Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Feature - Avengers: Infinity War Spoiler Talk

I don't want to go, Mr Stark.
You've seen the movie, right? Probably more than once - and now you're ready to do it all again on Blu-ray. That's the assumption on which I'm basing this entry, so here's one massive SPOILER WARNING flashed in neon. I'm leaving no plot-twist unturned. Let's go.
The publicity storm for Avengers: Infinity War promised much, including an unprecedented number of superheroes on screen along with unprecedented levels of jeopardy. It was all going to be vast and the stakes would be proportionately high. Well props to the film-makers for committing themselves to this plan from the opening sequence. 
Within moments the writing/directing team establish arch-villain Thanos as a formidable threat, ripping the heart out of Thor: Ragnarok and effectively nullifying that movie's victory. Yes some survivors may have sneaked off in an escape vessel, but that possibility is only hinted at later. The sight of those dead Asgardians is truly chilling. Within minutes Heimdall and Loki - significant MCU characters - have both been offed, with Thanos' promise 'No resurrections this time' ringing in our ears. Hulk's green ass has been handed to him on a stick and it looks feasible at one point that Thor's head will be popped like a grape between his new antagonist's mighty fingers. Now that is one single-minded beginning.
It colours everything else in the movie... Tony Stark contemplating baby-making with Pepper. Vision canoodling with Scarlet Witch in Edinburgh. Peter Parker taking one more bus-ride to school. All of this takes place in the grim shadow of Thanos and his minions. Even the exposition is rattled out with no time to spare, Wong spinning his Infinity-Stones-digest in the air and Stark barely having time to spikily acquaint himself with fellow-egotist Stephen Strange before serious shit lands on New York. Two of the movie's key strengths are combined here - finely-honed quippy humour in the face of approaching doom and story-telling on the hoof. Not a scrap of time is wasted, as our heroes bicker and banter their way through this mother of all crises. 
Making the Thanos-quest such a strong through-line ties the story together tremendously well, even if certain ongoing sub-plots are given short shrift, or temporarily sidelined altogether, as a result. That difficult Stark/Rogers reunion is made to wait till next year's sequel, while the stumbling Banner/Romanoff romance is allowed a single (admittedly very poignant) glance. Similarly 'Rhody' Rhodes' adapting to disability following Civil War is only alluded to briefly. It's unfortunate, but inevitable; the writers' self-imposed brief is clear - get these Avengers re-assembled and then get them to Wakanda as quickly as possible, for a mighty face-off against Thanos' massed forces. All character interactions are ancillary to the central confrontation, and it's what makes the movie work as a whole. As for the Vision-based pretext on which Cap and co travel to T'Challa's kingdom - I'll get to that shortly.
Elsewhere one of Infinity War's true delights is the crashing together of unlikely allies (and egos). Thor's grief at events on board the Asgardian ship is leavened by his wonderfully funny interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy. As the most fantastical of the Avengers, he turns out to be the perfect linking point between these two groups of MCU characters. His later teaming with Rocket and teen-Groot proves inspired; there is genuine pathos along with the hilarity in his conversations with the 'sweet rabbit', a mingling of tragedy with the outlandish Ragnarok-style humour.
Meanwhile the awkward father-son dynamic of Tony Stark and Peter Parker that was one of Spiderman: Homecoming's high-points is resumed, this time with added head-butting between Stark and Strange. Take two vying narcissists and one precocious teenager trying to impress them both, while proving his worth to the team - then fire them all into space to interact with some of the Guardians. This might have been a character-cluttered mess in less capable hands, but the deft dialogue and the light-footedness with which it's delivered makes the whole thing work to audience delight. It also sets up one hell of an emotional punch later on, when Peter crumbles into nothingness on a planet far from home, his broken-hearted mentor cradling him. (Let me pause reverentially for a moment before moving on.)
The family-Thanos thread of the movie is arguably the most powerful one, proving the 'villain' as much an ideologist as Steve Rogers. This is no run-of-the-mill warlord, rather he's a big purple man on a mission - an intergalactic saviour in his own mind. Let's face it - regarding the topic of over-population, he makes a valid point. Josh Brolin brings out the character's inner life superbly, never more so than in the fateful moment where Thanos kills Gamora (the person he most loves in the cosmos) to gain possession of the Soul Stone. It's a stroke of writerly inspiration to reveal the antagonist's capacity for deep familial affection in the same moment where he murders his daughter - monumentally twisted for sure, but with a certain Biblical profundity.  
The Gamora/Thanos storyline also ties into the movie's most clearly drawn theme - that of hard choices and whether or not characters have the will to make them. The killing of his child breaks Thanos' heart, but in the face of his broader purpose he does not flinch from it. It's our heroes who prove to be the flinchers and that, it might be argued, is their greatest weakness. Gamora, for all her earlier protestations that Peter Quill should kill her rather than let her father take her, cannot bear to see her sister Nebula tortured and therefore gives up the location of the Soul Stone. Captain America and his comrades have every opportunity to destroy the Mind Stone, but choose (until it's too damn late) not to do so, as it would mean also mean the destruction of Vision. Hence their Wakanda venture. 
You could also tie in Strange's relinquishing of the Mind Stone in order to save Tony Stark's life, although that will surely prove to have a deeper purpose based on the mystic's insider-knowledge of potential futures. Nonetheless the pattern is repeated throughout the film - of heroes who refuse to sacrifice those they love in pursuit of a greater good. When it comes to self-sacrifice, they're all on board with the Star Trekkian 'needs of the many' mantra, but don't ask them to destroy their nearest and dearest (unless their name is Scarlet Witch and hope is almost entirely lost).
Infinity War's multi-planet final act is a thing of grim beauty - not without its amusing character beats and moments of fist-clenching triumph, but ultimately a story of brutal and catastrophic defeat. It makes good on the dark promise of that opening sequence, Thanos evolving into an even greater juggernaut than he was at the beginning. The six-on-one struggle for the Time Stone on Titan is a gruelling scrap, with our half-dozen heroes expending all their energy and ingenuity to defeat Thanos; they come frustratingly close to prizing that gauntlet from his hand, before Starlord's moment of crazed grief ruins it all. And in the Wakandan Mind Stone battle there's a rare sense of the MCU heroes being outgunned - the colossal scope of the scene contrasting terrifically with the hands-on intimacy of that on Titan. Everywhere you look, including Thor's titanic forging of Stormbreaker on Nidavellir, the odds feel impossibly long. And yet they all come so frustratingly close...
Part of the finale's impact comes from the way it all plays out like the ultimate hard-won victory. Cap wrestles Thanos' mighty gauntlet-clad fist, while Scarlet Witch and Vision make that heart-breaking final sacrifice. And then Thor channels all his vengeful energy into that final devastating hammer-blow. In any other movie such actions would serve to finish off the Big Bad, but not here. This is a story so anticipated, so colossal, that the ultimate triumph is snapped into the bitterest of loss, lest for all those valiant efforts it might still seem too easy. The twist is a shocking one, and truly powerful. In terms of the Avengers themselves it's half a story, one that leaves them in that midpoint of loss and despair. But view Thanos as the hero of his own tale, and the film is complete - his sacrifices made, his obstacles overcome. The comic-book order is stunningly subverted, so that it's the villain who has his hard-earned moment of victory right at the end and who then rests to let it sink in.
Much has been said about Infinity War's downbeat conclusion, and how we all know that many of the losses (Spiderman, Black Panther, Doctor Strange) must inevitably be reversed in next year's Avengers 4. It's cheap, some have suggested, a mere set-up for more Marvel-style resurrections and the consequent undermining of those carefully established stakes. To my mind, however, a lot depends on how the follow-up deals with the consequences of Thanos' finger-snap. What are the remaining Avengers willing to give in order to take on their seemingly unbeatable foe one more time, how much will they sacrifice in order to retrieve their friends (along with half of the universal population)? But set that all aside... 
As the Infinity War credits roll, the heroes' despair is utter, their sense of loss incalculable. In this moment right now they are devastated, and it's a moment that the film-makers are allowing to linger for a full year, with only the merest hint as to how these battered remnants might pick themselves up and find some way to resist. That in itself is a daring conclusion, drawn by a supremely confident film-making team. Whatever the Russo brothers and their associates have stored up for us in the summer of 2019, we can surely trust them to make it count. And for MCU fangirls-and-boys everywhere that has to be a mouth-watering thought. Bring on Avengers: Whatever It's Called.

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