Saturday, May 5, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Alternate Title:  Not Fucking Around
One sentence synopsis:  The Avengers and their allies gather to try and stop Thanos from obtaining all of the Infinity Stones, and slaying half of the universe's life.

Things Havoc liked: For eleven years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been giving us movies, and for most of those eleven years, I have been reviewing them. Starting with Thor, back in 2011, I have reviewed fourteen of the fifteen Marvel movies that have been deployed since I began reviewing, skipping Civil War only due to personal reasons. And yet despite the multitude of movies I have reviewed, and the heaps of praise I have typically poured forth upon them, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the universe to turn bad in some kind of cosmic balancing act against the glories that the MCU has given us. Cinematic Universes like this just don't work. They can't work. Universal and Warner Brothers and a host of other examples dating back a hundred years have shown us that. This sort of thing just isn't sustainable long term, right? This has to come to an end. One way or another.

Infinity War, the culmination of a decade-plus work on the part of Marvel and Disney and directors and actors and filmmakers great and small, was, as a friend of mine put it, yet another chance for the entire project to fall apart. Every film is, of course, in one sense, but this one, a crossover involving more than two dozen major and twice that in minor characters, had every chance to blow the entire enterprise by proving that movies like this could not be made, for all the thousands of reasons obvious enough to anyone casually familiar with the making of movies. Though the eighteen Marvel films leading up to this one have all served as opportunities for failure, this was perhaps the greatest chance for Marvel to blow it yet. This was where they had to lay all their cards down and determine if the iron laws of filmmaking applied even to their lofty ambitions.

So did they pull it off? Well of course they pulled it off, you idiots, this is Marvel!

Infinity War is amazing. It is fantastic. It is glorious. It is an act of pure, cinematic arrogance deployed in praise of itself and the accomplishments of a studio that has conquered the cinematic world. It is a wonderful film that all but dares you to hate it, a movie full of glories (and a few missteps), replete with bone-shattering action and wonderful moments of characterization for characters we've all come to know so well, and even a few that we haven't. I enjoyed the hell out of it because I have always enjoyed the MCU, and this is the MCU throwing itself a party, while reducing its entire fanbase to shocked gasps and, according to the reports of many others who have seen the movie, blubbering tears.

This review is not going to be long enough to recap where we are in the MCU at this point, nor go through what I thought of all the characters therein. I've reviewed fourteen Marvel movies to this point, go look them up. But in a cast this large, the filmmakers manage to deftly grant everyone who needs it a moment of their own, even for characters I had previously little-to-no use for. So it is with Scarlett Witch and Vision (Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany), who turn out to be more interesting than I had expected them to be, having formed a couple offscreen and contriving to bring some actual warmth to the scant time we are given to establish it. So it is with the characters set up between the last team-up movie and this one, with Spiderman, still expertly played by Tom Holland as the protoge/sidekick, willing or otherwise, of Tony Stark, himself a man trying desperately to keep himself together in the face of a truly world-shattering apocolypse. So it is with Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange, who has matured considerably since the beginning of his film, and brings a cynical wit to the occasions to bounce perfectly off of Robert Downey Jr.'s own masterful performance. I loved Cumberbatch and Holland in their respective films and I loved them here, but Downey's Tony Stark/Iron Man has always been my favorite, and this time we get a Stark who is truly desperate, throwing everything he has of himself and his ingenuity at the problem in the knowledge that it may simply not be enough. But better than any of that is Thor's part, Thor who got shortchanged in Avengers 2 by any account, but who here turns back up off the momentum of last year's superlative Ragnarok, and flows effortlessly into the Guardians of the Galaxy universe, and takes the whole "space-viking" theme that Thor's world had blended into to a whole new level. And so it is that we get space-dwarves forging space-weapons for space-gods so that they can do space-deeds worthy of space-sagas. And it is fucking awesome, though to say much more would involve spoilers that should not be spoken of.

All this, and I still haven't spoken of a good half of the cast, but that's because I have no time to. Suffice to say that all of them are awesome (though Chadwick Boseman still can't manage his goddamn accent), with even bit characters like Winston Duke's M'Baku livening the moments they are given. But all this I expected, I expected the cast to work wonders for they are the greatest cast of actors ever assembled for any cinematic project ever. What I didn't expect, what I thought could well sink the entire movie, was two other things, the first of which is Thanos.

You see, Thanos has been looming in the background of the MCU for nearly a decade, but we have seen nothing of him, and nothing would be easier than to make this arch-force of malevolance into nothing but a looming, monstrous, character-free CGI-fest, an excuse to punch something large for a while while reciting portentous dialogue about the inevitability of doom. Last year's Justice League apparently did just that. But Thanos as realized in this movie is nothing of the sort, instead forming a fully-realized, three-dimensional character laden with weight, emotional turmoil, and his own twisted internal logic, a charming, philosophizing psychopath who believes that the universe demands that he use semi-divine power to cull its population lest Malthusian catastrophe overcome it. Thanos is fascinating in this film, consitent, driven, warped, and yet very human, the protagonist, in a strange sense, of his own story, as though this film were another introductory movie bringing another character into the wider MCU world (which in a sense, it very much is). I've never been wild about the Malthusian-catastrophe-as-excuse-for-genocide plot device but this film, this comic book movie about magic rocks and a twelve-foot purple alien who wants to collect them, might be the best use I've ever seen that tired trope put to, and while plenty of the praise for this must go to the scriptwriters (veteran MCU duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), plenty more belongs to Josh Brolin, an actor I have never loved, but who with this role has finally won me over. I know the MCU has a reputation for bad villains, but Thanos exorcises that demon almost effortlessly. He is the most interesting villain Marvel has come up with since Loki, and he almost forces the movie to work around him.

I say 'almost', because of the second thing I thought would sink the project. The simple mechanical fact that a movie with nearly thirty main characters cannot be made. That to make such a thing is in defiance of all rules of screencraft, and that movies as varied as 13 Assassins and X-Men Apocalypse have shown why this is. But apparently nobody bothered to let the Russo brothers know about this, because they tried it anyway, and somehow, they made it work.

I... have seen lots of movies in my time, ladies and gentlemen. I've reviewed more than three hundred of them for you all here on this blog, and I have no idea how Infinity War worked at all. Maybe it didn't, and I simply have bad taste, but I think it did, and I think it has something to do with a screenplay and a direction style that just has no time to waste. There is no fat (almost) on this movie, every minute of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime is justified carefully and with great precision. This isn't to say I couldn't call out one choice over another, but the movie in and of itself is a doctoral thesis in how to make a film out of something unfilmable, in a way that only the most daring adaptations and films are. Like Fellowship of the Ring or 2001 or Watchmen, Infinity War's simple existence, its functional structure which bounces between half a dozen settings and three dozen characters without ever losing us or becoming nothing but a paceless mess, is itself a miracle. There is fighting in this movie, lots of it. There is pathos and loss, and humor and moments that are even touching. But every second of the film has been placed with precision and care, for if the Russo's, veteran MCU directors though they are, had done anything else, the entire movie would have imploded like a soap bubble.

Things Havoc disliked: None of this is to say that the movie is perfect, indeed there are moments that will drive viewers absolutely around the bend. Most of these are, I believe, intentional, but some are not. The juggling act to give each of the characters their defined characterization does slip once or twice, particularly in the case of Starlord, who is written a bit too buffoonish, contradicting some of the character growth we saw back in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. A single scene near the end (you'll know it when you see it), is a bit much, even for a man-child like Peter Quill.

But the big issue, for any movie that has to rely so heavily on narrative shorthand (in this case because there's no physical way to fit the narrative structure in otherwise), is telegraphing. A lot of this movie is pretty heavily telegraphed, either for events to happen later in the film or to happen in the followup. It's not so bad as to make the movie obvious and rote, but it has moments where you simply know what is to happen next and need to wait for the characters to come to the same state of awareness that you have. Granted, for most of the film, the pace is so damn fast that there isn't a lot of time to dwell on such things, but it still comes up, and not for the better.

Final thoughts:   'Infinity War,' another reviewer claimed after walking out of it, 'was as good as it possibly could have been', and this sentiment is one that I wholly agree with. It is difficult to gauge it in the context of the other Marvel films, partly because it is incomplete, with a sequel due next year, and partly because it resembles none of them, not even the other team-up movies which led up to them. I adored it, but I can be counted upon to adore most Marvel films, and so what I give you as a final thought is simply my awe that such a project could have worked at all, that someone could have brought it into being after all this time and build-up and produced something that did not suck, did not disappoint, did not bring the characterization so painfully-crafted by its predecessors crashing to the ground, and even contrived to characterize more. The filmcraft, the staggering filmcraft on display in Infinity War is breathtaking, leaving aside the questions of nostalgia or excitement, or the joy at seeing beloved characters come to life.

Infinity War is the best film I have seen so-far in 2018. That itself does not say a great deal of course, but it remains true nonetheless. And when it comes to films that had no right to be as good as they were, there are few examples worthy of citing above this one, for this is the film that once and for all time proved that insofar as the MCU is concerned, the rules just don't apply.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  With Infinity War concluded, time to look at the remaining movies that Spring was heir to.

1 comment:

  1. How do you cram 30 characters into a movie? You spend over a decade and 18 movies on giving them character first. If there's anything Marvel has shown us, it's that there are no short cuts here in building massive movie universes.

    Your first step is the simplest and the hardest. You must make good movies focused on the characters in the movie and each serving it's own purpose. Then you carefully link them together. You cannot jump straight to the team up movie, you need to give everyone a chance in the spotlight first. And then you need to do it all over again after the massive team up movie to show the fall out on everyone equally.


The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...