Movie review: “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018)

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“All that for a single drop of blood…”

None of the a**holes showed up at my class reunion. Foiled yet again. Thus, my idle, childish daydreams of summarily nuking the place and spiriting off for reflective meditation to some scenic hillside with a four-pack of CBC Creeper Triple IPA and a phone full of Miles Davis, Rivers of Nihil, and Frightened Rabbit became, instantly, far more problematic. Thanos, dread purple bogeyman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), suffers no such compunctions about ending life on an impossibly large or even planetary scale – it is both his modus operandi and, to hear him tell, destiny – and must therefore be stopped at every cost imaginable. Though it doesn’t come right out and state the obvious, Avengers: Infinity War is but the first of two chapters detailing that herculean struggle, and that’s a damned good thing for the hopeful. Here is a film that dazzles with its craft, intoxicates with its wit, practically dances with eye-popping spectacle, and, in so doing, leads its heavily conditioned audience down a primrose path its masters have spent the past ten years and eighteen movies devising with, let’s face it, sinister intent. Those viewers might as well be lambs to the slaughter. Infinity War functions as an above average MCU blow-em-up – repartee, explosive deconstruction of otherworldly settings, rinse, repeat, with the perfect proportional heart allowance – right up until the moment it suddenly doesn’t, and reality crashes down like the meteor that lands on Tony Stark in one of the film’s two climactic battle sequences (he lives).

Infinity War posterWhich is about all I’ll say about that. Indeed, there is so much to potentially spoil in this movie that the mind reels at how you’d even engage in such an undertaking, short of just publishing a detailed player scorecard and throwing up your hands in exhaustion. Better to focus on the positives instead, which are myriad. Some twelve hours now removed from marinating in the stunned silence of my sold out preview audience, I think I’d even include the cascade of concluding revelations among them, although if, as MCU generalissimo Kevin Feige has suggested, the Infinity War cycle marks the official end of one generation of cherished Marvel heroes and the ascendance of its successor, well, I have questions.* Infinity War is, first and foremost, a smashing time at the movies, an overheating charisma engine primed for imminent detonation that nevertheless keeps revving and running and rising. Save Ant-Man and Hawkeye, the gang’s all here, albeit scattered across our globe and several others in desperate response to a series of cataclysmic attacks by the suspiciously orc-like and otherwise otherworldly “Children of Thanos”, cosmic leg-breakers who have arrived en masse to retrieve with extreme prejudice the “infinity stones”, a set of six mystical pieces of costume jewelry that conveniently also regulate the vital forces of the universe (soul, mind, time, reality, power, and space) and that, when used in concert – say, if embedded in a cool ass commemorative Hot Topic gauntlet – could snuff out the lives of billions (with a “B”) in an instant.

*Never fear, intrepid nerds. Before my preview screening had even begun, let alone ended, the internet was already ablaze with informed speculation on how the Avengers might regroup and where the MCU would go from here. I spared myself reading any of it until after I knew the final box score, and I strongly suggest you do the same, if not avoid it altogether, and allow yourself to be surprised in a way that may be tempered for me now.

The Avengers as a movie concept works not just because it’s inherently cool to see superheroes team up, but because of how we envision these particular heroes teaming up. This is no happy accident or acted-upon whim. Last summer’s decent but rushed Justice League, but for the most glaring example, didn’t skimp in terms of applied micromanagement but still couldn’t quite nail either the chemistry or logistics of its own monumental summit meeting, and lukewarm box office apparently sent Warner Bros. and DC Comics limping back to the nearest drawing board. Universal’s ill-conceived “Dark Universe” of intermingled classic horror characters (“with Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll!”) was smothered in the crib by the dramatic misfire of its maiden excursion, the alternately chuckle and yawn-worthy traditional Tom Cruise action vehicle The Mummy. Infinity War flourishes where others have faltered. The cast inarguably represents one of the greatest displays of assembled star power** in cinema history, but it’s still worth appreciating how much consideration goes into setting these fantastic scenes and charting these converging trajectories in the first place, into developing characters about whom audiences not only actually give a damn but can envision, and anticipate, working together someday in appropriately dire and outlandish circumstances. Fans have had a decade’s worth of steady priming for Infinity War, and, on purely interpersonal terms, it doesn’t disappoint. What especially impressed me while watching was the full-flowering realization that most everything the MCU had produced thus far has been subtly but appreciably speeding us toward this moment.

**If Robert Downey, Jr. is the (Iron) master of ceremonies, then Chris Pratt from “Guardians” is his heir apparent. Cocky, irreverent, and just macho enough for it to pose an issue, the two are perfect foils. They stop sniping at each other just long enough to scoot out of harm’s way.

Also making a great impression among the (not a typo) twenty-nine pre-credits notables are Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as star-crossed (and narratively consequential in extremis) lovers Scarlet Witch and Vision; Tom Holland, who has, in his delightful performance as an overly enthusiastic, authentically teenaged Spider-man, already effectively erased Sony’s early teens reboots from the public consciousness and may now be bending toward the seminal Sam Raimi/Toby McGuire trilogy; far and away the best work yet from “Guardians of the Galaxy” trio Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, and Zoe Saldana, whose breakthrough here is bittersweet; and, finally, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who displays infinitely more natural wit, brio, and gravitas here than he did in “Thor: Ragnarok”, a movie that, while breezy and cute (until the twelve-story fire demon arrived to raze everything), I remain stubbornly alone in thinking wasn’t just the greatest thing ever.

Ten years of increasingly loud and lucrative cohabitation have made it tricky in interviews to discern where exactly Tony Stark ends and actor Robert Downey, Jr. begins. Downey’s casting in the original Iron Man was integral to that movie’s success and has remained a linchpin of the MCU as a whole as the enterprise soon grew beyond its creators’ wildest dreams. Stark is again center stage in Infinity War, as his lazy New York Sunday is rudely and comprehensively interrupted by an incursion of Thanos’ colorful minions*** in search of the Time Stone. One-by-one, both on and off Earth, official and adjunct Avengers peel off from their workaday routines (Doctor Strange running his museum, Spider-man on a class field trip, Star Lord and his merry misfits busy, ahem, guarding the galaxy) to answer the defender’s call. Infinity War largely sidesteps the pitfalls of its almost equally overstuffed predecessor, Age of Ultron, and harkens back in spirit to the paradigm-shifting first Avengers movie, by providing fun and stakes of both ample size and digestible proportion, and focusing (again) on a simple truth: superheroes may theoretically run in similar circles, but they still fundamentally do not play well with others. This acerbic assemblage of flip scoundrels, sarcastic scientists, sober super-soldiers, and down to Earth demigods bounces off one another with the dexterity and screwball comic timing of 1940s Cary Grant dueling his doppelganger (Gary Crant?), whether or not they realize at any given moment they’re making a joke. As the chaos swirls around them, their rhetorical tools tend to sharpen, not dull.

***One, an amusingly officious interstellar concierge with an array of telekinetic powers so stunning and effective they ought to be illegal, steals more scenes than any ten others in the all-star ensemble (save, maybe, the six-person Guardians of the Galaxy troop) combined.

How much you truly enjoy Avengers: Infinity War in the hours before its ending forces your hand/investment might have much to do with your interest in and tolerance of the character Thanos (Josh Brolin in full “imperious philosopher” mode), who, as the A-list villain the MCU has ostensibly awaited since day one, and the only headliner without a titular movie or prior series to prop up his personal development, rides roughshod over this one like a tortured prophet turned party crasher turned angel of death. It’s a little jarring and even disappointing to see the screen time of heavyweights like Black Panther, Black Widow, and (my personal favorite) Captain America clearly subjugated**** in his favor, but that is in keeping with the purple-people-defeater’s (at one point, Stark hurls the throwaway epithet “Grimace” at him to raucous in-theater applause) colossally overbearing, self-important nature. Thanos, of course, has been lurking around the edges of the MCU for years now, masterminding the original Chitauri invasion of NYC from afar, steadfastly alienating his headstrong “adopted” daughters, and surveying the galaxy’s coming wreckage from a throne without a throne room, apparently awaiting the proper moment to launch a full-scale assault. As of the haunting opening moments of Infinity War, in which an Asgardian distress signal pierces the void of space in an already doomed attempt to summon help, the hour is officially nigh. I will say the idea of Thanos thoughtfully applying battlefield tactics of any sort to his lurching machinations is, frankly, hilarious, since his predominant military strategy is to overwhelm population centers by sheer, unrelenting force and subjugate the fallen to his will – which is to say indiscriminate genocide. A real charmer, that.

****Even with (almost) every previously acknowledged Avenger assembled – Ant-Man sits the war out and lives to pilot his own standalone sequel later this summer – this movie belongs to what I’ll call the “Space Eaters” – a winning all-star squad in its own right nestled within the larger dream team – namely Iron Man, Thor, Spider-man, and, especially, the Guardians, who bicker, banter, and bash so well here that you may forget the undercooked “Vol. 2” ever happened.

Leaving aside some isolated weaker aspects – the seeming rubber ball randomness of the movie’s expository first half hour; its insistent, repeated attempts at deepening what remains, despite those efforts, a fairly (and properly) remorseless interplanetary mass-murdering bastard; the comparative inequity of its two giant battlefield setpieces, which reflect ever so slightly, in both setting and execution, what I can only identify as Black Panther-fatigue – Infinity War is an action supernova, the magnificent culmination of ten years of toil and trouble expertly compressed into 150 breathless/relentless minutes. Its success flies in the face of recent franchises for whom a two-part blockbuster finale was clearly more a financial than artistic consideration, and does such a superior job than its game but creaky predecessor, despite boasting an even more stacked deck of requirements and considerations, that I’m giving serious thought to altering my Age of Ultron grade retroactively. In the end, I remain satisfied, convinced that Ultron did the best it could with limitless ambition but finite resources, whilst Infinity War, bearing both similar sets of shackles and outsized expectations, not to mention probably learning from past mistakes, benefits mightily from being the first episode of two. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (of training wheels MCU masterpiece Captain America: Civil War) know what they are doing, every step of the way. It is a joy to see all these antisocial dynamos (again) learning to work together under the most extreme duress possible. There is even room enough to reasonably attempt to transform Thanos from a boilerplate comic book villain into a soulful madman. It is awesome to watch Doctor Strange bend time like a spaghetti noodle, or Thor muscle open the molten metal sluice gates of a mystic cosmic forge, or the spacebound Avengers engage in a final desperate all-out struggle to separate the impossibly powerful Thanos from his apocalyptic Gauntlet…

This is just about what we were waiting for, amazingly enough.

It’s awesome to know that the story isn’t over yet.

“Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) 3.5/4 stars                                                                           dae3.5

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