REVIEW: Avengers: Infinity War

1 08 2018

At some point during the seemingly interminable carousel of trailers prior to “Avengers: Infinity War,” a thought occurred to me: I should probably do a quick Google to see if there’s any information I need to know before the movie starts. I’d done the legwork of seeing the previous installments (“Thor: The Dark World” excepted because everyone tells me I didn’t miss much), but they linger in my system like a flat, lukewarm draft beer in a plastic cup. As Marvel click-chasing as the Internet is these days, there was plenty of service journalism on page one to fill me in.

The more I read, the more I saw information about infinity stones. What they were, who had them, what happened the last time we saw one. I’m not such a passive viewer that I had no concept of these whatsoever, but, to be honest, I had stopped giving them much thought a few years back. Infinity stones were like excess information from a high school history lecture – you have some vague sense that these tidbits might show up on the final but not enough to scare you into paying full attention.

Imagine showing up for the final and having it be only those bits of knowledge you considered superfluous. That’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The analogy actually doesn’t fully compute because it puts far too much responsibility on me, the audience member, for keeping up. Over the past five years, after correctly sensing the audience could sense Marvel’s formula, head honcho Kevin Feige implemented a new strategy to avoid brand complacency. He brought in accomplished directors with a real sense of style and personality – no offense to Favreau, Johnston and others who can clearly helm a solid studio action flick. A handful of rising talents got the chance to play with a massive toolbox to make largely personal films on nine-figure budgets. Better yet, they essentially got to treat these infinity stones like MacGuffins, items whose actual substance matters little since they serve to move the plot and provide a goal for the hero.

Think about these films from late phase two and early phase three, as the canonically-minded Marvel fans would say. James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films aren’t memorable because of their quest for Power Stone; they’ve endured because of the joyous rush of a stilted man-child who gets to live out his Han Solo fantasies to the tunes of his banging ’80s mix-tape. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” has far more interesting things to say about black identity, heritage and responsibility than it does about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taika Waititi was still playing into the future of the studio’s master plan, yet he got to toss out much of what had been done with the God of Thunder in “Thor: Ragnarok” and cast him like the offbeat protagonists of his Kiwi comedies to find humor and heart where there had previously been little.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is a feature length “Well, actually…” from Marvel. The Russo Brothers are here to deliver the bad news that those infinity stones were actually the only thing that mattered the whole time. Silly you for thinking the studio cared about things like artistry and personality!

And as if that isn’t bad enough, the unique sensibilities of Marvel’s recent directors get flattened out to fit into a bland, lowest common denominator Russo style of filmmaking. Experiencing the Guardians apart from the heart of Gunn or Thor away from the quirk of Waititi feels akin to an out of body experience. It only serves to exacerbate what already plays out like going through the motions for many actors on screen.

This maxim has some exceptions, but the level of commitment to “Avengers: Infinity War” is directly proportional to the amount of time left in the performer’s contract with Marvel. Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr., both of whom seem to have one foot out the door? Phoning it in. Tom Holland, the Energizer bunny with many more outings ahead in the Spidey suit? Giving it all he’s got.

The film seems borne out of these contractual questions, its shape determined in WME or CAA agents’ offices determining their clients availability and willingness to participate. The on-screen pairings are forced at best, arbitrary at worst, and the joy of watching these characters cooperate is stymied by how much time they spend apart. The Avengers splinter apart early, resulting in more parts to keep track of than an IKEA furniture set. There’s so much going on. Too much.

By the time the final battle arrives – after plenty of other exhausting smaller-scale ones – I felt something I rarely feel at the movies: defeat. And no, that’s not just because of the tremendous progress that the villainous purple phallus Thanos (Josh Brolin) makes in his quest to wipe out half the universe’s population. It’s because a film that should have served as a culmination to something was little more than a nothing-burger. “Avengers: Infinity War” contains the components of blockbuster franchise entertainment and nothing more.

To say it lacks a heart or soul wouldn’t be fair to the countless other films like it; many of them contain neither and manage not to appear so empty. But when the machinery of these behemoths is so gargantuan and so unhidden, it becomes virtually impossible to ignore the gaping void at the heart of Marvel’s cinematic centerpiece. A feast of empty calories simply cannot satiate. C- 

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