AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language, and some crude references)
Released: April 27, 2018
Runtime: 150 minutes
Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Bradley Cooper, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Sebastian Stan, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Pom Klementieff, Danai Gurira, Anthony Mackie, Gwyneth Paltrow

Whatever it is that people go to Marvel movies for, Avengers: Infinity War gives it to them. And then some.

Ten years and 18 movies in the making, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the final stretch of its Phase 3, bringing (nearly) every major superhero from their considerable arsenal into one mega-blockbuster at long last, with one genuine surprise cameo for good measure. Oddly enough, the film’s greatest virtue is that it doesn’t try to do too much (well, until the very end) as it both corrals and showcases the biggest stars in the MCU slate.

When you have twenty-plus good guys and a legion of Wakandans backing them up, just one MacGuffin won’t do. There’s six here, all mystical Infinity stones that control the core essence of everything in space and time, and the ultimate baddie Thanos seeks to collect them all – not simply for power, but for a cataclysmic purpose. The Avengers set out to stop him in a race that spans the far reaches of multiple galaxies.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on.

With the conclusion to this decade-long multi-film narrative now finally in sight, much of the pre-release buzz has swirled around speculation of who might finally die in this franchise, one not known for its high-profile deaths, and the few that have occurred have since been resurrected through various conveniences.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo play to these expectations early on, and often, setting up numerous “will they or won’t they bite it” scenarios (some do, some don’t).

Where Infinity War ultimately succeeds, however, isn’t in the galaxy-sized stakes or even the onslaught of action. It’s in the last place you might expect from such an overstuffed movie like this: the character moments.

Between the big set pieces (of which there are many, the climactic one at great length) and copious amounts of joke-laced exposition, the Russos give time for reflection, for these bruised and battered people to absorb and contemplate their losses, what’s happened to them, and what’s about to. (There’s a depth to Chris Hemsworth that still hasn’t been fully tapped, by any filmmaker, but you catch a glimpse here.)

Then there’s Thanos, a CGI motion-capture nemesis that surpasses all expectations. In previous MCU cameos, he’s merely been a ridiculous looking digital purple beast with armor, a meta-MacGuffin and nothing more. By contrast, what we’re given here is revelatory.

Thanos is burdened, not maniacal, and his mission to eliminate half of all life throughout the universe isn’t driven by anger or evil; it’s a necessary sacrifice to ensure the survival of all living things (a motive substantiated with credible backstory). He takes no joy in what he believes must be done, only sober (if brutal) resolve. Josh Brolin carries this burden in his soul, and the CGI animators capture his every nuance.

Sure, in a movie packed to the gills with superheroes, there’s an undeniable irony that the villain’s main goal is basically to affect cosmic population control. Yet what the Russos do well here (and better than previous Avengers films, including their own quasi-Avenger entry Captain America: Civil War) is that they divvy up the screen time by spreading the characters out.

To avoid having too many in one place at one time (which became an issue in previous all-star installments), the Avengers split off in pursuit of various tasks, whether it be to get one stone, protect another, or gain weaponry.

This also allows for unique, effective pairings that only a franchise like this can offer, whether it be in the clashing egos of Tony Stark and Dr. Strange or (my favorite) the banter between Thor and Rocket Racoon. The Guardians are major players, too, and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord gets to shine against a wide variety of the Avengers crew.

The action will no doubt thrill most patrons, all done on a mammoth scale of spectacle unmatched in modern Hollywood blockbustering, yet it can still be maddening for those who love a more disciplined film language.

Cut to within an inch of its life, at a pace that would cause Michael Bay to hold its beer, I dare say not one shot in any of these fight scenes lasts the amount time it takes to say “One one-thousand”. Cutting constantly between multiple cameras is not crafting action with “the magic of moviemaking”; it’s cheating.

It’s rather dispiriting, too, that these movies are considered by many to be modern standard-bearers, a crown that the Mission: Impossible films are far more worthy to wear.

Despite it’s two-and-a-half hour bloat, there’s still a lot of narrative to cram in here. Consequently some corners get cut, at times a bit too sharply, making you wonder at first blush if the filmmakers were simply as exhausted as we are.

That economy of plotting feels particularly rushed during a late, vital moment when one Avenger makes an inexplicable concession, for which his only excuse is “We’re in the end game now.”

Still, one expects his weakness to be explained and justified when this cliffhanger wraps in Avengers 4. (Even now, logical conclusions can be made based on key moments from that particular character arc).

Marvel may hope to wield an emotional wallop with this film’s finale, banking on “MIND. BLOWN.” OMG reactions across the twittersphere, but instead it overplays its hand, undercutting the desired impact by taking things too far.

But of course, what else should anyone expect? The Marvel Cinematic Universe was never designed to carry weight. It’s designed to perpetuate. Ultimately, that’s all Infinity War does: set up the next one.

Once you get past that crass moneymaking strategy and accept Avengers: Infinity War for what it is, you’re still left with a thoroughly entertaining popcorn movie, and there’s something to be said for getting your money’s worth.

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