Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Josh Brolin is hero-villain Thanos in the latest chapter (and it really is a chapter) of the Marvel franchise Avengers: Infinity War

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Josh Brolin (Thanos), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Dave Bautista (Deax), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Vin Diesel (Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benecio del Toro (Collector), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), Danai Gurira (Okota), Letita Wright (Shuri)

Well this is what it has all been building towards. Or at the very least, this is the start of what it has been building towards, since the film ends on a (slightly underwhelming as soon as you think about it) cliffhanger leadinginto the next film. You never reach the end in these movies – each one, while serving some of the story, is also a jumping-off point for the next one. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is a triumph of long-form storytelling and juggling characters – but it’s also like a shark moving forward, promising us even more thrills and spills if we tune in next time.

This time the Avengers come together (and overcome inevitable personality clashes) to defeat Thanos (a motion-captured Josh Brolin). Thanos is a lunking purple beast who believes the universe is vastly overpopulated. The solution? Why kill half the universe’s population, so the other half can lead lives of perfect contentment on the remaining resources. How? Well he needs the Infinity Stones, six all-powerful gems that, together, will give him control of time and space. He just needs to wrestle them from their various hiding places.

Avengers: Infinity War has been called less of film and more an episode in a long running TV series. I think that’s fair. This film is in no way designed for anyone new to the saga to step in – half of the expansive cast are not even fully introduced. And actually it’s a good thing: we’re almost 20 films in now into this expanded universe, and if you are one of those critics sniffing that there wasn’t any concession made to the newcomer, well tough. One of the film’s strengths is that it understanding its playing to the galleries of long-established fans. Your enjoyment of the film will only increase the more Marvel films you’ve seen.

Unfortunately this sort of “dive straight in and to hell with the consequences” approach is also the root of the film’s weaknesses. This film’s primary aim is to juggle all its characters successfully, balancing its huge number of events and locations so they remain coherent, throwing in enough set pieces along the way for whoops and cheers. What it manifestly is not for is to tell a story about character or to give us striking visual images.

It’s like a mega, mega, mega budget all-action crossover episode of something. The excitement for the viewer is, say, Iron Man and Doctor Strange butting heads or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy exchanging comic riffs. It’s not designed for us to learn anything new about these heroes. In fact, the character beats are pretty formulaic. A standard arc generally goes like this: brief individual introduction doing something everyday, a meeting where much plot is quickly exchanged, bickering, a huge battle and some self sacrifice. Repeat. The film does nothing fresh on this formula which Joss Whedon introduced so well in The Avengers. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The difference with The Avengers was that it felt like a real novelty, and there was a smaller number of characters to bring together (it seems almost timid now to remember the original Avengers gang was only 6-7 strong – it’s almost 20+ now). Each character had more time and we got a much better sense of how their individual personalities affected the other. Here the Russos have to try and deal with the vast number of heroes by effectively breaking them up into 3-4 silos, giving even the most prominent ones probably no more than 20 minutes of screen time.

On top of which, despite the much vaunted “all bets are off” promotion of the movie, the action still has a stakes-free weightlessness to it. Yes some characters die, and while 1-2 of these might well stick, by the end of the film the main question is how many of the deaths will be reversed, not the impact of them. In fact the final sequence (which sees several deaths) slowly carries less and less weight the more you realise these deaths are really serving as a cheeky “how will they get out of that” moment.

Which is the dark secret of Avengers: Infinity War: it’s really nothing more than a trailer for its sequel. At the end of its vast running time – after all the functionally filmed action and odd decent one liner – you realise you have watched an extended prologue for the next film. That’s the one we’ve all been building for. The events of this film, in the long run, are the long road we need to take to get there.

This is not to say the film doesn’t have moments of enjoyment. The spectacle may not be filmed with much more than a derivative traditionalism, but it can’t help but be enjoyable. There isn’t much imagination about the implications of these heroes’ powers, in the way of say X-Men 2, but it’s still impressive to watch. Thor and Captain America get some pretty cool entrances. 

But I got the impression it must have been pretty boring to act in. Most of the vast cast have very little to do except a few one-liners and then punching. The character who most emerges as a three-dimensional figure is Thanos. Josh Brolin’s interpretation of the character as a sort of misguided humanitarian, who feels to do a great right he must do a greater wrong, yearns not for control of the universe but (in a perverse way) to save it. His quest for these stones is built like some sort of Arthurian epic, involving sacrifice and struggle. It would have been easy to make Thanos a sadistic maniac, but making him someone who believes he is doing the right thing is much more interesting. Essentially he’s the main character of the film.

Of the rest those that get the most to do are those with a connection with Thanos. Zoe Saldana as his adopted daughter turned foe Gamora gets some meaty emotional material, as does Chris Pratt as her would-be boyfriend Peter Quill (Pratt is the actor who probably gets the most “actorly” material in the film by far). Paul Bettany as Vision (the robot with an infinity stone in his head) gets to centre a plot that balances self-sacrifice with his love for Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olson pretty good, even if her character oscillates between bad assery and weeping).

For the rest, it’s just their actor’s charisma that carries them through. Robert Downey Jnr gets a touching moment or two (most notably his reaction to another character’s distressed fear on facing death). Benedict Cumberbatch is great value as Strange. Chris Hemsworth gets to continue flexing his comic muscle as Thor. Others like Chris Evans are criminally wasted.

But then their time will come. Because there is another film in the pipeline – and if our heroes still feel slightly like they can survive anything up to and including getting crushed by a moon, it’s because we know that there are still movies to be made, and money for Marvel to take to the bank. And that’s probably the real nemesis of these expansive, bombastic films: the lack of danger is only going to continue while the studio doesn’t want to kill anyone major off. Hopefully that will change, but without it it’s still a film of the invulnerable hitting the inevitable.

Avengers: Infinity War is pretty good – but largely as a spectacle and because it superficially pays off what you were being hyped up to see in its action and character partnerships. But give it a year or so – and repeat viewings – and I think its stock will fall.  Because it doesn’t really do anything that unexpected, and most of its more daring movies are designed with loopholes to undo them. There are enough bright lights to entertain you (and I mostly was) but I don’t think there is much depth for you to swim in when you come back for a second dip.

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