Monday, April 30, 2018

Marvel's Contract Negotiations: The Movie!

Year: 2018
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Cast: C'mon
Run Time: 2 hours 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

So, the time has come. More or less the entirety of modern cinema has led to this, the culmination of ten years of multi-million dollar blockbuster filmmaking. People online have made fun of Marvel's comment about Avengers: Infinity War being the most ambitious crossover event in cinema history, but people online don't have a great track record of thinking things through. Marvel is right. Infinity War is an act of pure Hollywood hubris, cramming as many successful properties into one punch-kicking chunk as humanly possible. It was either going to be the best movie ever made or a fully incomprehensible hash.

Unfortunately, because the world doesn't live in binaries like we want it to, Infinity War lands somewhere in between. But honestly, that's the best case scenario, because it could have been so much worse and frankly we as a species don't deserve the glory of what would have happened if they threaded that needle.

But we DO deserve Danai Gurira and Chris Evans' beard being in as many movies as possible, so at least we're getting that started.

Oh boy. This is the part where we recap the plot of the movie. Wish me luck. 

Umm... remember all the Marvel movies since 2008? Well, you'd better. Every character you've ever known and loved and a bunch of characters who you assume are from the ones you didn't see are in danger, because the big purple Jay Leno alien known as Thanos (Josh Brolin) is finally ready to bedazzle his Polly Pocket glove with the sparkly Infinity stones that have been cropping up oh so often lately. Once he collects them all, he can send in the box tops to receive his prize: the death of half the population of the universe.

Turns out, people don't like that idea, so pretty much everyone who has a superpower or who looks good in a leather catsuit have assembled to prevent this catastrophe on as many fronts as possible. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket (Bradley Cooper voice, Sean Gunn mocap), and Groot (Vin Diesel) search for a mythical god-killing weapon. Meanwhile the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy - Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) - head to cut off Thanos at the site of some Infinity Stone or other. 

Meanwhile meanwhile, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) has disappointed girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) by hopping onto the ship of Thanos' right-hand monster Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) to save Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with stowaway Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are trying to bone in peace, but he's got a big ol' Infinity Stone in his head so he must be evacuated to Wakanda by war criminals Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into the custody of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and also Hulk is there (Mark Ruffalo).

Did I miss anything? Oh yes, 45% of the cast. Well, I tried. I really did.

I'm getting why Thanos wants to destroy half of these people. It would really make things easier to follow.

Much like the screenwriters of Infinity War, I really don't know where to start. There's a lot of good in Infinity War and a lot of bad, but they're all hopelessly entangled. Maybe we should start with Thanos, who has been lurking in the background of this franchise since the end credits tease in 2012's Avengers. The movie really wants to have a sympathetic villain, but doesn't quite stick the landing. Maybe it's the fact that it's easier to relate to someone who doesn't look like a CGI gummy bear. Maybe they cashed in their small supply of Good Villain points to make Killmonger back in February. Maybe it's just the fact that every time the script shifts to its serious tone, the gears start to grind a little bit. I'm going to assume it's all the above, but let's discuss the latter.

The screenplay, from the writers behind your favorite Marvel entries including Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World, is kind of a mess. Whenever it attempts to get profound (as any apocalyptic movie is tempted to do), it adopts a clownish grimace and forces its characters through a gauntlet of the most maudlin, overwrought monologues yet known to man. Combined with the barbaric clunkiness of the exposition every time that rears its ugly head, a lot of sequences in this movie are just punishing to watch.

A scene where you can see exactly where it's going within seconds drags out its overheated drama for full minutes, jam-packed with explanatory dialogue that finds endless ways to rephrase "you say that things are THIS way... But they're THAT way!" Infinity War never cuts to the chase, and its complicated labyrinth of life-or-death contrivances, arbitrary ticking clock action sequences, and bizarre character motivations isn't smoothed out by how painful and empty the emotional scenes are.

But it's hard to drum up stakes when you know that there are going to be 18 more of these movies in the next, like, three months. Especially when the punches are as hyperbolically pulled as this one. The Marvel films have always had a problem with balancing the power levels of its various characters, but Thanos is so perilously overpowered that when he stoops to the level of a punchfight, you wonder why he doesn't just crush these people like ants. His strength and ability wax and wane exactly as the plot needs them to, and that almost completely neuters his ability to be an impressive villain. He's literally upstaged by his sidekick Ebony Maw, who has a crazy frightening countenance, a startlingly powerful telekinetic ability, and a much more mustache-twistingly eeevil approach to his work.

The fact that the movie doesn't realize how freaking terrifying he is just goes to show that you shouldn't add characters willy nilly when you're stuck with the ones you've been teasing for a decade.

This arid, emotionless state of affairs isn't helped by the cast, which is like 800 pounds of sexy glowering shoved into a five pound bag. Whether it's because they're finally grown tired of their characters or if they just feel like they don't have to try too hard considering they'll only get like five minutes of screentime, a lot of our team roster here is on autopilot. Much like the script, these performances are leaning hard on the assumption that you already know and love these characters and they don't have to try too hard to earn your trust.

Robert Downey, Jr. has obviously getting tired of playing Iron Man for some time, and Chris Evans has literally been fatigued by the lifestyle he's had to live to keep Captain America afloat, but their disinterest is front and center here. Mark Ruffalo also seems to have lost his hold on what exactly Hulk is doing in these movies, and some of the one-scene reappearances from actors like Idris Elba are clearly catnapping. And Gwyneth Paltrow is practically comatose.

Luckily, this isn't an actors' movie. This is a posing in tight shirts movie, and that more than does the trick. And a lot of material is patched up by the people who really are pulling their weight, usually the newer additions to the franchise. The Guardians of the Galaxy, fresh off their sequel, are still packing a comic punch that keeps the lighter tone in the air, Danai Gurira from Black Panther owns the screen with just a twitch of her lip, and Chris Hemsworth is still harnessing the Kiwi magic that made Tho: Ragnarok so special. Plus, Tom Holland is flat out great, giving me the only scene that actually impacted my emotions in any way at all.

Even though the Iron-Spidey suit is... questionable.

OK, finally we've transitioned into the good parts of the movie, of which there are quite a lot. In an infinite universe all things are possible, and there's no universe as big as the MCU, so there was always going to be just as much good as bad. Or... almost as much.

The action scenes aren't all spectacular, but they're definitely engaging popcorn cinema, and one fight that brings back the magical aesthetics of Doctor Strange is a decadent visual feast, reminiscent of Dumbledore and Voldemort's showstopping battle in the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Aesthetically, the film comes alive for a lot of its spacefaring adventures, painting worlds and landscapes we've never seen before with candy colors that are drunk on the visual potential of comic books. Not every setting is perfect (a climactic battle is staged in a location where everything is a different shade of "rust"), but there's a lot of big budget whimsy to be had here.

And when the script does shift to its lighter tones, the comedy pretty much always works. Obviously laughs are in the mouth of the beholder, but over the past few days since I saw this movie my mind has been irresistibly drawn back to a lot of the one-liners, of which I have retained a much higher quantity and with greater accuracy than even most straight-up comedy films I like. Again, the best of these are delivered by the actors who are actually trying, but everybody gets a shot at a line or two that undeniably works.

And... fine. Not all the melodrama is bad. I wish I could talk about it without spoiling it, but I can't, so I'll suffice it to say that a metanarrative decision on the parts of the filmmakers really drives home the emotional impact of an event in the third act, retroactively making it feel much more brutal than it felt, at least to me, in the moment. Ask me in the comments if you want more detail on that.

Anyway, there's really a lot wrong here, but I'm going to err on the side of enjoying popcorn cinema and forgive some of its sins in favor of the parts I did really like, at least on a shallow entertainment level. The sheer amount of balls they manage to juggle is impressive, and while it doesn't feel seamless, it's at least comprehensible, which it almost certainly didn't seem like it was going to be.

TL;DR: Avengers: Infinity War is surprisingly legible and certainly fun, but emotionally unavailable due to its jam-packed story.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1764
Reviews In This Series
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)


  1. As you know,I hate theaters and people, so I avoided the theaters full of people this weekend. Of course I'll see it in the next few days, however. Still, I have some level of serious bias against this movie already, in several different levels--I am convinced it is an unworthy adaptation, from top to bottom, though I'll let you skim my whining thoughts about how it's not like the coooomic for yourself. Anyway, you're not making me more excited.

    Also, this thing is almost as long as Schindler's List.

    1. I do look forward very much to reading your review, though it'll probably take me a week of lunch breaks to get through.

    2. Turns out it reached the level of pretty darn good, which I did not expect; paradoxically, it still disappointed me. I'm impossible to satisfy.

      Tom Holland is great, tho. Hemsworth too. Brolin especially, however, and I think you underrate Thanos as a role AND as a special effect.

      Nevertheless, big step down from the source material. You knew I'd say that.

      What was the metanarrative bit? The cliffhanger? I dug it. Don't see how it took two and a half hours to get to where Infinity Gauntlet was, twelve pages in, but it was good.

      Finally, this movie is not well-shot and notably poorly-edited. Ready Player One was well-shot and well-edited. Ready Player One made one fifth as much. Cinema is dead?

    3. The meta narrative thing I was talking about is the fact that there's no mid-credits stinger. That felt like a punch in the gut more than ANY plot point, and really drove home how bleak they were trying to go. At least in my eyes.