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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is Marvel’s EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Review)

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is Marvel’s EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Review)

When I was very young, I remember my first exposure to Marvel Comics.

I was at the store with my mom, and I saw several paperbacks, each one containing some early issues of Marvel series. I went home that day with The Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1, Fantastic Four Vol. 1, and Incredible Hulk Vol 1. Each of them started with the origin appearances for the characters, reprinting their earliest story arcs. By the time I finished those three books, I was completely onboard, sold on not only those particular characters but also the Marvel approach. At the time, the character had been around for just over fifteen years. Marvel was definitely a commercial force, but it also still felt young enough that I was able to claim it as my own. My parents may have had Superman and Batman growing up, but Spider-Man and The Human Torch and Ben Grimm and the Hulk… they were mine. They were human and they were fallible. They fascinated me immediately, and in the four decades since then, comic books have been in and out of my life, depending largely on time and money.

Even when I stopped actively collecting or reading titles, I would try to occasionally check in. There was something about the characters that made them feel like they were part of my life, like friends I’d lost touch with but who I knew would always be there if I reached out. Every time I came back to Marvel, there’d be some new twist, some reinvention, some way they would try to keep the characters alive and relevant. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But there was always a sense that they’d built that foundation strong enough that they could experiment and fumble and still find a way to make it all work.

Covering the last decade of Marvel movies has been a challenge and a pleasure. I was there early, covering the production of comic book movies starting with Batman and Robin and Spawn, two films I sent information about to Ain’t It Cool News back in the prehistoric days of the Internet. Even before Nick Fury mentioned a larger world to Tony Stark onscreen, I’d had those conversations with Kevin Feige and Avi Arad, and I knew they were hungry to create a larger world where these heroes could interact. Avi saw that as the ultimate toy commercial, a chance to create endless variations on the same basic action figure line, but Kevin saw it as a toybox for storytellers. He saw it as a chance to try to convey to the larger mainstream audience the exact things that made the Marvel faithful fall in love in the first place.

That’s what works best in comic book movies. You have to love the thing you’re making. You can’t do it because it’s cool, or because it’s a trend, or because you think it could be commercial. You have to love these things. Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie is brimming over with affection for the Man of Steel, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is absolutely giddy about web-swinging, and Tim Burton’s Batman feels like it is dizzy in love… maybe with the Joker instead of Batman, but the love is real nonetheless. From Iron Man on, the Marvel Studios movies have been made with a genuine and deeply-seeded passion for the source material and for the characters themselves. Over the course of the 18 films they’ve made so far, they have had good films and mediocre films and, occasionally, great films, but one thing has been true in every one of the films they’ve made so far: they care about these characters and the way they fit into this world they’re building.

And what is that world? What is the cumulative weight of 18 films of world-building? Because the world they presented in the original Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, was pretty much ours, complete with MySpace. Tony Stark was a weapons dealer, a billionaire, and a giant asshole. Steve Rogers was frozen in ice somewhere, Bruce Banner was already on the run, and the nation of Wakanda was a secret, carefully guarded from the outside world. Hank Pym had done some secret government work as well, so clearly there had been some superpowered shenanigans at some point, and I’m sure we’ll learn even more about the past in next year’s Captain Marvel, which is set largely in the ‘90s. Much has changed in the Marvel Universe since then. There was a Vice-President arrested for attempted murder, for example, and most of our military arm was revealed to be compromised by Hydra at one point, including the secret super-police with the flying battleships. Aliens poured from a hole in the sky over New York and murderous robots tried to destroy us all by dropping a European city on itself. There are real gods, evidently, and they sometimes come to Earth and mess stuff up real bad, and every now and then, all of these super good guys seem to fight each other for some reason. Most significantly, Wakanda has come out from under cover now, radically reshaping the world’s socio-economic character. We haven’t seen that last part, but how can it not? Marvel has set an amazing stage for Avengers: Infinity War, and my only real question walking into the theater was, “How can they possibly bring all of this together in a way that works as an actual movie?”

You’ll be shocked how well they pull it off. I was.

First and foremost, this is the Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you treat everything they’ve made so far as one giant franchise, then this is the chapter where everything lands on our heroes with both feet. Everything has built to this, and they somehow make it still feel like a story, not a whole bunch of fan service thrown in front of a camera. That was not a foregone conclusion, and one of the things I’m curious about is how hardcore longtime comic book fans are going to react to the film versus people whose love of these characters comes primarily from the films. I suspect they will be very different reactions at first, because the longtime faithful are going to walk into this film feeling like they already know most of what they’ll see. That is not the case. This film is not terribly concerned with adapting any previous takes on Thanos or his quest for the Infinity Stones, and anyone expecting a date with Death is going to go home disappointed. Thanos and his reasons for killing half the universe (still very much his goal) have been reimagined, and it’s clear that the only thing that matters is the world that has been created for the movies. These versions of the characters. These relationships. This history, established over the last decade.

You’ll see reviewers tie themselves up in knots to tiptoe around this plot point or that plot point, or they’ll spoil something but claim they had to. Why? Plot is not what matters here. Broken down to the essentials, you already know the plot. There is a bad guy. He wants to do something. The heroes don’t want him to do the thing. So they all head off in different directions to get the things to stop him, and they have to race the clock to come together and save the day. That’s the plot of every movie like this, and it will likely continue to be the plot of every movie like this. Avengers Infinity War simply does it on a larger scale.

What I found most interesting was how the film managed to make most of its 19 million characters feel essential. Far more of a sequel to Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 than Black Panther or even the other Avengers films, Avengers Infinity War does a remarkable job of juggling all of the different tones and characters that Marvel has introduced. When we’re in Doctor Strange’s Sanctum, it feels like we’re in Doctor Strange. When we cut to space, it feels like you’re watching Guardians of the Galaxy. The stuff inside Wakanda has its own feel, its own style. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo haven’t just made a Marvel movie that pays full respect to the various characters in it. They’ve also made a Marvel movie that pays tribute to the filmmakers who got them here. It is more than a greatest hits or another crossover. It is a movie that finally pulls back far enough for us to glimpse the full scope of the Marvel Universe that’s been created, even as it is all put to the test.

2018 will be remembered as the year that Marvel nailed the bad guy. First there was Killmonger in Black Panther, beautifully written and masterfully played by Michael B. Jordan. What made Killmonger so provocative was how clearly he made the case for his anger. His fury was justified, even if his actions weren’t. Here, Josh Brolin’s Thanos emerges as the most fully-written bad guy any of the Marvel heroes have had to face, and I was surprised by how quickly the performance capture creation of Thanos stopped looking like an effect and started feeling like a performance. Brolin makes a captivating case for the Mad Titan as genuinely believing that killing half of the universe will deliver the other half to a paradise where they no longer have to fight for survival. Because his fight is a righteous one, Thanos is as driven by his own moral compass as the Avengers are, and that’s what makes him especially dangerous. Thanos doesn’t want to rule. He doesn’t want power for the sake of it. He’s not looking for praise or worship. What he wants is simply to redistribute the wealth of the universe through one act of sheer brute force.

It’s strange to think there was a time when playing a superhero was silly, when the entire genre was approached with a good degree of skepticism. The list of actors who are all giving this film everything they’ve got is impressive: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Paul Bettany… at this point, it’s almost impossible to make a film and not have some sort of overlap with someone from the Marvel Universe. Johansson feels like she’s the most short-changed of the longtime franchise regulars here. There’s a quick nod at resolving some of the dangling story threads between her and Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, but the end of the world hardly seems like the time for them to clarify whether or not they’re dating. Not having powers is one of the things that makes me like Black Widow overall in this series, because she’s putting herself in harm’s way knowing full well that she’s the least equipped person on the battlefield, every single time. She’s long since established herself as loyal and brave and capable, but in some ways, her normalcy is what hinders her in terms of being valuable to the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

That’s especially true here, because Avengers Infinity War is the most comic booky comic book movie that Marvel has ever attempted, and it’s not a film they could have gotten away with ten years ago. They had to use a decade of these movies to slowly educate the mainstream audience about what kinds of things might happen here, and it feels like they have been saving up moments they could finally drop here. A good portion of the fun simply comes from seeing these characters all finally meet one another. Some of those meetings go well. Others decidedly do not. But because we’ve gotten to know everyone, all of the meetings ring true. In some cases, our knowledge of what’s come before helps set up the reactions the characters have, and in some cases, the characters have been forewarned about each other, leading to fun friction. The honesty of the reactions also extends to the way they fragment the various groups into new configurations. For the most part, it makes sense for characters to end up divided the way they are. It works because it pushes familiar characters into new contexts, and it sets new characters right up against beloved oldies in ways that make them both seem fresh.

As someone who fell head over heels for Spider-Man all those years ago, and who still considers Peter Parker to be the perfect Marvel creation, I was delighted to see how well Spider-Man is used in the film, and how well Tom Holland embodies the character. He continues to be a perfect foil for Robert Downey Jr’s. Tony Stark, and I’m impressed by how well they pay off the storyline about the PTSD that Tony’s been grappling with since the Battle of New York back in the original Avengers film. After all, Stark was our way into this new movie universe in the first place, and it makes sense to keep his emotional journey front and center here. The film also nimbly exploits the bonds between the Guardians of the Galaxy characters and Thanos, and while the Guardians provide some of the film’s biggest laughs, their story arc also provides some of the most difficult, emotional material. I have a soft spot for the Guardians, since they are the Broken Toys of the Marvel universe, the team that shouldn’t work at all, and it feels like the Russos know just how much the emotional well-being of that team matters to us as viewers.

One of the best big action scenes in the film comes early in New York, but every single set piece here offers a wealth of things to love. Seeing the various combinations work together, seeing how they try to problem-solve their way through the sequences, it’s clear that they’ve worked hard to justify every character’s inclusion. The sheer size of the final sequence in Wakanda is too much for all of it to register, and there’s a surprising amount of what feels like The Phantom Menace influence in the way it’s been staged. Even so, the film keeps throwing oversized gauntlet-sized punches right to the end of the closing credits, landing the majority of them. Where I think some mainstream audiences may be confounded is with the way this film closes. It is not a conventional choice, nor will it be a popular choice. But it’s the right choice, and it is a huge provocation. I can’t wait to see Captain Marvel and Ant-Man and the Wasp and see how they play with us as an audience, because one thing’s for sure: Marvel is still just warming up and stretching their legs. By building this world the way they have, and by bringing to life this incredibly deep bench of characters, they have built the single biggest playground in pop culture.

Even if they did just burn the whole damn thing down.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos

Avengers: Infinity War opens on April 27, 2018.

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