Last Call

Even before Anthony and Joe Russo ran their first reel, Avengers: Infinity War had a lot of problems. Not only did the movie have to adapt one of the most mystical and visually-striking comic series in the Marvel canon, not only did it have to bring together all of the popular superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent and enjoyable narrative, not only did it have to payoff a seemingly-random post credit scene from six years ago with a giant purple alien wanting to slide into death’s DMs….but they had to tell people that it was going to be two movies. Due to the size and scale of the source material, not to mention cutting up screen time between over 20 main characters, the Russo brothers had to split the grand finale of the MCU’s first decade between two movies (with the next installment out next year). That would be enough of a challenge, but then Marvel Studios had to go ahead and tell everyone about it. So that’s the biggest rub: with everyone knowing that Infinity War is only Part 1 and that whatever happens is only the first half of the whole story, how do they give any weight or meaning to anything that happens in the movie?

 

In a word: Thanos. The intergalactic, purple-faced, multi-chinned, wannabe-god first introduced at the tail-end of The Avengers finally makes his presence known in the 19th feature film in the decade of dominance held by Marvel Studios. And six years later with endless teases, boy howdy does he make his presence known. Motion-captured and voiced by Josh Brolin, Thanos finds himself burdened with glorious purpose: to balance the entire universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants from existence. He plans to use his mighty Infinity Gauntlet and the six Infinity Stones to power his “mercy,” as he describes. He already has the purple Power Stone and now looks to collect the rest from a cavalcade of caped crusaders: the blue Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the green Time Stone from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the yellow Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the red Reality Stone and the mysterious Soul Stone. Thanos’s malicious intent garners the attention of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of exiled Avengers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the city of Wakanda, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Thanos’s jaded adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

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Since Marvel was at least smart enough not to further damage the movie’s merit by putting a Part 1 at the end of the title, Infinity War’s greatest challenge is merely standing on its own two feet. A great control in this experiment is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a pointless first installment in a two-part finale that mostly spins its wheels to get to the actual conclusion of the story. Thankfully, Infinity War is a solid standalone installment in the MCU that gives its audience an enjoyable and high-stakes adventure before saving its sequel-baiting for the final moments. Kudos to the Russo brothers for giving such a stacked cast of characters all something to do and a purpose for being in the movie outside of fan service. For such a huge movie with basically three climactic action scenes going on at the same time, the Russos shoot the blendings of CG and live-action surprisingly well without too much shaky cam and with a focus that doesn’t jerk the audience between perspectives. The movie’s art direction and production design also take full advantage of the movie’s cosmic settings in outer space and on Thanos’s spaceships, merging the universes of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes. And even with all the cosmic lasers and monsters, many of the fight scenes here are surprisingly well-choreographed fistfights (seriously, Thanos looks like Manny Pacquiao in his prime going toe-to-toe against the Hulk). All of these elements make the 149-minute runtime fly by and don’t make the movie seem bloated or overdone.

 

Despite this movie’s advertising billing Infinity War as an epic event, it seems like the movie can’t commit to that promise. A problem with some of the recent Marvel movies is a stubbornness to let go of the laughs with certain emotional scenes being cut off by a quick or lame one-liner (see Thor: Ragnarok for example). Infinity War has that same problem, as many of the first-time interactions between the likes of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are used for jokes that can pull the audience right out of the movie. On top of that, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies) can’t find the right pacing rhythm. The movie rarely takes time to slow down and have its characters recognize the weight of the scenario. It’s mostly just show up, suit up and throw hands, which leaves little room for great character development. The likes of Iron Man, Gamora, Star Lord and Thor get the best of the writing character-wise and while everyone else has a presence in the movie, they end up as bit players in the background when all is said and done.

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But with all the big names and big guns on display, Infinity War does have one essential main character: Thanos. His characterization and impact to the story could’ve broke the movie down before it even started but right from the get-go, as he walks across the corpses of fallen enemies, he stands as one of the MCU’s finest villains, let alone one of the finest comic-book movie villains. He’s incredibly imposing in his presence, Brolin’s deep growl matched with his lines is a good combination of intelligence and evil, and the movie doesn’t overstate how righteous he thinks he is. Thanos believes he is doing the universe a favor by committing genocide, but he’s not cackling like the Joker when he takes an entire planet and shoots it at Iron Man (a wonderful visual, by the way). Thanos is the best character in this movie, and it’s easy to see how much Brolin enjoys the subtleties of playing him. He may be in a motion-capture suit (also impressively done) but Brolin clearly envisioned the universe around him in all the green screen and really liked every second of being in it.

 

Not every member of the Avengers gets character development here, but it seems like the movie gives time to right ones. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in particular play a pivotal role, being Thanos’s adopted daughter and all. She seems to give Thanos the most cause to reflect on his actions and Saldana gets very emotionally invested in it. Same with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who, without spoiling anything, takes a great deal of loss in the movie and it’s clear his brutish armor is starting to rust away. Downey Jr., the flagship star of the MCU, also has great emotional weight on Tony Stark being that he took a great bulk of trauma from his first encounter with Thanos six years ago. It’s understandable as to why he’s more stressed and emphasizing the threat of the movie than his typical joking self. On the flip side of that, Chris Pratt can’t seem to turn off the goofy Han Solo-esque schtick and get into the events of the movie. Tom Hollland’s aggressively teenaged Spider-Man also does not belong in the events of Infinity War, while Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, who’s been such a focal point of the MCU for the past four years, merely seems like an afterthought addition to the cast. There’s plenty of faceless monsters for the Avengers to fight, but not enough screen time for them to establish their investment in the movie.

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So for a studio-mandated, contextually-required first half of grand finale, there’s a great sense of relief knowing that Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it is. There’s a lot of moving parts and some of them stall, but the essential pieces keep the motor running smoothly. It’s action-packed and more grim than the previous installments, never boring or overbearing. A superhero orchestra playing the right notes for an entertaining night out. The biggest problem though is that it is obviously a “Part 1,” leaving whatever risks it takes stuck with an asterisk on it needing to be solved in the next movie. That next installment will prove whether or not the entire journey was worth the investment or not but if it’s the latter, at least we got one good ride out of it.

3/4

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Upping the “Ant”e

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Well it’s official: Marvel Studios is the Superman of Hollywood. No offense to Henry Cavill, but the superhero movie factory has a lot in common with the Man of Steel, in good and bad ways. There are those that love Marvel Studios for their vision and approach to superheroes, but there are others that pan them for having the same old story for every single movie. Some claim Marvel Studios create visual eye-candy and action-packed thrill rides, other claim that the formula for their movies has already gotten stale and don’t have enough substance. One thing’s for sure, Marvel Studios and Superman are impervious to damage and damn near unstoppable. Case-in-point, Ant-Man.

In 1989, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) decides to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to protect his breakthrough shrinking technology (called the Pym Particle) from being used just as a weapon. 26 years later, Dr. Pym discovers his successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has nearly mimicked the science of the Pym Particle in order to create shrinking suits (called Yellowjackets) that’ll sell to the highest bidder. Fearing the worst, Dr. Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) plot to steal and destroy Cross’ technology so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Who do they choose to pull off the heist? Recently released con-man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who’s looking to redeem himself for the sake of his young daughter and find his true calling. Working with Dr. Pym, Hope and Scott’s three buddies (Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian and rapper T.I.), Scott uses Dr. Pym’s shrinking suit and becomes (SPOILER) the Ant-Man.

Ant-Man has been on people’s watch list for a while now, mostly due to its drama behind the scenes. Originally, writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was supposed to helm the movie, but he left after Marvel Studios denied him of his vision (though he and Joe Cornish are still given credit to writing the screenplay and story). The final product, directed by Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Yes Man) and rewritten by Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers), is more like someone trying to make an Edgar Wright movie, at least from a director’s standpoint. Many of the sequences, like Scott’s training with the Ant-Man suit or Michael Pena’s character explaining how he gets information, are cut and move with the same energy of Wright’s movies. It’s even peppered into the action scenes, showing the Ant-Man using his shrinking abilities to dodge enemies and grow just in time for some quick jabs. Peyton Reed may not have his own distinguishable style on this movie, but he knows to give the movie a steady pulse and some hustle in its action. The script is also solid, with Wright and Cornish’s clever pacing blending well with Rudd and McKay’s cocky dialogue. The combination of the Wright-ish directing and the funny dialogue is probably why Ant-Man easily flies by in its 1 hour and 57 minute duration, making for what feels like the quickest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The cast is more of a mystery, specifically Paul Rudd. He’s known primarily as a supporting player in comedies, but whenever he’s in a lead role he’s always given another lead to support him (Seann William Scott in Role Models, Jason Segel in I Love You, Man and Tina Fey in Admission). Ant-Man is no exception, as Rudd is given very little solo scenes to entertain or stake his claim as a character. He’s either with Michael Douglas training or with Michael Pena planning a heist. Rudd’s not bad here, he just doesn’t show enough charisma or character development to hold certain scenes. If anything, his Scott Lang is meant to be a comedic punching bag, the struggling every man (though he is a criminal) thrusted into an extraordinary situation. It’s as if the movie knows you don’t care about Scott Lang the way you care about Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, so it doesn’t take the time to make him unique. Scott Lang may be the easiest character Marvel Studios have ever written, but then there’s Darren Cross. Corey Stoll’s villain is the typical “evil guy because he’s evil” character, much like Jeff Bridges in Iron Man. All he does is look creepy and yell when he gets mad. Don’t lose hope because the real star of Ant-Man is Michael Douglas, who acts everybody else under the table. The best thing is that Douglas isn’t just some old acclaimed actor doing a superhero movie for cash or to get props from their grandkids. Douglas is invested in the story and character of Hank Pym, even enjoying himself throughout the movie. Evangeline Lilly is the most badass character of the movie, showing Hank how to punch and keeping all the cocky nerds of the movie in line. Michael Pena, known more for dramas than comedies, steals every damn scene he’s in with his jovial energy.

While the energy and comedy is on point here, Ant-Man is more of a typical heist movie than a typical superhero movie. That said, “typical” is still a common word used here, with the usual montages of training for the heist, planning the heist and getting the rag tag team together. Still, Ant-Man is a welcome burst of fun in the MCU canon. It’s still a similar vehicle, with different parts and the order of the set-up switched around a bit. Even though Edgar Wright’s vision wasn’t fully formed, the good bits break through to make a more exciting movie and keep the Marvel success story rolling. In fact, it may be the least important film in the set-up to the next Avengers movie, and maybe that’s a good thing. Ant-Man is much better as a stand-alone movie, trying to do Marvel’s formula a bit different, and that’s something Marvel Studios needs to do more often before they, like Superman, face their Doomsday.
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4 stars