On the Marvel mirage, Madame Tussaud's Thanos, and what the Avengers could learn from heist movies
Avengers: Infinity War Walt Disney Studios
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Karen Gillan
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 29 minutes / 2.39:1
April 27, 2018
(out of four)
The biggest movie Marvel has ever made may just be its most revelatory. Not because of anything that happens in it, but because it's the first Marvel movie that suggests ... maybe they don't really know what they're doing, big picture-wise, as well as we assumed they did?
Kevin Feige and the Russo Brothers and everyone else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe braintrust, past and present, have spent the last decade setting up Avengers: Infinity War. Spent the last decade introducing characters, opening threads, connecting worlds, moving everything into place. Surely, we assumed, this was all being done with the bigger picture in mind; we knew we were being given pieces and that the whole would eventually come together.
And yet: Despite that decade of setups and machinations, despite the eighteen (18) movies it took to get us here, Infinity War still somehow feels the need to plant us into the middle of a dozen new, ill-explained subplots as its reacclimation strategy. Suddenly we're at the end of a storyline we've never seen before, then we cut into the middle of another one we've never seen before. Then we jump across the globe and meet up with a couple of up-until-just-now-minor characters who we're apparently supposed to believe are important, then we jump into the middle of another subplot that has nothing to do with anything, then cut away to find ourselves listening to a long-winded explanation of what this other set of characters has been up to since the last time we saw them (which was probably recently), and somehow an hour has passed and we've only just gotten finished with the character introductions ... for characters we're supposed to know good and damn well already.
The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spend all this effort getting us reacquainted with everyone, taking the time to let us know what they've all been up to, only so they can be whisked away from all that to fight Thanos ... I mean, isn't this kind of what the last ten years were for? Eighteen previous installments and it somehow still feels like Marvel skipped over five of them and had to make up for it with an hour-long "Previously on ..." What makes it doubly confounding is, this movie - despite what the lengthy runtime might suggest - presents an extremely simple, straightforward scenario. A bad guy is trying to collect six magical stones that will allow him to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The Avengers and Friends are trying to stop said bad guy from collecting those six magical stones. That's it. That's the plot. So why we even need any further narrative justification to get everyone back in the game to fight an intergalactic tyrant is a mystery to me. Every heist movie ever made has had no problem rounding up a dozen guys for a big job in a five-minute montage, yet it somehow takes this movie an hour.
A friend of mine remarked that you could've skipped every other Marvel movie up to this point and have just as much of an understanding of what's going on during Infinity War as those of us who've seen all 18. So whether watching those movies was a genuine narrative investment or the pop-culture equivalent of homework, it didn't pay off. In one sense, this is a strength, in that - leaving all its other demerits aside - it can function as a standalone film, or at least closer to one than we might have expected. In another, much more important sense, it's an enormous miscalculation. We're talking about a really crowded movie already. So crowded that even Ant-Man couldn't fit. Going to all the trouble of not just filling in blanks in the story but creating the blanks and then taking the time to fill them in, and all for the purpose of roping superheroes into a different, bigger story... I mean, it's not exactly what I'd call efficient. The Russos had a decade's worth of buildup to work with, and instead they created a bunch of new, dangling narrative appendages and used those as their collective jumping-off point.
So it's no real surprise that, even as it strains to explain everything we need to know, the film still buckles under the weight of the many worlds it's required to bring into its fold. One hilariously anachronistic moment stands out as particularly egregious: Needless to say, we eventually wind up in Wakanda. The Avengers - at least whichever ones aren't on separate missions elsewhere in the galaxy - fill in the Wakandan leadership on the situation at hand. Thanos has sent an army of mutant beasts to attack the country. Seeing the odds they're facing, M'Baku (Winston Duke) declares, "This could be the end of Wakanda." To this, Okoye (Danai Gurira) responds with something along the lines of, "This will be the noblest ending of all time!" Up until this point in the movie, these characters have been non-factors. And more importantly, keep in mind that in a movie that came out two months ago, their whole advanced civilization was a secret to the entire world. Now, upon seeing creatures attack their force field in the name of a foe they've only just been made aware of minutes earlier, the leaders of the Wakandan army are suddenly passionately willing to lay the entire country they've fought to preserve for centuries on the line because a few Avengers said so?
I don't mean to nitpick the logic and motivations of these characters, but this is a prime example of Infinity War's failure to integrate the last 18 movies' worth of information in any intuitive, intelligent or clever way. It just clumsily picks and chooses where to go and who or what to use, tries to plug a lot of square pegs into a lot of round holes, and calls it a day. The filmmakers' creative choices repeatedly come off as arbitrary. They put the relationship between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) front and center for the sole purpose of taking a fraudulent moral stand. Vision, who possesses one of the very Infinity Stones that Thanos is after, openly and repeatedly volunteers to destroy the stone, at the cost of his own life. But no, the heroic Avengers tell us. We can't have that. All those Wakandans and other allies getting slaughtered by Thanos' minions? Acceptable losses. Minor side character who's actually a computer and is volunteering to sacrifice himself to save the world? No no no, that's a bridge too far. It's phony moral reasoning worthy of Roland Emmerich.
At another point, a team of our heroes is on the verge of straight-up defeating Thanos - taking the stones (and the custom-designed Infinity Gauntlet that allows him to access their collective power) from him and, like, saving the lives of the 50 percent of humanity he intends to murder. But the film decides to have Quill (Chris Pratt) ruin everything by the impulsive, completely avoidable decision to punch Thanos in the face. In fact, Quill could still punch Thanos in the face and allow the Avengers to save the world if he just waits 10 seconds to do the punching. But no. The Russos have a cheap copout to pull off and nothing's going to stop them. The narrative architecture simply doesn't hold up on any level, so the filmmakers keep coming up with idiotic cheats and flimsy arguments to justify where they've already decided the story is going. I don't mind screenplay shortcuts; I do mind elaborate attempts to shamelessly patronize an audience.
Infinity War's strengths are emblematic of Marvel's strengths as a whole. The hangout portions with the characters themselves still work like a charm. And in this case the movie gets to play with various combinations we haven't seen in action much, if at all. This goes in particular for the Guardians of the Galaxy crossing paths with Thor and, in an equally petty clash of egos, Iron Man and Doctor Strange. Thor (behaving much more like his preferred Ragnarok incarnation than the more serious version from earlier movies) and the Guardians make for terrific comedy, up to and including the alpha pissing contest between Thor and Quill, who tries his damnedest to measure up to his new rival's smoldering, literally godlike masculinity. The scenes between those two accidentally exemplify - a sly meta commentary, perhaps - the divide between Pratt's goofy, natural Guardians persona and his other, much less successful Leading Man ventures. Squaring up against Thor, Quill deepens his tone and puffs out his chest and attempts to be play the part of the stoic strongman with the gravitas-laced voice. It's so obviously ill-fitting that one hopes Pratt watched the scene carefully and retroactively reconsidered his acting choices in Jurassic World and Passengers.
Not nearly as successful, however, is Thanos himself, the Big Bad this universe has been building up to for years. And what emerges is ... well, a giant CGI eyesore with a rambling nonsensical philosophy. He's got his eyes on those stones - the Space Stone, the Mind Stone, the Reality Stone, the Power Stone, the Time Stone and the Soul Stone. Or to put it in more relevant terms: the blue one, the yellow one, the red one, the purple one, the green one, and the orange one. Each stone controls ... well, I guess the names are self-explanatory, aren't they. Although the filmmakers aren't clever enough to really take advantage of the stones' very specific capabilities (with a couple of minor exceptions).
Then again, they're a six-piece MacGuffin bucket anyway, so I can't complain too much. What I will complain about is Thanos as a visual presence - or rather the fact that Thanos has such a lack of visual presence. To say it's poor judgment to make your apocalyptic final villain an animated creation rather than a flesh-and-blood presence - or at least some combination of the two - would be an understatement. He deserves to be laughed at. And to the Russos, I say: You call that purple? You call that a color at all, for that matter? Every time Thanos appears on screen it seems like we're looking at bad exposure or improper lighting. His skin is the kind of color that can't even commit to being a color; it's a non-color masquerading as a color. He looks like a white sock that got accidentally thrown into the wash with a dazzling little number from Prince's wardrobe, and so it came out with a murky, purple, accidental dye job. Only the "sock" in this case looks like a meathead bouncer from Jersey who spends six hours a day at the gym and totally knows a guy who can help you pass a piss test. It is remarkably shitty character design compounded by the inherent limitations of the special effects that bring it to rubbery, weightless life.
The film surrounding Thanos doesn't do him many favors, either. There are no requirements for a movie like this, nor should any of us be bringing specific expectations to it. But Marvel has been selling a particular brand of serialization for a long time now. Shared universes, overlapping stories, mass crossover. Only now, we can see where it's led us, and somehow it's a culmination of nothing. Nothing we have seen has led us to this point, or facilitated our understanding of it. The problems with this method of long-form storytelling have always been apparent - for one, the difficulty in juggling individual stories with the abstract bigger picture we were assured was in place. At times the results have been lean and efficient, at others a sloppy, congested mess. But there was always the caveat. The promise. The argument from Marvel was always: We have a bigger story to tell. Well, here it is, and no they don't.