The Avengers find themselves reconciling and teaming up with the Guardians Of The Galaxy to stop galactic über-baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) from assembling The Infinity Stones, elemental crystals from the dawn of the The Big Bang. The collective strength of these stones would give Thanos the power he needs to enact his lifelong wish: to eradicate half of all life in the universe.
Ten years ago, DC had their day with The Dark Knight, a film that decimated both the box office and raised the low expectations of superhero films (remember: back then the world was still recovering from Blade: Trinity), by being part-Frank Miller’s Batman, part-Michael Mann’s Heat and at least 100% Heath Ledger Oscar clip. If you’d said back then that, when a more colourful comic book adaptation released in 2008 had put the future of another iconic brand on the line by pinning a goatee on the guy who’d been sacked from Ally McBeal, and that it would eventually have an even bigger cultural footprint than anything DC could offer cinematically, you’d be laughed out of polite society. You’d never even get a chance to mention that their directing roster included such indie darlings as the chubby, not-Vince Vaughn chap from Swingers, some guys who directed a few episodes of Arrested Development, and the dude who penned Alien Resurrection. What could possibly go right, right?
Yet here we are. Five days and nearly a billion dollars already in the tills, Infinity War has crowned the long-validated plan Samuel L. Jackson (and Marvel) first announced to both Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and the audience of Iron Man regarding the concept of a superhero team-up. Batman and Superman might be the Jagger and Richards of comic book history, but Marvel had the equivalent of The Beatles, and since 2008 it seems like they’ve been turning every cinema in the world into Shea Stadium.
With an opening that both follows on from (and perhaps renders redundant) Thor: Ragnarok, this film doesn’t take its foot off the pedal until the very final, melancholic shot of its mammoth 160-minute runtime. Before you’ve sat down, two MCU favourites are dispatched, another two have been chastened, a suddenly broody Tony Stark has been whisked away from planning his wedding to Pepper Potts and is clashing with the similarly vainglorious Dr. Strange whilst an alien spaceship attracts the attention of both Peter Parker and, of course, Stan Lee.
That’s the first ten minutes, by the way. Wait another five and you’ll see the Guardians Of The Galaxy bickering about the merits of retro handheld videogames.
Joe and Anthony Russo – directors of MCU highpoint The Winter Soldier – have a task on their hands similar to the one they largely succeeded with on that film’s sequel, Civil War: how to marshal several characters from stylistically disparate movies into one coherent whole. And whilst some characters do get short shrift – Chris Evans’ ever-noble Steve Rogers strangely has little to do except sport a magnificent beard, T’Challa merely gets to look cool for a few shots, and will these movies ever give Scarlet Johansson something interesting to work with? – they pretty much pull it off. The occasional tonal wonks of Civil War suggested that they might lack Jon Favreau’s knack for hitting the right beat or Joss Whedon’s general verve, but they’re on point here, and why even complain that such directors have gotten their chance?
Of course, we’re nineteen films in to the MCU, so the character development has largely been done, but it’s still miraculous that the key characters from all those films fit so perfectly together (it even answers a question from the finalé of Captain America: The First Avenger that all but the staunchest MCU diehards probably forgot they asked). Yet the biggest surprise is the time spent here on one Mad Titan in particular: Thanos.
Early trailers suggested audiences were set to have yet another awful CGI mocap performance a la Justice League’s Steppenwolf bestowed upon them, but there’s been time spent tinkering since those early teasers. Thanos’ texture and expressions are brilliantly done, and don’t detract from Brolin’s performance, which comes close to making you feel sympathy – or at least understanding of – the point of view he espouses. From a first scene that sees him go from monologuing to bruising in a whirl, to his quiet, contemplative final scene, he’s never less than formidable and is worth the hype, not least for having a character arc that generates surprising empathy (although not quite as much as Black Panther’s Killmonger). His scenes with one of his “daughters” are laden with guilt and sorrow, so much so that you have to remind yourself one of them is made of pixels and the other is wearing make-up so pastel it’s like you’re watching a sixties Star Trek episode. One scene in particular stands out as an emotional highpoint of the MCU – until the very end makes it look very small change indeed.
The marketing has teased a Spock moment for one or two of the main cast, yet it’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that Marvel fans should prepare themselves for something a bit more Kobayashi Maru. It caused a fair few tears in the screening I was at (poor weans…and my pal, fully-fledged grown-ass man Steve Charleston).
Ultimately, then, there are two ways to look at this movie. The first is as a piece of entertainment, and the second is as a piece of consumption and how it undermines the former. As a capital-M movie – those final moments aside – it excels. The action moves at a frantic but understandable pace, aided by the fact that the performances both step into and up to the challenge of being placed in unfamiliar surroundings with new companions (just when you thought there were only so many responses to “I Am Groot”, along comes Chris Evans’ pinpoint and hitherto unused comic timing). It is also a vast film, throwing itself across the universe like a Hulk might throw himself at a Titan, and the effects are never less than top-of-the-line…well, if we’re being frank, they maybe shouldn’t have let the work experience kid animate someone’s head popping out of the Hulkbuster near the otherwise impeccably done close.
It is this finish line that the caveats come in to play. Without giving too much away, it’s hard to feel the shock of the final minutes of this film for longer than it takes you to remember that the MCU has a yearly release slate until 2028 (more immediately, it cynically undermines the impact by continuing the MCU tradition of a post-credits teasing of another Marvel/Disney flick – coming soon!). They say no-one stays dead in comics, but their contracts certainly do run out, adding a layer of meta intrigue to the Days Of Future Past-style threads hanging out of the climax.
That those final minutes are nevertheless beautifully rendered to the point that their execution is genuinely moving doubles down on Birth. Movies. Death.’s headline for their review of 2012’s The Avengers: “Everything wrong with Hollywood, done wonderfully right”. I can’t find better words for Infinity War.
Avengers: Infinity War was released in the UK on 26th April