Avengers: Infinity WarReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/25/18 13:47:27
Although we are currently less than a third of the way through 2018 as I write these words, I doubt that anyone reading this would disagree with the notion that the release of “Black Panther” is going to go down as one of the key cultural events of not just the year but the entire decade. Unlike the vast majority of overstuffed superhero epics that have been dominating multiplexes as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past decade, it was a film that felt as if it was made because the people behind it had a real and engrossing story that they wanted—needed—to tell and not just because it was another bullet point in a grand business plan that had been hashed out in a corporate boardroom. Yes, it was another superhero film but it was one that didn’t look or feel like others—rather than simply trying to dazzle audiences with one elaborate set piece after another, it elected to do so with such increasingly rarefied elements as a smart and compelling narrative and characters of such surprising depth and complexity that they were just as interesting when they were standing around talking as they were when they were engaging in their heroics. (In fact, the only time it stumbled at all was during the big climactic battle sequence—the one moment on display that could have come from nearly any other film of its type.) Watching that film, you could feel the excitement that comes with being genuinely fresh and exciting practically vibrating off the screen whether you were a hardcore superhero fanatic or someone with no burning interest in watching oddly costumed people whomping the crap out of each other. The result was a real rarity—a box-office behemoth that was just as successful artistically as it was financially.If you need any further indication of just how good of a film “Black Panther” really was, all you have to do is take a look at “Avengers: Infinity War,” the first MCU release since it came out. For years, this project has been touted as the ultimate superhero epic and the direction where the entire franchise had been heading over the course of the previous 18 entries—a massive two-part extravaganza in which virtually all the iconic characters from those earlier efforts would be brought together at last in a story that would serve both as a grand summation and as a launchpad for another wave of blockbusters. And yet, what must have looked tantalizing on paper—or at least on some corporate ledger—proves to be intimately stultifying on the screen. Essentially the “Cannonball Run” of superhero sagas, this is a film that expends so much time and energy on simply getting its sprawling cast of characters together that once that momentary thrill has passed, there is hardly anything left in the tank for the task of giving them a story worthy of their collective presence. Instead, all that viewers are left with is a story that is both wildly overblown and sadly undernourished, an army of characters who too often feel like bystanders in their own stories and a load of been-there/done-that action sequences that conclude with a cliffhanger that may seem startling at first blush but which is ultimately as hollow and meaningless as everything preceding it.
In a startling change-of-pace from previous MCU films, “Infinity War” revolves around the threat of the imminent destruction of a good portion of the known universe at the hands of an all-powerful lunatic. This time around, the uber villain-du-jour is Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Dark Lord of the doomed planet of Titan. Believing the universe as a whole to be doomed due to a combination of too many people and two few resources, he has elected to embark on a mad plan to save it from itself through methods that some might consider to be a tad harsh—his idea is to instantly and arbitrarily kill off roughly half the people in the universe so that the remaining half can live in relative comfort. To accomplish this, he needs to acquire the six Infinity Stones—representing Time, Power, Space, Mind, Soul and Reality—that, when brought together in what looks like an update of the old Nintendo Power Glove from “The Wizard,” will give him ultimate power. Naturally, the stones are scattered hither and non with two of them being found on Earth—one in the possession of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the other installed in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany) and so Thanos and his goons, led by Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) go off in pursuit of them. (Although it probably goes without saying, I should probably point out “Infinity War” will probably not make for a good entry point to MCU newcomers.)
The first stop is the Asgardian starship where Thanos lays waste to most of the survivors of the last “Thor” movie while Bruce Banner hurtles to Earth after a two-year absence in order to warn the other Avengers of what is coming. In Manhattan, following the requisite amount of mid-town mayhem, Ebony manages to capture Dr. Strange and fly off with him with both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and young Spidey Peter Parker (Tom Holland) in hot pursuit. Across the pond in Scotland, Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are similarly attacked but rescued at the last second by Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Meanwhile, back in space, the Guardians of the Galaxy—Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), psychotic raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and sullen teen tree Groot (Vin Diesel)—are off answering a distress call from the Asgardian ship and come across Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who fills them in on the details about Thanos before going off with Rocket and Groot to get a new weapon to replace his fabled hammer while the others set off to protect the Reality stone from falling into Thanos’s meaty grip. Eventually, most of the survivors of these skirmishes end up in Wakanda where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the country’s now-united factions help to put up a defense to the final onslaught of Thanos’s hordes.
Although unsuspecting viewers might not know it from the available evidence, “Infinity War” is only the first half of a story that will only be resolved with the release of the second part just about a year from now. As a result, it is hard to review it properly since it is literally only half a movie that we have been given to see so far. However, judging solely by that first half alone, there is nothing about what is on display that makes me eager to see any more of it anytime soon. Having thoroughly enjoyed the ways in which recent films like “Black Panther” and last year’s “Thor: Ragnarok” have cheerfully messed with the well-established Marvel formula, it is more than a little dispiriting to see this one revert back to it in so many ways. The storyline dreamed up by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely may be massive enough in terms of its size put is surprisingly puny regarding its scope—rarely has more equalled less in the end than it does here. Unless one has not only seen all 18 MCU movies before but has done so about 7 minutes before sitting down for this one, most viewers are likely to be confused by any number of elements on display here. (I know I have seen them all and my memories of Vision’s previous appearances somehow managed to elude my mind—kind of a problem considering his importance here). Oh sure, the film tries to add some pathos to the proceedings in its attempts to make Thanos seem more tortured and conflicted than he might appear to be but it belabors this point for so long that it winds up feeling hackneyed and forced, especially in comparison to “Black Panther,” with dealt with a similar conflict involving the ostensible villain with a greater degree of dexterity and intelligence. Call me crazy but if half the known universe has to be destroyed at the hands of an interstellar madman, is it too much to ask that said madman be at least reasonably interesting? Other than that, the film basically bogs down into a series of fight scenes, all of which are staged with general indifference by co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo and punctuated by a few admittedly funny lines sprinkled around here and there that stand out against the usual array of threats, grunts and in-joke references.
Frankly, the on-screen battles pale in comparison to the intricately choreographed juggling act that must have been performed in order to get all of the actors in the massive cast to turn up. (There are a few notable exceptions, of course, but they may just be waiting on deck before popping up in next year’s sequel.) If only a similar effort had been made towards giving them all something to do, these efforts might not have seemed to be in so much vain. Even at over two and a half hours, there are so many characters on display here that few of them get a chance to really register. Having been appearing in these movies since 2008’s “Iron Man,” Downey is clearly just going through the motions this time around and while fellow veterans Evans and Ruffalo put a little more effort into their contributions, you can practically feel the words “contractual obligation” hanging over their heads. Even such charismatic performers as Johansson, Boseman, Idris Elba and Letitia Wright (returning as T’Challah’s genius sister Shuri) all but get lost in the shuffle here. The one who probably stands out the most is Hemsworth, who continues the goofier take on Thor that he employed in “Ragnarok” that continues to be appealing. Of the newcomers to the fold, the best performance is probably the one from Peter Dinklage, who turns up in a few scenes as Thor’s weapons builder and gives the proceedings a little bit of a jolt that briefly helps to relieve the otherwise suffocating tone.Although I know that I disliked “Avengers: Infinity War” long before it arrived at its long-overdue climax, this sequence is the part that I disliked the most. This is not because of the “shocking” content of what happens in the final scenes—no spoilers here but those who want to go in fresh should probably avoid the Internet until they have seen it for themselves—but because of the cynical manner in which it has been deployed. Having pretty much failed at providing any real tension or excitement through the storytelling, the film instead choose to go to tacky extremes in order to get some kind of unearned reaction from viewers. What makes this ring especially false is the fact that since this is only the first half of the film, there is no real reason to believe that most of what we see being done will no doubt be undone by the time that one concludes. Then again, based on the response of one especially dopey person at the press screening I attended—who chose to jump from his seat and begin screaming at the screen during the finale—maybe both this sequence and the film as a whole will inspire similar reactions from moviegoers. Hopefully when the conclusion arrives, it will prove to be a film that actually deserves such an intense reaction.
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