Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Here there be spoilers…
So. After a decade's string of movies variable in quality but always startlingly profitable, the Disney-Marvel series, born so innocently with 2008’s breezy Iron Man but destined to become the biggest game in town, reaches something like a climax. Carrying over sibling directing team Anthony and Joe Russo from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War becomes a nexus point for the various wings of the franchise. Whilst the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films had already staked out vast horizons of space adventure and pseudo-mystical spectacle, the last two Avengers films kept their attentions mostly localised and earthbound, and the majority of Marvel films have maintained the basic superhero tale conceit of placing figures of extraordinary ability in the midst of a mundane world. Avengers: Infinity War is necessarily a much grander project, and stands as easily the most inflated and ambitious film the franchise has produced to date, not just in terms of the pile-up of characters and their multitudinous realms, but in driving theme.
The familiar gallery of Avengers are joined now augmented by all the new kids on the block save the missing-in-inaction Ant-Man and Hawkeye. The sheer logistics of getting as many of these characters together in a coherent storyline was enough of a headache, never mind the problem of accommodating such a diverse gang of personalities and the actors who create them, and giving them all something distinctive to do. The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take the approach of splitting their roster up into several roving scrums, flinging some into deep space and congregating others in more familiar climes. The film hits the ground running, taking up where Thor: Ragnarok (2017) left off, with the Asgardian refugee ship coming under attack from the space fleet of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the long-lurking figure of dread at the heart of the franchise. Thanos has finally decided to set about tracking down the six infinity stones – immensely powerful talismanic objects left over from the universe’s birth that when united will give Thanos complete mastery over reality, most of which have already played a driving role in the series.
Thanos wipes out the Asgardians, including Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), although the last two both die making noble efforts, as Heimdall manages to send the Hulk back to Earth on the Bifrost. Thor is left to die in space but rescued by the Guardians. Sending Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoë Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax (Dave Bautista) off to retrieve one stone last seen in the possession of The Collector (Benecio Del Toro), Thor travels with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) to a cosmic forge run by shaggy, shattered artisan Eitri (Peter Dinklage) to try and make a new weapon as effective as his lost hammer Mjolnir to take on Thanos. Hulk lands on Earth returned to the form of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), plummeting into the sanctum of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and delivering desperate warning that Earth is on the chopping block. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) clashes with Strange over the best way to handle the situation, as Strange holds one of the two infinity stones on Earth, the other one being lodged in the brow of cyborg wonder Vision (Paul Bettany). The arrival of a spaceship bearing two of Thanos’ minions, a telekinetic alien named Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and a monstrous companion, precipitates a battle in downtown New York, and the villains succeed in capturing Strange.
Young Peter ‘Spider-Man’ Parker (Tom Holland), seeing the spaceship from his school bus, leaps into the fray and joins Stark in stowing away aboard the alien craft as it blasts away across the universe, successfully eliminating Maw with a trick Peter dreams up based on “that really old movie called Aliens,” but finishing up stranded on Thanos’s desolated home world, called Titan. Meanwhile, Thanos lures in his adopted daughter Gamora, forcing her to give up the location of another stone she knows the location of by making her watch him torture her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). On Earth, Vision has gone off romancing Wanda ‘Scarlet Witch’ Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in Scotland when he’s attacked by yet more of Thanos’ goons, this time led by Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon). The timely arrival of Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie), called out of hiding by Bruce, sees the heavies beaten away this time. Faced with the problem of trying to separate Vision from the stone, they decide to head to King 'Black Panther' T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) kingdom Wakanda to make use of the fantastic technology there and the iridescent mind of his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). This provokes a colossal battle where the Avengers, in league with Wakanda's warriors and a defrosted, world-weary Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), must hold off a horde of nasty aliens long enough for Shuri to work her magic.
It’s a strange jest of the moviemaking gods that the Russos, the guys who made a hymn to everyday muddles and shabby insufficiency in Welcome to Collinwood (2002), have become the mainstays of a multibillion-dollar action-fantasy franchise. Usually when disgruntled critics take aim at the Marvel brand’s lack of personality, it seems to be the Russos' efforts they mean, as directors who did most of their work on TV and whose best gifts involve getting strong performances and working out the specific blend of action and humour that’s made the Marvel imprimatur so successful in modest, everyday locations. They're not nerd heroes or cult figures gone large. But the Russos have quietly proven themselves, for better or worse, perhaps the defining handlers of the franchise in taking up Jon Favreau’s initial, effective blend of realism and special effects flash and refining it. The Russos prove themselves here to have real talents for keeping a vast array of reference points in something like balance. The last Avengers film, Age of Ultron (2015), proved the limits of Joss Whedon’s gifts as much as the first had showcased them: his precision deployments of soulful characterisation blended with humour and a voluminous geek lexicon were fun and had dramatic body, but failed under the weight of developing his template into something more complex and diverse, as well as lacking real inventiveness on a storytelling and directorial levels.
The Russos have their faults as filmmakers. They’re not the greatest shooters of action scenes in the world; their modish use of juddering camerawork and disjunctive editing for a familiar pseudo-realist effect loaned a welcome, atypical charge to the first reels of The Winter Soldier but doesn’t feel right for comic book action otherwise. But they’re quickly proving themselves somewhat masterful at keeping multiple focal points sustained in the midst of expansive action, and for manipulating the contrasting energy of a swathe of actors. Infinity War has quickly reaped criticism for the way it simply sets its protagonists loose with scant time for any enrichment, and it feels de rigeur to say the film is overstuffed. This is certainly true. But, frankly, I didn’t much care, especially as they’ve mostly been given their own vehicles, and sometimes can barely even sustain those. I got enough of what I didn’t even know I wanted, like Spider-Man putting down Quill’s favourite film and Stark and Strange competing to see who can be the most conceited.
I feel superheroic characters come to life best when playing off each-other. The film uses the Guardians crew particularly well in this regard, as that team’s shambolic good-humour and lack of self-awareness grazes against the quick-fire style of the other protagonists. The point is, we know all these people; their gifts and weaknesses have become instinctively familiar, and the filmmakers display a surprising canniness in this regard when it comes to dramatic pay-offs. One of the film’s most important junctures, for instance, comes when one of the various superhero gangs almost succeed in overpowering Thanos and pulling off the gauntlet that houses the infinity stones – only Quill’s hot temper when it comes to anything involving his loved-ones ruins the coup, a reflex of character emotion that makes perfect sense given what we know about Quill, a trait that’s defined his heroism up until now suddenly having terrible impact upon the narrative. Moreover, the actual mechanics of the narrative are driven by those figures in the Marvel universe who otherwise don’t get much of a look-in – the real story revolves around Gamora’s relationship with Thanos and makes Vision and Wanda’s romance seem even more desperate and doomed than ever.
The greater part of what makes Infinity War work is that it isn’t really driven by its heroes, who are trapped in postures of response and frantic improvisation, but its villain. Brolin’s Thanos bestrides the film as a colossus. The film bends to his character arc, rather than the heroes', his pathos and vision that propel the narrative, his victories and losses that define the film until the very end, and even, if surely only temporarily, gifts him victory in his ceaseless quest to exterminate half the universe’s population in his quest for sustainability. This aspect of Infinity War borrows heavily from Ozymandias’ plot in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, down to the final beat that leaves Thanos both successful but also utterly bereft of all consolation and fellowship. There is, admittedly, something relentlessly stolid about the Marvel franchise’s insistence that even a terrifying, marauding godlike figure must have humanlike dimensions in his emotional imperatives and motivations, rather than remain a force of blank cosmic terror.
At least these have been invested in Thanos with the purpose of lending the film dramatic weight: it’s his terrible purpose we’re forced to comprehend, the heroes, for all their jokes, japes, and jumps, reduced to flitting insects bothering this juggernaut. Tormenting, bullying, slaying, torturing, self-mortifying, and wallowing in a sea of righteous yet masochistic obsession, Thanos becomes a genuinely fascinating and compelling figure, thanks in very large part to Brolin’s genuinely nuanced performance, projected even through CGI guising. Time is spared for a flashback to Thanos's first meeting with Gamora and taking her under his wing even as his hordes slaughter her people, recognising and nurturing the hard edge he sees in a small girl even as he probably already suspects she will try and plunge the knife he gives her into his chest someday.
The planet-hopping breadth of the narrative also gives the film an unusual jolt of variety, from the gutted reaches of the Collector’s home Knowhere to the desolate, cyclopean reaches of Vormir. The latter is a planet where Thanos obliges Gamora to lead him in search of the “Soul Stone,” the most mystical of the infinity stones, where a damned Red Skull (Ross Marquand) hovers in perpetual stewardship: rugged stone outcrops thrust their way out of a landscape pocked with shallow puddles, a place where the physical and metaphysical realms meet and life and death become porous states, a conceptual zone where the Russos seem to have been equally influenced by Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth and the afterlife glimpsed at the end of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). The dramatic situation played out here is more like a nasty inversion of Abraham and Isaac myth John Huston filmed so smartly in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), with a similarly blasted, post-apocalyptic sense of reckoning where humane values must bow before unremitting facts. Suddenly we’re in a primeval scene where god-kings must commit blood sacrifice to gain mastery over life and death in a temple torn out of living rock and dedicated to unseen figures of fate and chance.
One aspect of the Marvel brand that’s always been lacking, in spite of dealing with such fantastical material, is a real grasp on a sense of the mythic and a sense of genuinely visionary horizons, except for flashes in the first Thor (2011), whilst the various galactic realms found in the Guardians of the Galaxy films have generally flitted by in awesome remoteness and functionality. Here, finally, the Russos display a genuine eye for tethering drama to setting and reaching for a sense of forsaken strangeness, appropriate for the quasi-Biblical twist that sees Thanos obliged to sacrifice Gamora’s life to gain what he seeks: Gamora’s mocking accusation that her father doesn’t love anything is given to cruellest kind of refute. A similar blend of grim loving mutual crucifixion is evinced as Wanda is obliged to destroy her lover Vision in a last-ditch attempt to keep his stone out of Thanos’ clutches, an act she accomplishes only, in the cruellest twist, forced to watch it instantly undone and then repeated with a single, infinitely consequential difference.
Acting honours under such trying circumstances are necessarily scattered, but Infinity War gains genuine stature from the quality of Brolin and Saldana, Pratt’s comic ability has rarely been so deftly exploited, and Bautista provides yet more evidence he's become the most nimble-fingered of scene-stealers. Infinity War is still dogged by some limitations to the creative wit of this brand that just won’t go away. The huge clash of the Avengers and Wakanda’s army with alien monsters is derivative of Jackson and Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). The Russos’ choppy approach to action despoils what should be one relishable combat scene as Natasha and Okoye (Danai Gurira) team up to battle off an enemy, the camera pointlessly moving vantages. I also ask the somewhat frustrating question as to why Bucky is the only one of these genius super-warriors who carries a weapon capable of taking down multiple enemies at once with a minimum of physical effort, also known as a gun. The more intimate climactic struggle unfolds quite literally in the middle of some bushes. The film’s biggest conceit is also perhaps the biggest leap of faith the Marvel brand has taken to date in terms of its audience’s patience, in allowing Thanos his victory within the frame of this instalment, with the film culminating the grim spectacle of half the ranks of the heroes, and by implications the rest of the universe, dissolving in black showers of ash.
Of course, there’s ample scope left to reverse this seemingly nihilistic act, when Thanos himself has already used Strange’s Time Stone to do it in order to secure his victory. This denouement left me in two minds, admiring Marvel finally gaining enough cojones to disrupt the simple beats of their proven mode and leave a colossal audience in limbo. It also cheapens the film to a degree. Not so much for the feeling of inevitable revision – the death and resurrection of Lois Lane in Superman (1978), for instance, remains the greatest moment in a superhero film, and stands as a worthy challenge of emulation for Marvel – but the way it undercuts the preceding two and a half hours’ worth of epic pretences. The breathless, forward-racing attitude seems more appropriate to a conclusion rather than a scene-setter, and the concluding note is less one of desolation than frustration, like a boxing bout called for time rather than for a result. Nonetheless, as cynical as I’ve trended towards Marvel of late, Infinity War took me by surprise. It has such giddy, madcap energy and spectacle, and is riven with such an unexpected lode of genre poetry and tragic kick in its antihero’s journey, that it feels perilously close to the first real pop classic the series has delivered.