Taking on the Giant Purple-Headed Warrior
Warning: This review includes details of the film’s ending. Please wait until you’ve been avenged before reading on.
One has to treat the culmination of 10 years of Marvel movies as a season finale, or at least the first part of a season finale. It’s not really a movie in its own right. If it was, we’d lament the lack of a clear through line, the absence of plot, indeed the lack of time afforded for meaningful character moments. There are some half-hearted attempts sporadically inserted into the two-and-a-half hour running time but, as is Marvel’s wont, they’re comically and flippantly undercut, at least until the bleak and deceptively bold climax. The film grinds to a halt in such moments, where the imperative to keep things light – the house style – undermines the movie’s end of season manifesto, namely to deliver a story that has weight and emotional impact.
Infinity War is really just a series of fights with the myriad of characters we’ve come to know (and sometimes love) over the last decade reshuffled into novel configurations to engage Thanos (or his minions) in contrasting locations. As there’s no time to dwell on the character dynamics that inform these battles, all we can really say is that they are technically well executed, that is to say they’re a terrific showcase for visual effects artists, who’ve worked hard to add texture to pre-visualised sequences. There’s no style, and no sense of real world physicality; it’s all eye-popping and weightless. The movie reportedly cost $300m but there’s nothing here so visceral or pulse quickening as Indiana Jones being pulled under a truck. Tangible thrills matter.
To give the filmmakers their due, they’ve punctuated their behemoth with the odd, fleeting moment of substance. This is really Thanos’s movie, and as played by Josh Brolin, he’s slightly more than the one-dimensional big bad we’re accustomed to meeting in this series. We can almost believe there’s a design, even pain, behind his decision to collect the Infinity Stones that will enable him to perpetrate a universe-wide genocide, destroying half of all life. But in keeping with the space theme, the nuances of his plan remain nebulous. It’s a pity none of the Avengers take the time to drill down and interrogate their enemy on what lies beneath his desire to indiscriminately eradicate 50% of the universe’s population. All he can say is that he is preventing some kind of imagined environmental catastrophe, that he’s conserving resources. And it’s a shame that’s all he has to say as this reduces his scheme to the kind of unfocused megalomaniacal madness that’s become a genre cliché.
As Thanos can’t control which half of the population is destroyed, he’s taking a terrible risk – the kind more traditional eugenicists would balk at. What if this cull precipitates an Ayn Rand-style brain drain, or a loss of pan-universal sporting prowess, or radically reduces the desirable mates in the gene pool? A little philosophy might have enlivened the spectacle, given the older kids something to think about.
The shock ending, a de facto cliffhanger, kills up-and-coming Avengers, such as Black Panther and Spider-Man, leaving the old guard largely intact. That’s an unfortunate choice on the filmmakers’ part, signalling the next Avengers movie will be one giant reset. It’s just not possible to take the apocalyptic dénouement too seriously, as we know it has zero chance of standing. Consequently, the film trolls its audience with the illusion of gravitas, while flaunting its inconsequentiality. Like all its Marvel predecessors, it’s just the set up for the next movie. That’s the problem with episodic filmmaking, and the price these movies pay for being big budget television episodes, rather than stories in their own right.
As a season finale, Avengers: Infinity War is engaging, eye-catching stuff. But it left me wondering whether anyone will ever make a cinematic universe composed of satisfying and self-contained movies, that would stand up against the best of the genre. In the meantime, we’re left considering that the series industry insiders look to as a barometer of cinema’s rude health, the business model that’s delivering, is modelled on Television, and not the golden age we’re allegedly living through, but the disposable, high-concept candy floss of yesteryear.