Review: Avengers: Infinity War

I’ve tried to make this as spoiler-free as possible. One paragraph talks – in the vaguest of terms – about the end of the movie. I’ve placed it in [ ] if you’d rather not take your chances.

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Josh Brolin

So here we are. 10 years and 18 movies its taken us to get here, but this is the pivotal moment for Marvel. All that hard work. This is where the mighty MCU converges for all out war. To back-to-back the story so far you’d need in excess of a day and a half of solid viewing (just ask David Ehrlich). Over the years Marvel’s box-office-dominating plan has proven unstoppable, earning swathes of new fans (some begrudgingly) in the process. What they’ve created amounts to the most expensive fantasy soap opera conceivable. Avengers: Infinity War, then, plays like a sweeps week season finale.

It’s theoretically possible to make your way through Infinity War without having seen a single prior Marvel movie, but in all honesty you’d be better off being as up to date as can be. It’d help massively if you can squeeze in Captain America: Civil WarThor: Ragnarok and Black Panther before you go walking in to this one.

Ragnarok in particular will be key, as this movie picks up right where that one left off, with the refugees of Asgard under threat from the very sudden arrival of Thanos (Josh Brolin). Things go badly, and as a harbinger for things to come, it’s rather effective. Infinity War comes crashing out of the gate with all the subtlety of King Kong driving a stolen police car into a fun fair.

Having sat pouting on a space throne for the past 8 years or so, big old raisin-faced Thanos has decided now’s the time to collect his precious infinity stones in order to wipe out half the universe (y’know, for lols). Hurtling back to Earth with a bump comes Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), but he isn’t afforded much time to give his super-pals the head’s up. Two of the magic jewels are in the hands of our heroes, and after years of dawdling Thanos is suddenly feeling hasty.

Having helmed the last two Captain America movies, Anthony and Joe Russo waste little time piling in the heroes from the disparate arms of the franchise. That’s a significant roster. Joss Whedon’s Age Of Ultron and even the Russos’ own Civil War felt the strain of catering to so many fan favourites. In short, they both suffered varying degrees of the old ‘too many cooks’ problem. Infinity War doubles down on that hard, but largely gets away with it by splitting up all these regulars into varying sub-teams. The narrative then bounces like a rubber ball between them.

Some of these combinations bring about interesting personality clashes. Sticking Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) together seems like a no-brainer, especially to kick-start a little comic relief, but what turns out to be slightly more interesting is the dynamic that develops between Stark and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The series’ two biggest egos butt heads and the resulting power play works well. Elsewhere, Thor and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) particularly prove to be a match made in heaven.

Nevertheless, with such a vast array of characters to service, its inevitable that some get short shrift. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow barely gets a look-in, for instance. See also Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. The players who are brought to the fore are perhaps not the ones you’d necessarily expect. Here too Infinity War offers some welcome surprises. Cumberbatch’s Strange almost manages to free himself from that perpetually loathsome personality of his. Hemsworth’s Thor allows the recent past to catch up with him and the character matures as a result. Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch becomes the key player she’s previously promised to be. While the more sombre material allows Zoe Saldana the opportunity to put hitherto unseen tenderness into Gamora.

Phase Three has done a lot of corrective work for the MCU, having seemingly learned from one of the biggest shortcomings of Phase Two – i.e. the series’ nagging propensity for poorly drawn villains. In recent installments Michael Keaton and Michael B Jordan have both shown what can be achieved if you give your antagonist some serious dimension.

Thanos has been on the radar for some time, but Infinity War makes you realise just how poorly he’s been set up. Unfortunately, Josh Brolin’s ability to show any semblance of range is severely hampered by the character’s bulky mo-capped design, mostly reading as a cross between Sylvester Stallone and a pummeled testicle. Being the series’ Big Bad, its disappointing to find his motivations laughably under-nourished. Having split the gargantuan cast into groups out of necessity, the Russos have to corral this boring bully here there and everywhere, so that he can get a chance to interact with (i.e. hit) everyone. His modus operandi is all over the shop, but more tragic than this… he’s kinda dull. Nevertheless, the might of the character is hardly understated, and rarely has a sparkly glove ever seemed like such a dangerous thing to wield.

Infinity War comes close to copying the structure of the previous Avengers movies, but doesn’t quite fall into the same second act slump that plagued Whedon’s offerings; there’s simply too much going on all over the place for that. The dance between character groups is far more nimble than the zig-zagging of Thanos. And while their action scenes still lack inspiration, the Russos cut between story lines with effortless grace. This becomes the film’s most impressive aspect for a while.

That is until it gives what it promised. Big, BIG, spectacle. We’re headed straight into blockbuster season. Action, fighting, explosions and billowing CG smoke are part and parcel of that experience now. Infinity War offers excessive amounts on all fronts. Where is it all headed? What is the toll? You don’t want me to tell you.

[So Infinity War delivers. It plays the part of sensationalist season finale. It may also, arguably, overplay it, bowing out on an event that one assumes will be walked back to some degree. But the bait is set. There’s another Avengers movie coming next year, and Marvel want to make absolutely sure you’re going to be waiting for it.

By necessity, then, Infinity War feels naggingly unfinished. But like any galactic soap opera worth its salt, its got to get you back next season. Still, like a year seven episode of Game Of Thrones, there’s the vague sensation that you’ve been hoodwinked by a flashy ending to cover up a paucity of substance in the main. So it goes. After 10 years and 18 movies, this is still suitably epic.

Score:  3.5

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