Movie Monday: Avengers – Infinity War (2018)

A top movie that's a downer

The Avengers: Infinity War poster

Eighteen. Although there have been many more movies featuring Marvel comic book characters or that have been made by Marvel Studios, there have been 18 ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ movies since the studio began Phase One of its ambitious, interconnected franchise plans in 2008 with Iron Man. That’s more than an entire season of the average US TV show these days.

Getting to the end of your first season without getting cancelled is impressive enough. Getting this far with a relatively consistent continuity, despite numerous writers and directors, is even more impressive. But getting this far with at least some really good movies coming out of the endeavour is nothing short of amazing.

The key to the MCU’s longevity is that while some characters hop around and appear in other movies, each movie has had a different roster of superheroes to play with, ensuring a different tone and freshness to each one (hopefully). In addition, each main character’s franchise has stopped after three movies: it’s not Iron Man 18 we’re watching in cinemas, since we stopped at Iron Man 3, and Thor, Captain America and co have similarly bowed out after three movies or fewer in favour of new arrivals such as Black Panther and Doctor Strange.

However, one important feature of the MCUs is its periodic reunions of characters from all the franchises, both past and present, for something typically Earth-shattering that requires a combination of superheroes to defeat. These movies cement in the audience’s mind the idea that the MCU is truly interconnected and that missing out on one film is possible, but it’ll be like missing an episode of a serial TV show if they do. Iron Man might not have got a fourth movie, but he’s shown up in The Incredible HulkCaptain America: Civil Warand Spider-man: Homecoming, too. And that’s before we even get to the ensemble The Avengers movies, in which everyone turns up, whether they’re dead or not.

Which is where we get to the problem. Movies aren’t TV series. Sure, you can stretch them to three hours or so if you want, but if you’ve got literally dozens of regular characters in separate movies, when you bring them all together in one movie, how do you give them enough screen time to properly service them as characters while still having a decent plot?

Avengers: Infinity War

The Avengers: Infinity Characters

When Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, I suggested that writer-director Joss Whedon had done just about as well as anyone could be expected, given how many characters he had to squeeze into his script. In retrospect, my review was probably a bit more generous than the movie deserved, since it hasn’t held up so well on repeated viewings chez TMINE. But it’s still not bad.

One area I was also wrong about was in suggesting that Whedon was about the only person who could have pulled it off. Whedon was, of course, the king of Marvel’s Phase One, but since then, some unexpected new royalty has hit town: the Russo Brothers. Improbably picked to direct Captain America: Winter Soldier following their work on the paintball episode of Community, they immediately hit the ball out of the park with what to my mind is the best movie of the entire MCU – and a damn fine spy/action movie in its own right. No small surprise then that they got its sequel, Captain America: Civil War, to direct as well. That movie can also be considered The Avengers 2.5 in its own way, given how many MCU characters are in it, and while it wasn’t as good as Winter Soldier, it was still a really good movie.

Hopes were therefore high for their Avengers: Infinity War, the first of two movies designed to polish off the first three phases of the MCU – the season finale, if you will. By contrast, the once box-office transforming The Avengers and The Avengers 2‘s character rosters feel more like a small piece of local theatre, given there are probably twice to three times as many characters for them to juggle, both old and new. Infinity War also had to round off the massive storyline that’s been building since as far back as Thor.

No pressure, then.

Fortunately, they’ve certainly risen to meet the challenge, managing to out-Whedon Whedon himself.

Avengers Infinity War

The story so far…

For those of you who haven’t been following the linking storyline – and it does get explained in Infinity War, you’ll be glad to hear – there are six great big McGuffins known as Infinity Stones that have been popping up all over the MCU in the likes of The Avengers, Thor: Dark World, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Each of these has a different mega-power and the Big Bad of The Avengers, Thanos, wants to collect them as he’s basically an intergalactic Thomas Malthus – believing that life outstrips resources, it’s his mission to wipe out half of all life in the universe so that the survivors never have to worry about starvation, overcrowding et al ever again. If he gets all six stones, he can kill everyone with a single wave of his specially made Infinity Gauntlet (guess what that’s for).

Naturally, Earth’s mightiest heroes – as well as Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy – aren’t really inclined to let him. But even combined, can they really take on a Titan who can beat the Hulk in a fist fight, crush a god’s neck with his bare hands and hurl a moon at someone he doesn’t really like? And give that Infinity War is the first of two movies that answer that question, who’s still going to be left standing at the end of this one?

You may be surprised. Both non-spoilery and spoilery reviews after this trailer and then the jump.

Is it good? (Non-spoilery)

Although I wish to avoid doing with Avengers: Infinity War with I did with Avengers: Age of Ultron and over-praise it, I’d say that it’s certainly much, much better than everyone expected (and Age of Ultron), manages to capture all the tones of the previous movies successfully, gives plenty of characters chances to shine and evolve, and still manage to surprise the audience, while giving them almost two and a half hours of non-stop adrenal thrills.

But be prepared to leave the cinema feeling a bit down, even if you stick around through seven hours of credits for the post-credit scene. Spoilers after this lovely picture so beware if you haven’t watched it yet.

The Avengers

Is it good? (Spoilery)

Avengers: Infinity War is a far more sophisticated, fine-tuned piece of Marvel comic book entertainment than it has any right to be. The action starts right after Thor: Ragnarok and makes it clear from the outset that we’re not going to be in comfortable territory any more, with old favourites beaten up, tortured and even killed within the first ten minutes. And it continues like that for much pretty much the entire movie, with very few lulls.

Pretty much every MCU character, major, minor and in some cases nearly forgotten about completely (eg the Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger, General Ross from Civil War/The Incredible Hulk), appears at some point to do their thing. But it’s the first set of Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor), the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thanos himself who get the bulk of the movie’s attention. Iron Man is off in outer space fighting Thanos with the help of the Guardians, Spider-man and Doctor Strange; Thor is trying to get himself a replacement for Mjölnir with the help of ‘dwarf’ Peter Dinklage; Captain America is leading his rebel contingent of Falcon and Black Widow to stop Thanos’s henchpeople from grabbing Vision’s Infinity Stone; and the Hulk is refusing to be the Hulk, leaving Bruce Banner to join in wherever he can, usually in one of Iron Man’s hand-me-down suits, together with War Machine. Black Panther and the Winter Soldier show up later when the action moves to Wakanda. It’s really only Ant-Man and Hawkeye who are MIA, although they do get a name-check and are set to show up in the next Avengers.

Meanwhile, we get all of Thanos’ back story, particularly with regards to his Guardians of the Galaxy ‘daughter’ Zoe Saldana. Thankfully, this is miles away from the comics’ daft idea of a man in love (literally) with death herself. Instead, it’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man who would commit universal genocide. He doesn’t think he’s the bad guy at all – he’s just the only person who’s not only seen that too much life is bad for everyone but is willing to do something about it, no matter what the costs. He doesn’t favour rich or poor, young or old, black or white (or green). He just needs to stop life from ultimately destroying everything and if he has to kill even those he loves to save everyone, he’ll do it – he’ll even cry about it, too.

True, it’s something he’s going to have to do at regular intervals, one would have thought (Jeff Goldblum voice: “Life finds a way”), but if you can do it once, you can do it again, presumably.

Spider-Man

Double trouble

Give the time constraints and the nature of Marvel movies, don’t be surprised that in order to get all the characterisation and humour into the story, everything has to double up. Jokes have to take place during fights, as do relationships, delivery of terrible news, explanation of back story, marriage proposals, movie references, more jokes and costume upgrades. It’s a little bit too slick, lacking much depth compared to what Thanos himself gets, but if you want to know if Black Widow still has feelings for Bruce, if Gamora loves Star Lord and if Thor is still feeling chipper now he’s the only Asgardian left alive in the entire universe and he’s been dumped, you do get that, even while everyone’s complimenting him on his physique and Bruce is getting performance anxiety.

You’ll be utterly lost in some regards if you haven’t been watching previous movies, but the jokes will work whether you’ve missed a movie or not, with Guardians‘ Drax once again the best deliverer of the best jokes.

The fights themselves are a touch too CGI, as are many of the villains. While Thanos himself feels close enough to real that he’s capable of provoking emotions, he’s still not quite there and comparisons with the real-world end fight of Black Panther are unflattering. Similarly, his league of villains are too CGI really to be believable. They’re better than Justice League‘s for sure, but still not enough to cause genuine concern.

That’s not helped by the fact there are magic reset buttons. These are intelligently used, and as with Winter Soldier, one of the movie’s best assets is that it has villains who are as smart as the protagonists and capable of doing many of the same things, so the villains can use the magic reset buttons themselves. But the Time Stone offers too many rewind potentials and the fact that the end casualty count is so high, with even the likes of Spider-Man getting killed when Thanos ultimately wins and gets all six stones, you know that the next movie is going to undo some to all the tragedies we observe on screen.

Yet, wow. Those sure are some fights, straight out of the biggest Marvel comic book clashes. Moon-hurling, constantly changing suits of armour, new Mjölnirs – plus Doctor Strange’s magic has really come along since the previous movie. It’s going to be hard to see how future movies can continue to up the ante after this, so breathtakingly ambitious it all is.

Thanos

Now Get Out of That

So Thanos wins. Virtually everyone is dead, apart from those original Avengers and a few of the supporting characters – a smart way to make plotting the next movie easier by removing half the pieces from the board and one you know won’t be permanent. But it’s still a surprisingly bleak way to conclude the movie, the sequel to which won’t be showing up for another year, giving everyone ages to wonder if they’ll reset everything.

What will the next one be like? A new quest by the survivors to recover the Infinity Stones and use them with Peter Dinklage’s spare gauntlet to roll time back to before the start of this movie to a Thanos-less universe? Is the one viable future among the millions that Doctor Strange foresaw the master template that the survivors will be following to rescue the rest of the universe?

There are clues to what’ll happen that are cause for post-viewing cheer, but in a franchise that to some extent relies on repeat viewings, home purchases and so on*, leaving everyone on a downer when they exit the cinema is a pretty gutsy move that potentially could cost the studio millions. Even if you waited for that post-credits scene, all you got to see was Samuel L Jackson and Colby Smulders disappearing like everyone else – even I, who read her comics for a good few years, took a couple of moments to recognise the symbol of Earth’s mightiest superheroine. So for most people, it was all just doom and gloom. I’m certainly in no mood to see Infinity War again just yet, although that might change in the coming weeks.

But I might and it won’t be because it’s a bad movie or I didn’t enjoy it, if I don’t. It’ll just be because it was a bit of downer and once Infinity War – Part Two (or whatever it’ll ultimately be called) is out and hopefully more optimistic and packed with Captain Marvel goodness, I’ll almost certainly be rewatching it.

If you hate superhero movies, don’t watch The Avengers: Infinity War. If you’ve missed a few recent Marvel movies, again, don’t expect to follow everything, but also don’t expect to be completely lost. Even just sitting there and marvelling at not just the effects and the plotting but how well executed everything is has its rewards.

For long-term fans, though, this is a pretty pleasing movie. It doesn’t – and couldn’t have – answered every question but it comes close, as well as giving us things that make previous movies pale by comparison.

* I say ‘to some extent’ but it easily took more than half a billion dollars box office in its opening weekend