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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Marvel’s Collision Course

So……Captain America: Civil War may be both the best Marvel film to date and yet the dumbest. Sure, it has some of the best action and acting in Marvel Studios’ canon, but the motivation behind this epic showdown is just dimwitted enough to not have it be entirely erased from one’s conscious. The parts of a great Avengers-like spectacle are mostly there (hell, it’s easier to call this whole thing Avengers 3), but it has trouble coming together. It’s like trying to smash an Ferrari and a Lamborghini together to make a super car: you’re only getting a car wreck.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the kickoff to the MCU’s Phase Three of flicks. Meant as a follow-up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Solider, the movie sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and his fellow Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk) dealing with their greatest enemy to date: The United Nations! After realizing that the Avengers’ world-saving battles are causing too much collateral damage for comfort, the U.N. drafts a bill that requires the Avengers to go public and be monitored by the governments of the world. Some, like War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) think the bill is necessary. Others, like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Steve think it’s too extreme. The one really pushing everyone to sign is Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), still riddled with guilt over the events in Sokovia and trying to compensate for his increasing lack of control over what happens to the Earth. Things get even more complicated when Cap’s buddy Bucky Barnes/Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) is held responsible for a bombing at the U.N. meeting signing the bill into law. Steve believes his friend is innocent, but Tony is ordered to bring Barnes in. With that, the two Avengers and co. collide.

 

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Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Said company brings their A-game as Civil War may be the most emotionally driven Marvel movie to date. Downey Jr. in particular brings Stark to his most interesting arc in the films because he clearly doesn’t have it all together. Stark is dour, stressed and desperate to keep the Avengers together because he’s well aware that the danger has increased while he only knows how to make fancier Iron Man suits. The consequences of his actions are hitting him now more than ever and Downey makes it show. It makes Stark look incredibly flawed and all the more interesting. However, the MVP of the stacked line-up is one of the newcomers: Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up, 42) as Black Panther. Boseman proves himself worthy of the cast with a stern charisma and the unaltered morals of his character. There’s a real heart and passion to the way Boseman portrays the noble son of Wakanda trying to keep himself removed from the egos of the other heroes. It just adds to the anticipation of Panther’s upcoming solo movie and further establishes Boseman as a born movie star. The other ace is the film’s actual villain: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious BasterdsRush) as Zemo, a reserved and welcome break from giant robots and aliens to fight. And of course there’s the debut of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man, played with a pitch-perfect amount of teenaged geekiness by newcomer Tom Holland (The Impossible). Despite looking like Jamie Bell if he drank youth formula, Holland may be the most faithful interpretation of Spider-Man to date despite being in only ten minutes of the film. For those complaining that Holland comes off as too awkward or wimpy, guess what: that’s actually who Spider-Man is supposed to be (not a twenty-something Abercrombie model). It’s clear Holland’s presence is to tease a future Spider-Man movie, but the filmmakers wisely keep his appearance brief since he contributes nothing to the actual plot.

 

The rest of the cast all remember how to play their roles right and manage to fit into the picture just the right amount. Everyone else know they’re in a supporting role and they all manage to compliment the story. War Machine reminds Tony of the casualties of superhero war, Vision and Scarlett Witch are the overpowered outsiders trying to find their place on the team, and Black Panther and Hawkeye are the removed characters sticking to their own morals during the big fight. Strangely enough, the weakest element of the movie is the one that kicks the movie into gear. Without the political conspiracy story from The Winter Soldier, the Winter Solider/Captain America relationship is very uninteresting. The main story is the divide between the Avengers, but the movie gets in motion after Winter Solider comes into the movie and it feels mostly unnecessary. More so, Evans and Stan don’t show a lot of chemistry or connection together until the end of the film. Winter Solider kicks off a lot of the action in the movie, but every character besides Winter Solider are what make the scenes stand out. Martin Freeman stands out more despite him being in the movie almost the same length as Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo.

 

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(Left to right) Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in “Captain America: Civil War.” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Civil War is a darker affair than most Marvel movies, but not by much. Unlike that OTHER superhero showdown, Civil War doesn’t overdo the gloom and doom. There’s the overarching atmosphere of seriousness that occasionally gets broken by quips of comedy (some of it lands, some of it doesn’t). The thing is that Civil War looks more realized and alive. In fact, Civil War appears much more realistic and affective than Zack Snyder’s depressing vision. Under the direction of The Winter Solider directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the action set pieces combine fist-fights and effect-driven power play very well. There are some moments of shaky-cam and rapid editing, but the Russo brothers know when to make the audience pay attention. The final showdown between Iron Man, Winter Soldier and Captain America is surprisingly brutal with Iron Man using blinding rage as motivation and Cap just trying to protect his friend despite bleeding profusely from the mouth. The real main event is the advertised showdown at the airport between Team Iron Man and Team Cap. It’s gigantic, ridiculous, stupid yet incredibly pleasing to see everyone show off their powers against one another. Every time you’ve smashed action figures together and made sound effects to it as a kid has manifested onscreen. Whereas Marvel’s Daredevil had the most grounded and realistic fight scene, Civil War is at the opposite end of the spectrum with its over-the-top nature, but both represent the best Marvel has to offer. It might even be worth the price of admission alone.

But what keeps Civil War from matching the miracle that was 2012’s Avengers? Well for one, Marvel has a hard time keeping a straight face. They’re clearly going for a more serious tone but there are moments with serious dramatic heft that get interrupted with witty quips or Vision cooking in a pullover sweater (no, seriously). Sure it’s funny, but takes the audience out of the entire experience and creates near-tonal whiplash. The real problem is the entire main plot (or plots) of the movie. As mentioned, the entire involvement of Winter Solider in the movie feels shoehorned in and merely acts as a greater catalyst for Captain America’s involvement. He’s conflicted enough on the bill after the events of the opening action scene, so having Bucky be thrown in seems more like a distraction from the more interesting conflict between Tony and Steve. On top of that, it’s actually easy to pick a side on this battle. The main reason Tony backs the bill so heavily is a rather blunt scene where a woman blames her son’s death in Sokovia on Tony. Sure there have been many forms of collateral damage throughout the Avengers’ world-saving fights, but the alternative of keeping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes waiting for political red tape to let them save the world seems incredibly dumb. Tony’s motivations seems to be out of desperation rather than thought out logic, the same goes for those supporting the bill. It’s certainly something that political debate can be featured in a superhero movie where Paul Rudd laughs it up for yucks, but it’s not much of a debate to get invested in. If the choice is to let the Avengers do what they do and learn from their mistakes or tighten the leash on them in the hopes of possibly lessening the damage, I say AVENGERS ASSEMBLE! You know who doesn’t care about collateral damage? Thanos, Hydra and Zemo. You know who’s been proven to be hopelessly unprepared to fight these enemies? The entire human race. You’d think there’d be a thoughtful conversation about these issues, but the only way superheroes can solve problems is through punching, and that’s mostly what Civil War has to offer.

 

 

Taken as big, dumb blockbuster spectacle, Civil War comes so damn close to reaching the scale and emotional heft of The Avengers and that should be more than enough to recommend this movie. But it’s just too hard to ignore the fact that Marvel isn’t willing to pull the trigger on the Watchmen-like question of “who should superheroes answer to?”In fact the more I think about it, that big question is almost entirely tossed aside for Tony’s emotional breakdown and Steve’s buddy rescue, not to mention more Winter Soldier backstory that isn’t worthy of a subplot let alone a feature film. So like I said, Civil War is like a sports car demolition derby: it’s awesome to see these impeccably crafted works collide with each other, but the final product is a mess the more you look at it.

 

3 out of 4 stars