Thursday, May 3, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Getting the Stones
Playing the Marvel "Whose Contracts Are Up?" Game
"You're So Daaaark. Are You Sure You're Not from the DC Universe?"

Avengers: Infinity War is a bit brilliant in concept and a rather neat wrap-up to the first ten years of Marvel Universe movies. Directed by the Russo brothers who did the last two Captain America movies, it's a mash-up of characters and tropes from the various franchises, mixing and matching and trying to make combinations work, so much so that the directors are rather at a disadvantage in that they have to keep all the balls in the air rather than doing anything stylistically interesting. It has all the "by-the-numbers" feel of the first couple of Thor movies and the latter Iron Man films. From a directing standpoint, it's a big green-screen movie where folks have to do things fast and things don't linger much. There's very little "down" time to contemplate events. That's a big disservice if you're trying to create any sort of emotional resonance.

And, if you're a "tru-fan" of certain characters, don't expect to come away too happy walking out of the movie (but, then, a sequel will be coming out next year, so don't buy too many black clothes). But then, the DCMU killed off Superman and brought him back in the space of two movies (didn't do much for his career, though).

So, if you've been watching ANY of the Marvel Universe movies since...oh...Captain America: The First Avenger, when "the Tesseract" was introduced, you might be familiar with what Avengers: Infinity War is all about—you certainly are more "in-the-know" if you've stuck around, patiently (or obsessively) for all the post-movie previews jammed into the credits. That "Tesseract" contains one of six sacred stones of power—in this case, the "space" stone—and it's been curated in the "Thor" world of Asgard. There are five others, most of which have been tossed into the Marvel Movie Universe: the "mind" stone—formerly in Loki's scepter—merged with the super-android Vision (in Avengers: Age of Ultron); the green "time" stone (also known as "The Eye of Agamotto") provides Dr. Strange his time-warping powers; the "reality" stone (also known as "The Aether") showed up in Thor: The Dark World and has since been possessed by Benicio Del Toro's "Collector";  and the "power" stone was what Thanos was trying to get in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. There's a sixth stone—the "soul" stone (which might actually be the "Sly and the Family" stone) which we haven't seen yet, but it has been searched for by The Guardians' Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who also happens to be the daughter of Thanos (now played by Josh Brolin).
So...okay. More recently Asgard was destroyed (in Thor: Ragnarok) and all the Asgardians were being ferried to a new home on the Asgardian Ark (along with The Hulk—Mark Ruffalo, again—and Valkyrie)* By the time we've suffered through the brand new ultra-long Marvel Studios 10th Anniversary logo, we are aware that the ship is in distress.

Boy, howdy. Thanos has attacked the ship and torn it to shreds, looking for "the Tesseract" and after several confrontations with principal Asgardians and The Hulk (who all have their heads handed to them), he gets it and pops it into his little "Infinity Gauntlet," the most prominent one-gloved fashion statement since Michael Jackson left the planet. A couple of key Thor-mates are dispatched, but not before Hulk is sent spinning back to Earth.

Where he lands...smack-dab in New York (all things in the Marvel Universe lead to New York) in the middle of the Sanctum Santorum of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), where he warns that Thanos is bad (real bad) and probably headed for Earth. Better get Tony Stark, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) because...well, Robert Downey Jr.'s in all of these movies. Besides, what is Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) going to do?** Glare at it? Only a few minutes behind Hulk—just enough time for Stark and Strange to eye each other and be mutually snarky (they're both the same guy, frankly, just in different fields), Thanos' bagel-ship arrives in New York creating havoc, and attracting the attention of Spider-man (Tom Holland)—his "Spidey-sense" is portrayed by the hairs on his arms standing on end—to escape a field-trip and join the fray.
"I don't know what it is, but it sure is bi...well, wait, it looks like a piston ring"
Thanos' troops kidnap Dr. Strange (he has one of the stones) and Spidey and iron-Man go to the rescue, and decidedly un-hulky Banner contacts Captain America (Chris Evans)...because Stark and Rogers had their falling-out in Civil War. Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) go to Scotland to help ward off attacks on the other stone-wilder, Vision (Paul Bettany) who is keeping a low profile with the Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olson).
Meanwhile, in space, the Guardians of the Galaxy (aw c'mon-you know all of them, do I have to put them ALL in here?***) hear a distress signal from the Asgardian Ark, and when they get there, run smack-dab into Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has seen what Thanos can do and is determined to stop him from stealing the reality stone from "The Collector," in his "Knowhere"-land, but is determined to get a Thanos-sword to kill him. He recruits Rocket and Groot to take him to the planet Nidavellir, where his own hammer was once created. The other Guardians decide to travel to Knowhere to scout out what's happening to the stone (the answer: nothing good).
Back on the States...Cap, Widow, Falcon, Banner, Vision, Witch, and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) join forces in dissing Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and travel to Wakanda, the kingdom of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) where they hope the advanced technology there can be used to remove the "mind" stone from Vision without killing him. Then, they can destroy the stone to prevent Thanos from achieving the ultimate power he order to "balance" the Universe.
Okay, so the entire Marvel Universe (with the exception of Ant-Man and Hawkeye) is spaced out around the movie, in little cluster-groups, trying to prevent Thanos' plan, which, so far doesn't look too promising for half the Universe. Thanos, it seems, is a bit of an environmental extremist as well as a sociopath. He believes that the Universe is limited in resources and can only support half the life that exists—he never sights any charts or field-studies, he just believes it. And so, his ultimate goal is to eliminate half of all life...with the snap of his fingers, and with all six sacred stones providing the bling in his "Infinity Gauntlet" he is capable of doing just such a thing.
Bad Thanos. VERY bad Thanos.
Which is where Avengers: Infinity War gets very interesting.

In these super-hero movies, there is the interesting dynamic between antagonists. You have heroes and villains splitting the attention of the viewer. It used to be that there would be an even match in the combatants, but that has changed as the number of these films have exploded.

The villain here, Thanos, is obsessed with balance, and the writers (here, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the Captain America films and the lackluster Thor: The Dark World) of the superhero genre surely must sympathize, trying to create a challenge without overshadowing the challenged. It always seems the Joker gains more attention in the Batman movies—whether it's Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger— When the villain is well-known, there's always that danger.  But, of late, especially as franchises get deeper in digits that the villains become more anonymous—Iron Man 3 tossed away a major villain, The Mandarin, as a joke, and one is hard-pressed to remember the villains of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: Civil War, who came across as arrogant tall poppies in need of being cut down as quickly as possible.
But, in Infinity War, you can say that the heroes are given short-shrift, while the emphasis is on its hulking, committed villain, indeed of all the many characters in the film, he is the one filling the most screen-time. And, given that, he is the only one—so far—who has much of a story-arc. A villain in the mold of Richard III or MacBeth (with just a touch of Lear), his is the journey with the most interest and the most surprises. Rather than a mega-god of great power and not much else (see Justice League's Steppenwolf), his titan seeks his ultimate goal of culling the Universe, and triumphs—a lot—but also suffers—quite a bit. To win, he must lose, and his tragedy is that he chooses to throw away all that he cares about in seeking the power he craves and  the burden that he, alone, sees the need to take on.
He also seems to get some of the best lines in the film, which is tough to do in an Avengers movie. He's complex, smart, and maybe right, but wholly devoid of second-thought and emboldened by hubris. He's quite recognizable, and as portrayed by Josh Brolin, commands screen-attention, no matter how many stars in spandex vie for center-stage. It's the first time I can recall in a Marvel movie where the villain has upstaged the heroes.
Upstaging them is the least of his crimes. By the end, one wonders what one can do to solve the puzzle and undo the damage—if the intent is to undo it at all. Only the surety that money talks in Hollywood tells me that once the second still untitled movie comes along, things will be set right in their proper proportions. And there are certainly hints of what will happen, with unfulfilled story-promise and character relations featured prominently amidst the maelstrom. There are a couple well-used formulas (instead of "fourteen million six hundred and five") that might reverse things if I recall my comics past, and a gauntlet-ful of key characters that seem underutilized this go-'round that will probably come to the fore.
But, it's a very good, very enjoyable, if unsettling little entry, where one actually feels the stakes are high. 

And one hasn't felt that in the presence of the Marvel Universe in a very long time.

* First asterisk: And by now, your "Spidey-sense" should be tingling that this is a complicated movie. It is.

** I'll tell ya (SPOILER ALERT): He doesn't show up until the movie's credit tag.

*** Okay Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, David Bautista, Pom Klementioff, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel.

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