08 May 2018

First Impressions: Infinity War

What'd I say? Raw emotional honesty? I'd like to push what this blog can do, but for now, let's just talk about Infinity War (2018).

Do I need to summarize the plot? You saw it, right? Actually, it's only sold about 50 million tickets so far, so chances are you didn't see it. Honestly, who is the person who went to the theater this weekend to catch Bad Samaritan (2018)? SPOILERS for this movie have been awfully precious and before I tell you that Dumbledore dies while gang-banging Drax and Carrie Fisher. I mean, what a Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was the first holiday I thought of for that joke.

We're definitely talking SPOILERS, though, because for this movie everything can be a spoiler, I know I wanted no details at all going into it, and I think I was rewarded, and after some careful thought, the only major theme here is Death and facing Death, so naturally the movie gets pretty ruined by any discussion of itself. We'll get into that more in a second, but let's start with some general cultural context:

Ahh - remember this fun scene
The great irony with crossover movies is that they're simultaneously sensational, but also very transparent in their effort to be sensational, which leaves the feeling kind of hokey. It's this idea, where you can tell the marketing is exasperated and fake. Where Infinity War succeeds, and I mean, really really succeeds is how little it cares about this. It wears its forced interactions and ultimate marketing ploy on its sleeve while moving so damn fast that we don't even have time to realize how hollow everything is.

Therein lies further irony. Is the art really hollow if it can disguise itself that well? Is that insidious or actually, frankly more difficult to pull off than a banal simple indie entry? I give this film a lot of credit for never once feeling its two-hour and thirty-six minute runtime. At the same time, however, this isn't actually even a movie anymore. It would make no sense without (most of) the previous 18 movies in this series. Infinity War does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. This is a brand. A cog. Perhaps just a piece of marketing. It requires incredible gumption to pull off, because it has an immense reliance on general populations being pretty familiar with all of the forty some-odd characters who make appearances here.

Could you see this without seeing anything else? I'm curious about our cultural osmosis. Even if you never saw any other film, do people know who Iron Man and Captain America are through just omnipresent commercials and billboards and Dr. Pepper cans? Do we get the general vibe? I kind of reflect on The Fast and the Furious movies. The first one I saw in theaters may have literally been Fast Five (2011), but in that ten years I had seen so many on TV, learned the general characters, heard from friends that I felt like I hadn't missed a beat.

Honestly, future filmmakers need to study this movie to understand peak efficiency. There is no bullshit here. There are a handful of moments that slow down and give some great character moments, but more than anything this movie knows how and when to move forward, when to care about development, when to trust the audience to put pieces together themselves, and when to cram an explainer line in somewhere. It has continued this idea of relying on the ridiculousness of its premise to just let other insane comic book elements pass by the wayside. Like, how does the Black Order keep showing up where the Stones are? Who cares, it doesn't matter. Isn't it nutty and fantastic for Iron Man to be on another planet, meeting and fighting weirdos? Let's quickly move on, we know the Guaridans. There's time for development, but then this movie wisely leans on the past ten years of development.

My first impression was that this film relies on plot over story. And there's so much plot. There are so many events that happen one after another without much in terms of an actual story, or at least a relatively simple actual story. In its own way, this is also what makes this movie work. There are so many characters off doing their own disconnected things, but they all actually tie into a remarkably simple idea - Thanos is acquiring the all-powerful MacGuffins from every other Marvel Movie, and the heroes need to stop him in a variety of ways. This structure shouldn't work, but it does. If your content is good, if it's distracting and iconic, it doesn't really matter what your structure is.

Some of this felt like checking off boxes on how these characters could run into each other, but it's all basically plausible. The Guardians check out a distress signal in Space - it's Asgard blowed up. Doc Strange seeks out Tony, Tony mentions Cap, Cap mentions Wakanda. It's a little forced, but the thrill of seeing all these disparate characters interact masks everything else. Seeing amazing team-ups of people we know would be friends, like Bucky and Rocket or Strange and Tony or Thor and Groot is fantastic. Besides its excess of plot, the best way to describe the feeling of watching this film is like watching your college friends meet your high school friends. Worlds are colliding! My favorite moment ever may be seeing Tony Stark left with Nebula at the end. That's the most amazing random team-up ever. I hope they hook up.

Instead of log-jamming the film, it wisely disperses all its characters all doing their own thing across the Universe, working towards one goal - stop Thanos. At that point we ought to chat Thanos, because he's the other element that unifies this film. He's the main character - the constant threat who is given plenty of his own moments, even if they somewhat come off as unearned, particularly his emotional connection with Gamora that's the crux of the film.

Thanos does a few important things. First, his goal drives the only major theme of the movie - death and how we deal with it. He also wins and therefore has a complete arc, which means that this is only a two-parter cliffhanger if you think he isn't the main character. He succeeds at his own goals, at great personal sacrifice.

Before we sink into that - because this film, as we noted before, cannot exist on its own merits and owes as much to its future as its past when examining it, let's quickly talk about Thanos' plan. He wants to balance out the Universe by killing half of it. In the comics this was to appease his crush on a personification Death itself. Here it's about overpopulation or some garbage It's kind of weak without the added insanity, but the Russos felt like adding personifications of eternal elements was one step they weren't ready for. I don't think you needed to actually have Lady Death as a purple-hooded Grim Reaper chick, but that general Death worship would have worked fine on its own instead of a kind of hokey and baseless reason for wiping out half the Universe.

We'll talk about stakes more in a second, but this film does do a wonderful job of setting up Thanos as the ultimate bad guy right at the beginning. It is actually kind of shitty that within the first thirty seconds Infinity War undoes the entire point of THOR: Ragnarok (2017) as Thanos obliterates the remnants of Asgard. All that "Asgard is a people, not a place" refugee message is wiped out. While this undermines his own movie, this does give Thor perhaps the most motivation to defeat Thanos, and it's fitting that he eventually comes the closest.

And that scene with Rocket is the best scene in any movie Thor has been in - or that Rocket's been in for that matter. You feel his loss so intensely. Ragnarok's tone never sat well with me for how deep and heavy its content was - Thor is still funnier here than he was in early Avengers films, but that tone is a little more relevant to how much he's lost in his life.

The intro is relatively simple. It's basically just The Worf Effect as Thanos quickly dispatches Hulk, who then remains scared for the rest of the film. I'd also be curious to see how this is rectified, but it's a nice convenient way to get Banner to shine in a way he often doesn't. What's more important is that this shows how brutal this movie is - there's no safety net. We might think that Hulk is the Avengers' ace that could at least go toe to toe with the big bad purple dude - Loki's "We have a Hulk" is a masterful callback, but then all expectations are subverted as he gets his ass kicked. We're immediately at a loss. It was crucial to get that fight out of the way and set up over two hours of realizing we're all boned.

It almost feels like a conspiracy theory that Marvel churned out dumb, disposable villains for ten years only so that Thanos can come in and be a really credible threat. His stakes are real, personal, and important on a Universal scale. It's as if there was this endless parade of doppelgangers and moustache-twirlers so Thanos looked better. Also I like the theory that Thanos made his move once the Ancient One, Odin, and Ego were dead.

Anyway - Death.

The big thing to note is that because of so much public outside knowledge we know that Death isn't permanent. Not only have characters continuously re-appeared in the MCU before (Bucky, Loki, Red Skull IN THIS VERY MOVIE - totally forced an unnecessary by the way), but we know there are Strange, Spidey, and Black Panther flicks coming down the pipeline. Like with most things, Film Crit Hulk sums this up the best when he says that as soon as we saw Black Panther turn to ash, we could call Marvel's bluff. That's the exact moment when we knew this was BS. We could buy most of these other characters dying, maybe permanently. If anyone is not going anywhere anytime soon, it's T'Challa, whose franchise by himself is the only one to make on its own money to nearly equal the Avengers crossover events.

There are plenty of ways around this - we have literal reality and time-controlling stones at play, along with plenty of theories, from the Ant-Man's quantum realm jumping in to the fray to the possibility that everyone's simply locked in the Soul Stone. That makes it feel like some earlier deaths like Heimdall, Loki, and Gamora could be permanent (unless of course that vision at the end is within the Soul Stone, where Gamora's soul is contained as well - at which point Guardians Vol. 3 (2020) comes out like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) trying to find their main character's soul in purgatory.

When we look at this, it's then hard to really feel the emotion this movie wants us to. There's this sideways glance we give our screens like "Okay, guys, whatever." We expected at least Cap and Iron Man deaths - the old guys who have been here forever and want out. Iron Man even still had a huge role in this film, and his one on one with Thanos was amazing. His nano-tech tech summon ability was a little stretch, it reminded me of DC's Cyborg or Metallo (see - I like DC, too). Anyway, the point is, that's a fine place to die, but if we look at his arc, it required a little more.

Ever since Iron Man 3 (2013), everything he's done has been driven by guilt. He needs Doctor Strange to sacrifice the Time Stone for his life (more on that in a bit), and then more importantly, needs to see Peter Parker die in his arms to seal this five-year arc of failing to protect the people he loves despite how advanced his tech becomes. It's hubris drawn out across five movies past his own trilogy ended, mostly because they make money, but it should also make his ending sacrifice (presumably) in next year's sequel to be more potent. Or maybe instead he will find some catharsis. We'll see.

In this way, the stakes become less about character deaths than how other characters deal with loss. We know there's more Spider-Man movies. That doesn't take away from Peter Parker terrified face turning into ash in Tony's arms. For their whole relationship Tony has tried to put limits on him, but he's proven Tony wrong. Finally, it's too late and Tony can do nothing to save him. We see this with Cap and Bucky, Rocket and Groot as Rocket loses his best friend again, this time knowing he won't grow back from a twig.

I don't totally get the idea that with no threat of death there's no stakes. We don't watch movies this way. When we're watching Die Hard (1988), we know it's not suddenly going to feature Ghost John McClane. Stakes are about challenges - we pretty much know that our characters are going to live. When they don't we get like, R.I.P.D. (2013) or something. Or when a character is nigh invulnerable like Superman, or to go the Ryan Reynolds route again, Deadpool - it's about setting up personal challenges for that character to face that don't have to do with dying.

So with Infinity War, it's less of "Will they'll be back?" than "How will they come back?" How will the surviving heroes deal with the death of their friends, unthinkable odds, a severe blow to motivation. How can they still be heroes when their main opponent has both the power and motivation to indiscriminately murder half the universe? Another way of thinking of this is that even though we know these new core characters are coming back, the characters in the movie don't know that.

Now, this is obviously me defending the film a little bit and making excuses, but the other side is easy. Its "this sucks." And maybe it does, that's fair, but doesn't require much thinking about what these films actually mean. Also, it's somewhat important to remember that not every audience member has that cultural context or obsesses over release dates. The guy I saw it with didn't even recognize the Captain Marvel symbol at the end. It's continuously crazy for me to remember that I'm always the nerdiest guy in the theater. I'm the one who shouts out "Adam Warlock!" at the end of Guardians Vol 2 (2017). My curse. My blessing.

For kids, especially this is a traumatic moment. And uhh...we should kind of remember that these movies should probably be reserved for little kids. Angry, over-analyzing adult nerds ruin these for everyone. FOR EVERYONE.

However, we are truly at a point where culture and corporations collide. We know more that these characters are returning because it would be financially irresponsible for Disney to keep them dead than anything else. That's our MAIN reason for feeling emotionally cheated at the end of this film. That's totally insane in its own way.

Tony's gettin upset!
As for the other characters, it was great to see Gamora as a huge lynchpin for this movie. She has her own role in the Guardians films, but hasn't really been the star until now. The other Guardians are all spot-on doing their things, and I love that as soon as we here "Rubberband Man" we know they're coming up. It's pitch-perfect stuff. The Captain America crew gets less screentime than I thought they would, and even though much of the latter third or so is set in Wakanda, the Black Panther crew definitely feels along for the ride rather than dealing with the ramifications of an alien invasion on their home turf (c'mon - they didn't even want to share with the White Gorillas a few months ago).

Despite this, Cap sums up what might be the film's thesis - the concept of a trading lives. Even though he says they don't trade lives, that happens for literally every stone Thanos gets, except the Power Stone, which we don't see. Loki trades the Space Stone for Thor's life, even though he's killed immediately after. Peter Quill attempts to mercy kill Gamora after Thanos acquires the Reality Stone, but Thanos prevents him. Thanos then sacrifices Gamora to acquire the Soul Stone. Strange trades the Time Stone for Tony's life. Finally, Scarlet Witch attempts to destroy the Mind Stone (killing Vision in the process), but Thanos reverses time and takes it himself, killing Vision. Thus, every stone is actually a life trade.

It's fitting that goody two-shoes Captain America's ideology proves the best direct counter to Thanos' philosophy. Cap is always about finding another way, the irony being that of course he just fights, because war is actually all he knows. I'd be curious to see this develop a little more.

As a side note, one other thing I did really enjoy was how clever the stones were. Movies aren't really clever anymore. Thanos uses each stone once he gets them, fully expanding his powers. He tricks his enemies and it's important how sequentially he acquires everything. Power and Space facilitate everything else. Reality more helps him cover his own tracks, but the Time stone is crucial to him getting the Mind Stone. Some of this is surely contrived, but it's damned fun to watch, and that's also what this movie is all about. And despite being all about death, this movie is also actually really funny. It's wonderful.

There are problems here for sure, and it's hard to find something really true that Infinity War is saying beyond a giant corporate promotion, but it's also so good and fun that we ignore that. We're all sheep I guess. For all this studio's talk about finality, it's also very clear that that's just extended a year, and even at that point we're not seeing any finality ever.

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