AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR * 1 / 2
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans and Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo.
I suppose there have been worse recent superhero movies –Age Of Ultron and Justice League come to mind—but I’m hard-pressed to think of one as tediously inconsequential as Avengers: Infinity War. Proving the old adage from The Incredibles that if everybody’s special nobody is, the film pig-piles some twenty-six or so of your favorite Marvel characters from the past eighteen films into a numbingly repetitive 160 minutes of unimaginative, intergalactic punch-outs during which Earth’s Mightiest Heroes take turns getting their asses kicked by Josh Brolin’s glowering Grape Ape.
Just kidding, his name is Thanos. (Because that’s way less embarrassing.) An over-scaled purple people eater and disaster of silly-looking CGI character design, voiced with a pleasingly incongruous sensitivity by Brolin – this big bad guy from outer space jumps around dimensions gathering magic space rocks to fit into a hilarious tin glove that will grant him infinite powers once the collection is complete. He aims to cure the universe’s overpopulation problem by painlessly blinking half of all life forms clear out of existence with a snap of his magic space rock-encrusted fingers. (Thanos could also probably use those magic space rocks to create more of the finite resources he claims we’re overtaxing, but then I guess we wouldn’t have a movie.)
It’s a wry in-joke to have a villain worried about the hazards of overpopulation in a film that features nineteen movie stars billed above the title, and I’ve seen Infinity War lauded in certain circles for “unprecedented ambition” simply because it’s so damn crowded. (As if getting well-compensated actors to show up for work on a film in which they were contractually obligated to appear is now somehow equivalent to Herzog’s steamship over the mountain. Raise your standards, kids.) The bad news is that unless you’re Robert Altman, having twenty-six main characters just means nobody gets much to do.
Infinity War is more a feat of traffic management than storytelling, so busy herding heroes here and there that there’s no time for plot twists or character development. The overqualified cast shows up and does a bit of familiar shtick, bunched together in groups that unfortunately underscore how samey a lot of these superheroes have become. An exhausted-looking Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark squares off with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, the two spitting out arrogant one-liners almost as identical as their goatees. Peters Parker and Quill provide the adolescent snark while Cap and T’Challa exude old-school nobility and everybody brings up strikingly similar daddy issues at least once.
The movie marches through Thanos’ acquisition of the magic space rocks in ploddingly straightforward, videogame fashion. Despite all the varied superpowers onscreen, most of the action sequences devolve into everybody punching each other and standing around curiously depopulated Georgia soundstages. (I guess when you have this many movie stars there’s no budget left for extras. The “New York” scenes are comically empty.) Missing are the teamwork and invention of the Avengers’ airport brawl in the otherwise dreary Civil War, settling instead here for pathetic sights like fine actors making pained faces while trying to pull that cheesy-looking glove off the purple fellow’s fist.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are two TV guys who have become Marvel’s in-house aces because they can efficiently move a lot of narrative pieces around the board, but they never pause for anything like poetry. Despite these shenanigans spanning the universe, Infinity War is shockingly short on memorable images, with most scenes composed in the banal shot-reverse-shot coverage familiar from episodic television. (The ads emphasize that this is the first Hollywood feature photographed entirely with IMAX cameras, which just means they routinely waste three stories of screen space on the back of Robert Downey Jr.’s stand-in’s head.) Future film students will compare the Russos’ boring, backlot Wakanda against Ryan Coogler’s vibrant vision of the same setting in Black Panther to study the difference between a real filmmaker and a couple of hired hacks.
A case of literal overkill, Infinity War’s controversial cliffhanger traumatized children at the matinee I attended while infuriating adults. In a film that features nearly every character constantly, dourly announcing how much is at stake, the stunt ending reveals that nothing we’ve been watching for damn near three hours has actually mattered and the obviously reversible nature of this semi-apocalypse will keep our heroes from ever meaningfully having to reckon with defeat.
For all their “unprecedented ambition,” the most Marvel accomplished here was making a little boy cry on the escalator on his way out of the theatre while the rest of us rode down with him, wondering if there wasn’t some better way we should all be spending our time.