‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is bloated, bombastic and bold

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/1/18 2:20am

What is “Avengers: Infinity War,” exactly? Technically, it is both the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as the third film in the Avengers film series. More 19th, it is the first film in a two-part, back-to-back epic conclusion to the Avengers series, which means it is inherently setting up the audience for “Avengers Four.” Most of all, though, “Infinity War” is meant to make good on the 10-year-old promise that we would one day get to see all the heroes in the MCU battle its greatest villain, Thanos, an iron-willed titan with visions of deathly grandeur. Thanos is in pursuit of six Infinity Stones, which when combined with his magical Infinity Gauntlet will give him the power to eradicate half of all life in the universe (Thanos reasons that resources are limited, so his solution for overpopulation is indiscriminate genocide). Now it’s up to the combined forces of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy to stop him.

So, does “Infinity War” deliver on its promises? The short answer: Yes. The long answer: A lot depends on how you feel about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, given that this film so often manages to embody both the best and the worst about the franchise. Personally, my feelings about the MCU have always ebbed and flowed. I was initially excited by the prospect of a film series that could emulate the sprawling, interconnected construction of comic books. Moreover, there was a visceral thrill in seeing half a dozen superheroes coalesce on the big screen in the first “Avengers.” After that, the films became more and more forgettable and fatigue started to set in. That is, until the most recent MCU films, “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” — undeniably the best the franchise has ever offered. Thanks to those two films, my appetite was thoroughly whetted for another “Avengers” adventure.

As much as I enjoyed “Infinity War,” there’s no denying that it’s long and unwieldy. On the one hand, I like the fact that the story manages to live up to its own grandiose aspirations. Many big budget spectacles have scale but nothing with which to fill it. “Infinity War” crams in everything but the kitchen sink … and then it tosses in the kitchen sink for good measure.

But this can be a shortcoming. While the first two “Avengers” films tend to feature the main cast in the same places at the same time, “Infinity War” spreads its ensemble across at least four major plot strands and just as many planets. Of course, this is a necessity considering that there are, by my count, upward of 20 major heroes at play. Nonetheless, this can lead to tonal whiplash as the story jumps from Wakanda to Thanos’s home on Titan to a dying star and so forth.

Perhaps that’s a small price to pay for getting to see all of these characters in the same film. With sheer numbers, “Infinity War” manages to capture some of the awe of watching six heroes come together in the first “Avengers,” simply because the number of heroes has tripled. Yet such a glut of characters inevitably means that some must be more significant than others. For example, the film provides Tony Stark/Iron Man, Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Thor, Gamora and Thanos with character arcs while essentially relegating everyone else to the status of glorified supporting character. Some fans will certainly be disappointed when their favorite hero doesn’t get the chance to shine. This can be particularly frustrating when characters like Quill and Scarlet Witch regress because they have to more or less become pawns at the whims of such a mammoth story. But I sympathize with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. After all, someone had to take center stage, and making these calls can prove to be a zero-sum game with a cast this big. For the most part, I just admire Markus and McFeely for emphasizing some surprise choices rather than the most obvious and conventional characters.

In particular, the film makes Gamora the most compelling she’s ever been. Undeniably, the best scene in “Infinity War” is a tragic, in-depth exploration of her relationship with Thanos, her abusive adoptive father. It’s moving, thoughtful, beautifully crafted and genuinely heartbreaking.

Which brings us to the real key to the film’s success: Thanos himself. Marvel is notorious for its “villain problem,” but every fan has a different theory explaining why this is. I think the root of the problem has nothing to do with bad actors or poorly written characters, but rather with the inherent lack of stakes. Consider Ultron from “Age of Ultron.” James Spader’s quirky performance makes him the most memorable character in that film, but his plan to cause the extinction of the human race feels weightless amid a sea of other MCU films with similar villain plots. Some of the more recent films, like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (Ego), “Thor: Ragnarok” (Hela) and “Black Panther” (Killmonger) have been improvements. But each of those villains is a familial relative of the protagonist, making the stakes personal.

“Infinity War” combines the best of both worlds. It takes care to explore Thanos’s parental connection to Gamora but also makes clear that the threat is utterly real because Thanos is so motivated. It’s cliché to say that the villain thinks of himself as the hero of his own story. But Thanos takes that notion to the extreme because his concerns about limited resources and overpopulation are so genuine. It’s easy to see how he could view himself as the protagonist of a classic hero’s journey in which he’s trying to save the galaxy from its imminent destruction. To top it all off, Josh Brolin turns in a riveting performance, transforming Thanos into easily the film’s most compelling character.

For months now, fans have speculated about the film’s potential spoilers. Who will live and who will die? Suffice to say, the film makes some bold choices. One in particular left me genuinely rattled. Yet the ending feels less daring than it should because so much of what occurs is probably reversible. Nonetheless, I still admire the filmmakers for going the direction they did, forcing the audience to swallow a devastating, if somewhat impermanent, cliffhanger. It’s emblematic of the film as a whole — imperfect and daring at the same time.