REVIEW: 'Avengers: Infinity War' puts death on pause, but not without spectacle

 Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt and Pom Klementieff in  Avengers: Infinity War , directed by Joe and Anthony Russo.

Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt and Pom Klementieff in Avengers: Infinity War, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo.

Superhero movies are baffling phenomena in the grand scheme of things. They’re hyper expensive, densely plotted, and they deliver experiences best enjoyed by only the most fervent viewers. They speak to modern audiences in ways that are only partially understood. But for all their successes, the movies in this genre – unless they’ve transcended into their own medium by now – have never quite got one thing right: death.

To be fair, they inherit this problem from the source material. After all, while it’s easy to sell comics for a few weeks after a notable character’s passing, it only gets you so far. Eventually, a triumphant return is needed to keep the lights on.

This is why it doesn’t make any sense to fixate on who lives and dies in Avengers: Infinity War (this review certainly won’t). The odds on who survives the titular battle have been argued over for years online, with armchair critics trying to guess the exit points of series regulars like Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) or Captain America (Chris Evans) based on vaguely defined employment contracts that every fan seems to know about without having actually read. And yet, all Infinity War does to settle this debate is exactly what any attentive viewer should expect: to kick the can down the road so we’ll be compelled to see the next installment.

Don’t get me wrong, this approach is perfectly acceptable. Hell, it’s actually the smart thing to do, at least from a business perspective. But it does mean that all of a sudden, Infinity War is just another waypoint on the journey. It means the brutal consequences of a confrontation with the Marvel films’ big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) have yet to be realized. I sympathize with the teenaged Groot (Vin Diesel), who complains at one point, “I am Groot!” which translates to “Are we there yet?”

 The archnemesis of the Marvel franchise, Thanos (Josh Brolin)

The archnemesis of the Marvel franchise, Thanos (Josh Brolin)

Despite the dithering, Infinity War improves on the preceding two Avengers team-ups in some key ways. It dispels concerns about its huge roster of characters by organizing them around a handful of core threads: on Earth, on the planet Titan, and in the depth of space. It gives us heroes with a lot of mileage on them; Thor, Hulk and Captain America benefit the most here, with each one fulfilling the arcs they’ve been on recently. Even the jokes landed more solidly for me, likely due in no small part to the presence of the Guardians of the Galaxy (Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt et al.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and a post-Ragnarok Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

Stepping into the fray after more than a dozen movies’ worth of build-up, Thanos does emerge as one of the better villains produced by the studio. His goal to collect the mystical Infinity Stones and become the most powerful being in the universe is suitably grandiose, even if his plan to exterminate exactly half of the universe’s denizens is motivated by fears about overpopulation and not a grim gesture of affection.

The best material with Thanos is, in fact, the least action-oriented or destructive; he’s shown to be visibly hurt by how much his daughter Gamora (Saldana) hates him. While we don’t get enough information about how Thanos came to believe that murdering trillions of beings would be the answer (why not 25% of the universe?), his scenes with Gamora are oddly heartfelt, in a twisted sort of way. And when it comes to the tech used to bring Thanos to life, it’s a good thing the filmmakers waited this long. Without convincing performance-capture tools, it would have been impossible to sell us on the emotions roiling under his thick purple hide.

 Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teams up with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel).

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teams up with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel).

The curious thing about Infinity War is how fixated it is on the decision to sacrifice one person for the good of the whole, or of the mission. At least four key scenes hinge on this dilemma: between Star Lord and Gamora, between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), and between Tony Stark and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and between Gamora and Thanos. Again, without getting bogged down in the outcomes, the moral quandary of these situations mirrors that of the movie itself, and arguably of the filmmakers.

From a distance, it might be easy for fans to assume certain characters will bite the dust, just as some of the characters promise each other that they won’t freeze when it comes to serving the greater purpose. But it’s not so cut and dried when you get down to the business of writing someone off – when you have two people locking eyes, and a weapon between them. How do their mushier, less rational selves factor into the equation?

By now, it should be obvious that this can apply equally to the people in the story and the ones writing it. So can we really blame Infinity War for procrastinating a bit? If the buzz is to be believed, we will get some kind of closure in the second half of the story, scheduled for May 2019. At that point, we’ll finally discover how much of the carnage is real, and how much will be reversed through some kind of loophole. But some hard decisions will have to be made, because a universe with no final consequences will seem fanciful even by superhero movie standards.

Avengers: Infinity War gets three and a half stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • I think Thor may be my current favourite Marvel character. His blend of humour, character development and seemingly upgraded powers is consistently entertaining.
  • Kudos to the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, for the fight with Thanos on Titan. It got my heart pumping, even though intellectually I knew it wasn’t going to be the final battle with him.
  • There was an erectile dysfunction joke in the making (about the Hulk refusing to appear) that the movie didn’t quite deliver on.