Sunday 6 May 2018

Stone me: "Avengers: Infinity War"

I concluded my review of Captain America: Civil War, the last fully serious dispatch from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with an expression of hope that future instalments might shake things up a bit. Avengers: Infinity War opens with a prologue in which some of the MCU's excess thespian baggage is decisively shed, lets barely a minute of its two-and-a-half hours pass without someone or other being flung across the frame, and concludes with the sight of several series heavyhitters apparently meeting their makers. Sometimes you have to set any scepticism aside and give a franchise points for trying. After ten years in existence, Marvel Studios has created its biggest bang yet: an all-stops-removed synergasm that, like those illegal-import Japanese Game Boy cartridges that allowed the player to access several titles at once, merges seven or eight of its franchises in the course of a single viewing experience.

Big bad Thanos, a mo-capped Malthusian built around Josh Brolin's recognisable square jaw, is himself attempting to correct the overpopulation of this universe - a self-reflexive irony that gets a little lost amid the boom-bang-a-bang ensemble mayhem laid on for us here. The Russo brothers, returned to the director's chair after Civil War's vast financial success, pursue multiple lines of attack. Infinity War begins on Asgard, where Thanos first reveals himself to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), then transmogrifies into a Doctor Strange sequel, checks in with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his emergent protege Spider-Man (Tom Holland), before repairing to space with the Guardians of the Galaxy and to Africa with the Black Panther squad. Along the way, there's even time for Captain America (Chris Evans) to return from the shadows of self-exile, where he has apparently spent his days cultivating a fulsome Joy of Sex beard, if nothing more in the way of a personality.

For a good (and I mean good) hour, Infinity War offers glimpses of madly enjoyable franchise mash-ups. Having Thor crashland on the Guardians' front windscreen allows two of the cinema's pre-eminent Chrises - Hemsworth and Pratt - to circle one another trading amusing quips, and allows us to note that both Thor and the Guardians are now vying for the title of the MCU's Most Improved. (Cutesy treeroot Baby Groot's growth into a sullen teenager counts as both a) unexpected character development and b) funny.) This initial sugar rush, alas, lasts only as long as it takes to reach the bottom of a medium-sized popcorn tub. We know exactly where Infinity War is headed - some fateful, seat-shaking face-off between the collected Avengers and their hulking opponent - but a stodgy centre section takes what feels like forever to get them all into position, and once more points up the incredible sameyness of this universe's action scenes. Time and again, our heroes spend ten minutes leaping onto their foes' shoulders to no effect, only for a previously unseen Avenger with upgraded powers - or, in the Captain's case, a beard - to turn up and help turn the tide.

Of course, it's now accepted that a mega-blockbuster such as this, with the biggest and most fervent of inbuilt audiences, need not worry unduly about running times: its business is fan service, and the more of that it can offer, the happier the fans are assumed to be. The Russos have speculated that the follow-up may run to three hours, and it's a sign of where we are that such speculation should have been greeted with enthusiasm rather than gulps and panic in the streets. In the quest for billion-dollar openings, the mainstream motion picture grows bloated and distended, and drives grown-ups - who may have bills to pay, kids to babysit and better things to do than watching an endless procession of 150-minute fantasy movies - to the couch and Netflix. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not believe the Marvel movies are killing off cinema - no other universe has got so many enthusiastic youngsters through the multiplex doors - but I do wonder whether they're killing off a certain idea of cinema, or just limiting what creatives might now do within the commercial cinema. 

If I've blown hot and cold on these movies over the past decade, it's because they've increasingly seemed to me to represent the best and worst of modern cinema; they're so big, and so long, that they've extended to cover all available points on the critical spectrum. (They're everywhere - eating up twenty of the twenty-five daily showtimes at your local multiplex - and, if you want to remain part of the conversation, you cannot miss them. Which is not to say they're all unmissable.) Granted, they're a qualitative improvement on the often futzing effects fests of everybody's youth: whole armies of dedicated technicians have been employed, working round the clock on state-of-the-art processing equipment to paint and populate every nook and cranny of this universe. (One of Infinity War's prettier grace notes: Thanos's ability to turn his opponents' guns and bullets into bubbles and butterflies.)

That they are, still, a mixed bag can be discerned from the acting alone. A funny thing happens when you set actors down in front of green screens and ask them to imagine magic rocks levitating above their heads: some appear to be slumming, while others look to have arrived at their natural level. Mark Ruffalo has the most expressive hands in all cinema, so you can't help but wish they were set to doing something more substantial than neurotically hugging his body to ensure the Hulk doesn't come roaring out. A repeat encounter with Stephen Strange, conversely, only reveals how Benedict Cumberbatch has failed to make the character anything other than a smarmy, resistible arsehole. (His scenes with Tony Stark - who can be an amusing arsehole from time to time - point up how Downey Jr. has succeeded where the Brit has not.) And absolutely nothing is going to interest me in the burgeoning relationship between Robo-Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen's deeply drippy Scarlet Witch, a dud development amid the so-soness of Civil War - put there for the 3% of nerds who've pondered what it might be to hook up with an android - that gets no lamer here.

On the plus side, there has been a rediscovery of something more than mild peril, signalled by the late image of Thanos towering over a newly tiny Tony, deprived of both his metal armature and the self-confidence that, until now, has followed from that. The stakes do seem higher here than in earlier instalments, leading - in Infinity War's conclusion - to a reorganisation/streamlining that recalls both December's The Last Jedi and the tactics of certain TV series whenever their lead actors' contracts are up for renegotiation. Even this, however, risks being a temporary development, liable to be taken back in Infinity War Part 2: we're asked simply to wait and see who, if anyone, rematerialises. It remains an indictment of this kind of ultra-maximalist cinema that it can be possessed of all this money and all these actors, and have the eyes of the world entire upon it, and still function only sporadically as drama. The rest is not exactly silence, as your eardrums would attest, but its transience brings it perilously close to seeming like the world's most expensive sideshow. Who's up next?

Avengers: Infinity War is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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