Mar 4, 2020
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of 10 years and 18 movies’ worth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and stars… far too many people to list. Almost every important character from the MCU pops up in this film to face the might of Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his minions/children in the Mad Titan’s quest to restore cosmic balance by murdering half the universe. And it is… good. Very good, even. But sadly, it’s not exactly “great’.
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It has all the usual strengths you’d expect from a Marvel movie: solid performances, compelling characters, amazing special effects, and impressive actions scenes, as well as the bonus of Thanos actually being a strong villain in a franchise known for its lackluster foes. Both in terms of menace and the threat he poses, as well as the depth of characterization and the mesmerizing performance Brolin brings to the table, Thanos is an enemy who’s sympathetic yet scary, and a welcome addition.
Unfortunately, Infinity War is also a film that has its share of flaws, and while the film is exhilarating and emotional at its very best, it’s also a bit lacking at times, detracting from the overall experience and taking you out of the movie almost as often as it draws you in. It’s far from the worst movie Marvel has to offer, and given its ambitious scope, a certain level of leeway should be given to it; all the same, mistakes were made and the film fails to reach the heights it could and should have been aiming for.
The first flaw is more of a meta-problem: the movie carries on the tradition of taking something teased or left over from previous Marvel movies and squandering or undoing it. The opening scene, for example, is the aftermath of Thanos and his underlings attacking the Asgardian refugee ship from the end of Thor: Ragnarok and slaughtering everyone onboard, sans Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s saved by Heimdall, who’s then murdered by Thanos in retaliation (yes, the black dude died first, but at least Idris Elba is happy he doesn’t have to be in these films anymore), along with a repentant Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
And while this scene is something that was expected from as early as the post-credits scene of Ragnarok itself, it’s still something that will rub a lot of people the wrong way. You can’t really watch that movie again without it hitting you that almost everybody they save in that film will be dead at the start of this one. (Also, Valkyrie and Korg are nowhere to be seen for some reason; did they die off-screen?) Granted, we’re led to believe there were some survivors, but Thanos’ massacre is a pretty heavy blow to the already endangered Asgardian race.
Civil War gets a similar treatment, though it really shouldn’t be all that surprising. The rift between Team Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Team Captain America (Chris Evans) is given a few passing mentions, but it doesn’t really factor into the story all that much, other than making sure that these characters are in different places at different times to better serve the plot. Tony Stark might have been willing to kill Steve Rogers at the end of that film, but he still kept his phone number in case of emergencies, so the resolution of Civil War seems a bit pointless now. Though, it is established that Ant-Man and Hawkeye are both under house arrest so they can be with their families, and they’ll be two of the few who won’t be showing up in this one. For that matter, Captain America himself and nearly every member of his team get short-changed here. Yes, they show up, but they aren’t really given all that much to do, so things seem a bit mismanaged here.
Other characters fare better: The Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) have a nice burgeoning romantic arc, and are two of the more important characters in the story, with the former being the keeper of the Mind Stone that Thanos is after and thus a target to be protected (though, Vision is given more to “say” than “do” in this film, as he’s wounded early on). Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Tony Stark have a nice dynamic going on as they bicker about strategy and try to keep Strange’s Time Stone from falling into enemy hands.
Thor mourns the fact that over the last few years he’s systematically lost his mother, father, and brother (more than once), and now most of his people, and he might have nothing left but revenge. He’s comforted by Guardians of the Galaxy members Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot, whose companions Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are out to kill the genocidal madman before it’s too late. This is a film that lives and dies on the performances of and chemistry between its actors, and fortunately everybody involved gives their best, even if some have a lot less to do than others.
Yet, at the same time, there’s an unfortunate amount of meandering in this film. While this is used well enough at times to give us, for instance, some nice interaction between Thanos and Gamora, or Tony and Peter Parker, there are a lot of lulls in the story where characters simply talk a lot about the importance of stopping Thanos, or the damage that Thanos has done or whatever, rather than actually showing us all that much. Which is not helped by the fact that his own minions, the Children of Thanos, are mostly just boring CGI creatures with little development of their own, nor by the fact that too many sets in this film feel very empty.
For what’s supposedly the biggest cast in a Marvel film ever, there’s a noticeable absence of extras in way too many scenes: the streets of New York City are quickly abandoned before the heroes fight the alien invaders; the fight in Edinburgh takes place at night, so nobody is around to begin with; and the alien worlds we visit are either long dead wastelands like Titan, or recently devastated husks like Knowhere from the first Guardians movie. And that last one is particularly noticeable, as in its first appearance it was a bustling metropolis floating in space, but now Thanos has either killed or chased off everyone before the heroes even arrive.
It’s either a very PG, family-friendly way of dealing with an impending apocalypse, or Marvel spent so much money hiring these big-name actors that they had little to spend on anyone else. Either way, it’s distracting and disappointing that so much of this film looks devoid of life, particularly given that the whole point of Thanos is that he’s threatening to wipe out half of it; this only lowers the stakes and adds to the sense that this is a film playing it just a bit too safe. The scope and scale are there in some parts, such as in the effects, the cast, and the running time, but lacking in others, and it could have added so much more to the story to see a universe teeming with life rather than seemingly devoid of it.
Also, the fact that we don’t get to see Thanos assaulting Xanadar to get the Power Stone (something that Thor knows about, but the Guardians don’t, for some reason) is another missed opportunity, and would have driven the threat home a bit more. I would have much rather seen a large scale-battle between Thanos and the forces of Xanadar than what happened on Knowhere with the not-quite Collector (Benicio del Toro).
Yes, I get that the budget was probably stretched thin by that point, and the film was already pretty long too, but it feels like so many unnecessary things happened prior to this, and so many more important scenes are missing: the Avengers taking a hurt Vision to HQ wasn’t needed, except to give Don Cheadle’s War Machine and William Hurt’s General Ross a chance to banter; they could have gone straight to Wakanda and saved us some time. Similarly, Thor going through all that trouble to acquire a new weapon to replace Mjolnir just feels like they needed to give him something to do while everyone else was dealing with Thanos more directly. Bruce Banner’s inability to become the Hulk was interesting at first, but he turned into a running joke by the end. And Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) felt like she was just there as well; her relationship with Bruce is basically given just a quick acknowledgement and could have used some more screen time, too.
Indeed, the film veered just a little too much into Ragnarok/Guardians 2 “drama-killing humor” territory, undermining the tension one too many times. A film as ambitious as this might be intimidating to even the most seasoned directors, but unfortunately it often feels like the Russo brothers could have managed it better and used the running time more efficiently. I was never bored, and the film went by pretty fast, but it doesn’t change the fact that my immediate thoughts about the film were that it could’ve been better.
And before I wrap up, I want to talk about Thanos. As I said, Josh Brolin is excellent in the role, and this film is best watched as a Thanos movie rather than an Avengers movie; he really is the main character, and he’s terrific whenever he appears. Even so, I can’t help but feel that someone read the original comic where his motivations for intergalactic genocide amounted to “I want to impress a girl” and thought, “okay, thats just too silly” and cooked up some half-baked backstory that, on paper, seemed like it made more sense… but unfortunately, like many other Marvel comic villains, just raises more questions the more you think about it.
Thanos, a bit like General Zod in Man of Steel, feels like his home world of Titan died because his ruthless strategies to save it (“kill half the population so we don’t all starve to death”) were never implemented, and consequently has developed a monomaniacal obsession with “balancing” the universe by killing half of its population because he thinks there just aren’t enough resources to go around. On the one hand, this is tragic and sympathetic as he’s shown to really, truly believe he’s doing the right thing, even if he goes to unacceptable extremes… but on the other, it does require you to forget just how frigging huge the universe actually is, and how unlikely it is that this situation would arise even in a comic book movie. It sits as odds with Thanos living on a dead world, hanging around with monsters, torturing his own daughters, and generally being an utter dick, and ultimately might make less sense than the more straightforward tale of a psycho who only wants to sleep with Death. I appreciate the effort put forth to make Thanos a more nuanced, well-rounded bad guy, and thanks to Josh Brolin it largely succeeds… but all the same, you do need to ignore the details for it to work properly.
Despite all of my complaints, I won’t deny that I did enjoy this film. I laughed, I cried, I felt exhilaration, and I’m looking forward to the next one. It’s a flawed film and I’m not sure how well it will hold up to repeat viewings, but the good does mostly outweigh the bad in the final analysis. It’s just a pity that with all this time, all this hype, and all this preparation, they undercut their own movie with some rather elementary flaws.