I’m on Navy Reserve duty in Norfolk, so I decided to kill an afternoon secured early by seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR for the second time.
I freaking love this film.
I saw it the first time at CINEBISTRO at Stony Point on the opening Sunday after one of the busiest weekends of my life, and, while I enjoyed it, I was 1.) really tired and 2.) eager for certain things to be included which I didn’t get in the film (I’ll get to those) but this second viewing just filled me with so much more awe and appreciation for what the Russos, Kevin Feige, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and Marvel have done with this incredible universe of characters.
If you are not a Marvel enthusiast or an emotional devotee of the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) you will probably not enjoy and or ‘feel’ the story as much as someone who is. Therefore, the payoff(s) within this film will feel a bit hollow and insubstantial. That’s something to put right up-front. My wife is in this camp. To her and to many folks who just don’t love it, the superhero film genre (and MCU films in particular) feature stories which often seem interchangeable.
The formulas are often very basic and predictable:
I get it, I totally do. These movies ain’t for everybody. God bless my wonderful wife. I drag her to them at least four times a year. That’s why we often go to CINEBISTRO because these ‘Event’ movies are enjoyable for us both when we can have dinner and enjoy a great ambiance free from texters, talkers, kids and screaming babies.
However, if, like me, you have a lifelong attachment to these characters based on the source material, you will find yourself swept up in the adventure, tone, scope and the sheer joy of seeing them rendered faithfully on film.
That’s what the MCU ultimately gets 100% right: They simply nail these characters. They have so much fun bouncing them off of one another that it becomes a joyful exercise in inspired storytelling wherein the characters drive the story in a genuine way.
Let’s get reviewin.’ As advertised, SPOILERS.
Thanos, a mad warrior dictator from the planet Titan, succeeds in his quest to bring together all six powerful infinity stones in an effort to “re-balance”’ the Universe by wiping out half of all life with a snap of his fingers. The deaths, random and impersonal, affect life everywhere-- especially the ranks of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
THE GREAT:-Josh Brolin as THANOS. It is tricky playing a CGI villain who speaks only in declarations and strides through a three-hour film with unflagging, genocidal purpose, but Brolin and the Russos have created a magnetic, multi-layered antagonist from whose POV the entire story is told.
The filmmakers and Brolin imbue Thanos with true human emotion while setting him up as the ultimate foe. Thanos is both physically and intellectually a cut above the usual bombastic blowhards of the superhero genre. He dispatches the Hulk in the first five minutes of the film, hitting him with a throat punch which stuns and confuses the big green guy. This tells us that Thanos is next-level bad. We feel for the Hulk as if he were a wounded animal. Then... Thanos snaps the neck of fan-favorite anti-hero Loki and says “No resurrections this time.” The tone is set.
Brolin’s performance is pitch-perfect. He makes unusual, quiet acting choices which give Thanos a rich complexity and a dangerous, compelling unpredictability. Thanos finds other characters and their struggles really interesting. He empathizes. He finds honor in others as they struggle valiantly against his plan. He kills some, spares others, loves, hates, loses… and, ultimately WINS.
In performance, Brolin actively listens and we can see the wheels turning in his mind. Flashes of loneliness, humor, despair, pride, and rage jump out beyond the purple CGI shell. Another actor might not be able to bring such rough gravitas and quiet nuance to the role, so thank Odin for Brolin.
Perhaps the most chilling back-and-forth Thanos has is with his daughter, Gamora, where he looks heavenward in weary exasperation before declaring with a steely resolve that he is the only one who can see the logic of his quest to re-balance reality and therefore the only one who can do something about it. It is at this moment we see his casual, terrifying certainty locked firmly in place. It’s like a holiday dinner conversation with that nut-job relative who has it all figured out-- “If only ‘they’ were gotten rid of, everything would be just fine…” Yikes.
-Chris Hemsworth as THOR. Wounded, weary, beaten and battered, the God of Thunder will never ever give up. His quest -- create a weapon (Stormbreaker) to replace the shattered Mjolnir, with which he can kill Thanos-- is the central ‘hero’s journey’ in the film, while Thanos’ quest is the perverse inversion of it.
Hemsworth as Thor is just great. He has such charisma and real star quality. His interplay with the Guardians is hilarious and inspired. Drax sums it up when he tells Chris Pratt’s STAR-LORD “This is not a dude. You are a dude. This is a MAN.” Word.
Thor sees his half-brother Loki and his pal Heimdahl killed along with half of what’s left of the Asgardian refugees from THOR: RAGNAROK, and it all hits him-- hard. His quiet monologue with Rocket Raccoon is poignant, touching, and slightly meta, but he grounds Thor’s quest in something real. Kudos to the Russos for giving us the moment of reflection. It all pays off.
And trust me, Thor’s third-act entrance as a literal Deus-Ex-Machina is a genuine cheer-out-loud-in-the-theatre moment.
-RDJ and Cumberbatch as STARK and STRANGE.
RDJ is the original MCU hero and he doesn’t disappoint in INFINITY WAR. Only now, he has a new and just-as-charismatic foil in Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange. Their chemistry is incredible. Their witty banter and snarky one-upsmanship lift the early scenes to the joyous anything-can-happen heights of a great summer film.
Both actors know who they are and each simply stands his ground against the other to the sheer delight of the audience. What I really love about the pairing is that one is a tech genius grounded in science and the other is a master of the mystic arts. They both have so many wonderful surprises hidden up their sleeves-- Strange with his array of spells and portals, and Stark with his new-and-improved bleeding edge nanotech armor, which he uses in a jaw-dropping, pulse-pounding late-inning do-or-die one-on-one battle with Thanos himself.
RDJ gives everything he has in this film-- you can feel his desperation to save the day in every frame, and his paternal relationship to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker leads to an absolute heartbreaker. The Russos give RDJ his props in this film. Even Cap (My favorite character) articulates the fact that Iron Man is the earth’s strongest protector and man, is he right.
If y'all don't know, RDJ as Stark is the OG badass who started the MCU, and he ain’t done yet.
-The Comedy. The tone is heavy at times, but it is punctuated perfectly by moments of levity and fun which provide great beats of laughter in an otherwise bleak tragedy. The directors let these actors do what they do best and the atmosphere is really loose and relaxed and fun. We want to be in the movie. We want to have cool powers and hang out and banter and solve problems with the characters. We always feel like we’re in on the joke, and it is so much fun.
THE NOT-SO-GREAT:-Peter Dinklage. Not a huge fan of his on GAME OF THRONES, but I think that’s mainly due to the fact that I can’t get past his English accent. It. Is. Not. Good. He just sounds like a guy at a local renaissance fair who really really thinks he’s nailing it while he takes a long time to sell you an oversized turkey leg, and you’re forced to kind of… deal with it and pretend along with him until you get your food.
I just-- I can’t do it-- especially here, in a bajillion dollar film when, as in GoT, he is paired up with actors who have actual, commanding, legit classical sounding British-affected lilts to their voices. Listening to him do dialogue opposite Hemsworth is like "Story, plot, character, nuance, humor, charm" and now BAD ACCENT GUY SAYS HIS LINES. He’s a great actor otherwise, and his film the STATION AGENT is wonderful-- It just takes me out of the film each time I hear him not-quite-get there. Gah.
-YOU CAN’T GET TO EVERYONE. You just can’t touch on every single character the way you’d like to when you have a roster of 30-something heroes to focus on. I was disappointed initially because I wanted more Cap/Bucky/Widow/Sam narrative. These characters understandably get short-shrift narratively speaking, but all do a great job with what they are given.
I have to stop and give props to Chris Evans for a moment. In a film where so many other characters shine by displaying huge moments of charisma and humor, Evans plays Cap with a stoic resolve and literally takes it the other way as a sustained acting choice. This Cap is quietly burning up with anger, self-recrimination, and he’s just focused on doing his job. In performance, though, there are some really great nuanced moments, like when Vision thanks Cap for saving him-- we can see on Cap's face the lingering feeling of betrayal from CIVIL WAR.
No doubt Cap will have more to do in AVENGERS 4, but I just want to say I see you, Chris Evans, and I love what you’re doing, man…
OH YEAH ONE MORE THING: HASHTAG TEAM CAP.
PETE JUMPS INTO THE FRAY. Spider-Man jumping out of the bus and swinging across the East River makes my spirit leap out through my chest. It is so wonderfully Huck-Finn-Tom-Sawyer awesome I literally get a lump in my throat thinking about how great it is to be young and excited and want to leap into the fray to help. It has nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with helping people. Pure adventure. Look out, here comes your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
YIBAMBE: It means "Hold Fast" in Xhosa. I got goosebumps in that standoff and ensuing battle as T'Challa's forces combined to face the outriders-- and I spent the next week with it echoing in my head. Good mantra for anything, especially facing alien attacks.
THE BLEEDING EDGE ARMOR REVEAL. Slow-motion, Tony Stark Swagger.
TONY ANOINTING SPIDEY AS AN AVENGER. The music swells for just a second as Pete allows himself a brief moment of joy before refocusing on earning it. Tom Holland IS Spider-Man and his eager earnestness is so refreshing.
CAP’S ENTRANCE. Steve steps out of the shadows as the original Alan Silvestri AVENGERS theme blares. Cap may not have a huge featured role in this, but Team Cap out there knows what I’m talking about.
I can do this all day.
OKOYE THROWS SHADE AT BANNER AND WANDA. The badass General and protector of Wakanda has some great moments of fighting and reacting to the strange Avengers she has never met. Danai Gurira is awesome as Okoye and she was my favorite character in BLACK PANTHER. Her reactions to the intergalactic threat raise the stakes and really make us feel how daunting a foe the outriders are. She’s fantastic and I hope she plays a larger role in the MCU going forward.
THE TITAN FIGHT. The Russos have put together a great sequence where Spidey, Iron Man, Doctor Strange and members of the GoTG take on Thanos as he attempts to add the time stone to his Infinity Gauntlet. The way in which each character’s abilities are showcased in service to that goal is just wonderfully inspired and makes perfect sense. The Russos and the writers (Markus and McFeely) do a great job of explaining why Thanos doesn’t just wipe them all out by preventing him from making a fist to activate the stone’s energies. The heroes almost had Thanos disarmed, too, until Star Lord’s emotional outburst ruined it all NOT COOL JACKASS NOT COOL AT ALL
WRAPPING UP/ PREDICTIONSDoctor Strange looked into 14,000,605 possible outcomes of the conflict with Thanos and saw that the Avengers only win one. I want to see this movie that many times, too. I liked it that much.
Doc determined that giving the time stone to Thanos in exchange for Tony Stark’s life was a part of that one winning timeline, but at a horrible cost, as Thanos subsequently used the time stone to 1.) reverse time and 2.) pull the mind stone out of Vision’s head before 3.) casting his broken android body unceremoniously aside.
Not even having his chest ripped open by Thor’s badass new axe Stormbreaker could prevent Thanos from precipitating the ‘Snapture,’ (Thank you, Glen Weldon from NPR’s ‘Pop Culture Happy Hour’ for that beautiful name) so pretty much everybody dies at the end, yes. The list is long and you can probably google it because it is getting late here and this review is now longer than the film.
So now we have 1.) Stark and Nebula shell-shocked on Titan, with Stark badly wounded and his armor malfunctioning 2.) The surviving heroes in Wakanda in stunned silence as their friends turn to ash and 3.) Pandemonium all over the universe as life forms disappear at random. In his last valiant act before crumbling away to nothing, Nick Fury sends out a 1990s-style space pager message to Captain Marvel, who is most likely embroiled in the Kree-Skrull conflict on the other side of the universe.
They dropped several hints in the film about how “We don’t trade lives.” Cap says this to Vision in a scene early on. I think that where we have these characters positioned now, it is perfectly poised for them to make the "trade" when the time comes. Stark may sacrifice himself to bring back Peter. Steve might sacrifice his life to bring back Bucky. Possibly Okoye will sacrifice her life to bring back T’Challa. The themes of trading and sacrificing and parenting are all over this film.
Everyone loses someone or something they love. Everyone.
Basically, the film is like issue #6 of a 12-issue limited series. You have to be in it for the long haul. Marvel is and the Russos are, and Feige certainly is. Luckily they know the fans are, too, and they are willing to go where the story goes.
I have to imagine that in Avengers 4, we will see Ant-Man and Hawkeye added to the fray. Possibly Hawkeye will lose his family to the snapture and will go all Ronin on the bad guys (Whoever and wherever they are) and Ant-Man will find his way through the quantum realm as a shortcut to possible permutations of reality which can unlock and undo some (not all) of the damage Thanos has wrought.
There’s also another Infinity Gauntlet on Nidavellir, the place where Stormbreaker was forged. It would take one heck of a powerful being to use it to fix reality -- someone as powerful as Adam Warlock in the comics, or like Captain Marvel perhaps? Or maybe Stark? One thing is for sure, this film establishes that there comes a true cost to wielding the power of the Infinity Stones, and despite the shock value of the cost of this film, Avengers 4 is going to be the one where the full bill really comes due.
Make Mine Marvel. Excelsior.