Friday, May 4, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers Infinity War (2018)

The first half of the MCU's climax is in the books.  Avengers: Infinity War is a monumental, sweeping epic, with literally dozens of characters teaming up, traversing the cosmos, searching for various objects, and of course trying to stop Thanos from acquiring the six Infinity stones and annihilating half the entire universe.  This film, directed by the Russo brothers (of The Winter Soldier and Civil War fame), certainly tests the limits of how much content can be packed into a superhero movie before it bursts.  Amazingly it succeeds for the most part, thanks largely to Marvel's patience in building up all these characters over the past decade so their introductions here can be kept in shorthand.  We don't need long expositional scenes involving Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, etc. because the other films in the series have prepared us for a headlong dive into this particular episode.  In the hands of lesser filmmakers, Infinity War would be an incomprehensible mess, but this film flows nicely from one episode to the next, with our heroes split up into smaller groups across the galaxy, each objective fitting into the larger context.

The plot this time centers around Thanos, introduced briefly in the first Avengers film (via a post-credits cameo) and more thoroughly in the first Guardians of the Galaxy.  Thanos's home planet Titan was once a thriving utopia, but due to overpopulation became ravaged by decay and destruction; he now believes the only solution to preserving balance in the universe is to thin out the herd across the board.  While this once again falls somewhat into the "doomsday weapon" scenario, Thanos is a bit different from your run-of-the-mill popcorn movie villain.  He's given understandable motivation for his psychotic plan and even presented with some pathos.  Ultimately of course the success or failure of this character falls on the shoulders of Josh Brolin, who delivers a measured, note-perfect motion-capture performance as the gigantic purple overlord.  Brolin doesn't overplay anything; his captured facials are subtle and at times even touching (Brolin and Zoe Saldana's Gamora share some of the film's most poignant scenes).  And it's a good thing Thanos works so well, because he's effectively the lead character, almost certainly getting more screen time than any one of the dozens of protagonists - if you're looking for a deep exploration of Steve Rogers or Tony Stark for example, this isn't your kinda movie.

Our heroes in this film don't get a ton of opportunities to steal the show from each other, but the Guardians come closest, providing many of the movie's ample comedic moments; this intergalactic group of misfits remain one of my favorite aspects of the MCU.  Other minor standouts include Chris Hemsworth's Thor, who gets more to do than in either of the previous Avengers outings, Tom Holland's Spider-Man, who has wonderful chemistry with Tony Stark, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, finding himself in a battle of sardonic wits with Stark but also cursed with knowledge the others lack.

This being the first half of a two-parter, Infinity War reminded me somewhat of the second Lord of the Rings film (which spent loads of time building to a climactic battle), The Empire Strikes Back (which split up our characters into different missions), and probably most of all Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (where all the heroes we've spent several films with must band together for one all-out showdown).  There's obviously a lot left unresolved by the end, and the wait is on for May 3, 2019 when the second half is released.  So it's tough to fully judge a film like this when it's an incomplete narrative (not to mention the culmination of 18 previous films), but in terms of weaving the multiple threads together and setting up compelling questions that need to be answered, Infinity War triumphs pretty thoroughly.  Marvel Studios has assembled a fairly incredible series of interconnecting films that feature relatable characters and thrilling action, even reaching beyond the genre in a few cases (Winter Soldier anyone?).  This franchise shouldn't work nearly as well as it does, and it's a testament to the studio being committed to patience and meticulousness without being afraid to try new approaches to the material.

I'm curious where the MCU can go after 2019; presumably most of the principle actors will be moving on from these roles in the near future.  Will we get a new slate of heroes and villains in the 2020s?  If anyone can recapture Thor's lightning in a bottle it's Marvel Studios.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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