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This is a movie where magical colorful stones… well, we’ve come a long way.

I’m not going to waste your or my time talking about the achievement of the MCU after ten years and eighteen movies. That’s been well documented elsewhere. The Avengers: Infinity War is like the first of a two-part season finale for the biggest TV show on the planet and that does make it hard to review without cataloging all the previous seasons and episodes. A retrospective on the MCU might be in the cards for me sometime (this summer maybe?) but I’m not going to do it now when there’s so much to say about this movie.

The most important thing is whether Infinity War brings the goods, but at the same time this is peak MCU and you probably already know what to expect on that level. That baseline level of quality, which the MCU redefines every few installments, makes it even more appealing to focus on minutiae like who we think is gonna die and which character got exactly what amount of screen time and why that might be. So yeah, the quality level is high overall and you’re going to be pleased unless you fixate too much on that kind of ancillary stuff which drives so much of the 24/7/365 hype cycle we too quickly indulge. This results in a lot of nitpicking and wrong-headed “analysis” masquerading as legitimate takes or criticism. I’m not saying “turn your brain off”, because I never say that. I am saying that people should make sure they understand what dramatic stakes are before they cite that as a critique.

Interestingly, especially for the MCU haters, Infinity War is also the epitome of the MCU’s willingness to set up and then subvert expectations. This is a delicate game to play with fans who will spend hours gobbling up even the most minute details, debating theories and betting on likelihoods, and just basically obsessing about a movie like this one. That game is delicate because some of the backlash comes from that very subversion. People often fixate on what they think they want, leaving them disappointed or even offended (which I think is ridiculous) when things don’t go “their” way. The people behind the MCU understand the intersection of media and instant gratification they are grappling with, so they seem to occasionally pull a trick. The Mandarin of Iron Man 3 or even the tone and pace of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 show a willingness to misdirect and subvert expectations. Infinity War has been utilizing misdirection practically since Day 1 of the marketing push. The movie itself is full of clever and occasionally subtle subversions. I appreciate this kind of thing, because it shows that the Russos and the rest of the team are wise enough to be aware of how certain things are going to come across, especially with a movie that we’ve been looking forward to this long. In the end, it’s that willingness to surprise that makes Infinity War worth the wait.

INFINITY SPOILERS

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This image is a great example of what I mean: even the marketing was trying to get you ready for a surprise. Hulk in Wakanda! Those tricksters.

The biggest surprise is probably just how much this is really “Thanos’s movie”. During the marketing, this was stated a few times and not only as a way to assuage the concern that Thanos (Josh Brolin) wouldn’t live up to the hype, especially after his brief and mixed inclusions in previous movies, but also to set up the way they turned the usual “Hero’s Journey” of a superhero movie on its head. Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War, right down to the basic mechanics of the story. He’s the one with a quest, a MacGuffin to recover, obstacles to face and overcome, and so on. He has an arc and because Brolin inhabits the character to a degree I don’t think anyone was expecting, he simultaneously becomes the most interesting character in the movie as well as the MCU’s best villain.

This is pretty great when you think about it because while the MCU has been on a distinct upswing in terms of quality villains, Thanos maybe takes even Black Panther‘s Killmonger a step further in terms of redefining what to expect from an MCU villain. Now that we’ve got a list like Ego, Ultron, Vulture, Killmonger, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Zemo I think it’s fair to say that we’re getting to a point where the MCU’s good villains start to outnumber the mediocre and bad ones. Thanos stands above all of them, literally and figuratively.

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He also winds up joining the ranks of the best CG characters.

A minor gripe I have with this movie is how it opens, which itself is another example of subverting expectations. This time, it’s the expectations presented by the way Thor: Ragnarok ended. That was a hopeful ending, leaving the characters with the wide open star-ways in which to forge a fresh start. That gets smashed to pieces in the opening minutes of Infinity War, where we pick up a little ways from where Ragnarok left off and half the Asgardians are dead, some of Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) companions are MIA, and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is quickly and humiliatingly beaten down by Thanos himself. He also kills Loki and Heimdall (Idris Elba), but not before Hulk is transported back to Earth as a warning that Thanos is finally coming for the Infinity Stones. Thor himself is left for dead and Thanos disbands his “Children” to Earth ahead of him. Thanos has already gotten the “Power” Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy, having destroyed Xandar in the process (repercussions of which will probably be explored in a future movie, since it happens off screen).

The Infinity Stones are still scattered throughout the cosmos, with two on Earth in the hands of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Each stone gives the wielder a ton of power over its broad sphere of influence, and Thanos wants to put all six on his Infinity Gauntlet so he can snap his fingers and kill half the people in the universe. At first, this seems like an absurdly broad goal but part of the fun of this movie is in how they use Thanos’s insanity and strength of will to leverage our ability to believe it, or at least that he really thinks it’s some kind of heroic act. If the movies had spent more time developing the “Cancerverse” that is briefly alluded to in Guardians Vol. 2, I think Thanos’s ideas would be more interesting than just “resources”. It didn’t take the internet long to figure out that there are probably better ways to use the stones and the gauntlet, like say making more resources? The thing about Thanos being the “Mad Titan”, though, is that he’s nuts. That means the critical theme of the movie is, insanity or no, how do we perform the moral calculus of balancing lives? The old “sacrifice the few for the welfare of the many” notion is like an Infinity Stone itself, one that this movie holds up and examines from many angles.

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Seeing the high tech and mystical dimensions of the MCU interact is fun, though it’s reduced mostly to being about egos.

Another great subversion of expectation happens as Bruce Banner pops up to warn Strange and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about Thanos. Stark has known there’s someone out there for years, haunted by it enough to create Ultron and give himself a host of neurotic issues he’s been dealing with for several movies. Now he’s thinking retirement, children, marriage to Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). But unfortunately, he’s finally got to deal with that elephant that’s been in his room for six years. With all that weight behind the reaction, the movie sets up a sequence of getting ready, rallying the troops, etc that never actually happens. The subversion is that Thanos’s children show up immediately. There’s no time to get ready, no time to build anticipation toward the heavily-marketed battle in Wakanda. We’re just getting after it.

This also sets up that Infinity War is actually several mini-movies with entertaining, long-anticipated pairings and team-ups as Thanos rounds up the Infinity Stones. We get some of his backstory, especially with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who winds up being one of the most important characters in the film. We see that once, he raided and subjugated planets using pure violence. His armies, including the Chitauri from The Avengers, would conquer planets and kill half their inhabitants. Only with the Infinity Stones can he accomplish the same goal with less barbaric methods. One of the reasons Thanos is somewhat tragic, if not sympathetic, is because Brolin makes it possible for us to believe that he does carry some weight of the cost of what he’s doing. It’s not all abstract to him, and he longs for a way to kill people humanely. If that sounds kind of nuts, it’s because it is. Again, Thanos is fully insane, driven there by survivor’s guilt and a doubtlessly intoxicating sense that only he knows what’s right for the universe. There are probably legions of armchair eugenics fans who will overly identify with Thanos, but I really appreciated the way this movie never flirts with any kind of sympathy for his cause.

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The doomed romance of Vision  and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is an emotional cornerstone of the movie.

At the same time, Thanos’s journey is never allowed to stray too far from recognizable emotional stakes. If it had, we’d just have another Malekith or a Ronan the Accuser retread. He’s dealing with the same issues of sacrifice and morality that all the other characters are. The words “we don’t trade lives” are only virtuous if you’re not the one whose life can make the difference. This makes Captain America (Chris Evans) the moral anchor once again, since he’s probably the only one who wouldn’t stray from the principle of not giving up the lives of others under any circumstances. For Thanos, it comes down to the only person in the whole universe that he loves, and all his stuff with Gamora is riveting as a result. Seriously some of the best scenes in the movie. For Wanda and Vision, it’s basically the same idea since destroying Vision’s Mind Stone could mean an abrupt end to Thanos’s quest. Strange makes it clear that he’ll give up the lives of his allies to save the Time Stone, only to give up his own instead. Stark has to struggle with whether he agrees with Strange, because at one point he definitely would have, especially with his surrogate son in the mix. This relationship is why Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is the only “ash death” at the end of the film that has real emotional weight, but more on this later.

The biggest and most tragic mistake in the movie (in terms of actions of the characters) hinges on this theme of sacrifice as Quill (Chris Pratt) is prepared to be the one to kill Gamora, but can’t control himself when it’s Thanos who actually does the deed. Quill loses his shit at the worst possible moment but not only is this moment in character, it resonates in the characterizations of others, especially Stark, as much as it does for him. In smaller sacrifices, this is just as resonant: Heimdall sacrifices himself to warn Earth, Loki sacrifices himself on just the tiniest chance he can kill Thanos and end it. Thor is willing to sacrifice himself at Nidavellir to make sure that Eitri (Peter Dinklage) has enough star-power to forge a weapon to replace Mjolnir. Everybody in the movie is trying to figure out how much they are willing to lose even for tiny chances and hopes. Probably the best scene in the movie is a brief pep talk between Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Thor about sacrifice, which brings Thor’s whole characterizaton to a head and is a nice response to the people who have complained about how “different” he is in Ragnarok (to me, Thor has always been a macho goof with a big heart, and the main change has been his increasing self awareness– which results in me just liking him more and more). For most of the characters, the balance is between morality and existence. For Thanos, the morality is clear and existence isn’t a factor, since he can live without sacrificing Gamora to kill half the thinking beings in the universe. That, as much as anything, is what makes him evil.

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And makes this such a great visual metaphor.

Speaking of sacrifice, there’s been a lot of criticism about how the movie lacks stakes because the “deaths don’t matter”. Everyone’s metatextual genre savvy tells them that of course these characters with sequels already scheduled won’t really stay dead. That’s why their deaths are sudden and somewhat perfunctory in the movie. There are only a few deaths that linger for the audience and characters to really feel and they are all pretty heavy. Loki, Gamora, and especially Vision are meant to punch you in the gut. So is Peter Parker, which is clever since he’s an “ash death” and the wrenching nature of his death scene (and that it’s longer than all the other ash deaths) is both a way to subvert the “wave of death” even as it’s about to seem kind of ridiculous, as well as a callback to Tony’s earlier conversation with Pepper about having a kid someday. Parker is Tony’s surrogate son, very much the end result of all his attempts to recreate a better version of himself. Stuff like this is why I’m starting to realize what a masterstroke it was to use Tony as Peter Parker’s bridge to the MCU. In many ways, all of Stark’s experiences in the ten years of movies have naturally led to what happens to him (and how he reacts to things) in Infinity War. He tells Quill to back down because he remembers losing his shit in Civil War. He’s cautious about Peter (in because his last protege was fucking Ultron. The list goes on.

So the thing about stakes comes down to context. Of course the viewer knows many of these deaths will be reversed in Avengers 4. The point isn’t to try and trick you, Jon Snow style. The point is that this is a big, awful event that the characters now have to live with or try to change somehow (once they figure out they can). For now, the stakes are in how they react and how the MCU will change, even if only for a while, because of this. That’s the context that matters, because the comic book superhero characters do not know they are in a comic book superhero movie. We don’t care about stories because people die in them, we care about what death means. Here, it symbolizes hopelessness, loss, and the nature of sacrifice. In the end, it’s Thanos’s sacrifice that seems to be the most effective and so the question becomes: what does all of it even mean or matter if a madman can murder the only person he loves and make all of it moot with a literal snap of the fingers? That’s heavy stuff, and it’s rooted in moral philosophy which I should have expected given the inward-looking themes of Age of Ultron. To me, this feels like a natural continuation of the question the MCU periodically asks: what even is a superhero? It’s also worth noting that it’s mainly the OG Avengers who are left standing which, like everything else, is completely deliberate.

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The big battle is visceral, but the “Outriders” end up being another generic horde of CG for the heroes to fight. The movie wisely spends much less time on this than you’d expect given the marketing.

For being so bleak in the end, Infinity War maintains the MCU balance of character interaction, comedy, and fun that has made it such a success. Though it’s unafraid to go dark places, Infinity War is also a movie where Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) picks up Rocket and more or less uses him as a second gun. Amid the brutality of the big battle, there’s time for Cap to be Cap both in exchanges with Thor, who gets the crowning moment of awesome this time around, and Groot (Vin Diesel). I don’t know how you wouldn’t expect it at this point, but Drax (Dave Bautista) steals every scene where he has a line. If there’s a weak link in the cast, it’s Peter Dinklage who seems the definition of stunt casting here. There’s some value to be gleaned from casting him as an eight-foot tall space dwarf, but his performance is sedate and undercut by his not-very-good Tyrion Lannister accent. Even he gets to riff on Thor’s endearing, blustering heroism though so there’s that.

As big as this movie is, there are endless things to talk about but I think I’ve hit on the main ones that I wanted to mention. I could just write a list of random thoughts and observations but that’d be boring to write if not read. I really liked the movie and I think I got what they were going for. The Russos continue to be aces in the hole for the MCU, able to balance characters and elements from a broad range of other writers, directors, and actors and make something cohesive and thrilling out of it. There aren’t a lot of movies out there where an all-powerful bad guy who resembles a He-Man villain gets to throw a moon at the heroes, but Infinity War exists. It’s hard not to just sit there, slack-jawed and amazed by that. I’ve seen the movie twice now and feel like it’s been a bit tough to review without just writing a list, so I’ll leave it here and save further comments for an eventual, possible, maybe even likely MCU retrospective.

 

 

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