Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War ★★★

Avengers: Infinity War truly and indisputably cements Marvel Studios' status as the game-changer of Hollywood. It monstrously demonstrates how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has irrevocably rewritten the rules of filmmaking and film appreciation/criticism.

While the above sounds like gushing, hyperbolic praise from this ardent fan, my take on Infinity War is perhaps the most muted and unbiased I've ever been towards the MCU. To understand this, one must judge the film with context. Of course, critics and audiences alike (and even filmmakers and studios) should always take a film's circumstances into account and adjust their expectations. It's impossible and pointless to be ever-objective, ignorant and unfair to overlook behind-the-scenes drama. But Infinity War raises this practice to unprecedented heights. What is the right way to judge a film that's not only a "Part 1" but also the 19th installment in an intertextually connected saga? With how much lenience should one bring to the theatre, considering the ingenious planning of a 10-year experiment and ridiculously difficult task The Russo Brothers had?

Hence I am troubled by my troubles with this film. The first of these troubles stem from Infinity War's incompletion, despite Marvel's marketing department's insistence that this is not only a standalone film but also the grand finale. Clearly, it's neither of those things, and I can easily imagine one's outrage with the ending and Marvel's deceit, if one went in with those things in mind. Many comparisons with Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Dead Man's Chest have already been made. There are some confusing themes (about sacrifice, "trading lives", and whatnot) but I can't reflect on them without a part 2. More of my troubles stem from the MCU's unique position. It's necessary to split up our dozens of heroes into groups, but this film cuts between those groups so much that sometimes a scene's follow-up isn't shown until (what feels like) 30 minutes later. Obviously, some groups are inherently more interesting to watch than others, and there are tonal clashes between the groups/scenes. To control this constant, pervasive parallel editing is a colossal task, and it significantly improves in the last hour because the plot threads finally merge. It's easy to say "The Russos/Markus and McFeely did the best they could", but the temporal disorientation and disconnectedness cannot be undone. However, it's even easier to immediately label these weaknesses as "flaws", yet I don't think it is valid to do so when you take the film's behind-the-scenes context into consideration. It's a unique film in a unique position, and such common rules need not apply.

Among these MCU symptoms, one stands out as particularly unique to this very episode (and perhaps its direct sequel). For the first time, our superheroes are not heroes. The "hero" or protagonist of this movie is Thanos. This is basically inarguable – it's the only way of reading this film that makes any conventional storytelling sense. There's nothing inherently wrong with this; on the contrary, such an unexpected and risky (though logical) approach should be commended more than anything. But do they go far enough with this direction to make it work? Is Thanos a compelling protagonist? The answer is sadly no. His arc is to collect 6 MacGuffins for a clearly explained but ultimately unintelligent motive. It involves a lot of telling, not showing. Two of these stones are acquired off-screen, three of them are acquired way too easily, and only one is acquired in a way that's challenging and consequential to Thanos. Thanos as the protagonist works barely competently. But for Marvel Studios, Hollywood's most infamous assembly line, to take this direction is truly a welcome surprise. The heroes we are familiar with are reduced to small pieces in the puzzle (except for Thor, whose arc is to manufacture yet another MacGuffin to stop our MacGuffin-obsessed protagonist), and while that might disappoint fans and general audiences, it's not a bad thing. Instead, it's a very good subversion, and they don't need much more "character development", considering this is some characters' tenth appearance or something. It's yet another trait unique to the MCU.

Due to these narrative shortcomings, The Russos clearly had to step up their visual game. They did, but not enough. One or two new worlds are visually interesting, but the rest seem to be designed with no cinematographic sense in mind. The 1.90:1 to 2.39:1 crop is horrendous – some over-the-shoulders and close-ups feel infuriatingly incomplete. Most scenes are filmed in the "superheroes doing superhero business" way. It's adequate and typical MCU – New York looks like New York, space looks like space, etc. I can already see some critics sharpening their pitchforks for the camerawork of the last act, but I didn't mind it; its (presumably unintentional) silliness actually put a smile to my face. Not much of Civil War's interplay of superpowers remains, and the grittiness of The Winter Soldier is long gone. I don't understand the widespread praise for the CGI, recalling some of the video-game-looking shots (reminders of Black Panther) and floating-heads-in-Iron-Man-suits (reminders of Civil War). Even though some of Thanos' superpowers are intriguing, they are underused. The visuals of this film are really nothing to write home about, and I'm already being forgiving. It's even more disappointing when one considers this film's gargantuan budget.

This seems to be all criticism and no praise, but it was still a mostly enjoyable time that felt much shorter than 2.5 hours. It's one long crescendo. If you deconstruct this film as one set-piece after another, almost every set-piece satisfies. I particularly enjoyed the set-piece on Titan. And of course there is the elephant in the room, the moment everyone will be talking about for the forthcoming weeks. The film ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. It's not a surprise to anyone who follows comic books or even entertainment news, but it's nonetheless powerfully realized. To those without prior knowledge of the source material, the impact might even rival "I am your father" (I'll never know this for sure). Finally, Alan Silvestri makes some excellent contributions, though the MCU's music problem is too deeply rooted to be solved by now.

That's why Infinity War is such an incredibly difficult movie to judge or rate. Firstly, it's part 1 of a movie; secondly, a lot of its putative flaws are forgivable if not outright smart and refreshing decisions. It comes down to the audience following these movies for 10 years and understanding what position this movie is in. It's a four-quadrant blockbuster, so some audiences will definitely be lost, but there should still be some things that we can all agree on – the underwhelming visuals, the thrilling set-pieces, Josh Brolin's stellar performance, to name a few. It really is its own beast and a victim of its own success; if anything, Kevin Feige et al. have done more than enough to warrant our understanding, forgiveness, and content.

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