Monday, 7 May 2018

REVIEW: Avengers - Infinity War

You've seen it, right? If not, go see it first. This review contains SPOILERS and SPECULATION.

It's a bit of a tricky one to review, this one. It's not exactly a film in itself, but the culmination of a big screen TV series that has been running for the last ten years. It's not impossible to come into this blind (this reviewer has never seen an MCU film and still manages to follow and enjoy it), with most of the characters and relationships being sketched in pretty broad strokes. Anyone even vaguely savvy with movie storytelling could pick up what's going on. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine there are many people coming into this cold. Even if you've seen only half of the eighteen films that precede this one, you're invested enough in the characters that you care what happens to Tony Stark or Captain America without getting introductions.

Still, in spite of all the movies leading up to this, it feels like there's one film missing. We pick up with Thor and the Hulk moments after the end of Ragnarok, Stark and Peter Parker are recognisably carrying on from Homecoming, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, even with a four year (in universe) gap, are rattling on as usual. It's Cap and his band of renegade Avengers who are missing a huge chapter. They've spent two years on the run fighting unknown battles and that's something I'd like to see. On top of that, Wanda Maximoff and the Vision have gone from tentatively engaging with each other to a full blown relationship, something that is genuinely fascinating and coould have formed the spine of a wonderful science fiction film. Instead, anyone who's unfamiliar with the characters from the comics might wonder just where this relationship comes from.

Nonetheless, the mix of characters works really well. I honestly expected this film to be a disappointment, and not only because it's the cinematic equivalent of one of those overblown comicbook events. This film features a gigantic run of heroes: Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Dr. Strange, Wong, War Machine, Falcon, Star-Lord, Gamora, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax the Destroyer, Black Panther, Shuri, Bucky Barnes, probably some more I've forgotten. It seemed highly improbable that the Roussos would be able to juggle all these characters into a coherent story. They managed it with great success, wisely splitting the characters up into smaller groups for much of the story – the only time we get a genuinely large group of characters together is in the climactic battle in Wakanda, the showcase action piece.

These breakout teams are fluid and well-judged. Pitting the two most arrogant characters, Stark and Strange, on the same team is a great touch, especially as it juxtaposes magic with technology (albeit almost magical technology). Having such a young, idealistic Spider-Man on the same team outs them into sharp relief. Thor is very much in Ragnarok mold, unsurprising considering this is a cosmic adventure and follows directly from that movie, but he is also a much more subdued figure, in mourning for his world and family. This could have sucked the fun out of the character, so they stick him with Rocket and a shitty teenaged Groot. Thor retains the most triumphant moments of the story, including the amazing sequence in the Forge of Nidavellir, reinterpreted as a neutronic caldera (with Peter Dinklage as the dwarf Eitri, brilliantly portrayed as of gigantic stature, because just as the Norse giants aren't necessarily gigantic, the Norse dwarfs aren't necessarily short).

Also particularly good is the characterisation given to Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner. Surprisingly, the Roussos have decided not to use the Hulk for the bulk of the film, instead focusing on Banner's character. It makes for an effective contrast to Ragnarok, the film which elevated the Hulk to a genuine character rather than just a superpower. Now that he has a personality and identity of his own, the Hulk is able to have more complex reactions than just anger. Thanos hands his big green ass to him, and for the first time ever he's genuinely scared, so refuses to manifest. Nonetheless, there's the sense that the line between Banner and the Hulk are blurring further.

Perhaps the most effective technique to managing the huge cast of characters is to make Thanos the protagonist. Much of the story, particularly from the second act onwards, is from his perspective, and the story is as much about his quest for the Infinity Stones as it is the Avengers' and Guardians' mission to stop him. Thanos is portrayed with surprising sympathy for someone who wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe. I had originally imagined that he would be linked with Hela, in a version of his attempt to woo Death herself as in the comics, but the film presents a much more logical, more believable reason for his quest. There's a certain inescapable, inarguable logic to his mission to kill half the universe to prevent further suffering (although he could equally have used the Gauntlet to double all the food and resources in the universe). I had previously been pretty sniffy about Thanos's appearance in the movies, thinking that faithfully copying his comicbook appearance was a mistake. The animation and design of Thanos has been refined, though, which, combined with Josh Brolin's excellent performance, makes this CGI monster a genuinely effective character.

The remaining aliens are visually fun but make little impression, but they're just a bunch of henchmen and exist only to be beaten back by the heroes. The film looks amazing – the occasionally shonky CGI in Black Panther is nowhere to be seen here. No doubt Infinity War got the bulk of the effects budget, understandably given that it visits half a dozen locations all across the galaxy. It's a mostly predictable film, of course, and this isn't a bad thing. I don't think anyone's coming into this hoping to have the rug pulled from under them. Still, there are some surprises. Killing off two fan favourite characters in the opening ten minutes was a bit of a shock, and I was not expecting the Red Skull to show up again (not least because Hugo Weaving refused to ever resume the role, so they finally recast him). They could have had an entirely new character guarding the Soul Stone, but using the Red Skull links the film back to The First Avenger, which started off this whole Infinity Stone palava in the first place.

Infinity War does was it's supposed to do: entertains while providing a climactic full stop to the Avengers' long cinematic story. It now falls to the next chapter (currently thought to be titled Avengers: Endgame) to provide a satisfying ending.

Observations and speculations:

  • The funniest moment in the film is not a snappy one liner or some character moment with the Guardians. No, it has to be the powerfully emotional conversation between Wanda and Vision being taking in place outside a Scottish kebabby, with a sign proudly stating “We will deep fry your kebab!” It's pretty much the most Scottish thing ever committed to film.
  • Was that a Doctor Who reference as Peter Parker died? It certainly sounded like it. It elicited a sob from the missus at any rate and made my friend cry.
  • Missed opportunities for Sherlock Holmes references: even though they share a ton of screentime, RDJ and Cumberbatch don't once say “No shit, Sherlock.” Not even an “Elementary.” Also, it's a pity Martin Freeman isn't in this one.
  • So looking forward to Captain Marvel, although I didn't twig that was her emblem on Fury's gizmo in the post-credits scene.
  • Notable by their absence: Hawkeye, Ant-Man and Valkyrie. While the former two have their absences explained in dialogue (and will be back for part two), Valkyrie is unaccounted for. We might presume she's dead following Thanos's attack on the Asgardian refugee ship, but given that we never see her body I'm not going to assume anything.
  • Clearly, anyone who gets poofed at the end will be brought back, not least because they're mostly characters with a guaranteed sequel coming up. It's still a decent cliffhanger, though.
  • Doctor Strange's decision to hand over the Time Stone in return for Tony's life is massively out of character, of course, and therefore clearly part of a grand plan. After all, he has seen the one timeline in which the good guys can win.
  • So, my prediction: Ant-Man enters the quantum realm to reconstruct the Infinity Stones. Captain Marvel wields them and brings back the half of the universe who died. Rogers and Stark battle Thanos to the end, putting aside their differences to defeat him and are mortally wounded in the process. Either Bucky or Sam becomes the new Captain America. Rhody is the new Iron Man, but only ever gets cameos.
  • Gamora will be fine. I'm assuming the little girl version of the character seen in Thanos's vision is actually Gamora's soul, residing within the Soul Stone. If nothing else, it's hard to imagine Guardians Vol. 3 without her.
  • It's probably safe to say that both Heimdall and Loki are actually dead; however, Loki won't necessarily stay that way. They might even introduce his resurrected form Kid Loki into the MCU (Young Avengers would make for a great TV series) but that loses their greatest asset, Tom Hiddleston.
  • Best line: “Die, blanket of death!”

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