Monday, April 30, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 4: A Spoilers-Laden Look at Avengers: Infinity War

Just in case the title didn't clue you in, this review contains massive honking spoilers and should not be read until you've seen Avenger: Infinity War. Or, unless Jeff from the office blabbed everything on social media and you've thrown up your hands in disgust. This, by the way, is why you don't get invited to Trivia Night, Jeff. You've got no filter. You can't keep your mouth shut. Why do you do that, Jeff? Why?

Okay, given the large amounts of words spent last week on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seemed weird to not discuss part one of its ten-year culmination. I outlined my thesis in Part 1, talked about what I liked about the MCU in Part 2, and threw some non-critical caveats around in Part 3. How does it all stack up against this movie?

Spoilers ahead!

Overall, I think the film exceeded expectations. The nay-saying "Is THIS going to be the movie that derails the MCU" chatter has given way in the last year to "Will they be able to pull off a movie of this size?" and the answer, once again, is yes. But not without acknowledging that this is Thanos' movie, and we are finally allowed to see what makes him tick. No other character gets such an introduction in the movie, because it's not needed. We've seen Black Widow in six movies now and while her developmental arc hasn't been especially deep, it's been sharply rendered. There's a lot unsaid in her stilted greeting to Bruce Banner. Simply put, the previous 18 movies did all of the heavy lifting for Avengers: Infinity War, and this fact alone is what let's them get away with what would otherwise be a big, empty slugfest. The "get to know you" quips become meaningful dialogue as new characters meet and old characters re-connect. The movie makes these connections within larger scenes, and it's entertaining to watch, since we already know who everyone is.

Kudos to Marvel Studios for totally psyching us out with the trailer, too. I love that many of the key images used to sell the film are absent from the movie entirely, and some of which, for good plot-pointy reasons. The movie was helped by us knowing that the Hulk was going to be around, but we didn't know until we were hip-deep in the first big fight that he wasn't at his best. So simple, and yet so smart.

The best part of the movie was watching the massive egos within the MCU interact and collide with one another in meaningful and interesting new ways. General Thunderbolt Ross continues to be a wonderful bit of grist for the mill. Steve Rogers has only doubled down on his commitment to keep his own council regarding who he helps and why. Contrasting Tony Stark with Doctor Strange was so great, since they are the most alike, but also the most un-alike, as we saw. Putting Spider-Man in the mix, even though he's wildly outclassed, was perfect, given his reason: "You can't be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man if there's no neighborhood."

As entertaining as the Guardians of the Galaxy are, they continue to be, at least for me, the most atonal note in the MCU. I still can't decide if that's good or bad. But their pairing with Thor was particularly inspired, and fits well with the shift in Thor's overall character. See, I think they got Thor right. His new lighter tone doesn't take anything away from his status as the God of Thunder. He's still the heavy-hitting Odinson, as we saw in the third act. Also, in the second act, as he's helping to forge his new hammer-axe-thingie, Stormbreaker. For what it's worth, I could have watched an entire movie with Thor, Tree and Rabbit alone.

I was pleased to see that this movie falls squarely within my thesis, especially where Gamora is concerned. There are no bigger daddy issues than the motivations Thanos provides for Gamora and Nebula. Thanos is the epitome of an abusive parent with a warped and twisted take on what constitutes love. The fact that Gamora has conflicted feelings for Thanos, despite what her head tells her, makes those scenes play out like classic abuse scenarios and that dysfunctional dynamic of mad conquorer who collects "his children" from the worlds he "saves" is right in the middle of it all.

One of the highlights of this unbelievable 18-movie experiment is watching the storytelling conventions of Marvel comics applied to films. In particular, this idea that characters are living and continue to evolve even though we don't see it onscreen. Vision and the Scarlet Witch are the biggest and most obvious iteration of this, but really, all of the relationships continue apace and some even come to fruition in this movie, which makes the pivotal scenes all the more poignant and infuriating.  Star-Lord and Gamora. Vision and Scarlet Witch. Dr. Strange and Wong. There's even a touching non-moment between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov.

What's not to love about Thanos, eh? Best Marvel movie villain, even if he's not chasing after Death. In fact, having him just be psychotically mad works better and is less to explain. I was hoping to see Kate Blanchett in the Kirby headgear once more, but this isn't really a complaint nor a detraction. Even his "children" were appropriately scaled up so as to be a real challenge for Earth's Mightiest Heroes. His war dogs, too, were formidable, and between the slugfest in New York City and the mass battle in Wakanda, it makes me wonder where Warner Brothers is going to go with Darkseid and the Justice League movies that won't look like pale imitation.

The only thing that kept getting in the way of me really enjoying the movie was the storytelling knowledge that I was only watching the first half of the total package. It didn't distract, but it also didn't give me the emotional gut-punch when Thanos snaps his fingers and dissolves half of the planet, including many of our favorite heroes, with one exception: Peter's death scene with Tony Stark was heartbreaking. That's a testament to those two actors really selling the moment. And as upsetting as it all was--and a shitty ending for the fans, at that--I knew that we were not done with this. But maybe this wasn't for the fans. I mean, us die-hards: the one million comic book readers, past and present, who were in the audience. We know that death is temporary in comics. But there many millions of audience members who didn't grow up reading these things. I know they were freaking out, because I saw them all weekend after the movie was over.

There can be only one conclusion from this: the comic book experience has been successfully transferred over to the medium of film. Marvel did this, painstakingly and deliberately, over ten years and 19 movies. And in doing so, they may have sealed the fate of the comic book in the coming years. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. But comics are no longer special in what they can offer a casual reader. The Marvel movies have stolen fire from the gods and instead of punishment, we have chosen to reward them. Maybe this is what they had in mind all along, but I suspect it was instead an unintended consequence. In the meantime, I'm counting the weeks until Untitled Avengers Movie 5 premieres in 2019. And I bet you are, too.