An unlikely Protagonist – Avengers: Infinity War

After ten years and 19 films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its current form finally approaches its end point. That’s not to say it’s finishing for good of course. No one’s going to shut shop if the money’s coming in. Much like that other Disney property, Star Wars, we’ll be getting these films from now until the end of time (provided the box office doesn’t dry up). There’ll be plenty more Iron-wearing playboys and neurosurgeon wizards gracing our screens beyond 2018. Nonetheless, after one decade, Marvel studios are opting to bookend their first milestone with both Avengers Infinity War and next year’s untitled sequel. 

Before I dive into all of this, there’s a few things I feel best to get out of the way upfront. Firstly, in terms of entertainment, this hits the nail bang on the head. Infinity War is 160 minutes of straight up, rip-roaring joy. It looks beautiful, is packed to the nines with engrossing set piece after engrossing set piece, is for the most part funny and sports some of the most delightful action sequences we’ve seen in this cinematic universe to date. Second, if you’re the sort of person who gets annoyed at films which abruptly end on hefty cliff-hangers, you’ll more than likely walk away from this one wanting to pull every last hair from each follicle present upon your scalp. This is undoubtedly one half of a larger story set to conclude in May 2019. Finally, there’s no way to talk about this movie in detail without giving away oodles of spoilers. So if you haven’t seen this yet, I advise you cease reading this now, because my words will most likely ruin plenty of surprises.

Right then, seeing as we’ve got all that out the way, let’s try and examine the varying parts which make up the beast that is Infinity War….

When attempting to close a ten year master narrative – as directors Joe and Anthony Russo are very much trying to do here – there are a number of ways to approach such an ending. Perhaps you wish to provide fitting conclusions to all the characters and arcs that have popped up over the years. This wouldn’t be an easy task, what with there being so many of the buggers – not to mention half of them still with sequels in the pipeline – although it’s certainly the sort of approach plenty of writers would fancy taking. Another way of course is to just make everything as bombastic and chaotic as can be. If this is going to be the last of its kind before a brave new era takes its place, then why not go out in a blaze of glory? Ramping up the volume and making everything oh so loud is a common mindset when it comes to Hollywood finales; even if the end result is more often than not an overly-expensive mess. A third option might be to trigger a narrative collapse; detonating everything you’ve proudly built during those preceding years so that a new narrative can be refashioned from its debris. Initially it’s this last option which appears to be the decisions Joe and Anthony opted to execute when it came to Infinity War. Whereas much of the film feels as though it’s edging toward finish, it isn’t until the climax we realise something slightly more interesting is going on here.

When we were told to expect death and destruction in this film, producer Kevin Feige wasn’t fibbing. Right from start, it’s relatively clear this is a movie hell-bent on shattering the foundations of Marvel’s fictitious universe to the point in which little stands. Thanos and his goons take no prisoners as they guiltlessly decimate landscapes, iconography and tonal structures which have been in the making since May 2008. This is a stance which doesn’t take all that long to be established, as such franchise-obliteration kicks off right from the moment in which the film opens. Before the title even has time to appear on screen, audiences are forced to watch as the victorious (and comical) conclusion to 2017’s Thor Ragnarok is flipped on its head. The surviving members of Asgard – including Loki, Heimdall, Valkyrie, Korg and Miek – are slaughtered in cold blood. As the film moves forward, this kind of franchise-destruction continuous, escalating in scale from moment to moment. Nevertheless it’s the tonal detonation of Thor Ragonark that serves as the most important, for the fact that it establishes the risk factor mere minutes into the film’s runtime. By having Thanos crush Loki’s neck, slaughter the supporting cast and leave a core protagonist to rot in the vacuum of space; as an audience we bear witness to the level of danger this particular villain represents, not to mention the desperation driving this movie’s plot.

Presenting the hazard and horror of Infinity War is a vital move to make this early on. Comic book lovers may well be fully clued up regarding how brutal Thanos may be, however from a general moviegoer’s perspective, he’s a CGI-made buffed up Mr Blobby who’s spent the past seven or so years sitting in a chair making post-credit fight talk. Sure, we all heard the hardcore fans gasp as he first cameoed during the first Avengers end credits, but that could mean anything. You only have to watch a leaked trailer from Comic Con to see how emotional these enthusiasts can get when a new character is shown. I mean one leaked trailer for Infinity War was accompanied by the sounds of one guy crying when Spider-Man appeared sporting his new suit for crying out loud. For all the promise of dread and danger, many needed to be sold on Thanos pretty early on, and a gasp from Marvel lovers wasn’t enough to cut the mustard. A

As many films before this have proven, computer generated villains more often than not make for boring foes. If you want a collection of pixels to be forefront and centre of a big event movie such as this, Infinity War needed to prove its antagonist’s worth almost immediately. Having him wipe out the entire cast of a previous movie most loved minutes after the Marvel Studios logo had faded from view is a pretty effective way of achieving this goal.

Infinity War sells Thanos as the ominous big bad. This is a dude who can beat the Hulk back inside his Banner-shaped shell, slaughter our favourite heroes (as well as antiheroes) in a heartbeat, and make flowery chitchat with his soon-to-be-adopted daughter while butchering her family. With all that in mind, however, we also get to see a slightly more complex side to this particular antagonist. For one thing, the film establish a twisted kind of logic driving Thanos’s motives. These aren’t exactly ideologies audiences will be nodding their head in agreement to (at least I hope), although his “reasoning” behind wanting to turn 50% of existence into kitty litter helps us understand motives movin his character forwawrd. Thanos’s desire to see a finite universe no longer burdened by overpopulation makes his goals more fascinating as well as menacing. There’s an intellectual backbone of sorts to his madness, not to mention a passion that will inevitably allow him to get what he wants through sheer will. He may have 76 superhumans on his back, but with determination like that, it’s no wonder none of them can bring an end to the tyrants plans. 

Then there’s his love for Gamora. A moment that’s set up in a flashback then paid off once the soul stone is obtained; Thanos’s affection for the last Zen-Whoberis reveals him as a painfully complex character. For all the terror and callousness flowing through his being, there’s a love here that makes him more believable. For all the poison and hatred making up his being, a heart seemingly exists beneath his toxic exterior. After Thanos realises he must murder his step-daughter in order to move closer to his goal, we are shown a side to this beast that many may not have expected. All this leads to one of the more emotionally interesting computer-generated villains shown on screen to date. Whereas most films of this sort suffer from having non-relatable pixels emotionally alienating us from a given picture; both Infinity War and actor Josh Brolin manage to elevate Thanos from moustache-twirling thug to believable monster.

Thanos was certainly a large selling point for this film. He’d been popping up in post-credit sequences like nobody’s business for years prior to this movie’s release. Except he wasn’t the only big deal about Infinity War. Another selling point was its abundance of heroes. Whereas the first two Avengers movies had a cast line-up you could count on one hand, part three promised to feature 76 of the buggers! Although most went to see these crime fighters kick ass, some were more curious to find out whether the Russo brothers made a pig’s ear of such an abundant canvas. Overcrowding a film with too many protagonists or antagonists more often than not makes for disastrous results. Much like Thanos’s view of the universe, a movie is only built for a finite population. Go too far and a story can collapse under its own weight. Fortunately this isn’t the case, as surprisingly enough the film doesn’t fall victim to superhero overload in the way many before it have.

If we’re being honest, we pretty much knew this would be the case, despite the shocking hero count promoted. Sure, 76 heroes were no doubt unfilmable, but did you see that airport scene in Civil War? Joe and Anthony are pros at this sort of mashup filmmaking. They could well be the only two working in Hollywood at present who know just how to make this sort of character/subplot overload work. You can give them all kinds of ingredients to work with, yet they still seemingly manage to make an enjoyable meal out of it all. But how? What is it these guys know that the likes of Joel Schumacher, Sam Rami or Zack Snyder failed to grasp?

Perhaps the secret is confidence in origins and characters. The Russo brothers – not to mention Marvel Studios in general – have wielded an unprecedented level of brashness in their properties over recent years. In addition to taking gambles on projects such as Guardians of the Galaxy, the execs and directors over at Disney trust that their audiences know who all these folks fighting onscreen are. First we had the original Avengers; which despite some witty exposition-laden dialogue assumed viewers – through either word of mouth or seeing previous films – know who all its leads were. Then we had flicks such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, which deduced audiences didn’t need to see Peter Parker’s origins again in order to understand that he’d been bitten by a radioactive spider before losing his uncle Ben. These filmmakers know that much of the mainstream population aren’t living under a rock and are more than clued up on the lure of their movie’s source materials. We’re either all raging nerds, have seen the previous installments, or know about it all via word of mouth.

The Russos seem to understand this more than anyone else, reducing exposition to a bare minimum, using it only for brief gags and spending most of their energies moving a story forward. Refusing to halt the narrative so we can receive pinch points on who Thanos is, Bruce & Black Widow’s relationship status, the events of Civil War, and origins of every hero on screen allows them to get on with telling the story they want to tell. Yes, there are references to these plot points during brief intervals, but they are done so as either easter eggs or gags. This isn’t Marvel 101, it’s a film self-assured enough to assume audiences are on the same page. Therefore when all our heroes start fighting side-by-side, we’re not fatigued by a narrative that’s spent two-plus hours explaining who they all are. Instead we’re thrilled at seeing Parker, Stark and the Guardians fighting side by side; Steve Rogers saying hello to Groot; and everyone come together to help save the universe.

Nonetheless, jettisoning unnecessary exposition isn’t the only answer to character-abundance. Tone is another issue too. Admittedly, Marvel Studios have made an effort to try and have as many of their films aesthetically  match one another as best as possible. In many ways this has been its weakness and its strengths. Its familiarity does make this film series feel formulaic and stale at times, although its episodic approach has allowed for these sorts of ambitious genre/character mashups to work in ways it seldom would within other cinematic universes. For all its pros and cons, you could say Marvel’s decision to parrot their own work makes having all these different protagonists clash an easier challenge than it may have otherwise been. Their comparable style means each feature doesn’t clash with the other. Pairing them up therefore becomes a little less jarring than it might have been if each feature felt as though they belonged to totally different imaginative realities. 

Except not all of these movies resemble one another perfectly. Despite the formulaic approach, many of these films – not to mention the characters who occupy them – don’t feel as though they’d gel well onscreen. Steve Rogers doesn’t feel like the kind of guy who’d blend in with the Guardians of the Galaxy; placing T’challa slap bang in the middle of Thor: Ragnorak would be tonally jarring; and having Stephen Strange show off his sorcery in the very first Iron Man flick is probably a guaranteed way of demoting the entire movie to incomprehensible tosh. Having all these characters come together under one roof would mean you’d essentially have gods, wizards, androids, super humans and augmented millionaires under playing under one roof. That’s about as absurd as having a Star Wars/Harry Potter/Terminator crossover.

Surprising enough, Infinity War manages to make such contradictory genre elements work. None of this should be able to efficiently function, yet somehow, it does. Aside from the confidence held by both the Russos and Marvel, the fact that the calls out as well as mocks the absurdity of all this tonal clashing assists in pulling this sort of story off. The first action sequences, after the opening titles, helps to establish this when Tony Stark points out the absurdity of everything playing out to Peter Parker. All his talk of the villain looking like a character from SpongeBob Squarepants; his allies being wizards; and Banners Hulktile dysfunction serves as not just a means of letting Downey Jr. flex his comedic muscles, but to furthermore set up the cosmic lunacy of it all As a movie, Infinity War is batshit insane. There’s no doubt about this, so much so the film goes out of its way early on to point out the weirdness of its existence. By doing so, it allows the Russos to have their cake and eat it. They are free to flesh out an engrossing story packed with dread while simultaneously embracing its daftness. The camp awareness of all these tonal discrepancies colliding with one another makes for a dazzling fireworks display as opposed to smouldering bonfire.

This embracing of the film’s strangeness allows for them to manufacture a celestial aesthetic to house these tonal inconsistencies within. The dazzling display mentioned above is the unifier that will allow the worlds of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther and co. to work side-by-side. A mad bubble of interstellar chaos where wizards, robots, super soldiers and vocal trees can fight alongside one another.

Humour is also a key in all of this. I mentioned how the opening japes from Stark set up this overarching celestial aesthetic, however this isn’t the last time comedy will come in to save the day. In fact whenever two “contradictory” styles collide with one another – Thor meets the Guardians, Peter and Stark meet Peter Quill, Steve Rodgers is introduced to Groot – jokes are used to ease the blow. Having Captain America meet Groot is an inherently bizarre notion that would be difficult to pull off in any kind of serious context. Infinity War knows this and opts to make the oddness of this collision more tolerable by framing it as a jape. We’re going to laugh at it regardless. By being in on the joke, the reaction is made to seem entirely intentional. Turning inconsistent meetups into comedic set pieces make the ludicrousness nature of these tonal clashes become seemingly part of the plan. 

For everything that’s packed into this movie, the story itself is surprisingly more simplistic than it may first appear. This isn’t to say the film is uneventful – this is without a doubt one of the most sizable and grandiose event movies to come out of a franchise since goodness knows when – it’s just the overall layout of its narrative is quite straightforward. An rage-fuelled and (probably) psychologically unstable alien who lost all his people to an extinction he predicted skips around the universe trying to find a series of magic stones helping him wipe out 50% of existence. For all its scale and magnificence, Infinity War is about a CGI nasty collecting gems in a videogame-like manner (sound familiar to another ensemble flick?). In the wrong hands, this could have been a fiasco; an uninspired mess that quickly faded from public memory.

Fortunately Infinity War is pumped full of terror, desperation, extravagant action and rip-roaring humour; making this an utter triumph. Never before has a pair of filmmakers managed to make a tale about a purple alien collecting magic stones so ruddy thrilling. The villain is a force to be reckoned with, our heroes are engaging and the action set pieces are some of the best we’ve had in this franchise since 2016’s Civil War.  Furthermore the scale of the film helps to make this feel more thrilling than it might have initially done on paper. The fact that Thanos and the Avengers dash through the galaxy throughout dials up the ambition factor to eleven. The entire affair feels colossal in size; a real event movie that engulfs its audience.

Admittedly this decision does get a little exhausting at times. I mean it’s all good and well going on about how fabulous this all is, although it’s not flawless. There is indeed a tad too much space hopping throughout. In similar fashion to Civil War, this can get disorientating at times. Skipping from several of Earth’s countries, to space, to Titan, to Vormir, to Zen Whoberi and so on and so forth is tiresome at the best of times. Just as we’re getting accustomed to one location, we’re whisked off to another. There’s not really much that can be done about this in all honesty. Infinity War’s intention was to go big right from its inception. If you want a bonkers cosmic action flick, establishing varying locations scattered far apart from one another is sort of the point. Luckily, everyone going into this film pretty much knows what they’re getting themselves into, so the risk of scene transition fatigue would have almost certainly been prepared for.

The size of Infinity War does affect other areas too. At times, its size gets in the way of interesting subplots which deserve more fleshing out. There’s two in particular which spring to mind when thinking about this film. First there’s Gamora and Thanos’s relationship; an arc that’s as fascinating as it is tragic. Chucking in a flashback to the day they both met really helps sell the emotional payoff experienced during the soul stone scene, plus Zoe Saldana and Josh Brolin sell the hell out of these characters. Their complexity is captured in the limited time frame they’re given. We’ll no doubt see this develop further during the next movie, however there does feel as though there’s several scenes missing regarding this character dynamic which could have made for some truly great storytelling.

Next up comes the Scarlett Witch and Vision subplot, which is yet another tragic story about two superhumans trying to outrun their destiny so they can share their life with one another. There’s a particularly lovely little moment between the two early on that – much like Gamora and Thanos – sets us up for the emotional punch delivered during the climax. Issue here is this subplot is picked up toward the start of the movie, then left almost untouched right up until the last ten minutes of the movie. The reason we only get two key moments in which this relationship is explored is solely down to the fact that we’ve half a dozen planets and 76 characters to explore between now and then.

Infinity War may well pick up on the Scarlett Witch/Vision dynamic in the next film of course, and there is enough in this one to provide us with some heartbreak during those climactic moments. Nevertheless the epic nature of this movie does result in limited room for characters and their interactions with one another to play out to their fullest potential. Such an issue isn’t only apparent with Gamora/Thanos and Scarlett Witch/Vision, but a whole tirade of protagonists. It’s not a massive issue in such an entertaining flick, although it is frustrating at times.

For all my complaining, however, Infinity War does do a good job in splitting these characters up so they have more time to shine than they otherwise would have if they were lumped together. Separating everyone into teams means we have Strange, Stark, Parker, & the Guardians chasing Thanos to Titan; Thor, Groot, and Rocket attempting to build an enchanted battle-axe; and the remaining Avengers/Wakandans working to destroy the Mind Gem. Splitting everyone up into smaller groups allows characters more screen time than they otherwise would have if they were grouped as one. This provides everyone with specific tasks; serving up enough plot beats to make it more than just a film about heroes fist-fighting a glove-wielding spaceman.

Of course after all the japes, action and varying teams working to stop Thanos, Infinity War boils down to its ending. As already mentioned, this is a film about bringing down everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proudly built up during the past decade. Whereas part four will most likely be about our surviving heroes attempting to revive part of the status quo, Infinity War is primarily interested in destroying the future of the franchise as opposed to setting it up. Whereas films such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi were all about killing the past in order to make way for the future, Infinity War is all about slaughtering the future before it’s even had time to happen.

There’s plenty of redhearings during the movie, implying they’re going to kill off the first gen Avengers to make way for the second. Right after Loki, Heimdall and the Asgardians are wiped from the franchise, we get a scene in which Stark and Pepper Pots talk about having a child together. From that moment, we’re made to believe this will all end with Pepper revealing she’s pregnant just as Stark announces his plans to sacrifice himself. On his tenth birthday, it would have been little surprise if Disney opted to conclude the story of Iron Man whilst allowing his legacy to survive through Pepper Pots and their unborn child. When a blade pierces Stark’s body nearing the film’s end, his fate is almost certainly sealed. Except the film takes an unexpected turn; allowing Stark to live and choosing to kill off all the second gen Avengers instead. Everyone whose contracts were secured perished, while those whose trilogies have since wrapped up live to see another day. Everything both on screen and behind the scenes made audiences believe the original gang were going done, only for the complete opposite to happen. It’s a hell of a cliffhanger to close a multimillion dollar movie on.

Avengers part 4 will no doubt be about the first generation Avengers working to reverse the horrors inflicted by Thanos in this movie. Naturally there will be sacrifices in order to make this work – the film will most likely be about the old team paving way for the new – however as of now we’ve little idea as to how that will be achieved. Time travel, universe hopping, or convincing Thanos undo his atrocities are theories many have suggested based on content found amidst the source material. Regardless of what route they do decided to go down, this is going to be a huge challenge for the Disney and the Russo brothers to pull off.

Ending on a cliff-hanger this intense is never easy to pay off. Look at any large scale science fiction franchise reliant on these sorts of drastic endings, and you’ll see just how difficult they are to resolve. Doctor Who often ends stories with the universe ending; only for the following episode to have the Doctor perform a dash of Deux ex Machina in order to reverse the mess made caused last time around. Coming up with a satisfying solution which doesn’t feel like a lazy cop out isn’t going to be easy; especially when they are going to have to reverse the damage done on such a cosmic scale. Sacrifices need to be made and the foundations of this universe really will need to be altered in order for audiences to buy it. You can’t simply turn back time and have everything be the way it was before Thanos attack the Asgardian’s ship.

Avengers: Infinity War could have been a disaster. The Russo Brothers had far too many plates to spin in the space of one movie. Most filmmakers would have had them all come crashing down long before the first act even had time to wrap up. Nevertheless they manage to sail clean over the insanely high bar they set themselves. For all its characters, subplots and vastness; the film is pure entertainment from start to finish. It’s funny, exciting, emotionally charged and filled with dread. For all the loud clangers born out of many high-budget event flicks, we finally get one that’s worth paying to see. 

Superhero movies and cinematic universes may well be saturating multiplexes in this day and age, but Infinity War is too bloody good to miss. Even for those whose animosity has reached breaking point with these sorts of films, Infinity War might be the superhero feature to temporarily draw them back in.

Published by Amber Poppitt

I'm a writer from the UK with dreams of someday becoming a professional screenwriter. I also happen to be a huge film/TV/novel enthusiast with an undying obsession toward Doctor Who.

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