Ten years ago, Marvel Studios launched its “cinematic universe,” using crossovers and tie-ins to connect every property under its umbrella. The strategy has shaken the entire entertainment industry. Any extended universe of characters – from rival DC’s effort at playing catch-up, to Universal Studios’ so far disastrous “Dark Universe” – is a naked attempt at copying Marvel’s lucrative success. To celebrate their decade of dominance, Marvel changed the “i” and “o” in the word “studios” to the number 10 in the Marvel logo at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th feature film release in the MCU.
It’s become harder and harder to think about each of these movies on its own merits, because Marvel’s apparent plan is to work its audiences into a constant frenzy of anticipation for what’s coming next. In my review for the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, I wrote about the biggest problem with the Avengers franchise – the lack of real stakes. I did so with what now reads like a nascent understanding of the bigger problem contained in what I’ll from now on refer to as Marvel’s “frenzy of anticipation” strategy. From my Age of Ultron review:
“What Age of Ultron really struggles with is creating any sense of dramatic stakes. In a way, this problem is baked right into the franchise itself… Can anyone who watches this movie honestly believe that any of the heroes with their own franchises (or performers with long-term contracts) might not make it to the end? These are the Avengers. What are they going to do, kill off Iron Man? Thor?... As a consequence, the proceedings become about how many things can explode in two and a half hours.”
Well, it seems the artists (and business interests) behind Infinity War, which includes screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and the sibling directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo, have made an attempt to give this installment real stakes. I always try my best not to reveal spoilers in my writing, so I’ll try to be as vague as possible, but what Infinity War pulls off in terms of these stakes happens near the end of the film, so consider yourself warned.
Characters, including beloved ones, die in Infinity War. The movie includes a dramatic arc that (seemingly) will change the course of the MCU forever. Based on this picture, and this picture alone, the end of Infinity War is the most emotionally satisfying in almost all of the MCU. Then, we get a signature MCU element – the post-credits sequence. With it comes the inevitable frenzy of anticipation. Because Marvel wants us to be in a constant state of gearing up for the next movie, I couldn’t sit with the effective climax I had just witnessed. My mind was already turning over how the studio would use what was in that three-minute post-credits sequence to hit the reset button so that franchises could be continued and actor contracts could be fulfilled.
I want to give credit where credit is due, though, so I’ll now consider Avengers: Infinity War on its own merits. The movie itself is an excellent blend of summer blockbuster spectacle and surprisingly effective pathos. The focus of this installment of the Avengers (the third in a planned four-part series) is the effort to stop ultra-villain Thanos from acquiring the six Infinity Stones. We are told in the opening minutes of the movie that these elemental stones were created at the dawn of the universe, and each holds a different power that can be wielded by whoever possesses it.
Thanos holds the twisted belief that because we live in a universe of finite resources, a culling of all living creatures is necessary from time to time to ensure as little suffering as possible. When describing his actions of killing off half the population of an alien planet, he says he did so because there were “many mouths, and not enough to go around.” It’s the Ayn Rand philosophy of life by way of a Dickens character. As Ebenezer Scrooge famously said when told many of the poor would rather die than go to the dreadful workhouses of the time: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Instead of just wishing for them to die, Thanos has appointed himself as the universe’s executioner. As you can imagine, wiping out half of all living creatures, planet by planet, is a very time-consuming process. If he gets all the Infinity Stones, Thanos can achieve his goal with the snap of his fingers. It will take the heroes from every corner of the MCU working together to have a chance to stop him.
The Russo brothers proved they are adept at crafting compelling action sequences with their first two entries in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. Their work in Infinity War is on par with those two movies. The brothers use a handheld camera aesthetic during many of the action scenes to generate a “you are there” quality. One of the most effective sequences comes early when a giant spaceship carrying Thanos’ henchmen materializes in New York City. The city feels a shock wave, and Tony Stark/Ironman rushes outside to assess the situation while the camera feverishly follows behind him. The Russo brothers excel at creating these goose bump-inducing moments.
Their writing partners, Markus and McFeely, – who wrote both Winter Soldier and Civil War – likewise are unique voices in the MCU. The team came up with one of the weirdest plotlines in all of Marvel movies in Winter Soldier. Their work here isn’t quite as quirky, but they were an excellent choice for the universe-changing events contained in Infinity War.
Markus and McFeely do a good job of balancing dramatic speeches and including plenty of laughs, while also winking at the audience to let us know how ridiculously grandiose the proceedings are in this installment. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange gets a choice line of dialog when he ironically intones that “it’s not overselling it to say the fate of the universe is in the balance.” A highlight of the levity also comes when the Guardians of the Galaxy crew meet Thor for the first time, and they can’t help but notice how perfectly sculpted the God of Thunder is. “It’s like a pirate and an angel had a baby,” one of them says with a great amount of reverence.
This might seem strange, but I also enjoyed Infinity War because I’m an atheist. Comic book heroes like Captain America and Iron Man are our modern day, secular equivalent to the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. As a self-styled God of Death, Thanos is essentially attempting a comic book movie rapture with his plan to extinguish half of all living creatures, not in the twinkling of an eye, but with the snap of his fingers. Unlike Christians – who believe a paradise awaits anyone taken up in the rapture – Spiderman, Black Panther, and the rest of the superheroes don’t have the same hope for Thanos’ plan. They know that death means death, and nothing more. That’s why they fight so hard to defeat him. It makes a single line, which one of our heroes speaks with real fear – “I don’t want to go.” – especially poignant.
At two hours and 29 minutes (the longest Marvel movie yet), Infinity War does rely a little too heavily on one of the most exhausting things about comic book movies – the epic battle set-pieces. The Russo brothers do their best to keep things moving, but they aren’t entirely successful. Infinity War sometimes feels more like Lord of the Rings than a Marvel movie. An epic sequence that takes place on the plains of Wakanda could easily be mistaken for the Battle of Helm’s Deep if you’re sleepy and you squint just right.
My favorite moments from LotR were always the extended dialog scenes where characters hash out the fate of the world in weighty tones. The best one of these, between Gandalf and Saruman in The Two Towers, stuck with me far longer than any of the battles. There are plenty of these types of moments in Infinity War. One particularly effective sequence involves Thanos being forced to make a heartbreaking decision if he wants to complete his plan. It leads to an irrevocable act that changes the MCU forever. That’s what makes this movie have real emotional impact. The impact will last, at least, until we all hear the sound of that reset button being pressed, which is probably coming to a theater near you next summer.
Why it got 4 stars:
- In case you can't tell from the review, I am of two minds about this movie. If it existed in a vacuum, it would be great. It's exciting, basically well-paced, and has emotional impact. Knowing what I know about Marvel's future plans, though, Infinity War is a bit of a cheat (especially that emotional impact at the end).
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Infinity War provides more proof that CGI should always be used judiciously, and it's not appropriate in all situations. The design and execution of the character Thanos is spectacular. Josh Brolin voices the character, and you can see so much of Brolin in Thanos' face. The emotive qualities (especially when the character cries) of this technology just gets better and better. Contrast that with the digital beasts that attack in the Battle of Wakanda. These things look soulless. They resemble something you might have seen in the first Resident Evil movie.
- I do get genuine enjoyment out of these movies, but I've had it with the origin stories. The fact that we had to get one for the Infinity Stones made me roll my eyes a little.
- As good as the screenplay is at balancing as many characters as it does, Black Panther, Black Widow, and a few others are given next to nothing to do. There are simply too many superheroes to service here.
- Great comedic moment: Iron Man to one of Thanos' henchmen who looks oddly familiar: "Get lost, Squidward."
- The Russo Brothers use some really unique, old-school dissolves to transition between scenes.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- It was a good crowd. Everyone seemed really into it.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- It's been a while since I took a break, so no review next week. Rach and I are heading to Dinosaur Valley State Park for a quick weekend getaway of camping, hiking, and checking out some real fossilized dinosaur tracks! I'll be back on May 18th, but as of right now, I have no idea what I'll be reviewing.