster behind pretty much everything that has taken place in the MCU over the past decade. He nails the grand-scale menace of the character, and rather subtly sets up the reasons why he would set out to try and destroy half of the universe. Not so much a sympathetic bad guy in the vein of the rest of the MCU, but definitely a more nuanced antagonist who basically serves as our main character.

His underlings, the Children of Thanos (who aren’t actually named individually because two and a half hours apparently still isn’t enough to get to that), likewise make an instant impression that they are forces to be reckoned with. The wizard Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) owns every frame of the film he occupies, the token female warrior of the quartet Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) does quite well as a physical presence on screen, letting gesture do most of the talking, and while the hulking brute Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary) and the male warrior Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw) don’t make as good of an impression, they still make for decent brawl participants in their own right.

As for all of the returning faces, it seems like the Russo brothers’ trial run with Civil War paid off because they manage to give pretty much everyone their own respective moments in the spotlight. Between the banter, the solid choices for character groupings and the flexibility of the action beats, this feels like all of these characters have been brought together for a reason beyond the obvious. Of course, that’s mainly in regard to their place in the action scenes; as far as character drama, the highlights stand out quite clearly.

Robert Downey Jr. appears on the cusp of rounding off his character arc carrying over from Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and his interactions with Holland and Cumberbatch help to show that this is a far different creature than the guy who kick-started this entire franchise. An older, wiser, broken-down and regretful creature, one that feels like a natural continuation of everything Iron Man has gone through.

Chris Hemsworth somehow manages to outdo himself from his turn in Ragnarok, fitting nicely into a more comic relief role while carrying a lot of sorrow on his shoulders. Between the conclusion to Ragnarok and the way that this film opens, his depiction of the Norse god of thunder has taken a decidedly tragic turn, one that Hemsworth shows amazing aptitude in delivering.

And then there’s the Guardians Of The Galaxy, as the proximity to Thanos brings out a lot of sharpened moments of development for most of the group, particularly Chris Pratt as Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana as Gamora. It really says something when GOTG Vol. 2 ranks as my tentative favourite of the entire franchise, and yet their best moments rest in this film. Particularly in regards to Gamora, as the begrudging father-daughter relationship between her and Thanos reaches a fever pitch here, resulting in one of the most complex character dynamics of any superhero film I've sat through.

Looking at the immense collection of characters to be juggled within the plot, this has a very high probability of repeating the mistakes of the last Avengers film. Age Of Ultron, while still quite good in its own way, suffered a lot from fatigue due to not only how many new characters had to be shuffled into the fold, but also how the plot around them progressed. However, even with the comparable run time, this manages to avoid both of those mistakes. Since we only really have the bad guys to be introduced into the narrative proper, and even then Thanos has been built up since the beginning, the moments meant to reintroduce us to the main cast do exactly what is necessary and don’t stay around for too long.

As for the plot, it must be doing something right because it’s rare that I’ll sit through a film of this length and not once glance at my watch. Moreso than Age Of Ultron, this film feels more in line with the original Avengers in how it shows a definite understanding of which characters to group together for maximum effect, be it drama, humour or fighting. Hell, with how much those aspects get cycled in and out of the film’s focal point, nothing feels jarring or shoved somewhere it isn’t supposed to be. Considering how many different feels are likely to crop up over the course of watching this film, that is definitely worthy of praise. Same goes for the efficacy of the fight scenes themselves, utilizing Disney’s connections to basically all of the major effects studios (we have the holy trinity of modern SFX here with Industrial Light & Magic, Weta Digital and Double Negative, and that’s just for starters) and some pretty creative extrapolation of the familiar characters’ skill sets to make for fantastic throwdowns.

Unfortunately, as much as this film wound up avoiding a lot of my bigger worries going into it, there are still two major things that are holding it back. The first is that, considering where Phase Three of the MCU has been going so far, this feels like an unfortunate step backwards. Sure, this doesn’t even mark the conclusion of Phase Three, with the real finale coming next year with the Avengers follow-up, but look at how much has been accomplished over the last two years.

Civil War kicked things off with some insanely intricate political musings, managing to outdo the original comic in every way by keeping everything incredibly ambiguous as far as who was in the right. Oh, and the inclusion of absolutely fantastic action beats didn't hurt either. Doctor Strange, along with bringing pure mysticism into the canon, showcased some of the best CGI work of any film I’ve covered on this blog, or possibly ever seen period. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 surpassed the already-amazing first effort and gave us a potent mixture of heady 80’s nostalgia and unnervingly complex family drama. Spider-Man: Homecoming gave us the first real depiction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man on the big screen, and began a pattern of carving out new paths that would be continued by Thor: Ragnarok and BlackPanther, both films steeped in cultural traditions while exhibiting their own wholly unique design aesthetics.

Infinity War, much like all the films mentioned here, definitely succeeds in terms of sheer engagement, but it lacks that extra edge of the rest of Phase Three to make it stand out as a fresh inclusion to the universe. Yeah, the action scenes are great and it manages to continue the deeper emotional touches of the GOTG films, but those are more continuations of what came before than something truly unique to add to the overall tapestry. I get the feeling that this is due to the usual Two-Part Finale sickness that leaves the first half a bit limp as far as narrative, but even that feels off because… well… what other film in the MCU felt like only part of a completed story? They all function as additional pieces to a larger story, but on their own, every other film managed to work as its own unique entity. So, essentially, this film does end up standing out against the rest of the MCU, but not exactly for the best reasons.

Which brings us to the other major thing holding this film back, and it’s here where we enter into real *SPOILER* territory. Put simply, this film manages to squeeze in some of the biggest plot  contrivances of the entire franchise to date. While most of the character placement works out for the better, some of the characters (particularly Captain America and Black Panther) end up a bit shafted in how little they get to do that matters to the overall narrative. The groupings occasionally run into the issue of feeling too well-organised and somewhat unnatural, which definitely holds things back a bit, but that’s not really the big problem.
Instead, it’s that the film’s narrative hinges on the good guys, repeatedly, making really fucking stupid decisions. To this end, we have Loki, Star-Lord and Doctor Strange to blame, as without them doing fundamentally dumb things, Thanos either would have faced major setbacks or could have been stopped entirely. Star-Lord’s gaff involves his already-established impulsiveness, which can almost be excused, but Loki and Strange have no such scapegoats. They willingly hand over some of the powerful artifacts in existence over to someone they have zero reason to trust, and who end up dooming a lot of people in the process. To make things worse, the scenes where said exchanges take place are pretty much identical to each other, from Thanos’ use of force to the reveal of the Stones to the blindingly-obvious repercussions for such mistakes. With some of Strange's dialogue after the fact, this is likely something that will make more sense once the second part comes out but... again: It feels like an incomplete story, and until that continuation comes out, this still feels off.

This might seem like a minor thing to get worked up about, especially around here, but here’s the thing: This is the first time I’ve actively picked up on and gotten annoyed with plot contrivances in a modern Marvel flick. I’m somewhat of a fanboy of the franchise by this point. If even I can see these problems, something has gone hideously wrong and I certainly hope that this isn’t a precursor to even more glaring mistakes in the future.

All in all, while held back somewhat by both minor details and the lack of any real doubly-engaging cinematic textures that have gone to define Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ll admit that this turned out a lot better than I initially feared. The cast are all on their A-game, with Josh Brolin doing astoundingly well as Thanos, the visuals employ both top-notch CGI work and vibrant creativity to electrify the action beats, and while the writing hits a few annoying lulls at times, scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to nail most of the emotional tones they aim for, be it action, comedy, drama and even a few doses of horror. It maintains the free-form kinetic glee of the first Avengers, while managing to avoid the overstuffed sloppiness of Age Of Ultron. This film will probably sit better with me once its conclusion comes around next year, but for the time being, this is a pretty damn good superhero flick with more than enough positives to outweigh the irritants.

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