As supernatural eccentricities and endearing relationships transpire, inspiration surges and sorrow permeates this popcorn epic.
The unprecedented hype and pet theories came to a gloriously somber end when Avengers: Infinity War smashed its glove in theaters this week. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who penned the last two Captain America movies), Infinity War marks the third MCU movie directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Between every bit of its marketing, people have been hailing this pre-summer tentpole the culmination of ambitious franchise interconnectedness. MacGuffins, character growth, and Thanos-centric post-credits all build to this expansive and expensive war. It's the result of a painstaking scheme that only Hollywood production can accomplish, and Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige tasted the sweet success even when the Infinity Stones were still scattered. Can they unite to fulfill the commands of Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose armchair supremacy has been treated like an Internet meme?
This time, the galactic warlord—yet not necessarily tyrant—and his Black Order take the matter seriously, and fans are in for matters of life and death. With a plan to wipe out half the living universe, the Mad Titan is a hero from the utilitarian perspective, which says the total of universal happiness is the only thing that matters. Yes, Thanos needs to create the upcoming chaos to achieve order and prosperity. I want to make a few counter-arguments with him, but hey, what do I know about sociology applied for the vast unknown?
Population control is an underlying theme in many superhero movies, but Thanos wins over viewers not just by his cause and method. His inner life, in terms of both backstory and relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), is rich and tumultuous. This understanding owes a lot to Brolin's nuanced performance, even through motion capture. His husky voice speaks of Thanos' reticent rigor while his eyebrows and lips express a profound sadness of unsought violence and tragic undertakings. In villain standards, if we love Heath Ledger's Joker because he shows pleasure in his deeds, we'll love Thanos because he does the opposite.
Kudos to the team of mo-cap artists and Black Order actors. The more prevalent presences are Carie Coon as the badass Proxima Midnight and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the wrinkly wizard Ebony Maw—the latter being more remarkable and intuitively terrifying. Similar to the CGI-built Thanos, this group of alien killers is brought to menacing life by careful VFX production and the guidance of Terry Notary (Kong: Skull Island), who also plays the underused, ogre-like Cull Obsidian. Though the Black Order show no traits beyond an unflinching loyalty to Thanos, they pose a valid threat to our heroes.
Coming freshly from two consecutive solo outings with distinct flavors of lived-in development and artistic input (Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther), the MCU lays out a climactic chapter that draws most of its energy and emotional attachment from the fact that hard-core followers watched and re-watched most of the first eighteen installments. Those good, average, and bad movies are the stepping stones for whoever writes, directs, or produces Infinity War; they can be sure viewers won't expect as much characterization as from the solo ones. It's all about watching familiar faces together in big pyrotechnics and facets of humanity, so the crossover doesn't have to be a movie in its strictest sense. Cinema lacks the visual compactness of comic books, where readers partly control the experience. Action-fantasy filmmakers can't create a single frame of a large battlefield with hundreds of participants like a double-spread, so Markus and Feely conceive a multi-storyline narrative.
That narrative requires not only firm attention but also thoughtful investment from long-time MCU fans. When a superhero informs his allies about Thanos' invasion—because two Infinity Stones are on Earth, the plot branches out to half a dozen medium-sized team-ups. That's when fans anticipated the most. As supernatural eccentricities and endearing relationships transpire, inspiration surges and sorrow permeates this popcorn epic. Everyone must pay an unfathomable price for their decision to be a superhero. Stemmed from The Avengers, the noble idea of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, almost having a chance for his trademark phrase) faces its ultimate (or penultimate?) test.
Due to the crossover nature of Infinity War, some characters' action and presence can be strange or ahead of themselves. You will gasp, clap, wince, and scratch your heads at their behaviors and abilities. Despite being less comprehensible than written before, these heroes and villains and anti-villains aren't mere pieces on the Russos' sprawling chessboard. Meaty plotlines, woven into the grand scheme, will deliver emotional gut-punches later. They create tough obstacles for Thanos through clever (if messy at first) teamwork and personal affairs. The Mad Titan is teased as the main character, so it'd be better if we approach the thrill and humor from this angle.
With the movie hopping between at least ten locales, the Russos create a coherent throughline. Shock tactics and light-hearted banter keep its tonal mesh afloat, not bloated. Knowing only fans care enough, the directing duo still takes time to remind us who these individuals are. Between the hectic action, Infinity War settles in slow moments when they confide and confess to one another. I'm not talking about welcome hugs or brief, visually assisted exposition. It's startling to see heart-to-heart pep-talks or caring gestures between old friends or new companions that rarely bog down the pace.
It also helps that the ensemble cast has been with their characters for so long. Name-calling the A-listers who star in Infinity War would be a more laborious task than finding the Infinity Stones. Because super bands cover battlegrounds across the universe, scenarios focus on certain characters and skirt other appearances. Egomaniacs Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), wonder boy Spider-Man (Tom Holland), wised-up survivor Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and two romantic couples stand out among essential faces. While most actors relish and elevate their roles, the best acting performances belong to Saldana, Holland, Elizabeth Olsen—as Scarlet Witch, and Dave Bautista—as Drax.
Thrashing showdowns mostly happen inside the bleak, sweeping ambiance of wrecked marketplaces and grim, mystic zones. Through compositing, they are incorporated into the soft lighting on CGI costumes and the constant swoops and whirls of cinematographer Trent Opaloch (District 9, Elysium). The steady growth of Joe and Anthony Russo as visual storytellers are discernible, even when they only work effectively with the camera in the restriction of MCU's mass appeal. Shaky cam and jolting cuts dominate the fights that feature CGI doubles for Thanos' Black Order or army of Outriders. Fortunately, the more personal skirmishes capture fruitfully the bruisers' weight, agility, precision, and even colorful personalities in longer edits.
For a change of pace, the Wakanda battle takes over the whole third act as stakes intensify. While nowhere near complex as the Helm's Deep by Peter Jackson, this massive set piece has captivating sequences and a proper buildup—from preparations to the big assault and strategic efforts, then back to smaller fights where characters continue to show raw power, solidarity, and conviction. Banal snarks and visual gags sometimes barge in to little positive effect, but the jokes never blur or dilute the interpersonal tension. Composer Alan Silvestri varies his Avengers theme in accordance with dramatic pivots whereas the rest of his score comprises generic sets of familiar notes for specific scenes.
One more improvement on MCU's formula: the Infinity Stones aren't MacGuffins anymore. Their powers come to the front, launching projectiles into the good guys and messing with character-driven drama. It doesn't matter how many of them Thanos collects because he doesn't need six Stones to wreak emotional disarray in fans.
The ending is this cinematic universe's riskiest move yet, which doesn't say much when compared to its storytelling playbook. It feels like Feige and the Russos having it both ways. Plot points are already playing themselves out, discussions abound after the premiere week. In the next months, significant setups and the revelation of Avengers 4's official title will fuel even more doubt and excitement. For now, rejoice in being trembled and speechless at Infinity War.
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