Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Another three years and another Avengers film, but not just any stop-gap team-up film. This is the one that we’ve been building to the whole time! Avengers: Infinity War! All your patience with endlessly-deferred endings and the various hints about some kind of “Infinity Stones” gets its pay-off here. I promise! It’s a Marvel spectacular! All the heroes are here, even the Guardians of the Galaxy; Doctor Strange plays a key role and we get to see Iron Man and Spider-Man team up again (Iron-Spider, anyone?)! Really, truly believe me when I say that this is pretty much the closest thing we’ve seen yet to one of those major comic book crossover books like 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet (the six-issue mini-series this one is based on), or DC’s 1986 reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths. And be assured, like those series, “Nothing will ever be the same!” “Heroes will die!” “Worlds will shatter!”

Except of course, that after 19 films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is far too profitable to take too many risks. Marvel’s parent company, Disney, has already announced the part-two to this film (originally Infinity War: Part Two, but now apparently getting another name) and sequels to other entries in the series that make some of the bolder and potentially emotional moments in this film almost certain to be reversed. In 2015, I wrote of Avengers: Age of Ultron that it was “not just the culmination of a set of films, but the blockbuster of blockbusters.” I think that title is now transferred to Infinity War, since it not only seems to be outdoing it in conception but financially, becoming the first superhero film to gross over a billion overseas alone.

In many ways, Avengers: Infinity War challenges the evaluative framework for what we usually consider cinema, lacking neatly delineated arcs and structure. Following up on the various teasers and hints dropped in the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe Films, Infinity War finally puts into play the quest to gather the six Infinity Stones together. Whoever wields all six Infinity Stones, many of which have been the object of interest in previous Marvel installments (including the Tesseract or Space Stone, and the Mind Stone, which was housed in Loki’s sceptre and used to create Vision in Age of Ultron), will be granted absolute power in the universe. Thus, Infinity War, by design, places the villain Thanos (played via CG motion capture by Josh Brolin) at the centre of its narrative, and the film is driven by his desire to use the power of the Infinity Stones to exterminate half of the life in the universe (his rationale invokes some kind of vague Malthusian concept of universal balance). Thanos serves as the film’s connective thread, and around him whirl the various heroes and villains, each drawn into the story in various ways.

This maelstrom of superheroes is what gives the film its greatest pleasures. Placing characters together whom we have enjoyed separately in previous films often serves for entertaining and effective moments. For instance, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself thrown in with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the film’s best gags involve how Peter Quill a.k.a. Star Lord (Chris Pratt) finds his masculinity threatened by the jovial and action-oriented Asgardian, something his teammates are quick to point out. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) leads one half of the Guardians to face Thanos (reminder: he’s her adoptive father), while Rocket and Groot help Thor get a new hammer with the help of the giant space dwarf, Eitri (Peter Dinklage). In many ways, in both its tone and setting, Infinity War bears more resemblance to the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Thor: Ragnarok than to either of the previous Avengers films (or Avengers-lite films, like Civil War), which is not entirely a bad thing.

Meanwhile, The Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) finds himself back on Earth for the first time since the previous Avengers film, and quickly meets up with Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to warn them of Thanos’ imminent arrival on Earth. Spider-Man a.k.a. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) soon joins Tony and Strange in battle against Thanos’ minions. Peter's status as an “official” Avenger is quickly resolved.

It may seem that the biggest weakness of Infinity War is that its overarching plot lacks structure, so to speak, with so many, many characters and story threads. Yet, consider that strictly speaking it isn’t exactly a sequel to the previous films either, apart from making manifest the dropped hints to the Infinity Gems. More frustrating is that few characters get any real chance to develop. The film ends with the culmination of Thanos’s quest, and while some may compare it to a cliffhanger like The Empire Strikes Back, Infinity War is far less complete and coherent as a stand-alone story than that film. It is more like The Matrix Reloaded or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest: only the first half of a story, structurally and production-wise (as I understand it, the unnamed part two was filmed concurrently).

Infinity War boasts a dizzying number of characters, unified only in their purpose to stop Thanos and only fleshed out by the establishment of their personalities and individual issues in previous films. It is is the limit of a film of this kind that it relies so heavily on what has come before to make even the remotest sense, but because of the series’ success with the previous flms, the filmmakers are able to make it semi-coherent; it is a modest achievement that the film is as coherent as it is, a testament to Marvel’s world-building as much as this individual film’s sense of pacing, which is simultaneously break-neck and spinning its tires to bring everything to a climax at the same moment.

Other beloved characters see far too little screen time, particularly Captain America and his followers who are still on the run post-Civil War. Also, while fans who enjoyed Black Panther may be pleased to see T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Wakanda again, the decisions made by the characters in this film seems to make the hard won moments at the end of that film seem misguided. In the end, while it is nice to centre the action on a non-American locale, and the rationale was clearly to showcase Wakanda for the fans, having the African nation serve as the target for the all-out assault of Thanos on Earth subjects the viewer to more images of violence on exotic lands and racialized bodies than is probably necessary.

Formally, Infinity War challenges the conception of these films as containing any unifying auteur vision. The Russos still rely too heavily on television-grade shot-reverse-shot compositions and close-ups on character faces. The film’s most visually interesting moments are ones that seem to be composed entirely in a computer, at times taking advantage of the big screen by composing in extreme long shot to display the alien worlds and grand action sequences. One will need a fairly large TV at home to really enjoy watching this without squinting at times. At other moments, combat devolves into a flurry of incoherent fight shots. Furthermore, the Russo’s decision to keep the camera moving at almost all times means that the film’s use of stereoscopic 3D can be more of a headache than what it accomplishes in giving the film depth. It’s use seems more de rigueur than intentional.

In the end, did I enjoy this film? I guess so. I didn’t hate it, though my earlier tweet where I predicted that I would fall into a coma in the film’s final 30 min battle sequences came awfully close to coming true. The film manages to bring together a lot of threads that had been woven through the Marvel Cinematic Universe and for that it has a kind of satisfaction. But it’s the satisfaction of a collector, a reward for sitting through the previous 18 films rather than the satisfaction of a narrative that entertains or generates thought and emotion. Perhaps that’s fitting, and for that reason perhaps this is one of the most “comic booky” comic book films to date. Consider that praise or damnation as you please.

For a summer blockbuster, it’s a fine piece of entertainment. But the much ballyhooed “deaths” at the end of this film (I won’t go so far as to spoil them for you, but I read about them before watching and suffice to say it took nothing away from my enjoyment of the film) have almost no emotional weight; stories of audiences weeping over the deaths of their favourite heroes strike me as absurd knowing what is likely in store for next summer’s part two. In a key sequence of the film, Doctor Strange uses his Time Stone to scan the 14,000,605 possible future outcomes of the battle against Thanos. When asked by Iron Man in how many scenarios they win, Strange replies, “One.” How much you want to bet that the events of these films are taking place in that timeline? I like the odds.

6 out of 10

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, USA)

Directed by the Anthony and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch,, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket Racoon, Vin Diesel as Groot.