Anthony and Joe Russo direct Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jnr and Chris Hemsworth in this Marvel team-up movie where nearly every established superhero tries to stop Thanos from collecting magical stones that will allow him to kill half the universe.
*** SPOILERS ***
You are about to be shocked. I’m no Marvel zealot. I have never drank the Kool-Aid. But I can hands down say that Infinity War is one of the best blockbusters ever made. It lives up to the hype. It surpasses all 18 previous installments. It is essential. It is a cultural milestone on a par with A New Hope, Burton’s Batman, Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight. Sure… there are tentpole releases that make more money (Avatar, Jurassic World). And there are tentpoles that I think are better made (Raiders, Die Hard, Kill Bill). But this is a phenomenon. A film that in twenty… thirty…. forty years time people will say they remember going to see it, remember how they reacted to its conclusion. I remember queuing outside the cinema for Twins as a kid. I remember the hush that swept over the cinema as Back to the Future Part II began. I remember how Return to Oz scarred me for life. Avengers Infinity War will be all those memories for an entire generation. 2018 will be synonymous with its glory.
There are movies I look forward to before they are even greenlit. And there are movies I’m aware are on the horizon, I am blasé about, but something grips me on the week of release and I HAVE TO see them on opening day. It only ever happened once before with a Marvel movie. I went into Guardians of the Galaxy with no expectations first thing on a Friday morning. Wow! Best Marvel film ever! But that hyperbole has to take a backseat now. Infinity War has arrived. And my attitude to it was much the same. “Ah the first one was fine but overrated. Age of Ultron was passable… forgettable. What do I care if a bored looking Robert Downey Jnr gets to meet a relegated-to-supporting-character Starlord?” It was destined to be the same as usual. Banter. Team bicker. Banter. A bit of inconsequential infighting. Banter. Disillusionment. Banter (but with a solemn air). Waiting in the wings threat becomes unignorable. Team teams. One mid-table character dies. Modest cliffhanger.
The same as usual. The formula. The template…. Gone. Infinity War still delivers what you all want from a Marvel experience. The spectacle has been predefined over 40 preceding hours of VFX heavy malarkey. Visually, there are no new worlds to conquer. It is like visiting Paris. You’ve been a few times before but Paris always looks wonderful. The jokes are still there… Iron Man gets to catch Peter Parker up on what’s going down mid-attack with a mordant lack enthusiasm. “He came to steal a necklace from a wizard.” Drax describes Thor in blunt, unaware terms. “Like a pirate has had a baby with an angel.” And Steve Rogers meets Groot with no irony or snark. There’s three dozen killer lines sifted within the interactions but the sitcom status quo safety has been destroyed.
And this is all thanks to Josh Brolin’s Thanos. When we meet him he kills two big name actors and defeats The Hulk. Sends the unjolly green giant back to his room, cowering for the rest of the film in Bruce Banner’s medulla oblongata. That’s the first five minutes. Even his henchmen, The Black Order, look scarier than 90% of previous Marvel villains. The franchise has had noteable villian issues. It sidelined The Red Skull and The Mandarin off hand. It over relied on Loki… a character who is more fun as the reluctant anti-hero. Steve Rogers, (the dignity, the muscle and the heart) has fought a computer twice. Things have improved recently… bristling performances from Michael Keaton and Michael B Jordan as clearly motivated berserkers elevated their respective Spider-Man and Black Panther movies. And Brolin gets an antagonist who is both well defined and lethal from the off. Sympathetic even. When you hear his reasoning for mystical genocide, it is hard not to see some light in his fanaticism.
But the most important thing about Thanos is when he walks on screen, characters can and do die. It gives each battle an formerly unseen brutality. As wild alien beasties rampage en masse at the Wakandan front or Spidey / Stark / Strange / Guardians take on Thanos as a tag team… an overriding air of risk, rather than cartoonish skirmish, defines the battles. This villian kills at will, is stronger than them, has an objective… to collect six stones… when he does all he needs to do is click his fingers… and billions die. It has been a while since a Marvel blockbuster has had such a clearly defined propulsive plot.
And then, despite sacrifice and grit from all involved, Thanos clicks his fingers…
Everyone will remember when they saw Peter Parker cry and disintegrate. The best blockbusters of recent years have had a shared, doomed fatalism… the suicide mission of Rogue One that not even the pessimistic android survived (Remember Scarif!). The relentless, anonymous waiting to be drowned, shot or knocked unconscious by Cillian Murphy meat grinder of Dunkirk. And now this… watching stalwart after stalwart of the Marvel tapestry look confused as they turn to dust. To see the satisfied look on our arch villian’s face that he has won and brought a cruel balance to the universe. To see the characters we thought were expendable due to multi-entry contracts being fulfilled… survive and be shellshocked by the intimate toll of their failure. To watch a teenage Spider-Man beg for his life as he hits “Game Over.” To see the directors’ credits card appear without a glimmer of hope. Ooofff! You’ll believe a man can fly. Dinosaurs walk believably on screen. Come travel around the sinking Titanic. Watch the the Marvel universe betray you out of your guaranteed feel good victory.
Of course, we know that there is a continuation coming. We know there is no way the Guardians or Spidey or Black Panther won’t somehow be revived. There’s no true permanency. But such wholesale slaughter of a franchises’ youngest and brightest, such harsh a turn into a unhappy ending. It ain’t what the families and the fanboys and the people who only go see one movie a year were in anyway expecting when they bought a ticket. Marvel have committed the greatest suckerpunch in cinema history… and they delivered the blow after two hours of machine perfect thrills and giggles. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water… the most predictable movie series has become the most playfully callous.