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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Usually when critics complain that a blockbuster lacks things like character development or decent plotting or a satisfying resolution, what they're really doing is revealing that they have no idea what a modern blockbuster is meant to do. This isn't a slam on critics of Avengers: Infinity War - it's definitely a film with problems, even judged on its own terms - but this kind of film is bought and sold as spectacle first and foremost, and complaining that it isn't narratively satisfying largely misses the point.

The hook here is that this is the culmination of the last decade of Marvel movies, all 19 of them.  Obviously it's not: Marvel is great at leaving plot threads dangling at the end of one film and ignoring them in the next (were any of the plot points at the end of Captain America: Civil War ever mentioned again?). It's just another "everyone teams up to fight a really big bad guy" movie, and while it delivers on the "big", the "fight" side leaves a bit to be desired.

The story contains a lot of moving parts around a very simple core: giant space bad guy Thanos (a CGI'd Josh Brolin), who has spent the last six years since he had a cameo in the first Avengers movie doing very little, has finally decided to wrap up his quest for the Infinity Stones - six magic gems that when put together into the Infinity Gauntlet will enable him to kill off half the universe. As these gems are scattered across the universe (well, two are on Earth, which is handy), Thanos and his underlings make a variety of largely self-contained attempts to get ahold of them. That means despite the extremely large cast of characters -

- which would be Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Bruce Banner / The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper), among others -

- most of them are clumped together in relatively manageable groups for their individual clashes with Thanos. Which makes him the central character here, a move that works largely thanks to a strong performance from Brolin as a bad guy who's more heartfelt true believer (in mass murder) than the usual power-for-powers-sake super villain. 

As what is basically a "greatest hits" showcase aimed at an audience excited simply to see Spider-Man and Star Lord in the same frame, some characters are served better than others. Iron Man gets a lot to do, which isn't surprising as he's probably on the way out; Steve Rogers doesn't get much, though maybe they're holding him back for the sequel. One note characters (Spider-Man, Star Lord) generally fare better than others with the limited space available, though both Dr Strange and The Vision are surprisingly central. It's no spoiler to say that not everyone makes it out of this alive, and that some deaths are clearly more permanent than others; part of the skill in putting this sort of film together is to know when a character's role is finished and they can be taken off the board.

(this does mean the characters with no story tend to stand out in a "huh, are you still here?" way. Everyone in Steve Rogers' crew is surplus to requirements; Wakanda seems to have been chosen as the site for a big fight largely because that way no civilians will be hurt - it's definitely not because they thought of anything interesting to do with Black Panther)

Despite having directed what is generally considered to be one of the more cinematic Marvel movies in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Anthony and Joe Russo flub just about every fight scene here, reducing every battle to a murky blur of pummeling without style or flair between dozens of combatants who all either punch or fire energy beams. One area where the much-derided DC superhero movies have it over Marvel is an awareness that their characters' differing superpowers are what makes them interesting, so the fights are a chance to show them off; here Dr Strange's mystical powers or Scarlet Witch's magic just involve shooting and shielding like everyone else (except for the characters who punch people).

Many of the elements critics complain that these films are lacking are missing for a reason. The point of these films is to show off the characters - the more the merrier - making one-off moments that show off a character's core (marketable) attributes more important than traditional story-telling. Unfortunately, most of Marvel's characters' core attributes revolve around an ability to make quips at serious moments, so making the joke-free Thanos the lead was a wise move. Still, feeling like a series of intercut commercials for action figures isn't a bug; it's a feature. Despite the massive cast (and a couple of main Marvel characters are explicitly excluded) this still manages to remind us that there are still more new characters coming up from Marvel.

But fight scenes are the core rationale of this kind of blockbuster, and that's where this falls over. We're here to see Marvel mash all of their toys together, and when the mashing side of things is plodding and uninspired then the film as a film - as separate from the film as a chance to see your favourite characters meet up, or to test your deep cut Marvel Universe knowledge, or to see Stan Lee for what must surely be close to the last time - can't be considered a success. Superheroes live to fight, and marketing means they'll never die; it's only when the viewers lose interest that their existence is in any real danger.

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