Well, that was a night out. It’s after midnight on 4/24/18, and I’m sitting across from my 15-year-old daughter, who claims not to like movies much but is an exuberant Marvel fan, and who rocked and laughed and gasped throughout the long running time of Avengers: Infinity War. Before the film, she couldn’t believe she was seeing it days ahead of the rest of the world, which made me feel like Super Dad. Now, I feel extra puny. She is curled up in a chair, repeating, “What the f— just happened?” over and over. Her eyes are still red from crying. She begs me to do the movie justice.
“How do I do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t say anything about what happens, really.”
“You can’t say anything. People would hate you forever. I mean, people who don’t already.”
“So what would you have me tell readers?”
“Tell them, ‘Don’t know anything going in. Don’t assume anything. Close your laptop. Don’t look at any article.’”
“What about this one?”
“I mean …” She thinks a bit, shrugs, walks out muttering, “What the hell.” So much pain over a movie with overpaid actors in costumes surrounded by various combinations of ones and zeros. Plainly, Marvel has done it again — only bigger.
As I write this I know so much that you don’t, and most of all, I know that Avengers: Infinity War is going to dazzle, stagger, and rile people up. It’s a scorched-earth movie — though not, of course, as visceral as its Fox cousin Logan, which was scorched earth plus arterial spray. It can’t be judged as a stand-alone work since it doesn’t stand alone and isn’t — objectively speaking — even a very good piece of storytelling. As an exercise of studio might, however, it has no peer. Flagrantly, bombastically extravagant, it plays its audience like a hundred million fiddles.
Marvel does this by adjusting course, which it’s shockingly good at for so vast a corporate entity. Though barbs bounce off it like giant lizards off a Wakandan force field, one criticism has stuck: that the studio is loath to kill off characters with the potential to generate revenue ad infinitum, which means that nothing ever seems at stake except skyscrapers assembled from ones and zeros. But word got out quickly that in Avengers: Infinity War, There Will Be Blood. And there is, though it’s PG-13, which means the violence sounds squishy but is light on gore. It opens, I will reveal, with a massacre: women, children, and even characters we’ve known for quite a while and thought we might see a lot more of.
The menace behind the massacre is Thanos, a giant with a gruff voice (and motion-captured expressions) by Josh Brolin, and is properly described by Chris Pratt’s Quill/Star Lord as sporting a chin like a giant ball sack. Thanos is too much on the Hulk spectrum to be of that much visual interest, but he’s an unusually pensive psychopath. His pet peeve is overpopulation. Although nowadays he has no problem clearing out cities (or planets), he believes that his once-beautiful home world was wrecked by too many people. It doesn’t occur to him to make a large donation to Planned Parenthood. He would like instead to wipe out half the universe with a flick of his fist. This he can do provided his fist holds six Infinity Stones, elemental crystals that control each aspect of existence (time, space, reality, power, mind, and “the soul”). At the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos has just one of the stones, which leaves one somewhere in the vicinity of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston); one in the center of the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany); one with the Collector (Benicio Del Toro); one around the neck of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); and one in a location known only by Thanos’s stepdaughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is a Guardian of the Galaxy. You see how all this intersects.
I especially like Cumberbatch, even with his iffy Yank accent, because his handsome-lizard visage is otherworldly even without makeup and he moves with elegance — although I’m sure if we saw him waving his hands around without the special effects he’d look like pretty silly. The point is that his powers seem to bloom organically from his temperament. My daughter adores Tom Holland as Spider-Man for the same reason. He’s so naturally buoyant and bouncy that the webs are the extension of his giddy worldview. One of the sublime pleasures of Avengers: Infinity War is watching Holland agog as two alpha male Sherlocks — Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. as the arrogant Tony Stark/Iron Man — gaze on one another with disdain, the former gesturing toward young Peter Parker and sneering, “Who is that, your ward?” Man, Strange knows how to hurt a guy.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda/Scarlet Witch exhibits a similar connection between personality and superpowers: Although much (too much) of her screen time consists of hovering over her wounded lover, Vision, while her raccoon eyes squeeze out tears, when she strides into the fray, waving her arms and emitting cracking scarlet beams, she suggests mythic power. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner remains a splendid counterexample to the above, the fun being the distance between his mild, shaky demeanor and the green behemoth that explodes out his clothes. There’s an added joke in Avengers: Infinity War that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. I’ll just say that there has been a reversal of sorts in the relationship between Bruce and his heretofore-brash alter ego.
Not every return is so happy. The relentlessly lame one-liners of those poor galaxy guardians are the movie’s low points. Pratt fares better than Dave Bautista as Drax, who’s forced to moon over Thor’s sculpted physique while the now-teenage Groot keeps his eyes discreetly fixed on his hand-held computer games. Rocket’s relentless kvetches are nothing special this time, either, although the writers help the character by making him the sidekick of Thor — who is blissfully oblivious to his actual species. Saldana’s Gamora is the exception, doing much of the histrionic heavy lifting. Long ago, Thanos wiped out Gamora’s planet but adopted the feisty little girl and still harbors something for her akin to love. In his scenes with her, Brolin does a fine job signaling a soul in torment, even if that mouth sits squarely atop a ball sack. Saldana carries on her shoulders the weight of many worlds.
As suits their different sets of superheroes, directors Anthony and Joe Russo work in several disparate styles with several distinct color palettes. The brothers are not, to put it kindly, visual stylists, although the various planetary terrains — some pocked with formidable ruins and soaring rock formations — are designed to inspire awe. There’s a good fight aboard a ringed spaceship featuring a stringy, ghoulish Thanos henchman with the snotty affect of a headwaiter. (The punch line is a goof on a sci-fi action classic.) But the epic battle, on Wakanda, is another Marvel hash, as far removed from Game of Thrones’ spectacular Battle of the Bastards as Battle of the Bastards is from the thunderous clash in the rain and mud in Akira Kurosawa’s great Seven Samurai.
I invoke Kurosawa not out of elitism but to suggest how little Marvel’s films — which are, essentially, war movies — have in the way of a vision. The thousands of fallen bodies have all the weight of computer-game figures. Even Ryan Coogler — whose boxing-ring work in Creed was masterly — could in Black Panther barely rise above competence in showing people being slaughtered wholesale. It’s a matter of philosophy, of ethos, and Marvel’s is to throw more attention on whooshing entities in souped-up suits and stuff blowing up real good than on anything halfway human.
And yet … Audiences by this point have so much feeling for these characters that the Russos get by with a lot of undistinguished work. People applaud at the first sight of Wakanda, as if cheering its very existence. And while Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa and his marvelous women warriors have nothing particularly novel to do, merely seeing them again so soon (with Black Panther still in some multiplexes) is a treat. With Alan Silvestri’s score pulling out the stops and our heroes fighting for — and, in some cases, losing — their lives, the final bruising scenes on the planet Titan seem nearly Wagnerian in their grandeur.
About the ending … and this is where you should stop reading if what you know is literally nothing … Click away…
This apparently final “old” Avengers movie turns out to be in two parts, which is really what left my daughter gobsmacked and weeping into her popcorn. She and I both had no inkling that certain characters we were assured couldn’t possibly perish appear to do just that — temporarily. I would point you to a line by a certain visionary that one scenario out of millions of possibilities ends relatively happily … and that someone new is coming to the party … and that you’ll have to wait another damn year…
And you will, of course, as will my daughter and I. Marvel’s triumph is not that we are loyal audiences, not even loyal fans. We are slaves.