Friday, April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War — Too much of a good thing?

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and perhaps generously, for relentless brutal violence and destruction, fleeting profanity and occasional crude references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.27.18

Way back in the day, Universal Studios had the bright idea to gather all of their movie creatures together in a couple of glorious monster mashes — 1944’s House of Frankenstein, and 1945’s House of Dracula — after their individual franchises had run out of steam.

With Thanos due at any moment on the devastated planet titan, our already exhausted
heroes — from left, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Drax
(Dave Bautista), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) — prepare for
a final battle.
Marvel Studios has unleashed the same superhero romp for precisely the opposite reason. Having meticulously set the stage each year since 2008’s Iron Man — carefully bringing new characters into an overall continuity akin to what has been crafted in Marvel Comics since 1962 — Avengers: Infinity War is the undeniably awesome result of a shrewd master plan that only gained momentum during the past decade.

No doubt about it: This film is a comic book geek’s dream come true: bigger, better (in some ways) and badder (in other ways) than everything that has come before. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo — allied with scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, along with the legion of Marvel Comics writers and artists acknowledged in the end credits — have wrought nothing less than dense cinematic myth-making on the scale of Star Trek and Star Wars.

(Needless to say, all of the above owe a huge debt to J.R.R. Tolkien and other veteran sci-fi and fantasy authors.)

Disclosure No. 1: Uninitiated mainstream viewers are likely to have no idea what the heck is going down. To be sure, the broad stroke is obvious: Big, bad Thanos (Josh Brolin, barely recognizable beneath impressive layers of costuming, make-up and CGI) must be stopped by just about everybody else. But the fine points are likely to be lost on anybody who hasn’t avidly devoured every Marvel Studios entry to this point.

Like — for example — why Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain American (Chris Evans) aren’t talking to each other. Or what U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) has to do with that. Or why Thor and his fellow Asgardians are journeying between the stars in immense spacecraft. Or why Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are hiding in Scotland.

Or — most obviously — who the heck some of these characters even are.

The cosmos-bending storyline is inspired by a six-issue comic book series — The Infinity Gauntlet — written in 1991 by Jim Starlin, who also introduced the god-like Thanos way back in 1973, in an issue Iron Man.

Although becoming progressively more complex and Machiavellian in subsequent comic book storylines — many by Starlin — this film’s Thanos is on what he considers a mission of mercy, to save the universe from overpopulation. His solution is extreme: He invades and conquers planets, randomly slaughters half the inhabitants, leaves the rest to rebuild under more “stable” ecological conditions ... and then moves on to the next world.

But that’s a slow and tedious process, even for an Eternal such as Thanos. Much simpler, he decides, to be able to obliterate half the universe with the snap of his fingers, after obtaining all six of the “infinity stones” that were created by the Big Bang that formed the rest of the universe. Thanos has been working on this plan in the background of several previous films; he begins here with two stones, and the knowledge of where to find three others. Two are on Earth: one held by the magic-wielding Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other implanted in the forehead of the android Vision, and keeping him alive.

Stone No. 5 is halfway across the universe, in the possession of an alien being known as The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). Thanos doesn’t know the whereabouts of No. 6, the location of which is a secret held by the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who travels alongside Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Following the successful template set up by many Star Wars films, Infinity War opens on a devastating encounter between Thanos, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ... devastating, that is, for the latter two. Subsequent horrific skirmishes and desperate missions divide our heroes between New York, Scotland, deep space and a couple of far-flung planets with needlessly weird names. 

Skillfully cross-cutting between these various points of action — editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, take a bow — keeps the action tense, and the suspense at an increasingly feverish pitch.

Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee makes his usual jokey cameo, and the individual selected to play Thor’s massive, weapon-forging comrade represents a droll bit of casting. And, yes; it’s nice to see — however fleetingly — key secondary players important to their various franchises, such as Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Shuri (Letitia Wright).

All this said, the bulk of this film frequently smothers beneath a shroud of grim, apocalyptic doom. Very, very bad things happen to characters we’ve come to know and love during the past decade; even worse things happen to millions (billions?) of inhabitants on the far-flung worlds turned into rubble by Thanos and his hyper-powered minions: Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon), Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), among others.

Granted, it’s fun to hear the various heroes bicker with each other, and the snarky dialog often is a hoot: when Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Holland) and Star-Lord discover their mutual pop-culture nerdiness; when Tony and Dr. Strange try to out-alpha each other; and when Star-Lord finds himself belittled while standing in Thor’s far more majestic shadow. But the banter begins to ring hollow, and even becomes tasteless, in the midst of so much death and destruction.

Alan Silvestri’s drearily bombastic, sturm und drang orchestral score doesn’t help: all darkness and very little light.

Everything builds to an all-stops-out melee in the Black Panther’s kingdom of Wakanda, which leaves us with a cliff-hanger far worse than Han Solo getting frozen into a slab of carbonite, at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Because — Disclosure No. 2 — Infinity War is only the first half of a two-part saga that won’t conclude until next year at this time.

And yes, patient viewers who remain seated through 15 minutes (!) of end credits will be rewarded with a final cut-scene that gives a tantalizing clue about where things will proceed from here.

The bottom line, though, is likely to vary from viewer to viewer. Some no doubt will find this film a delightful romp, and the answer to a decade’s worth of anticipation.

But be advised: Others are just as likely to find it too brutal, too distressing, and much too sad.

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