SPOILERS AHEAD, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
At the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, it looks like all hope it lost. Thanos, the villain (Josh Brolin) has acquired the titular Infinity Stones, and is enacting his plan to save the universe by ruthlessly eliminating half of it’s population to conserve resources. Bucky Barnes reaches out for his best friend, Steve Rogers, speaking his name before he is wiped from existence; T’Challa goes to lift his wounded general Okoye from the battlefield before her hand slips from his as he is snuffed out. The teenaged Peter Parker clutches on to Tony Stark, begging him not to let him die, before he, too, is taken. Most of the cast are taken out, brushed off into dust and vanishing from existence. It’s all over. The bad guy won. The screen cuts to black, the credits roll. Hold on, what the fuck?
Now, let’s reel this back a little. No film critic, not one, starts off their film-watching career with Kubrick and Scorsese. Most of them, including me, kicked off with blockbusters: for me, the defining movies of my childhood and the beginning of my relationship with cinema are The Phantom Menace and Jurassic Park. Blockbusters are where my heart lies when it comes to cinema – of course, I’ll go to mat prestige cinema (this year’s Hostiles and You Were Never Really Here, for example), but there’s a special kind of alchemy to a great big-name blockbuster that I’m always looking for.
And that alchemy isn’t just delivering on that sense of breathless entertainment. No, for a really, truly great blockbuster, you’ve got to find some pathos too – The Phantom Menace, the first film I ever remember seeing, ends with that gut-punch of Qui-Gon-Jin dying at the hands of Darth Maul, and it was that which really stuck it in my mind. Fun is all well and good, but when you can contrast it with something deeper, everything is more powerful as a result.
And that’s why I thought Avengers: Infinity War is the finest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Yeah, that’s a bold-ass statement; this year’s Black Panther and earlier movies, like the original Thor and The Winter Soldier, come close, but none of them had the sheer narrative gall of Infinity War, and that’s what sets it apart.
I really went into this movie sure I was going to hate it, too. After all, I’m no fan of superhero films in general, and team-ups have left me cold before: Age of Ultron is terrible, Civil War was a mess, and last year’s Justice League was a truly abominable piece of garbage (to speak nothing of Batman vs Superman). And this was the team-up to end them all: not just a few characters, but the whole of Marvel’s enormous canon coming together to take on a villain with a universe-ending gait. It was just too big. How can you have a movie with a dozen lead characters feel anything but a rushed, ugly mess?
But, all credit to Joe and Anthony Russo (who both wrote and directed Infinity War), but they pull it off. Now, of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that this movie is building on the work of the eighteen films that came before it; there’s no need to take a lot of time to characterise anyone here, because the legwork has already been done. I’m not a big fan of this current batch of movie franchises that rely on you having to have seen a dozen other films to make them work, but if you’ve got that going for you, at least deliver with something as bold and brilliant as Infinity War.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of the movie, I was seriously impressed with the way the Russo brothers held their shit together across the expansive two-and-a-half hour runtime: they swiftly group characters together to create a few distinct plot threads, and the sheer forward momentum of the plot keeps it from suffering any kind of lag. The jokes are brisk and fun, the action is solid, and sitting the premise on something as simple as “Thanos wants the Infinity Stones, and our heroes have to stop him getting to them” gives the plot a pleasing all-go attitude that isn’t bogged down in subplots and spin-offs as previous team-ups were. Brolin makes a brilliant villain as Thanos, and the film was right to stick with the Erik Killmonger route of actually giving the bad guy a defined motivation that somewhat made sense from a moral standpoint. Stylistically, Infinity War sticks out in the MCU canon, with some sequences that are downright artistic.
It’s fun getting to see characters we’ve never seen before interact, but it’s the high stakes and no-punches-pulled attitude that distinguishes the ruthlessly efficient Infinity War from anything else we’ve seen before.
The film opens with the murder of Loki at the hands of Thanos, and it just gets bleaker from there. This is a movie about death and loss, and it feels like it. Not only do we see most of the characters killed off in the last ten minutes, but there are several key character deaths that occur as part of the main Thanos storyline, and they’re probably the most significant parts of the film.
The first comes with the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) at the hands of her adopted father, Thanos. Now, Gamora’s plot thus far in her previous Guardians of the Galaxy movies has been intrinsically tied to her violently abusive upbringing at the hands of Thanos, and it’s given a gorgeous thematic end here with some just stellar work from both Saldana and Brolin. Early in the movie, Gamora is led to believe she has killed Thanos, and instead of triumph or vindication, she immediately breaks down in tears – devastated at the finality of knowing that she will never get the love or care she so dearly needed from her father. When he reveals himself to be alive and goes to kidnap her, she begs Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, who’s remembered how to act, thank God) to kill her rather than be stuck with him again. But he steals her away anyway, and sacrifices her in order to acquire another one of the Infinity Stones. He’s willing to kill those he loves to get what he wants – and that’s what separates him from the Avengers.
Because over on the good side of the Force, it’s Vision (an always-solid Paul Bettany), who keeps the final Infinity Stone safe. In order to destroy it and save the universe, he has to die at the hands of Wanda Maximoff (an always-solid Elizabeth Olsen), a powerful witch and the only one capable of pulling it off, who just so happens to be his lover. But, faced with having to kill one of their own, the good guys try to find a way out of it – and end up paying the ultimate price as a result, leaving it too late and allowing Thanos to get hold of the final Stone and destroy half the population of the universe.
And it’s those themes that underpin the whole of Infinity War and make it such a compelling piece of entertainment. Death hangs over the story from the start, as does sacrifice: people forced to sacrifice themselves or those they love for the greater good, and either going for it or finding themselves paralysed by the fear of that loss. That notion – if love is greater than objective – is a pretty bold-faced one to have in a movie as popcorn-friendly as this one, and works powerfully when those sacrifices, made too late, fail to save the day. Thanos kills the person he loves and wins everything; the Avengers do it too late, and lose half the universe as a result. Death means something again, in a universe that too often pulled it’s punches with C-list characters biting the dust.
I was sitting there in the final act, wondering how they were going to get out of this one, but they didn’t. As a result, Thanos feels like the truly epic villain he should always have been, and the movie leaves an indelible impression as we watch our fallen heroes face up to the carnage they could have stopped. Of the remaining cast, it’s worth noting that Thor, Tony Stark, and Steve Rogers remain; all characters defined by loss, and all characters now faced with accepting this overwhelming loss that they have caused as a result of their actions, interesting set-up for them going forward after this.
As a whole, I was blown away by Infinity War, because of that bleakness. Like Logan last year, superhero movies that forgo the toothy grins and happy endings before the credits roll are far more interesting than the textbook fluff that gets churned out every year. Featuring stellar performances, brilliant pacing, and a story that’s bleaker and more existential than anything I thought I would ever see out of the MCU canon, Infinity War is the blockbuster to beat for 2018 so far.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image courtesy of Forbes.com)