6 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War review

It's too damn big.

I mean, no doy, right? All but one of Marvel Studios' previous "event movies" have felt at times overstuffed, and they were only trying to juggle a fraction of the characters - Avengers: Infinity War is attempting to balance an unprecedented twenty-two, and that's not even including those who only show up for a couple of scenes. Something with this many moving parts was always going to be far too big to function as an actual movie - that it still somehow ends up being a quite entertaining (and at times genuinely shocking) piece of blockbuster entertainment is frankly nothing short of a modern miracle.

You know the story, or at least how it starts. Thanos, the big purple guy in the chair who was first teased in the post-credits scene of Avengers Assemble some 6 years ago, has finally gotten off his ass in order to unite the Chaos Emeralds and become the most powerful being that the universe has ever known, and the only people standing in his way are... well, almost everyone that we've ever met over the last ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's Avengers: Infinity War's main selling point - it is also quite obviously the source of all its biggest flaws.

In a word, it's relentless. The sheer amount of plot that needs getting through and the number of characters that need to be done justice forces it to move at a breakneck pace throughout, and while that means its lengthy 2 hour 40 minutes running time absolutely flies by, it also means that many of the theoretically great moments contained within simply aren't given the time they need in order to land in the way that they could and should have. We're seeing interesting character interactions, important moments and huge emotional beats that people have been waiting years to see, yet Avengers: Infinity War's inability to properly set them up and then the speed with which it needs to move on means that the majority can only be noted, rather than genuinely felt. This more than anything else is Avengers: Infinity War's biggest problem - a lot of the stuff that happens here is devastating in theory only, unable to really connect with the audience thanks to the lack of time it has to do so.

And that's not the only way in which the sheer size of Avengers: Infinity War becomes a burden. Anyone hoping for the semi-cliffhanger ending of Captain America: Civil War to be expanded on is going to be left sorely disappointed by a movie that seems content to leave that particular resolution for another day, and while inarguably entertaining thanks to how well they utilise the various powers these heroes have and the novel ways they can work in tandem with one another, even the action scenes feel as if they've been cut to the bone for the simple matter of time. Hell, there's so much going on here that some of Avengers: Infinity War's cast barely manage to get a line or two in, and I'm not even just talking side characters - the character I was maybe most excited to see return to the big screen here feels particularly side-lined right up until the last act, completely lacking a story or arc of his own throughout.

And yet in spite of all that, Avengers: Infinity War still manages to feel like a pretty staggering achievement, proving yet again how much the cinematic universe model can add to long-form storytelling. Sure, anyone who hasn't seen about half a dozen of the previous films in this universe isn't going to have a chance in hell of understanding or even enjoying it, but for those who have been following this franchise for the last decade, the chance to see all these characters in the same film can't help but feel like a huge reward, especially when it's handled as well as it has been here. This is, after all, a film series built entirely on and around the strength of its characters, and the incredible ability of writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to accurately capture and replicate their unique voices means that even if nothing else, Avengers: Infinity War succeeds exactly where it needed to most. Watching Thor hang out with the Guardians of the Galaxy or seeing Spider-Man fight side-by-side with Doctor Strange might be a simple pleasure, but it's a pleasure all the same, and responsible for most of Avengers: Infinity War's best moments.

But the glue that holds those moments together is Thanos himself, who would almost certainly the best fully CGI character since Andy Serkis' Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is not for Andy Serkis' Caesar in the superb Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy. Marvel Studios have been criticised for having weak villians in the past, and while it's not a criticism I've ever particularly agreed with, it has to be said that they've been doing a stellar job of addressing it over the last year or so, and Thanos is no exception. It would have been all too easy for him to be a bland slab of purple who our heroes are lining up to punch and nothing more - instead, he's really well fleshed out and driven by a motivation we can understand, if not actually agree with, and Josh Brolin plays him with a fascinating level of humanity and sadness.

But what really makes it all work is an ending that I'd happily consider to be the boldest, bleakest, balliest ending to a four-quadrant blockbuster that I've ever seen. It's at this point that Avengers: Infinity War transforms itself from a fun, enjoyable distraction into something that feels genuinely groundbreaking, the kind of thing that might have the same effect on just how we consume films as Avengers Assemble did back in 2012, and while I've got no intention of spoiling it here, I will say that it gives me a great amount of hope for whatever Avengers 4 ends up being. Yes, this film is still much too big, getting by as much on the novelty of seeing all these characters in the same place as anything else - but I think Marvel Studios know that's a trick they can only pull off once, hence an ending that ensures they can have their cake and eat it too without being expected to do it again for Avengers 4.

Which crystallizes what Avengers: Infinity War is, really - not a film at all intended or even really able to stand on its own merits, but a two and half hour long victory lap of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date that also acts as an incredibly smart way to clear the table for what looks to be a much more focused Avengers 4. Yes, it's messy and rushed and moves far too quickly for its own good, but if anyone has earned this kind of huge and unwieldy event movie, it's Marvel Studios, especially if Avengers 4 can conclude this story in a satisfying way. Perfect? Far from it - but it's almost certainly the best possible version of a film required to deal with so much story and so many characters, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

4 stars

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