Review: Avengers: Infinity War

19 connected films over 10 years – nobody’s attempted what Marvel have achieved. As the first part of a two film finale, Avengers: Infinity War is potentially the series’ crowning achievement – a thrilling and propulsive blockbuster and crowdpleaser.

Six stones embodying elemental forces in the universe – power, space, time, reality, the soul and the mind – have either been a given villain’s weapon or prize throughout the series. Space maniac Thanos (Josh Brolin) seeks to unite all six, giving him the power to wipe out half the universe. His path draws in the (nearly) full roster of Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, spread across the universe in an attempt to stop him.

What strikes you, from the first scene, is the stakes. Many complain (rightly) that there is zero threat for Marvel heroes, as most deaths or shocks are reversed, or are fake outs. Infinity War immediately forces you to realise this is no longer the case, and from there to its astounding conclusion there are huge, concussive impacts tinged with drama.

The writing and directing, from (respectively) Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, makes what looked like an unbelievable challenge easy, fitting nearly every hero into two and a half hours, and introducing new characters, locations and events that will resonate going forward. While a few favourites are underserved, this is largely, successfully achieved.

Quipping and character interplay we’ve come to expect is pleasingly present, with some surprising interactions paying off perfectly. The filmmakers know how well received these scenes will be, and some of the series’ funniest moments play on our understanding of and affection for these characters, while still pushing everything forwards in the shadow of the looming threat.

Perhaps most impressively, the drama is affecting, leading to a remarkable finale – I’m still surprised a huge franchise blockbuster was able to end like this! And it’s Thanos, the main villain, that the film centres on – you could even consider him its main character. Markus and McFeely give us a rounded, comprehensive study of what might otherwise have just been a faceless antagonist (god knows the series has previous form on this).

Instead, we are treated to flashbacks, monologues and smaller, dialogue led scenes that embellish his journey and emotional perspective, his motivations and what drives him. Much like Black Panther’s Killmonger, there’s just enough in his desire to wipe out half the universe to see where he’s coming from. All of this elevates the film thematically as a result.

The Russos build on The Winter Soldier, Civil War and their storied background in ensemble American TV to skillfully direct, their strengths with big, sweeping casts foregrounded in the aforementioned scenes bringing heroes together, but their amazing handle for action is present too, small and incredibly large scenes alike presented clearly and with style.

Technical elements also add to the mix, Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt’s excellent editing of three or four parallel storylines increasing tension and forward momentum until a last act crescendo. Trent Opaloch’s distinctive cinematography gives the film visually arresting switches between stunning spacescapes and Earth, particularly the lushness of Wakanda.

Alan Silvestri returns with Avengers Assemble’s big themes, and does a fantastic job of providing bombast, creeping dread, sorrow and tension. The main theme is almost disassembled, with some excellent twists on its triumphant notes into the credits, and he also wraps in Ludwig Goransson’s Black Panther theme and his own prior motifs for a stirring mix.

The sA1t8xCe9jwL._SY679_pecial effects are (for Marvel) a step up, particularly the unbelievably good motion capture work on Thanos. The essence of Josh Brolin’s performance comes through, and give this giant purple alien a tangible sense of reality through little facial expressions and changes. Action scenes are unsurprisingly (mostly) great, though still a little ropey at times (a surprise given the amount of money spent). However, that matters little to comic book fans finally seeing immense battles onscreen, and those of us who enjoy the clever way heroes team up to fight these antagonists.

Nobody is winning any acting awards, but for Marvel some performances are quite impressive. Brolin’s excellent work embodies Thanos with gravitas and presence, his booming voice working well with the character’s scale and power, and surprising vulnerabilities. He makes you empathise with a giant, purple, genocidal maniac, a few particular scenes featuring emotional notes and moments CGI characters usually can’t get across.

Tony Stark is the figurehead of the franchise, cursed with a sense of responsibility, guilt and vengeance that comes bursting to the surface here. He’s still quip happy, but in a few smaller scenes Robert Downey Jr gives off a strong sense of duty mixed with sadness, as he struggles between his heroic role and a diminishing hope of a new life away from it all.

Chris Hemsworth nearly steals the entire film, Thor given a huge amount to do and the actor excellently balancing between acute despair and humour. He’s given a rounded story and a dramatic purpose, and is unquestionably one of the more adept cast members when it comes to comedy, continuing on from Thor Ragnarok.

Chris Evans loses out in comparison, but manages to impart some of Steve Rogers’ unshakeable courage, as well as a sense of regret and compassion. Scarlett Johansson, frankly, doesn’t have much to do at all (but both might do in next year’s finale), while Mark Ruffalo gets a real opportunity to shine as opposed to the Hulk, walking a tightrope of despair, drama and outright comedy.

Tom Holland’s Spiderman is the youthful heart, and builds on his other appearances to confirm again (in my view) that he’s the best Spiderman. He navigates an interesting, surprisingly dramatic and emotional arc, and Benedict Cumberbatch enjoys similar success, Doctor Strange perhaps the only ego equal or superior to Stark’s. The actor stands up well in the dramatic and comedic stakes, tempering arrogance with a growing sense of humanity and responsibility.

Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa makes an instantly welcome return, though naturally there is a little less focus on him in such an extended cameo. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are foregrounded as their characters’ odd, new but touching romance is threatened, and while a couple of scenes toward the end really resonate due to their performances, and the music, it all feels unearned.

Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt’s “will they won’t they” relationship between Peter Quill and Gamora however packs a hefty punch. Saldana plays a huge role, and is key in some powerful, surprising scenes with Pratt and Brolin, while Pratt’s cocky idiot is still hilarious, but is central to some keenly emotional events.

Anthony Mackie, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan and Sebastian Stan also have little to do but add steel, warmth or humour; Leititia Wright and Danai Gurira build on Black Panther in quick cameos full of quips; and Dave Bautista continues to comedically dominate as Drax (with some of the biggest laughs), but also dramatically builds on his character’s personal history with Thanos.

Bradley Cooper’s snarky voice acting as Rocket is ironically sidelined to give him some of the best dramatic scenes (a CGI raccoon is more empathetic than some of the human characters). His interplay with moody teen Groot (in an extended cameo) and others is hilarious, while Benedict Wong, Tom Hiddleston and Don Cheadle return in small but impactful roles, and there are surprising cameos from Peter Dinklage and other series characters.

If there’s a deeper failing, it’s the blandly ineffectual villains working for Thanos, their more shaky CGI weirdness distracting and their roles essentially Avengers fodder. Carrie Coon and Tom Vaughan Lawler stand out with stronger, more distinctive voice performances.

Likely the absolute peak of Marvel’s 10 year cinematic experiment (which itself has changed cinema, for the better and for the worse), this is one of those blockbusters that really pays off, on multiple levels. With two more films to go before the final instalment, can Marvel stick the landing? Roll on May 2019!

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