‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is the most star-studded blockbuster in the history of cinema. Probably the most expensive too. It’s an over-crowded family reunion of epic proportions presided over the big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin), as was promised. It delivers a mammoth high for the masses who have accepted the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the cinematic narcotic it is. For others like myself, It’s almost an exercise in self-harm. We fold our arms, pout and tweet begrudgingly about how the Lord of the Rings films balanced fun, adventure, scale, spectacle, stakes, pathos and basically the very best cinema had to offer.
But the point is, after 10 years of obscene profits, Marvel is not about to change the winning formula. Which is why we are stuck with some level of compromise until, maybe, superhero films go the way of the Western and develop another layer of awareness that offers some artistic elevation. Today every other Western seems like it borders on great. Then, of course, we reconcile this with the fact that not many people see every other Western and this takes us back to why the MCU, a masterstroke in its own right, exists in its current mould and punching holes in it is an exercise in futility. But we will persist, nonetheless.
Right now, the MCU is trying to sell us on some sort of endgame that has been in the works since that close up of a (now laughably conceived) CGI Thanos grinning menacingly at moviegoers at the end of 2012’s The ‘Avengers’. There was a significant anti-spoiler campaign preceding the Russo Brothers-helmed ‘Infinity War’ premiere that elicited eye-rolls from yours truly, even more so after the film ended. Unpredictability plot-wise isn’t really this film’s trump card. This isn’t ‘Blade Runner 2049′, where the first scene is bursting through the seams with key details and critical plot points.
Amid the expected plethora of stars; from Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man and of course, the man of the moment himself, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther, the script rightfully takes time to put us on the wavelength of this film’s true star, Thanos. Brolin, via motion capture, provides a certain character precision and poise that makes it a back-to-back of impressive Marvel villains. Lowkey, Marvel is actually 3-for-4 on villains if you count Kurt Russel in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2’ (what villain problem?).
On the surface, Thanos’ mission is to harness unlimited power by acquiring all six Infinity Stones. When the film starts, he already has one stone; the Power stone. The script deserves full credit for not spoon feeding audiences. Refer to ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ if you are confused. There is an effortless level of continuity that highlights how well-oiled the MCU machine is and how it subtly nods to the comics. Indeed, not to go into spoilers, I bet someone is thinking up a supercut of ‘Thor: Ragnarok‘ and ‘Infinity War’ right now because of their close ties.
Back to the opening; already having possession of the Power stone, Thanos has the Space stone in reach. All these stones confer different powers, levelling up the wielder by providing different abilities. ‘Infinity War’ does well to treating the stones as a McGuffin. The image of a gnarly Thanos, with his gleaming infinity gauntlet, held up in a fist is what we identified this film with pre-release. But we are expected to look beyond the gauntlet to the man himself if we are to truly cut to the crux of this film.
Thanos, much like Killmonger in ‘Black Panther‘ gives this film a certain philosophical and Shakespearean grounding. In constructing a great villain, the basic thing a script does strip is down the antagonist force to its bare components and assign some vulnerability, some humanity. We get that here for Thanos. The internet had a lot of fun with Thanos’ choice of apparel in the trailers. “Ready-to-Fight”, we call it in Ghana. The “Mad Titan” was not in his traditional armour. He actually starts this film in it, only to drop it halfway through the prologue. This gives him a certain tactile quality, reinforced by a great somewhat grounded performance by Brolin.
The script is not trying to rub Thanos’ might in our face. He already has the Power stone when the film starts, meaning, he can make quick work of anyone. He literally rips an entire moon from space and rains it on a section of the Avengers. Prior to this, he was already known as a world-conqueror. But, he finds himself in a number of all-out brawls, proving to us that he is not defined by the Infinity Gauntlet. He talks about his sheer force of will and determination and we never doubt that. His ultimate goal, however, is defined by the Infinity Gauntlet, and the Infinity Stones, and this serves as a conduit for the tremendous depth of character and disquieting tragedy.
To put it simply, Thanos seeks balance. The reason he seeks this balance is clear. Thanos is also very aware of the price he has to pay. Absolute power may not so much corrupt over here as it does erode one’s being. We get an important flashback to a conquest on the planet of his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). In a beautifully intimate and well-crafted scene, he explains to a feisty little Gamora why balance is important, as half the population is wiped out in the backdrop. Gamora suddenly becomes a critical character and her relationship with Thanos is the staging ground for the levels of drama we praised films like ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Black Panther’ for. The adornments of Radio Raheem’s knuckles flashed through my mind as the substance of Thanos’ and Gamora’s relationship is laid bare and again, I go back to the word Shakespearean.
The essence of this film can be distilled to just those two characters though there is something to be said for the relationship between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Vision, as we know, is powered by an infinity stone so he is a clear target for Thanos, thus putting Wanda is a tight position emotionally when squeaky bum time arrives. Thor also stands out, quite surprisingly. After three solo films, especially one where his whole world was completely destroyed, he’s lost everything and in a quiet heart-to-heart with Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) we catch a glimpse of the sad emptiness within.
On the whole, we a have shipload of characters on the periphery so what do we do with them? Just throw them in a lot of high-octane CGI action so the masses get to high five each other and cheer and howl and profess their love for the array of god-crafted leading men on screen. A lot of the action, at its best, is just chaff. I think of why ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’, also directed by the Russos, is acclaimed as the best Marvel movie and it’s simply because of the minimal CGI and bare-knuckle approach to proceedings set it apart. Less has always been more and that will never change.
During the much-hyped battle of Wakanda in the film’s denouement, the scale of the action never really assumes any level of coherence. The camera work is drab and functional. There is no sense of time and space. We never get a sense of where that characters are at each point in time. They just appear where they need to be just in time for a tag team manoeuvre. The earlier bursts of action fare much better, especially those that involve Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The dabbling in the mystical and the magical conceits remain a joy to watch. There is a particular set piece that dazzles in its eccentric multiplicities and delivers a mind-bending tease to what a potential Dr. Strange sequel on PEDs could look like.
Though some of the major Marvel characters have their moments (consider the admittedly brilliant Captain America reveal), they are just sprinkled atop an icing of massive action set-pieces that decorate the core story. A film like this has earned the right to do so given the past groundwork. Their interaction throws up a crossfire with the usual one-liners and sarcastic quips that are as tedious as ever. The laughs were minimal, the annoyance, ever-present.
In the end, the Russos deliver a deceptively simple blockbuster. There is almost always a clear demarcation between spectacle and the earnest story. They achieve some success the few times they try to mesh the two together. The one negative that won’t feel like a copy-and-paste from a previous MCU review is that, amid everything, there is never a sense of finality or consequence to proceedings. Yes, people are losing their minds over the climax and subsequent cliff-hanger ahead of summer 2019, but notable moments with the Time Stone, undercut everything and defeat core point of time manipulation in fiction.
Misgivings notwithstanding, Thanos reigns supreme in more ways than one and he is the reason the sequel to this film will matter. The thoughtful handling of his character elevates ‘Infinity War’ and makes the whole cacophony of characters bearable. His arc incredibly magnetic and we have to see how it ends, I cant spoil this film but will spoil our reality: Marvel wins again by eating its cake and somehow multiplying it.