Tuesday, May 1, 2018

And, it's fair to say, it was assembled


Comics, nerd.  Also, there was a movie that came out this weekend, and we can talk about that too.

Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
With many! including Josh Brolin (Thanos), as well as Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), none of whom are, perhaps thankfully, named as such in the film itself

Spoiler alert: moderate

Let me tell you a story: in 1975 a writer-artist with a delirious post-Kirby style and a cosmic vision to match began perhaps the most beloved space opera in comics history, and Jim Starlin's chosen hero was the golden superman born of a hyperscientific cocoon, Adam Warlock.  Warlock was the bearer of the Soul Gem, a wanderer of the stars, and a frequent crucifixee; and he was a man crushed by existential torment and the guilt of repeated failure.  Soon he would make the acquaintance of a certain Thanos of Titan, who came to Warlock as an ally in his crusade against the Universal Church of Truth, the galactic theocracy dedicated to the worship of, as it turned out, Adam Warlock himself—or at least Warlock's future self, a being reshaped by Chaos and Order so as to serve as their champion of Life (of which Chaos and Order are but aspects, of course).  Life certainly needed a champion, as Death had chosen hers long ago: Warlock's own brother-in-arms, the Death-loving mad Titan.

Now we advance sixteen years, past Warlock's astral suicide; past the second great battle between Earth's heroes and Thanos; past that time Captain Marvel died of cancer, and Thanos was there to welcome him to the other side.  Thanos was back from the beyond, more powerful than ever, and with a keener understanding of the "Soul Gems" he once sought to control by instrumentality.  Thanos gathered these six gems, each of which, he now knew, represented one of the infinite faculties of the universe's  long-lost Creator, who had fragmented into pieces when He found Himself confronted with an eon of loneliness.  In combination, they gave their bearer complete control over Power, Space, Time, Reality, the Mind, and the Soul, and the instant that all six were his, Thanos became GOD.  The first thing he did as deity was to kill half the people in the universe.  But Life shall always have its champion: the reluctant hero who had been happy to die when, by the vagaries of time travel, he sprang forward to kill himself all those years ago, now returned from the happy afterlife he had discovered within his Soul Gem, to once again do battle with his opposite; and, at last, Warlock banished his enemy, assuming the mantle of godhood for his own.  Then, in a great irony, the league of cosmic entities told him that while Thanos was, whatever his indiscretions, competent to wield the power, Warlock was not, and asked him to step down.

Now I'll tell you another story: starting in 2012, with The Avengers, Marvel Studios sought to adapt Starlin's great, decades-spanning epic, which ran through Strange Tales and Avengers Annuals and Thanos Quests and concluded (for about six months) in  The Infinity Gauntlet and in the first issue of Warlock and the Infinity Watch.  (Perhaps oddly, perhaps not, Marvel has not sought to adapt the actual comic book, The Infinity War.  Not even the very littlest bit.)  And, through the course of six years and thirteen more films, they accomplished this enormous task with their version of Starlin's tale—mainly through the ingeniously simple expedient of leaving out its fucking protagonist.

I kind of saw it coming.  My reviews of all of Marvel's cosmic stuff have come ribboned with my annoyance that Adam Warlock (my favorite comic book character of all time, in case that wasn't clear) wasn't in it.  And this, of course, has been incredibly petty of me, although it might have helped if they had evinced a little more discipline in keeping him completely out, rather than teasing a Warlock-by-any-other-name-would-be-as-weird arc with the artificial hero Vision, and even the gestation of Adam himself, seen in one of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2's amusingly-endless mid-credits sequences.  But the reason I complain is not that the movie is different; it is that it is pretty much objectively worse because it's different.

Obviously, it was always too much to hope that the Most Expensive Movie Of All Time (That, Sometimes, Even Looks Like The Most Expensive Movie of All Time) would operate on anything like the same level as the heady ideas that animated Starlin's comic books—and this remained obvious even after Black Panther, by divine providence, actually did push the envelope on what a "Marvel Movie" could be about. It would have taken movies Marvel neither made, nor ever intended to make, in order to get to the meat of Warlock and Thanos's long saga (the troubled anarchism, the critique of organized religion and the psychology of the extremist, the themes of depression and self-destruction, and the equivalence of life with death in the grand scheme of creation).  Even so, the things that actually made Starlin's space operas the best (the overcooked mysticism, the clever plotting, and the crazed declamation of cosmic pseudo-philosophy by striding gods) I still somewhat expected to make their way into the film.  And they do, I guess, in drips and drabs.  At least, the latter and former do, as clever plotting is maybe the last thing on Infinity War's mind.

The thing is, in the absence of a protagonist—at least one marked out as such—this Infinity War fills itself up instead with, well, stuff.  (Perhaps inevitably; there was no roadmap for its creators.  While the comics it's based upon do indeed feature the general idea of "the Avengers," or rather the general idea of "Marvel superheroes," they are reduced mainly to colorful George Perez backdrops, or, at best, exposition  devices.)

The story here, anyway, credited to Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely, is in many respects the simplest story ever told in the MCU, even if it has been told at the most length: Thanos has had it up to here with the sheer number of people struggling to survive in a finite universe, and to this end seeks the Infinity Stones, and Thanos is willing to go through anyone, and do anything, to get them.  If he acquires all six, he will have the power to instantly achieve his goal, which is the removal of half the universe's population, thereby restoring balance.

The plot, naturally, is much more involved, because this plot requires things-to-do for around two (three?) dozen characters, and I shall not go into it much, except to say that it's a reasonably solid version of what it has to be, which is a plot that has to weld the disparate franchises of the Marvel mega-franchise into a single entity.  It does give all its some-dozen characters something to do, and that's not nothing; it is, however, far from everything, and given that Infinity War, by its very name, sort of promises everything, it's bound to be slightly disappointing.  More concretely, what it does is functionally make Thanos its protagonist (not quite unfairly, either: regardless of what the folks who know just enough to be wrong will say, the comic it's based upon the very most is Thanos Quest, the tale of how Thanos killed the Elders of the Universe and stole their Infinity Gems, rather than The Infinity Gauntlet, the tale of what Thanos did with them).  And, counterintuitively, this works—one of the most satisfying things about Infinity War is that it does not give a shit if you've never seen a Marvel movie before, and considers it your fault if you don't already know who all these scene-fillers are (this can also be an annoying thing, when they claim they've done things with them that they haven't, but that's comics, baby).  Meanwhile, Thanos, in the portrayal, is shockingly excellent.  That's curious, because a character whose speech bubbles look like this

should probably not sound exactly like Josh Brolin.  But even when the movie does things with Thanos I object to, I don't really mind, because Brolin is enough.  The physical rendering of the twelve foot lavender nihilist is rather phenomenal, as these things go, especially as they go in Marvel films—Thanos has all the credible physicality the Hulk should have had, and practically never did.  I can't imagine it's as simple as the palette swap from green to purple, but Thanos' skin and flesh look real or at least real enough (I am, against my better judgment, loving his sleeveless cosmic vest) and even the faithfulness (hell, overfaithfulness!) of his wrinkled jaw looks perfect.  But the craft surely matches the technology here: beneath Thanos' CG visage is Brolin's face, and Brolin's voice, and Brolin brings pain matched only by tireless ambition, in what is (with only a few other members of the cast occupying so much as the same galaxy) by far the best performance in the film, and the only one with staying power.  Pity, then, that it's in service to a screenplay that bowdlerizes Thanos, lover of a literal goddess named Death, into one more Ra's al-Ghul, ecological terrorist, and in the process turns the Marvel Universe's most fearsome and flawed warrior-strategist into a man who does not seem to realize that, once he is GOD, killing one half of the universe to save the other doesn't make all that much sense.

Alternatively, I'm bringing too much of the source material into a movie that is far too unconcerned with explaining or even demonstrating the might of the Infinity Gauntlet that our Thanos is putting together.  (Sometimes when it does, as it does with the Reality Stone, you'll wish it didn't bother: a garbage wipe effect paired with an incredibly deflating idea of what the manipulation of "reality" entails.)  As much as Thanos is the default protagonist of the film, the logistics of his quest are iffy as hell, starting with what his henchmen get out of the deal in the first place (not to say that his chief lieutenant, Ebony Maw, is not a scene-stealing presence), and ending with a bunch of melee battles and individual fistfights that are so much of a foregone conclusion that you wonder why they're so damn long.

So as far as action goes, there is certainly a lot of it, and some of it is good, and even more of it is well-conceived on the page: the best is probably the first, that pits Thanos against these Marvel movies' ultimate trump card (maybe both of them, now that I think about it), and puts those trump cards in the ground; if it's not that, then it's the second, which doesn't involve Thanos at all, but Ebony Maw and some sterling screen telekinesis; or, possibly, it's one of the last, wherein Thanos is challenged by Dr. Strange and Iron Man and some of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but mainly Dr. Strange, and they've really only moved from strength to strength with Dr. Strange-based mystic arts, since his own solo film.  Shame, then, that it concludes with Infinity War's most obscenely lazy beat—and this in a movie that has embraced the most annoying kind of comic-booky, convenience-based storytelling, to a degree that should not be rewarded with any box office records, but, I suppose, already has been.

There's other good stuff, though, and other actors besides Brolin rise above the waterline: Tom Holland is still the best Peter Parker, genuinely moving in a certain late-coming scene; Robert Downey is Holland's partner in this scene, and the expression on his face, which I am dead certain is actually "oh, we're still rolling?" somehow works for Tony Stark, as his reaction to trauma of the moment; Zoe Saldana and Keiran Gillen serve, bravely, as Thanos' "daughters," Gamora and Nebula, despite a script largely unable to paper over these relationships' near-complete lack of development; Chris Hemsworth achieves, however briefly, the most  dramatically effective work he's ever done as Thor, and maybe ever done period, in one single close-up of his face.  Thor also gets to do something properly mythological in this movie, perhaps for the first time since Thor itself (or, again, ever); and in this sequence he gets the company of a sensitive Bradley Cooper in the guise of a raccoon, as well as Peter Dinklage, in a perversely-amusing cameo that represents the purest of Infinity War's several whimsies.

Meanwhile, some other cast members rise above that waterline whether you want them to or not: Infinity War marks the third time in a row that a Marvel film has tried to make Paul Bettany's Vision and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch happen, and it is still as inert and unwelcome as it was all the other times, all the more gratingly because this time they really insist on it (and Vision is no Adam Warlock, sir); beyond that, the movie seems to enjoy wasting Mark Ruffalo, and making you wish the Hulk were one of the Avengers who died.  (Oh, spoiler?  Perhaps, but bear these things in mind: despite the outright lies told by the Marvel hype machine about this not being the first part of a two-part film, that's exactly what it is, and you may have noticed that our villain is armed with magical artifacts that, amongst other things, can warp reality and shift time.  The good news is that it's clear what they're setting up with Infinity War's sequel, and I do approve.)

So it has its moments, and does a powerful job of wrestling the tone into something approaching even-keeled; in its best moments, it even manages "autumnal," fitting for the end-of-all-things scope it's going for.  Not shabby, for a film that wants to mix, for example, the Guardians' forced-comedy splendor with a mournful Thor.  It grinds its gears pretty rarely, in fact, at least on the level of script, and it has enough momentum that by the point I felt like it was taking too long, it was over; on reflection the only reason I even felt like it was taking too long was because I thought it still needed at least an hour to resolve its tale.  (I was right, but that didn't stop them credits.)  For once, it turns the overstuffed nature of too many Marvel movies into a strength.

At least on the level of script, that is: God knows that the Russo Brothers weren't up to directing this script, or, if they were, that their style wasn't the right one for it.  Sometimes production designer Charles Wood and the legion of digital artists enforces the right vision on them, but not always—that first fight? the one I called the best, conceptually? involves a cut that violates the 30 degree rule (this movie cost $400 million), and while this might be acceptable in a fight between human stuntpeople, this fight is completely CGI.  The cross-cutting which you'd think would drive Infinity War—that you'd think would have to drive Infinity War—looks like it was achieved on the script level, too, by directors who'd never even seen a Star Wars film, going scene to scene mechanically like they were bracketed by commercial breaks, without any particularly strong idea about what shape the story should have.

Or whether it should have one, period: it's maybe not the most egregious thing Infinity War does, and most people may not even notice, but it cuts from the interior of one space fortress to another with the exact same lighting scheme, and it is unbearably barbaric, even if you somewhat like what it's showing, which I didn't, because it was another scene of Thanos torturing someone to get someone else to do something.  (There are at least three, and not one of them feels like it ends in a fully justified way—one, as mentioned, isn't justified at all.  But apparently this is the film's leitmotif.)  Editor Jeffrey Ford was clearly not much help to the Russos—the footage fits together rudely even within a scene—and I notice now that while he had an interesting early career, his last decade has been spent entirely in thrall to Marvel, and, specifically, to the Marvel movies I didn't even like.  Cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who has never shot a movie that looked good, but earlier in life shot movies that looked right, doubles down on his basic handheld aesthetic, which is what the Russos pay him for, but what worked in Captain America: Civil War (a semi-grounded story about spies and shit) works about as well as you could expect it to for a cosmic quest.  Better, even, though that doesn't mean "well," and the film is often significantly better when there's no actual camera involved.

The CG itself works most of the time, though I noticed a distressing tendency, and I don't want to call it racist, but it's like every time a black person showed up on screen they cut the compositing budget.  Maybe Wakanda, or whatever golf course they bought to stand in for Wakanda in both this film and in Black Panther (did I mention my least favorite part of Black Panther is effectively regurgitated in this film, less than three months later?), is simply hard to composite, with its permanent noontide sunlight and all.  But it's not even always a black character who suffers.  Infinity War doesn't try to be as funny as most Marvel flicks, but it does have its jokes; even so, one of Infinity War's single biggest laughs is the way Don Cheadle appears in frame and suddenly Mark Ruffalo's head starts floating around in the background, like it was the opening of Zardoz.  It's weird!

Alright: I'm definitely nitpicking now, if not rambling, but such is my wont with superhero flicks, which I do try to take seriously, even when they only want to be taken as a cultural obligation.  I did like the film.  Despite it being a failure on one set of terms, it is a success on its own—not an unqualified one, but projects this ambitious usually aren't, and, however reluctantly, I'll take it for what it is, not what I wanted it to be.

Score: 7/10


  1. I forgot to mention that Chris Hemsworth close-up! That was terrific!

    My turn for a question: What is it clear that they're setting up? I know zero things about comics.

    1. Iron Man dying in a blaze of glory to Set Things Right. Actually, I might be reaching.

      Could also involve that BS plot point with Dr. Strange, that seems entirely unmotivated, and would probably play better in a unified narrative rather than in a Part 1.