Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Is Both Impressive and Mediocre

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Man does a lot of stuff happen in Avengers: Infinity War. Almost a decade of stand-alone and team-up movies that help build a franchise and all but reinvented how we consume or look at movies have led to this. The Russo brothers, Anthony and Joseph, along with Marvel studios, have pushed the envelope in what a franchise movie is capable of: grandiose mediocrity.

Let me be clear, I liked Infinity War. It’s a technically competent joy ride that never really makes you feel its length. Still, as I sat there watching Thanos (Josh Brolin) easily dispatch of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) at the beginning of the movie, I couldn’t help but feel a little anxious. It looked, in terms of visual style, like every other Marvel movie I had seen before.

In many ways, Infinity War showcases the strength and weakness of the Marvel blueprint and cinematic practices. The Russo brothers directed Captain America: Winter Soldier. Much like Joss Whedon, they cut their teeth in television. Directing television requires a unique talent for mimicry. You are essentially being handed someone else’s vision and being told to replicate it to the best of your abilities.

The Marvel franchise staggering box office success has largely been due to the sameness of each mega budget installment. These characters can interact with other characters in other movies because all the movies seem alike in tone and structure thus the crossovers seem less jarring. Except in the last couple of movies, Marvel seemed to be stepping away from the Russo brothers and their television-trained ilk. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor: Ragnarok were almost iconoclastic stylized exercises compared to the rest of the Marvel-verse. James Gunn and Taika Waititi made weird, visually inventive studio movies from a studio that had a history of being allergic to style and personality.

Ryan Coogler showed the world how to connect both style, a narrative with subtext, and a big studio movie all in one. Black Panther has its own rhythms and internal beats. It’s a joyous celebration of African culture and existence.  A harsh cinematic criticism of colonialism, and of the West’s arrogance in how it attempts to subvert other’s views with its own.

Which brings us back to Infinity War. To be sure, the Russos had an impossible task before them. A staggering amount of characters and tones to juggle and merge together into one seamless existing story is no mean feat. But therein lies the problem.

Scenes involving Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) feel off. They feel off because the Guardian movies were written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Gunn and Perlman infused these characters with prickly personalities, along with their own kookish sense of humor. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely struggle to capture the group dynamic of this strange ragtag gang of misfits.

Markus and McFeely find the glue needed in Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Hemsworth’s presence allows the Guardians to feel more like the ones we know and love as they coo and ogle over the god of thunder. Hemsworth blends his goofy charm with a more hardened attitude. Surprisingly it works. It works because Hemsworth has the ability to be the most charming person in the room at any given moment.

In order to effectively sew all these disparate characters and storylines together, the Russos were forced to do away with any kind of visual or narrative style. While Infinity War is effective at times, it is by and large unexceptional at others. The action is clear and we are always aware where everyone is. But the camera is capable of so much more than just recording the blocking geography of a scene.

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers showed us why these characters would not get along and why they would. He revealed the hubris that comes with heroism and the stark individuality that seems antithetical to any form of collectivism. The Avengers were, and are, always more interesting when they are allowed to argue with one another.

Infinity War has them arguing, but only about strategies and plot. A few characters are made to perform expository duties and then have epic drag out slap fights. Forcing Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to work together and essentially trapping them in a spaceship so the two must work together is a masterstroke. Throwing in Peter Parker (Tom Holland) only adds to the flavor. Except…they don’t talk about anything. They talk just enough before pausing to observe the mandatory action beat but never more, and oftentimes less.

When Strange tries to explain how dangerous Thanos is, Tony tells him how he’s been haunted by Thanos since New York. It’s a tantalizing bit of dialogue because it hints at Tony’s PTSD, something that was explored in Shane Black’s often overlooked Iron Man 3. But hint is all it does.

The dialogue is never boring. It always moves the plot and narrative forward, but rarely anything more. Every once and awhile characters bump into something interesting to say, yet quickly move on in favor of epic battles with preordained outcomes.

Part of this is because Brolin’s Thanos eats up almost all of Infinity War’s oxygen. Odd to say in a movie chock full of flawed, emotionally scarred, and fascinating characters, Thanos is the one who’s the most interesting. The Mad Titan Thanos is a being whose goal is balance; a perfect balance. He believes that in order for the universe to thrive, parts of it must die.

In order to do this, he needs six infinity gems to put in the infinity gauntlet. The gauntlet, a giant metal glove forged in Nidavellir, where Thor’s hammer hails from, holds six stones. The six infinity gems are the soul gem, the mind gem, the reality gem, the time gem, the space gem, and the power gem. All helpfully color coded so we can tell them apart.

Thanos’s desire for a random and fair quasi-genocide is fairly typical in terms of life goals of comic book villains. But Infinity War allows Thanos to explain himself multiple times against different arguments. We’re never asked to agree with Thanos, but we do come to understand his logic and that helps make him terrifying. Much like Black Panther’s Killmonger* (Michael B. Jordan), we have a character whose motives and desire are crystal clear even though their actions may be terrifying.

Josh Brolin has long been one of my favorite actors. Ever since I saw Grindhouse and wondered, “who was that dude doing a bang-up Nick Nolte impersonation?” I’ve been a fan. Here Brolin plays Thanos as a man supremely confident in his thinking and his morality.

In essence, he is playing a character we know all too well. Thanos is a narcissist, an abuser, and a madman. But he doesn’t believe his actions are driven by emotions. In his mind, he is “free” from emotions that might cloud his judgment. Brolin conveys all of this with a placid face but expressive eyes. Underneath all the purple makeup and CGI we glimpse the machinations of a being willing to kill half the galaxy because he and he alone possess the will. Ironically there is no “will stone”.

Anyone who has spent any time online knows the disturbing trend of people calling themselves “rationalists”.  These are people who operate under some mistaken ability to think with pure logic. Much like an abuser when someone accuses Thanos of being abusive he turns it around on them and claims they misunderstood his intentions. They misunderstood because they are plagued by their petty emotions.

Naturally, Thanos must be stopped. In a nutshell that is the plot of Infinity War. Infinity War feels like a step back because that’s all it is about. Subtext and metaphors are eschewed and hand-waved away in favor of explosive and albeit spectacular action set pieces. We are left with a movie that is what it is and nothing more.

Alan Silvestri’s music suffers from the curse of Marvel’s musical atonality. Gone is the daring and refreshing musical cues of Black Panther. In its place, we have music that is serviceable but evaporates once it is over with. Silvestri’s score perfectly underscores the action but adds nothing to it. It is like everything else the Russos have assembled in their quest to pull off the daunting and the impossible; adequate.

Even the last act, which is daring by any standard, is hampered by the very system Marvel has created. As by now many of you will have known, or guess, some characters die. These deaths have little to no weight because we know this is only part one. When you have within the story objects known as the “time gem” and the “reality gem”, we become skeptical of the stakes involved. The newest of noobs will be able to sit back at ease and know that gone their favorite may be, they will not remain that way. Besides no one ever dies in a comic book movie; Bruce Wayne’s parents and Uncle Ben and Logan being the exceptions.

Plus, Marvel is more adept at publicity than almost any studio in history. Because of this, the average moviegoer is more aware of upcoming movies and contractually obligated sequels than most critics. This adds another level of burden on the Russos in their attempt at daring choices. The combination of the gems and the public’s basic awareness and knowledge of Marvel Studios dampens the impact of the third act.

The attempt is admirable though. I quite liked the nerve even if I never quite bought it. In the end, though I found myself underwhelmed by the whole thing. Which is not to say I wasn’t moved. There’s a scene I won’t spoil with Holland’s Spider-Man that is as close to as emotionally devastating as the Russos have ever gotten in their career. Suffice to say had Infinity War carried that emotional devastation and loss throughout the rest of the act the audience would more than likely go home to watch Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, to cheer themselves up.

To be fair, Infinity War never even tries to behave as if it is something other than what it says it is. If you like the Marvel movies, chances are you’ll love this one. If you been waiting almost a decade to see this movie, chances are you won’t be disappointed. Infinity War is good and may possibly lay the groundwork for some of Marvel’s best work yet. Taken in context and understanding what it has to do, it’s somehow a mixture of staggeringly impressive and just okay. 

As big a spectacle as Inifinty War is I found myself much the same as I went in. Effective, though it may be, I have no real desire to ever see it again. The Russos may be talented and competent directors but they’re not very interesting ones. A spectacle is fine and good. I love me some big dumb action but at some point, you have to decide which it is you want to be. Infinity War wants to be lauded for being daring without taking any actual risks.

*Earlier publications had mentioned Killgrave instead of Killmonger. We apologize for the error.

Image courtesy of Marvel

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