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The Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

DIRECTOR: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Josh Brolin, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Pom Klementieff, Danai Gurira, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Winston Duke, Letitia Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Gwyneth Paltrow, William Hurt, Peter Dinklage, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice)

REVIEW:

After a decade’s worth of movies (starting with 2008’s Iron Man which kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe), we’re finally coming to the long-gestating endgame which will purportedly serve as the end of an era at least for some of the MCU’s crowded cast of characters, but while continuing Marvel’s pattern of trying to outdo itself with each consecutive all-star team-up offering by throwing the kitchen sink and an ever bigger cast of characters at the screen in ever more outsized ways, the long-hyped Infinity War feels like half a movie.  This might be an inevitability given this “endgame” will be concluded in the as-yet-untitled Avengers 4 still twelve months away, but it leaves a feeling that’s a little hollow, flashy spectacle, splashy special effects, and battles large and small everywhere you look, but lacking a certain impact.

We start where we left off in the mid-credits stinger of Thor: Ragnarok, with the ship carrying the Asgardian refugees waylaid by Thanos (motion capture performance by Josh Brolin).  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) narrowly survives—though some onboard are not so lucky—but is left adrift in space before being picked up by the Guardians of the Galaxy—Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), surly Teenage Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Thanos’ “daughter” Gamora (Zoe Saldana).  Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), after not faring well in fisticuffs with Thanos, is sent plummeting down to Earth, where he’s found by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong), who get in touch with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).  Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) steals a European romantic interlude with Vision (Paul Bettany) before he’s targeted for the Infinity Stone in his forehead by Thanos’ henchmen The Black Order, consisting of the talky Ebony Maw and his more brute force comrades Proxima Midnight, Corvus Glaive, and Cull Obsidian (played via motion capture by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Carrie Coon, Michael James, and Terry Notary).  Vision is rescued—at least for the time being—by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and the resurfaced fugitive ex-Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but when Thanos and his minions continue to seek Vision, the group relocates to Wakanda, where they’re reunited with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Bucky (Sebastian Stan).  Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) gets into the action when Thanos’ ship appears over New York City and winds up tagging along into space with Iron Man and Doctor Strange, where they eventually also have an awkward run-in with the Guardians.  Banner starts out in one group and ends up in another.  Soon, battles large and small are playing out in New York City, in Scotland, in Wakanda, and in space as scattered groups of heroes struggle to keep Thanos from assembling the scattered Infinity Stones and completing his grim mission….”saving” half the universe’s population by wiping out the other half.

For a genre which often feels lacking in real serious consequences, Infinity War wastes no time making it clear it’s not pussyfooting around.  Long-running supporting characters are unceremoniously dispatched within the first few minutes, and the movie wracks up a high body count.  People going in assured some characters are safe might be in for a shock, and parents bringing small children should be warned that some of the casualties might be upsetting for them.  There’s plenty of breezy humor, back-and-forth banter, and snappy one-liners scattered along the way, but we end on a cliffhanger that’s grim and downbeat on a level beyond even the likes of The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight.  For those who go into these movies seeking fun escapism, when the end credits start rolling at the end of Infinity War, the note we’re left on is somber to the point of being depressing.  It’ll be interesting to see how audiences take to this.   

Marvel has spent the six years since the first Avengers trying to surpass it for grandiose spectacle, and I’m still not sure it’s succeeded; it’s akin to how Captain America: Civil War tries to go bigger and flashier throwing in two-thirds of the MCU cast and the all-out airport battle, yet its predecessor The Winter Soldier, with its tighter more character-oriented pace, remains more compelling.  The movie gives us some of what we want, like the novelty of members of The Avengers finally interacting with The Guardians of the Galaxy, and there’s small pleasures like the verbal pissing contest between Tony and Strange, Rocket admiring Bucky’s new-and-improved metal arm, and an exchange between Groot and Cap (“I am Groot” “I am Steve Rogers”).  Yet the movie flies by in such whiz-bang fashion, cramming in nearly every character in the MCU’s crowded roster and making time for a string of continuous battles and action sequences, that ingredients like character interaction which played a part in elevating The Winter Soldier above the pack are not given a chance to breathe (again, it’s akin to Civil War being less focused and cohesive than Winter Soldier, only on an even more accentuated scale here).  Also, as in Age of Ultron and Black Panther, there’s a sameness creeping into to all the CGI-heavy battle scenes with a bunch of CGI figures flying around hitting each other that gets a little old after a while.  While the climactic onslaught of casualties are sobering in the moment, there’s a limit to the impact when at least some of them are virtually guaranteed to be undone one way or another (Tom Holland, for example, begins filming his next solo Spider-Man outing next month).

The massive ensemble cast and jumping around to various combinations of characters scattered around in different places ensures no one gets a monopoly on individual screentime (though unsurprisingly Robert Downey Jr. probably gets about as much as anyone).  In fact, the centric character is arguably Thanos himself, who serves as the glue tying everything together.  A few, like Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, are absent altogether (I guess everyone couldn’t fit into one movie, though the filmmakers give it a good try).  With so many characters scrabbling for screentime, it’s hard for anyone to make an individual impression, but Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange do a nice job butting heads and egos, while Spidey and the Guardians also get in some amusing banter and there’s a poignant moment or two between Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany (who gets to look like himself in a couple scenes).  Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets some spotlight moments where, similar to Thor: Ragnarok, he gets to display his powers in a big way and without being dependent on his hammer.  Chris Evans, minus Cap’s shield and plus a beard, has a surprisingly insubstantial role and feels relegated a bit to the background, though Avengers 4 (potentially the swan song for both Evans and Downey) might change that.  One could argue the standout in fact is Thanos himself.  Appropriately for the long-gestating biggest bad guy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who’s been a peripheral background presence since The Avengers, Thanos is not your average “episode of the week” villain, thinly-developed and easily dispatched; he’s a nigh unstoppable force who inexorably pursues his single-minded goal with grim determination.  And while Josh Brolin imbues him with an ominously commanding presence, there’s not much scenery-chewing or mustache-twirling going on here.  Thanos could be considered more misguided than evil, unshakably convinced of an agenda which is almost idealistic in a twisted sort of way, wiping out half the universe’s population to save the rest from overpopulation and finite resources (it’s made obvious he regards himself as the misunderstood hero of the story).  The movie spends substantial time on developing Thanos’ character beyond just the “big bad”, giving us scenes from his perspective and monologues elaborating on his backstory and goals, and the movie goes out of its way to make clear that, as merciless and cruel he can be, he is not devoid of feeling.  Alas, while Thanos himself is developed into a surprisingly three-dimensional personality, his henchmen are standard fare onhand to supply a couple fight scenes more than for their nonexistent characterizations.  The only one who shows much in the way of a personality is Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s loquacious Ebony Maw; alas, he’s also the first to be dispatched.  In other smaller supporting roles, we’ve got usual suspects like Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle etc, and there’s walk-on roles for familiar faces like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Winston Duke’s M’Baku, William Hurt’s Thaddeus Ross, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, and Jacob Batalon’s Ned Leeds, along with a cameo by Peter Dinklage, and for those who stick around for the mid-credits bit, cameos by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill (along with an Easter Egg setting up the next superhero to join the MCU).  By the way, if you’re wondering about that Red Skull cameo, no that’s not Hugo Weaving, it’s The Walking Dead cast member and noted celebrity impressionist Ross Marquand.

In a sense, it’s hard to make a final conclusive judgment about Infinity War without seeing the second part of this twofer which is still a year away.  But one can’t help but feel that it continues the MCU’s obsession with continuously topping itself for grandiose spectacle (at least in its all-star team-up Avengers episodes) that believes bigger is always better, while the smaller (comparatively speaking) and more focused The Winter Soldier remains unseated as the most compelling outing the MCU has yet produced.  In any case, Infinity War serves up plenty of fanservice, reuniting all of fandom’s favorite characters in one movie, and has a whiz-bang zip-zap pace careening from one elaborate setpiece to another, but under all the flash and bang, there’s something a little hollow about what should be an epic occasion.

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