Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Grand Experiment – Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War

Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.

In the production logos that precede Disney and Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, the “io” in “Marvel Studios” slowly morphs into the number 10, signifying the real-life decade that has passed since Iron Man was released in 2008, when this whole “cinematic universe” experiment began in earnest. It is not overstating things to say that this process, whether or not you’ve enjoyed following its peaks and valleys, is unprecedented in cinematic history, and that fact in itself anchors Infinity War in a sense of tangible accomplishment. Much ballyhoo has been made about the fact that the film doesn’t make a lick of sense if you haven’t seen the Marvel movies leading up to this (and if you haven’t, then what exactly is driving you to buy a ticket for this one?), but that attitude belies the mind-boggling time and effort that has gone into setting up these dominoes, so that this film can concern itself primarily with knocking them down. Experiencing the setup is worth it, because Infinity War is nearly three hours of pure payoff.

The payoff isn’t just an emotional one for the fans, either – it’s significant for Disney, too, who are reaping the fruits of their labour at the box office. Infinity War has achieved the biggest opening weekend of all time, with early estimates placing its domestic earnings in the neighbourhood of $250 million. It has long been futile to rage against this particular machine; the superhero blockbuster engine that Marvel and Disney have created is so vast, so powerful, and so successful that it’s guaranteed to be dominant in cinemas for a long time to come – something that some would argue cripples Infinity War’s emotional impact, for reasons we’ll get into, but which is more than anything an eloquent argument for its efficacy as a manufacturer of quality cinematic products. Be as cynical as you like about lowest-common-denominator audiences, but here’s the truth: people don’t flock to theatres in numbers like this to watch total crap. These movies are this successful for a reason, and it’s because they work as movies, each satisfying on its own terms while also contributing meaningfully to the larger whole. That’s what’s so astonishing about this decade-long enterprise: that it was done not only with the foresight to plan for how it would all tie together in the chorus, but with the intent to make each individual note as resonant as possible. 

Producer Kevin Feige is the mastermind behind the scheme, to be sure, but I credit screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, along with directors Anthony and Joe Russo, with the lion’s share of this historic success. Markus and McFeely wrote all three Captain America films (which, if you count Civil War, means they already pretty much wrote an Avengers film), and the Russo brothers established themselves early on in the franchise as not only fine action directors but deft story jugglers, able to balance huge ensemble casts without underserving their characters or losing the emotional stakes along the way. The template they established was bolstered by the intense good will generated during Marvel’s ‘17-18 run, which gave us Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther: a knockout foursome of great films that set the stage beautifully, both within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and outside it, in our own, for the events – and the emotions – of Infinity War. I think this film’s most impressive victory is in its level of coherence; it really should have been a massive clusterfuck of scattered characters, tangled storylines, and confused tone, but it’s none of those things. Infinity War feels complete – at least as complete as the first half of a devastating climax can feel – and it doesn’t fall short of its lofty ambitions. It’s a remarkable achievement.

The film’s plot is also about an experiment, of sorts: it centers on the belief held by the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), that the only way to create peace and stability in the universe is to exterminate half its lifeforms at random, ensuring there are enough resources to go around for those who remain – something he genuinely sees as an act of mercy. He plans to achieve this by collecting all of the Infinity Stones (major MacGuffins in the previous films) in his big golden gauntlet, allowing him to carry out his drastic population control scheme with a literal snap of his fingers. Most of the Stones are in the care of the Avengers, who – after the events of Age of Ultron and Civil War – are scattered to the winds, making them prime targets for the big purple psychopath and his creepy minions. Infinity War wastes no time with unnecessary set-up (since there are eighteen preceding films already serving that purpose), delivering raw conflict, consequences, and dramatic fallout for its full run-time. When I describe the film as a devastating climax, I mean that the entire experience is literally one giant turning point, a single film’s final battle scene stretched to feature length. This is why Infinity War only makes sense in the context of its predecessors: it builds on the rising action of the previous films and leaves the denouement to the sequels to follow. It sounds exhausting, but in practice it’s exhilarating, the film’s two and a half hours flying by in a flash. It’s all been leading to this, and it’s just as breathtakingly huge and shocking to behold as the other movies warned us it would be.

Josh Brolin as Thanos, surveying the wreckage of his homeworld.

In 2018 (and especially on a budget of this scale), it should come as no surprise that Brolin’s motion-capture performance, enhanced by photorealistic CG facial animation, is captivating and believable. This is another achievement that should not pass by without remark: Thanos is as tangible and human, despite his hulking, wrinkled face, as Andy Serkis was in the Planet of the Apes trilogy. That you don’t even notice he’s a CG character – that you instantly buy his presence in every scene and his face-to-face interactions with the rest of the live-action cast – is extraordinarily impressive. What’s also noteworthy is the challenge faced by Markus and McFeely of introducing us to a villain we’ve only seen in tangential cutaway footage up to this point, who has never interacted with our heroes onscreen before, and making him relatable, frightening, and compelling – not to mention the added difficulty of making good on the constant criticism the Marvel films (rightfully) receive for their lackluster antagonists, using the ultimate baddie we’ve been hearing whispers of since the early days of the MCU. Suffice to say the stakes were high – Thanos needed to be a knockout Big Bad we instantly loved to hate.

Brolin’s performance (and the dialogue he’s given) deliver on these extreme expectations; he’s a terrifying presence in the film and he clasps hold of your attention with his twisted, charming personality the same way Hopkins did with Hannibal Lecter. Some non-trivial problems exist in the marrow of the script, however, primarily centering around Thanos’s plan, which unfortunately doesn’t make much sense. If he has infinite power and wants to be merciful to the untold trillions going hungry in the universe, he could probably just make sure they had food instead of murdering them. (My understanding is that the plan makes a whole lot more sense in the comics – relatively speaking – given that all the murder Thanos claims to do in the name of mercy is really to catch the attention of Death herself, with whom he’s infatuated.) Thanos’s love for his kidnapped “daughter” Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and his pain at having to kill her to achieve his dream, is presented like a reveal, because functionally it is – his capacity for love has never been properly established, so Brolin’s beautifully anguished performance is wasted on a crucial emotional note that rings hollow. I simply don’t buy that he’s torn up about killing the daughter he spent 20-odd years torturing, both physically and emotionally. It’s a hard-cut case of telling without showing, and it robs the film of what should be a gut-punch of a scene (not to mention the emotional conflict we’re meant to feel as we consider the twisted logic of the Mad Titan’s plan). These gaps in logic are screenplay issues, however, and don’t diminish most of Brolin’s work, or the threat that Thanos presents to the heroes we’ve spent a decade getting to know – which is good, because the vast majority of the film is spent in action sequences where the Avengers fight in vain against his awe-inspiring power, and those sequences work not because we’re thinking about the details of his plan, but because we’re busy worrying how the hell our heroes are going to beat this guy.

The answer to that question – that they can’t, and don’t, and that half of the universe dies no matter what they try to do – is one of the best choices made in the MCU. No one is immune to the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, and no matter how it pans out in future sequels, it’s heartbreaking to watch Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), nearly all the Guardians, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) disintegrate into ash while the remaining heroes can only look on in horror. (Peter Parker gets a particularly gut-wrenching death, gasping for life like the terrified teenager he is, and apologizing to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark – who has been set up over three films as his surrogate father figure – as he fades away in his arms. His death is more drawn-out than most of the others because this emotional note deserved some extra screen time, but I like to imagine Peter’s Spider-Sense would have been going apeshit, warning him of this inexorable doom even before it started happening to everyone around him.) There’s no mid-credits scene, no stylized credits animations, no cutesy jokes to lighten the tone – all your favourite heroes die, and then the movie just ends. The sheer ballsiness of this downbeat conclusion is not to be dismissed just because you and I understand that there are Spider-Man and Black Panther and Dr. Strange sequels on the way, and these characters are inevitably going to be revived somehow – the characters sure don’t know that, and their grief is terrible to behold; and the legions of young fans who idolize these characters sure don’t know it either. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many a pre-teen moviegoer – Disney’s target demo, don’t forget – left the theatre crying wretched tears after Infinity War. That is the true success of this ending, and though the inevitable future resurrections may feel cheap to us, I know they don’t feel that way to the film’s primary audience. (Plus, there are no guarantees that other beloved characters like Loki [Tom Hiddleston], Heimdall [Idris Elba], Vision [Paul Bettany], and Gamora, who died prior to Thanos's executing on his plan, are going to make it back at all.)

Left to right: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) prepare for battle with the Wakandan forces at their backs.

Markus and McFeely are clever to compartmentalize the narrative, allowing the directors to cut between small groups of characters and ensure the action is easy to follow, but a bigger part of what makes Infinity War functional where it might have been incomprehensible is in the constant tonal balancing act the Russos achieve, oscillating between dark and light, grim and goofy, in a way that feels natural and appropriate rather than schizophrenic. Characters who are quippy idiots – Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) chief among them – still get to make silly quips, but the serious way that the Russos treat Thanos (and his deeply cartoonish minions, with names like Corvus Glaive and Ebony Maw) grounds the proceedings in sober stakes. This is still the same Marvel universe where the gun-toting raccoon (Bradley Cooper) gets his larfs, but it’s being invaded by something that isn’t very funny at all. Humour is also used as a key tool to brighten exposition in Infinity War, helping scenes that might otherwise be stuffed with yawn-inducing plot detail breeze right by. Alan Silvestri’s excellent score, at turns haunting and hyperactive, perfectly carries this ever-shifting tone, and does a great deal to help the dramatic material land properly.

Infinity War’s action is brilliantly choreographed and photographed (Trent Opaloch is credited as the cinematographer) – something that comes as no surprise from the Russos after the last two Captain America films – offering clear geography, exciting arcs and reversals, and impacts that land with chest-shaking crunchiness. They’re infused with character development, too: Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is constrained to Stark’s Hulkbuster armour in order to be useful during the final battle in Wakanda, thanks to what I’ll call his "er-Hulk-tile" dysfunction (the result of his continuing relationship with his bigger, greener self that was explored in Thor: Ragnarok), which makes him both powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Vision hardly seems to want to fight at all, due to his belief that his time on Earth is limited, and his paramour Maximoff fights twice as fiercely in response. Dr. Strange lapses into a (bizarrely Sherlock-esque) fever dream in which he envisions millions of possible futures, only one of which leads to victory – which lends his fight scenes the melancholy confidence of a man who knows that everything that is happening must happen – including his own death. (This also provides a handy explanation for any nitpicky logical issues that crop up after that point: it’s gotta go the way it goes, down to the minutest detail, or the worst will come to pass.) There are several moments that brought out the kid in me, making me gasp in delight at the sheer creativity and scope of what I was seeing. Thanos reaches his hand into the air, silhouetted by a moon orbiting high above, and when he brings down his fist he rips massive chunks of the moon screaming to ground level with it. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) zaps down the Bifrost into Wakanda, electricity arcing from his body like a dynamo, his newly-forged axe zipping through the Mad Titan’s canine alien minions like a katana through a paper door. This is the kind of material that only Disney-sized budgets can deliver with real impact, and only filmmakers like the Russos can infuse with genuine emotional engagement. Infinity War brings out the big guns in every sense, and it’s like having front-row seats to a cinematic shock-and-awe campaign.

It took ten years to get here, but the destination is never the point. Infinity War is only half of the climax of this grand and unprecedented cinematic story arc, ending on a brutally sad note and offering no condolences or resolution. It’s nearly impossible to judge its merits as a stand-alone film, and to even try is to ignore the unique context in which this massive, unstoppable beast was created. Within that context, though, Infinity War is a miracle, a blockbuster that had every reason to fail and yet keeps succeeding anyway, despite its lapses in logic and its immensely unwieldy scale, in which every character has something meaningful to do. I’m reminded of Chris Evans’s original appearance as Captain America in 2011’s The First Avenger, where – no matter how many times his bullies knock him flat into the dirt – Steve Rogers keeps getting back up, telling them, “I can do this all day.” Infinity War kicked my ass, but I would happily have sat through another three hours of it, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. The grand experiment, against all odds, actually worked.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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