[Wrote this some time ago, when it mattered, not that it matters. –wa.]
[UPDATED, February 2019.]
It’s not really a story, is the thing.
Infinity War is perfectly fine entertainment — some of the ‘funny’
lines are funny, some of the fighting is graceful, some of the tableaux are nice. There’s a brief, breathtaking scene of Cumberbatch doing his sorcerous thing that attains the psychedelic grandeur of the Doctor Strange movie, a similar sort of Neat Stuff movie with a similarly, ploddingly familiar Conventional Superhero Plot.
And of course, if you’re a child who knows nothing of Hollywood, the ending might come as a surprise. They all ‘die’! It’s ‘genuinely’ ‘tragic,’ isn’t it.
But for adults who’ve been exposed to the nauseating ad-dollars hype machine which is the true purpose of this film’s existence, that ‘daring’ ending is simply hollow — and when you realize the whole narrative point of this flick is to end the story of the Avengers by giving them some actual Avenging to do, the creeping sense of pointlessness that nibbles at you through the whole rest of the film just…overtakes you. Or me, anyhow.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to care deeply about the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s not a world or a story, but rather inescapably a product, a going commercial concern. Yes, Whedon did his customary excellent work; yes, Ragnarok and Strange and Gunn’s Guardians flixxx show actual wit. Yes, I can’t help but be moved by Chris Evans as Captain America. Yes, Downey’s a genius. But fans and ‘critics’ alike long ago stopped being even remotely rational about these films — you won’t get hounded to an early grave for claiming Winter Soldier is a ‘classic political thriller,’ for instance, mostly because Redford’s in it. Without exception, these are well-orchestrated but ordinary action films, and we should be careful not to get too amped up about B/B+ work from trained professionals with vast budgets.
Addendum, February 2019
Some good acting, mind you.
Now that Endgame is only a few months away and this film is on Netflix (which I finally have), I watched again today. This time I was struck by the film’s irritating structural sleight-of-hand, whereby the deaths of two beloved characters in the opening scene appear to set the stakes while actually concealing the plot’s absolute lack of meaning, weight, resonance. Instead of, say, the mythic expressionism of Luke and Vader dueling in darkness, we get meet-cutes and odd-couple pairings (aww, Thor and Rocket; aww, Strange and Tony) and speeches about the very Bigness of things. Instead of principles, we see neat moments: Quill is ready to shoot Gamora in one scene (neat!), then stupid and selfish enough to fuck up his own save-the-universe plan when he finds out somebody else killed her. The idiot ball is passed around quickly, as if to give everyone a chance to dribble it awhile. The metaphysics are, as usual, both (1) unclear and/yet (2) essential to the plot. It’s childish.
There will be deaths in Endgame, Tony’s and/or Steve’s surely among them, but since everyone knows these are Comic Book Franchises and not (say) actual adult entertainment, we know Spider-Man will return in Endgame and the ‘climactic’ death of half the universe’s living things will be undone. The cost of that action will be calculated not in moral concessions but in whether or not we get to see the characters again, i.e. ‘dead’ means ‘off-camera’ and that’s it. That’s the limit of the industry’s imagination (because dead characters can’t earn profit anymore). I’ve been writing for a lot of years about Hollywood’s juvenile insistence that the only interesting stakes for mass-market audiences are life and death, and Infinity War suffers badly from that inflationary growth, as did JJ Abrams’s stupid Star Trek and Star Wars films with their offhand genocides.
I’m reminded that Joss Whedon is infinitely funnier and better at dialogue writing than Markus and McFeely, and find myself missing Whedon’s ability to render continuous character development even in the context of a single overstuffed ensemble film. He’s known (by idiots) for being a ‘quippy’ writer, but as Jane Espenson will tell you, Whedon’s comedy always comes from a deep sense of character (which is maybe why Dollhouse didn’t work but let’s not dwell). Infinity War has quips instead of comedy, insults instead of communication; time and again the movement of the scene stops for a laugh, an ‘Amirite, True Believers?’ nudge to the ribs. (‘I am Steve Rogers’ is a funny line, but that’s all it is.) Great comedy issues from darker places, which is why ‘comedies’ for kids are generally insufferable and mass-produced sequels go bad so quickly. Nothing here is actually dark, nothing deep, nothing mythic.
I had a thing to say about the influence of The Authority on these movies — remember Apollo basking in the fact that he’s a comic-book character orbiting the moon? — but I’ve exhausted my interest in the subject. Infinite War is a good time, it’s just not a good movie, and anyone who sings the praises of the cinematic-industrial complex should fuck off back to grade school.