Avengers: Infinity War review
What is the purpose of a crossover film? In the superhero genre, rarely is it to explore deep character relationships, to see how complex themes synergize, or to juxtapose larger-than-life characters in relation to each other in order to illuminate the human condition. Rather, they’re about our favorites beating each other up (and answer the eternal “who would win?” questions), flashing their superpowers in close proximity, or perhaps making out (here’s looking at you, Steve and Bucky).
That Avengers: Infinity War would carve this idea deeper into the lead plates of superhero tropes that weigh down movies in the genre was apparent from the legion of “most ambitious crossover event in history” ads that Marvel deployed on social media before the film’s release (prompting a pretty hilarious Twitter response). The focus was always on “crossover” and not “character,” which might seem paradoxical, given that the superhero genre relies on the audience’s unequivocal love of certain characters to pull in eyeballs.
Except is it? If we accept a superhero character as a symbol, as an anthropomorphic representation of an abstract idea (Justice, say, or Freedom), then the paradox falls apart: symbols don’t need to be complicated. They don’t need layered motivations, don’t need to learn and change. A symbol’s purpose is to be seen, and in those who recognize the symbol, incite an emotional response.
Films, it can be argued, are experts at deploying symbols for emotional effect. The mere sight of a familiar character or an unexpected cameo can provoke audible gasps from theatre-goers. Infinity War might as well be an homage to that technique: every time a well-known character appeared on screen for the first time, whoops erupted in the theatre. In fact, the film was expertly crafted along many axes: a finely honed machine, each gear precisely carved to turn at just the right speed to elicit just the right emotion at just the right time. Despite the lack of interesting character development, I giggled when the film asked me to, awwwed when the film demanded it, cheered when it was expected it of me. The action was fast-paced, the locales gorgeous, the people more so (no really: if it weren’t already apparent that I was in love with Hemsworth’s Thor, Infinity War makes it canon that he is, in fact, the most beautiful Avenger).
Does this rob a movie of soul? Does this tight treatment of a script as an audience-driver rather than a vehicle for storytelling rob the film of some essential spark? “Oh no!” I mouthed when a beloved character died, but the feeling was fleeting and superficial; I know Marvel has sequels planned and I know how movies like these work. At its worst, death is an inconvenience. And in the destruction-heavy world of Infinity War, death is only really significant to those fans who are familiar with the previous movies in the franchise. With its action-packed agenda, the movie leaves little room for first-time viewers to get to know and love characters. Moreover, even long-term fans might balk: many well-known heroes are given little to no screen time, and exist solely as foils for others. Tom Holland’s uber-likeable Spider-man, for example, serves only to provide Iron Man with someone to worry about, while T’Challa is reduced to just some handsome king who happens to fight well.
There is another way to look at Avengers: Infinity War. The movie does, in fact, highlight a superpowered character with complex motivations, interesting relationships, history with some of our favourite heroes, and even a team of sidekicks: Thanos himself. Infinity War probably gives more screen time to Thanos, and explores his drives, motivations, and relationships more fully than any single hero. I emerged from the theatre having learned more about the Mad Titan than about Iron Man, or Captain America, or Thor, or any of the others. Looking at the movie from Thanos’s perspective, you can easily take the narrative to be one of a well-intentioned (in his own way) anti-hero, struggling against an ensemble of irritating, self-righteous, misguided (and flat) costumed-mutants to achieve his vision of balance and order.
And that’s the key of course: it’s all about perspective. I noted in my review of Black Panther that reviewing that film, redolent with black culture and history, had been difficult. Reviewing Infinity War was equally, if not more, challenging because the film is so clearly geared towards a very particular audience. How do you review a film that means something very different when it stands on its own than when it is seen in relation to a whole decade of comic-book-style, serialized Marvel movies? How do you recommend a movie when a die-hard MCU fan will take away something entirely different from anyone else?
You go with the flow, that’s what. Avengers: Infinity War will never compete with Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, or Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. It’s simply not as good a movie. But if you’re a Marvel fan, wanna watch some supers walloping each other, and can’t wait to see your beloved characters’ next solo movies, you’ll probably have a good time at the theatre.