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Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War
About dang time

Sprinkled throughout the incredible eighteen films of Marvel's cinematic juggernaut, the MCU, are hints and promises of a bigger story coming down the line. Now, at long last, those seeds have sprouted in what promises to be one of the biggest silver screen spectacles of all time: Avengers: Infinity War, a film that juggles so many characters, so many disparate storylines, and so many expectations that it shouldn't even be possible. Marvel Studios has spent ten years building their mountainous movie formula atop the landscape of big budget cinema, and other studios have tried desperately to get out of its shadow with very limited success. Infinity War promises to be the pinnacle of the mountain, the peak of everything Marvel's built, and whether it stands tall or comes crashing to the ground, one thing is certain: the landscape will be forever changed.

This review comes nearly a week after its theatrical release, so it's safe to say most of you have probably already seen the movie. However, if you haven't, this is your spoiler warning: Infinity War is almost impossible to fully review without discussing critical plot points, including its conclusion. What follows will spoil a few things, and though I don't personally think spoilers are the worst thing in the world (based on sound science), I will respect the wishes of fans and the strong urging of Marvel Studios by giving you this chance to browse away and return after you've seen the film. You've been warned.

I don't expect 2018 to be the year the Academy finally treats comic book movies as worthy of its praise in anything but technical achievement--nor do I honestly believe Infinity War will be the most artistically important film of the year--but let not the Academy's stuffiness take away from the incredible achievements of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the writers with the unenviable task of putting together eighteen movies' worth of narrative, over half a century of comic book history, the demands and expectations of not one but two enormous corporate machines overseeing their work, and their own artistic visions to make a singular experience that clocks in at under one hundred eighty pages. These guys, though admittedly not working in a vaccuum, knocked it out of the park.

The Russo brothers
I guess this remarkable pair of directors, the Russo brothers, deserve some credit as well

For if there's one thing Infinity War does best, it is the narrative. Just making a coherent screenplay out of so many moving parts would be miraculous enough, but making a story capable of entertaining, surprising, and moving an audience of hundreds of millions is up there with parting the Red Sea. It is not an exaggeration to say that Markus and McFeely have done something no one has ever done before, and for that alone, Infinity War deserves some serious recognition. Events play out in a surprisingly organic way that manages to do everything it needs to without ever feeling forced or dependant on convenience. (I do have one minor complaint about Dr. Strange forgetting he can teleport at one point, but that's pretty nitpicky, all things considered.) That said, this is still a movie about a godlike purple spaceman with dubious concerns about galactic economics collecting six mystical rocks while a bunch of ridiculously marketable, unnaturally good-looking men and women use their silly outfits and magic powers to try to stop him. If you're looking for deep themes and enlightening subtext, you're not likely to find them here.

But with all due respect to The Dark Knight and Black Panther (and make no mistakes, I have a lot to give), this is a comic book movie, and as such, its primary goal shouldn't be finding profound insights about the human condition or powerful reflections of modern sociopolitics. It should rather be designed from the ground up to be pure and joyful entertainment, and Avengers: Infinity War absolutely is. It does have a motif about the value of one life weighed against another, but it is far too anvilicious to be considered even slightly subtextual. Instead, it spends its time finding a good balance of tones, by neither going as far into comedy as Thor: Ragnarok or by delving into moody self-importance like Thor: The Dark World. It has plenty of humor, most of which is centered around the Guardians of the Galaxy, but it also presents a serious threat to our heroes that feels more intense than anything they've faced before.

Avengers: Infinity War
Silly Thanos, you need to use the gauntlet hand

This is probably because Thanos is given the most character development in the entire film. He is a multi-dimensional villain with a mission that, though clearly flawed in conception and evil in execution, makes him believe he is the hero. Far from being just the big bad in a rocket chair, Thanos is given weight and purpose equal to the years of build-up Marvel has given him. He even has plenty of room to grow in the end, and thus it is probably fitting that he is the one who finally succeeds (probably) in killing off Loki, the MCU's previous favorite, most dynamic villain. It's also wise that his motivation is completely different from the comics.

That's because Avengers: Infinity War is only loosely based upon the comics (most notably, though not exclusively, 1991's The Infinity Gauntlet crossover event), but comic book fans will be pleased to see several nods to the source material, such as the spaghettification and disintegration of a pair of characters at Thanos' hands, the brutal torture of Nebula, and the farm Thanos retires to. Dr. Strange's fourteen million possible futures is a remix of Adam Warlock's seeming omniscience from The Infinity Gauntlet, not to mention being a clever fill-in for any potential plot holes in the events that follow. This is clearly a movie geared for comic fans, as well as for fans of the MCU who have yet to pick up a comic book.

One caveat, however: if you're a comic fan and go to the theater with someone who isn't, maybe prepare them, at least cryptically, for the ending. I saw an early screening with my wife, and when the credits started rolling, she smacked me surprisingly hard in the arm. I had a pretty good idea where the movie would end (like most geeks, I'd been betting with my friends whether the film would end with the famous snap), but she was genuinely surprised to the point that it made her mad. Though she enjoyed most of the movie, she still doesn't want to talk about those harrowing final ten minutes. I don't think I'm even allowed to mention Spider-Man in her presence yet.

Avengers: Infinity War
Looking at this, I don't feel so good

Also, it's important to note this is not an experience for people who've never seen an MCU movie. With so many other balls to juggle, Infinity War doesn't have a hand to spare for holding the uninitiated. 2012's Avengers does a great job setting up the characters for everyone, and Avengers: Age of Ultron gives it a good college try (though clearly doesn't succeed as much), but by this point in the franchise, newcomers will be completely and utterly lost from the very beginning to the final shot.

Still, Infinity War is more than just a script. As a film, it has a lot to separate it from Marvel's earlier works. It has the most memorable soundtrack to date, riffing on the handful of good MCU themes that have come before, including the bombast of The Avengers, the soaring triumph of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the techno-African beats of Black Panther. Composer Alan Silvestri isn't afraid to blare and boast with every epic establishing shot as though this is a Star Wars flick, but he also knows when to highlight the most emotionally devastating moments by the music's conspicuous absence.

The effects are more of a mixed bag. A movie like this is more CG than live action, and though the sensory overload of computer generated sets, explosions, and laser fire does its best to maintain a good suspension of disbelief, there are cracks, especially in the CG character models. Thanos is given a lot of attention, and he feels real for the most part, but his generals, the Black Order, tend to be a little weaker. For me, the one that really stands out in a bad way is Proxima Midnight, who doesn't look like anything but an animated character. Having seen the movie in both 2D and 3D, I recommend going the 2D route, not because the 3D is poorly done (it's pretty good, actually), but because the CG cracks are less obvious and the fast cuts are easier to follow in 2D.

Avengers: Infinity War
Spoiler alert: this money shot isn't actually in the finished film

Indeed, the editing can get exhausting in places. There's a lot going on at once, but even within self-contained sequences, the average shot-length drops to dangerous lows. The action choreography is stellar, especially the Titan sequences, but not all of the scenes are wholly coherent, with the biggest offender being the nighttime battle when the Black Order first attacks Vision. There's also an issue of pacing. Even though this movie is overflowing with action, it can still feel both overlong and undernourished. For example, there's a relatively unnecessary scene with General Ross followed by a clearly truncated reintroduction of Wakanda. In the long run, I don't imagine Avengers: Infinity War will be as rewatchable as The Avengers, simply because it's an endurance test that leaves audiences spent rather than immediately ready to watch it again. This is a side effect of its greater length, its relentless sensory assault, and its emotionally draining ending. It's also why, despite having a record-smashing opening weekend, it probably won't claim the number one spot on the list of highest grossing films of all time.

Make no mistakes, however: Avengers: Infinity War is everything Marvel promised it would be (unless you actually believed them when they said it would be a self-contained story). Despite the incredibly long build-up, the occasional misstep along the multi-film path, the ridiculously high expectations of fans, and the unimaginably difficult task of bring so many moving parts together, this movie is an astonishingly good time that will leave audiences in awe. It is one of the greatest achievements thus far in comic book cinema, and though its reputation is bound to be affected one way or another in the long run by next year's still untitled Avengers 4, it would be a crime to leave Infinity War out of the history books.

FINAL SCORE:

It's difficult to understate what Marvel has accomplished here.


-e. magill 5/3/2018

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