Avengers: Infinity War
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The Matrix – The Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a foregone conclusion and then discover there isn’t an audience to justify that conclusion). Avengers: Infinity War wouldn’t have had to worry about the second, given Marvel's command of the market place, but many of the issues arising from the back-to-back approach continue to thrive unchecked in the Russo brothers third feature for the studio.
There have been other cases – the opportunism of the Salkinds with The Three and Four Musketeers and Superman and Superman II, Tarantino's unwieldy behemoth Kill Bills, the milking-the-cash-cow approach of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I and II, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts I and II and The Hobbitses, the contrasting Fifty Shades approach of striking while the iron is yet lukewarm, the lessons of Divergent being foremost in the mind – but those intended to be an end unto themselves are relatively few. They tend to have in common an overly episodic, untidy structure and a tonal break with the original (read: they're darker), while anticipating momentous events for the final chapter that never quite materialise.
Infinity War is somewhat different in terms of how and when it arrives, since the Marvel juggernaut will continue to obliterate all in its path long after Avengers 4, but like the Back to the Futures, Matrixes and Pirates, it is intended as a line in the sand. I’m a fan of all three of those series second instalments, while finding the third parts a disappointment in each case, to a greater or lesser extent, and they have in common being conceived in a manner where the joins still show. Unlike the first Star Wars, where both subsequent outings are distinct enough that one can buy into both their unity and progressive change, the regrouping to gather together an ongoing story between one and two is very evident, and the issues with planning that out over two pictures aren’t really resolved in any of the cases (in Back to the Future's, the decision to ignore much of the thematic content for a western jaunt is simultaneously both frivolously engaging and climactically disappointing).
Here, as with Civil War before it, the picture comes with a loose foothold in the preceding comic book – specifically The Infinity Gauntlet – but even given my ignorance of that plot (aside from a handy Wiki synopsis), it's clear from the structure of this first part that the second movie relies on a reset for its resolution, thus undoing much in the way of tension (you don't permanently kill off new-ish heroes such as Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Peter Quill, ones with further promised adventures, so the viewer is instantly clued into this being a big cheat). If that sucks some of the air out of the room, perhaps the potential of some sort of "permanent" self-sacrifice of one or more original Avenger (since Tony, Thor, Cap and Hulk are left standing – Natasha and Hawkeye are alive, but let’s face it they don’t count, the latter because he’s only namechecked and the former because, even by her standards, she’s never been more superfluous, or faintly ridiculous – miraculously able to cut the mustard against super-sized and overpowered bad guys on the battlefield) instils some kind of enticement for Part II, but I can't say I was left on tenterhooks for what will happen next, any more than the "Well, that about wraps it up" feeling I got at the end of The Last Jedi. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely need to produce a rabbit – and I don't mean a Rocket – out of a hat if they’re going to surprise audiences in Avengers 4.
I suspect some were disappointed by the Russos' recent promise that no alternate realities will impress themselves upon the proceedings, and I admit it might have been quite fun to see old hands playing mirror universe versions of themselves à la Infinity War the comic. But if this merely underlines a sense of predictability for what will transpire next, Infinity War itself is a mix of both the well-worn and the occasionally surprising. We’re already well-versed in the pleasure of separate solo movie characters interacting for the first time, and some here reap particular dividends despite that diminishing-returns familiarity, most notably the encounter between Thor and the Guardians (that scene is a giddily effective succession of gags and one-liners, such that you’re left slightly exhausted in its wake; no matter what spectacle ensues, it can never quite equal it).
The significant role of Stephen Strange here was a pleasant surprise, but I never quite felt his interaction with other superheroes clicked, especially the one he was squared against: Tony Stark. But then, as big a fan as I've been of Downey Jr’s contribution to the MCU, even as his predominance has been an increasing bane for others, I don’t feel he’s such a good fit here anyway. If I had to guess, this is all leading to Stark's self-sacrifice and the actor's farewell to Marvel, and while I’d previously have wondered at the hole his absence might have left, this is the first time I felt it could happily do without him.
Whether he's interacting with Strange or Peter Quill the sparks don’t quite fly in the infectious manner of previous Avengers; the rapport only truly reveals itself between Downey Jr and Tom Holland, and even then, it isn't as effortless as in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Maybe that’s partly the repositioning of Tony as a less glib character, but there’s also the sense there’s nothing much left to do with him (in this iteration anyway), and we’re now going over old ground (he even has an arc reactor reinserted in his chest for reasons I can only speculate are to provide a Chekov's Arc Reactor as a means to defeat Thanos in the finale).
There's also, simply, that he isn’t such a good fit as the centrepiece for this material. Unlike Thor or Strange, there’s no cosmic angle or element to his presence, so butting heads with Thanos doesn’t quite tally. Additionally, send him (and Peter) into space, and that Stark tech just seems primitive (I have to say, I was very unimpressed with the nanotech suit, which in most full armour shots resembles a bad CG avatar; perhaps the underlying message is to say no to nanotechnology – it's not cool and it’s not clever).
Structurally – what there is of a structure – the picture’s on a hot streak during its first hour, ironically perhaps, as the Russos are conducting something closer to a medley of vignettes than offering clear narrative progression. We flit from hero introduction to hero introduction, some of them bracing, some of them very funny, a few being damp squibs. While the picture manages to avoid becoming boring – and you’d notice if it did, given its remorseless length – some typical Marvel deficiencies surface as events proceed.
The Russos have showed themselves competent enough with the demands of Marvel-mandated spectacle, but like most of their directorial teammates, they’re neither stylists nor naturals when it comes to envisioning the epic (the converse is, DC's Zack Snyder had the technical tools to offer both but ended up delivering a wretched mess each time). Infinity War includes plenty of universe-shaking events, but none of them are terribly rousing in an emotive, transporting sense; I appreciated the time devoted to the subplot of Vision and the Scarlet Witch, but we simply haven’t got to know these characters sufficiently to make it as affecting as it might have been, which is a sadly missed opportunity for a character with the potential of Vision, supported by the subtle performance of Paul Bettany. I don’t care about the fate of their relationship the way I do Tony and Pepper, even though the latter only has about three minutes of screen time.
The picture is rarely less than engaging, though, so it offers the least you could ask for quite comfortably. That least is probably the Wakanda battle sequence, an uninspired retread of every CGI-assisted assault you’ve seen in the series previously, complete with measured-out character beats that are too mechanical to truly get behind. I kept wondering about the varying strengths and skillsets of the combatants at various points too, which seemed to shrink or grow with the demands of who’s supposed to be besting who at whichever point. Other episodes during the middle section border on the sluggish, the main offender being Thor's visit to Peter Dinklage’s oversized dwarf.
That said, the other climax, the all-these-devastated-cityscapes-look-the-same one on Titan, with its all-out attempt to wrest the gauntlet from Thanos’ clammy mitt is very agreeably sustained. And even if Strange’s one-possible-future-victory decision in saving Tony is telegraphed, it's another pleasing example – after his solo movie itself – of the MCU foregrounding an idea as the basis for a climax over mere disaster porn.
As far as the superhero rollcall goes, I've mentioned my concerns over Tony and that Strange has a strong showing. Spidey’s a solid presence but he isn't quite in his element either, and the pop culture referencing is an unnecessary crutch (I suppose we should just be grateful Joss isn’t writing him). Thor, perhaps surprisingly given he isn't my favourite by a long shot, comes across very well (although the climax, where he arrives wielding Stormbreaker just after Thanos has claimed Vision’s infinity gem, is perhaps the most egregiously staged moment in the movie – the Russos might at least have shown him unavoidably distracted in the meantime, as it comes across as if he was waiting for Vision to snuff it before announcing himself). Cap is just so-so. T'Challa barely registers (neither do Rhodey/Falcon/Bucky). The Guardians are all pretty much pitch-perfect (the jabs at Quill/Pratt's weight are particularly funny). Natasha's gone blonde, but I can’t think of anything else to say about her. Oh, except she and Hulk briefly reunite and then say no more about it. Which was awkward.
I don’t know what they’re doing with Banner, but I've become a tad disillusioned with the crumpled, mumblecore, doofus shtick of Mark Ruffalo. The character’s now been reduced to comic relief, tripping up in the Hulkbuster, arguing in vain for bashful Hulk to show himself (you just know it just isn't going to be the celebratory moment they want it to be when he does), and even being shown up in terms of his scientific expertise (by Shuri).
On the bad guy front, or the anti-hero one, starting the proceedings by killing off Loki is a smart move, promising an approach that unfortunately fails to materialise; much-needed stakes are set here, that this is a movie willing to deal out sudden casualties, where even much-loved characters aren’t safe, but aside from Heimdall (no one cared about him anyway), Vision and Gamora, everyone who "dies" casually disintegrates at the climax, to be reconstituted next time with the wave of a wand (and I doubt Gamora at least is a permanent departure). I was surprised to see Red Skull back, unsurprised that Hugo Weaving wasn’t playing him.
As for Thanos' minions, they’re all okay, with some good performers shrouded in mo-cap (most notably Carrie Coon and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and unable to rise above the rather generic writing. Ebony Maw gets the best lines but doesn’t become someone you want to see more of, the sign of a good villain.
Which brings me to the more surprising element of the movie: the portrayal of Thanos. I'd been entirely unimpressed by his "uber-villain" presence hitherto, and aesthetic-wise, he remains entirely underwhelming. Yet there's a commendable attempt to give him comprehensible motivation, rather than presenting him merely as yet another crazed despot bent on total destruction or total rule, and Josh Brolin's mo-capped performance is about as good as you could hope for outside actually having Josh Brolin unmo-capped.
Thanos has an ethos, even if it doesn't entirely add up. It isn't entirely unclear why someone dedicated to massacring Gamora’s home world should choose to save her, where this soft spot comes from, as it isn’t really presented as compartmentalisation on the grounds of higher purpose, or denial (Nazis have families too). And yet it's calibrated enough that we aren’t allow to mistake him for a true psychopath. He's genuinely upset at "having" to kill his daughter (although that scene is another that’s rather over-telegraphed). There's a perversely utilitarian logic to his view that the greater needs of the universe outweigh those of half its inhabitants (the comic appears to foreground the idea of balance, a more nebulous, philosophical perspective, whereas here it's fears of an unchecked population explosion and resource shortage that dictate Thanos' resolve), and I was put in mind of the Georgia Guidestones with their implicit endorsement of a population cull ("Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature").
Of those three back-to-back sequels I mentioned earlier (Back to the Future Part II, The Matrix Reloaded, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) I can safely say I’m not as impressed by Avengers: Infinity War, perhaps partly because much of the potential freshness has been eroded by previous team-ups. Partly because the Russos just aren't in the same league as Zemeckis, the Wachowskis or Verbinski. That said, I also suspect that, even though the resolution of the Avengers 4 won’t surprise anyone, it will be more satisfying conclusion to Marvel Phase 3 than those trilogies' third parts were for their respective franchises. The paring down of the newer additions to the MCU in the final scenes is clearly a conscious move, so as to refocus on the original Avengers line-up in – for now – their last outing and (probably) the curtain call for this cast, which is fair enough on those terms, but it does rather eliminate the element of surprise from a premise that had the potential to keep us on our toes.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.