Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Starring Josh Brolin, Zoe Saldana, Robert Downey, Jr.

For about six months now I’ve been casually watching these MCU movies, typically watching a couple at a time and then leaving them alone for a couple weeks. Infinity War was part of a double feature with Thor: Ragnarok for me, a movie which I’d seen before and which I feel tolerant of, at best, on a good day. (Short review: Cate Blanchett’s gloriously hammy performance and Mark Ruffalo’s “I may have used my script to roll a blunt in my trailer, what’s my line again” presence gloss over some sins and can’t touch several others.) The first shock of Infinity War for me was not one character death—I remembered that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) didn’t make it, but had not given any thought to Heimdall (Idris Elba)—but the way that these people who supposedly care so much about curating this “universe” ethered an entire movie depicting it. I don’t know how many times they say “Asgard is not a place, it’s its people” or some variant thereof in Ragnarok, because instead of counting the number of instances I was sitting there thinking about how Hela’s power came from Asgard the place but not from Asgard the people, apparently. At the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard the place is gone. In the first three minutes of Infinity War, Asgard the people are too. [UPDATE: I hadn’t seen Endgame at the time I wrote this review, but I think the point stands for two reasons. First, the New Asgard stuff in Endgame is maybe the thirtieth most important thing that happens in that movie. Second, this movie still gives us no serious indication that Asgard’s people haven’t been vaporized in one fell swoop!]

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie which is not really 131 minutes, given that the last ten minutes are credits and Thanos’ ship showing up, but that’s still a two hour movie where the most important, lasting change for this obsessively intertwined universe is Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) new haircut. Where some people must have seen the power of Thanos in the first scene of Infinity War, all I could see was emphasis for emphasis’ sake. Maybe it would have been interesting to see these godlike people intermingle on Earth finding out if (extreme Belinda Carlisle voice) Asgard is a place on earth, but I don’t know that you could have made a movie which would gross better than three-quarters of a billion dollars from it or have made people rapturous from seeing characters from different movies together. And that’s to say nothing of how, over the course of the movie, Thor seems to be fairly cheerful as he hobnobs with the Guardians about his plan to pick up a sweet axe to kill Thanos with. If I had just witnessed New Jersey blowing up, let alone seeing all of its survivors killed, I think I would have been a smidge sad. Thor’s reaction to all this is the reaction most of us would have to getting served a steak that’s a little too well done.

On a recent Sub Titles episode, I called this movie one of the three most important pictures of the past decade (alongside Get Out and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and now that I’ve actually seen the thing I can stand by it. If that sentence does not quite compute for you, that’s sort of the point. This is not a movie that one needs to see in order to recognize its importance to the moviegoing landscape, or, of course, to the business of making movies themselves. I’ve been teaching for close to a decade now, and while there are movies which some kids will ask me if I’ve seen or which they’ll mention to one another, this is the only movie I’ve ever seen impact just about all of them. When this came out in April 2018, kids who hadn’t seen it yet were terrified of having it spoiled for them, and kids who had seen it were, when they weren’t spoiling it for the unlucky ones, very upset about losing characters to the Snap. Endgame simply did not capture their imaginations in the same way. Ironically, this movie was the payoff for all of the time people spent on these movies previously, even if Infinity War is a movie with a historically limited payoff. The Snap was what it was, but it was only ever going to be effective in an instant. One may have been amazed by it in the theater. I also cannot imagine a person who got all the way to their car without thinking something along the lines of, “I wonder how the sequel will turn this back?”

Like I usually am when I wake up on cold mornings, Infinity War is congested. There is a lot of stuff that happens in this movie, so much so that the runtime actually feels relatively brisk. After all, if you break everyone up into little strike teams and send them across the universe to do their jobs, you never have to spend more than half an hour with anyone besides Thanos (Brolin) himself. There are multiple sites which break down how long each of these characters are in this movie. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is in here for about ten minutes. There are episodes of Parks and Recreation where Chris Pratt has roughly equivalent screen time. Do you like the new beard on Captain America (Chris Evans)? You have under seven minutes to appreciate it in this picture, which is a smidge more time than you have to appreciate Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as a blonde. There are two key dramas in this movie in which an enormous number of dramas are suggested, and both of them belong to Thanos. The first is his quest for the six Infinity Stones, which Wong (Benedict Wong) is nice enough to recap for us in the early going of this movie. It appears to take an afternoon or so to track those suckers down once you know where they are, which absolutely cheapens the action. I’m old enough to remember when the pop culture MacGuffin of choice was a Horcrux, and while the Harry Potter books definitely got tired of dealing with those after a while (they go fast, and sometimes not even on the page!), there was a really serious amount of time given to tracking those suckers down. Thanos does not have to track very much. He has the purple one already, gets the blue one in that first scene, and gets the red one pretty quickly, too, as Benicio del Toro gets lit up for what feels like the fourth or fifth time despite only appearing in three of these movies. The orange rock and the yellow rock both receive some fanfare. Killing off Gamora (Saldana) is kind of sad for reasons that have nothing to do with Thanos or their strange father-daughter thing or the fate of the universe. (If there is a through line in these movies it’s a shotgun squirt of daddy issues like what you get from a mostly empty bottle of ketchup. I encourage Marvel movies to leave Oedipus out of it for like, ten minutes in whatever benighted phase comes next.) Paul Bettany is a good enough actor to make the Vision/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) romance basically compelling, although over and over again he seems like the weak link in the Avengers as everyone tries to rip the rock out of his forehead. All in all, it’s what happens with the green one that I find most confusing.

The reason this movie mattered to a bunch of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds is because it was a lot, because it called back some ludicrous number of characters and relationships from other movies. My recollection of Doctor Strange, which is the kind of movie you’d see in Hell while eating popcorn with asbestos sprinkled on top, was that the climactic battle between Strange and Dormammu was won because Strange spams the Time Stone. Now, this is a controversial moment for the characters in the film, but it works and it doesn’t seem like there’s been any lasting harm done when we run into Steve again here in Infinity War. So what exactly is stopping him from doing the same thing when he, Star-Lord, Iron Man (Downey, Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) attack Thanos on Titan? It’s never suggested, never recommended, and of course never done. At the end of this particular battle, which bears not a small resemblance to that part in Little Giants where half the Giants team piles on Spike and tries to bring him down, Doctor Strange has given up the Time Stone to Thanos. This was preceded by scene in which Steve tells Tony that if it comes down to protecting the rock or the people, he’ll choose the rock. Why he changes his mind here is never expressed well. He cryptically tells Tony that “we’re in the endgame now” and then turns to dust the next time we see him. Why Doctor Strange is this useless is unknowable, unless you’re an audience member, in which case you know he has to be or otherwise we won’t get the big finale.

Here’s the thing. Even good superhero stories inevitably come up against this problem in which people’s powers are sort of unpredictable, and of course when you give people godlike powers it tends to be a cramp on drama. And carping about this kind of thing is how you get from “hey, a dramatic scene in a movie” to “THE HOLDO MANEUEVER RAPED MY CHILDHOOD, SEE YOU AT THE CAPITOL.” What this does for me, though, is underline what’s always been fruitless and silly about these movies, why it’s likewise fruitless and silly to look at an MCU movie and try to compare it in terms of quality even to your usual average Oscarbait stuff from year to year. The point of Infinity War was to get to the Snap, and to include some fight scenes of variable quality (snooze to meh) from people who come from planets where they don’t have, whaddaya call ’em, “guns.” Anything that might have depended on characters as opposed to actions is a luxury that this movie cannot afford, and so the only person whose actions matter is Thanos. Thanos is not an uninteresting character. The broad strokes of this malevolent Malthusian at least make your ears perk up—someone who’s not trying to rule the [sufficiently large location] but halve it is at least different—but the movie cannot give him that much more time. Another ten minutes of development on Thanos would have done something to make him more compelling than merely showing off “the ultimate badass.” But whose favorite character would you have needed to trim down even more in order to give him that room to grow?

I kvetched about this “some movies need to be seen with a crowd” thing in my Homecoming review, so I’m not going to do it again. But I do wonder how this movie will play in the years to come. I watched this on Disney Plus, as I think most people watching this movie are going to watch it, and with just one other person in the room with me. I did not come to this movie drooling with excitement born out of having to wait for these conflicts and moments for a decade. Infinity War is a landmark movie for any number of reasons which don’t even have all to do with money, but I wonder if this is the kind of movie which, designed to be receptive to audience cheers and laughter and a little vacant in the absence of both, cannot really survive without them. Streaming is killing the movie theater experience, and was killing the theater experience even before it was mortally wounded by covid-19. Infinity War is hardly the last movie movie to rouse a great audience on Opening Night, but it is not impossible to think it could be one of the first movies to really be proved totally inadequate, in perpetuity, without the company of two hundred of your closest friends.

One thought on “Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

  1. […] 15) Avengers: Infinity War – 2018, dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo Another one where how I feel about it is presented copiously, if not beautifully, in the link above. For obvious reasons, Infinity War and Endgame have to be talked about together, but while I think Endgame is the better movie (by a slim margin indeed), Infinity War has energy that Endgame doesn’t replicate. An awful lot of what happens in Infinity War is pretty stupid, because for as many ways as there must have been for Thanos to actually win all of those Infinity Stones, the movie wastes no opportunity to ensure that he gets all of them. The energy and the stupidity go hand in glove, because the sheer rush of “Thanos wants” and “Thanos must not have” makes for a movie in which everyone’s hair is on fire across the universe. Granted, in 2021 it’s impossible to watch this movie without knowing what will happen (unless you’re my wife), but it reminded me a little bit of Return of the Jedi. At the end of that movie, there’s a battle in space, a battle on Endor, and a battle inside the second Death Star. In Infinity War, there’s a battle in Wakanda and a battle on Titan, as well an axe-forging session on Nidavellir after a quick check-in to Knowhere. Aside from sounding equally silly, the cuts between each location heighten the tension. None of these conflicts are really interesting or new enough to deserve ten consecutive minutes or something—I love the space battle in Return of the Jedi, but there’s no way that works in ten-minute chunks—but going from one to another to another and then back again is fun. The problem is that instead of being fun like Return of the Jedi is fun, it’s more fun in the way that like, driving go-karts on a track is kind of fun. It’s loud, it rattles, it feels dangerous, and then you get out of the little car and you smell the gasoline and you ask, “Was that it?” Infinity War is a single-use movie. I cannot imagine this holds up to a rewatch even a little bit (which is admittedly true of most of these, but you get the point), and there’s an entire movie that was made to negate the vast majority of this one. […]

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