Wednesday, May 9, 2018

INFINITY WAR MIXES THE BEST OF SUPERHERO MOVIES WITH THE WORST OF SUPERHERO COMICS


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I’ve been in the tank for the Marvel movies since they started, and especially since the first Avengers movie blew away all my expectations and skepticism that you could ever translate the overstuffed, overwrought comics of my youth to the big screen. But if The Avengers was a supersized annual issue of the comic brought to rollicking life, Infinity War is something else – the sprawling, dozen-issue CROSSOVER EVENT that wove through several titles and roped not just a team, but multiple teams of superheroes from the far-flung corners of the Marvel Universe together to battle some cosmically overwrought threat. The Infinity Gauntlet, the source material for Infinity War, is probably both the most famous of these, and the dumbest.  The film is an improbably faithful adaptation in some ways, despite half of the characters from the comic not existing in the movie universe. It copies the most unique thing about the limited series, which is that the villain is essentially the protagonist and POV character, and somehow makes that work within a summer blockbuster framework, which is a remarkable feat of filmmaking in its own right.  But it also maintains the elements that made me largely indifferent to Marvel’s most epic event, even as a credulous, 10 year-old dork eagerly pawing his way through his cousin’s box of “classic” comics. 

In the comic, as in the film, Thanos starts out immensely powerful and then, by gathering the various Infinity Stones together in his big gold gauntlet, becomes all-powerful.  Not “essentially” or “practically” all-powerful, but literally, explicitly omnipotent. The writing goes out of its way to directly, repeatedly (“classic” superhero comics are nothing if not endlessly, repetitively expository) tell us that he has limitless power and control over time, space, and reality itself.  The series is best remembered for the big battle sequence where Thanos “kills” a dozen of the most famous Marvel heroes one by one.  In the comic, this comes after Thanos has snapped his fingers and killed half the intelligent life in the universe, while in the film, he lays mostly non-fatal waste to the heroes before the Snap itself does the work of wiping out half the cast.  But the problem is the same regardless of medium or order: it’s just too much.  So much that the mind, even the credulous, 10 year-old mind, rejects the premise entirely.

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"Thanos killed Spiderman and Thanos killed Iron Man and
 Thanos killed Wolverine and then Thanos looked at me!"

The biggest problem with comic-book storytelling in general has always been the lack of commitment to consequence, most glaringly in regards to death.  Killing characters is not the only way to give a story weight or stakes, but when an entire genre is built on the basis of constant, life-and-death danger and no one ever dies, that danger never becomes real.  But the problem is not so much that comics don’t ever kill people.  It’s that they do, but always find a way to take it back.  Which is worse than not doing it at all.  The better stories, like the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga or say Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s more comic book-y story arcs, retain some semblance of lasting significance by maintaining the pretense of permanence for a longer stretch, and/or going through some contortions to make the resurrection an event unto itself.  This way, reviving the slain does not erase all the emotional fallout of the death entirely.  The worse ones, like Infinity Gauntlet, simply undo everything of supposed import that transpired.  These stories self-sterilize to the point where things can proceed as if they had never even happened.

And sure, none of these made up stories about people in tights punching each other really matter in the end.  But the art of telling them lies in creating the illusion that they do, that at least within the confines of this fictional world, the events being related have weight and consequence.  If we take half a step back, we know there is no way the Avengers, or James Bond or Tom Cruise, are not going to win out in the end.  But you obscure that fact by making the villain seem so powerful that it is not apparent how the good guys can beat them. And the way they triumph should always come down to more than just punching better than the other guy (see: the Dance Off To Save The Universe and subsequent Care Bear Stare from the first Guardians Of The Galaxy, or the bargaining loop from Dr. Strange).  But the Infinity storylines over-egg this pudding, by making the enemy so overpowered that the fisticuffs seem entirely pointless before they even begin.

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Again, the source is not subtle on this point

The movie starts by having Thanos thump the Hulk in hand-to-hand combat, which establishes him as the biggest, baddest threat the Avengers have faced in terms of raw physical strength. But as the comic ceaselessly reiterates, and the film makes clear from at least the point where Thanos demonstrates the Reality Stone’s power against the Guardians, he can instantly kill all the heroes with a thought. So the only way he can lose is if he wants himself to lose, which is an idea the comic plays with in a way that is interesting but not terribly satisfying, because it means the heroes’ efforts never really matter, and their “sacrifices” are both moot and phony.  It’s super obvious, super early on, that they are not going to be able to punch their way past him, but we still spend most of the story going through those motions again and again. 

The Snap similarly overshoots the mark of raising the external stakes for the rest of the fictional world.  If one of the biggest criticisms of the Marvel Universe is that it is too static, then wiping out half the life in the universe would seem, at first blush, to be a major corrective to that.  But it’s so major that even a soft child’s brain could intuit that there is simply no way that it wouldn’t be subject to immediate, wholesale take-backsies.  The touchstone for genre geeks when it comes to the type of downer cliffhanger Infinity War is shooting for is The Empire Strikes Back. But the difference in scale between the two is striking.  Sure, it was never likely that Han Solo would stay sealed in a rock forever.  But if somehow he had, the Star Wars universe could have gone on without him. It was, if not exactly plausible, then at least possible within that fictional milieu. There is just never any way that the Marvel Universe, on page or screen, is going to permanently shift to a post-apocalyptic landscape ruled by an untouchable, murderous God.  

Because of this, it’s clear that Thanos’s triumph does not just have to be “fixed”, the way defeating Loki or Ultron’s armies reverses the course of their earlier, successful campaigns.  It has to be literally, completely undone.  The question of “how” is barely even a question; what can done with a snap of a finger can and will be be undone with another snap.  The powers of the gauntlet are such enormous nonsense, that it is immediately evident that the only way the heroes will be able to triumph is via nonsense of equal enormity.  But returning to the Dark Phoenix example, even after comic book nonsense eventually brought Jean Grey back to life her death remained something that everyone remembered and was affected by. By contrast, the inflated extremity of the Gauntlet’s power all but guarantee that few if any of the characters will even be aware of the apocalypse they lived/died through when all is said and done.

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"Please...I'm not..ready....for naptime..."

And that sucks. But what is remarkable is that the movie generally works, in spite of the central dramatic thrust being so transparently phony.  It’s an odd, overstuffed beast for sure, and it did take me a bit to adjust to the tone.  I’ve long thought of the Marvel movies - with the exception of Black Panther - as comedies with action sequences more than action movies with jokes.  And IW can feel awkward in how it marries the goofiest, comic-book nonsense plot of any MCU film with the most portentous, heavy tone of them all. Even Black Panther's direct engagement with real world issues didn't require the eschatological sturm-and-drang with which IW requires everyone to treat Space Smurf's quest to complete his rock collection.  And the shift between Thor: Ragnarok, which was practically a Naked Gun-esque spoof of this genre-unto-itself, and the oppressive grimness of the opening scene of this film is especially jarring, as it grinds all the hope of its direct predecessor into dust.

But IW still finds plenty of space for humor, and since it is almost entirely character-based, it complements the heightened stakes more than it undermining them.  The cast is enormous, but exceptionally well-balanced and it’s impossible to give the Russos enough credit for making this feel like as much a Guardians sequel as an Avengers movie, while also not letting Dr. Strange take over the entire proceedings or Spiderman feel like he is being needlessly tacked on (though technically, he probably is). We take for granted how easy the MCU has made juggling movies full of characters who are headliners in their own right look, but it definitely is not.  Pretty much no matter who your favorite Marvel hero is, Infinity War gives them their due.  Okay, Ant-Man and Hawkeye are completely MIA, but c’mon, Hawkeye isn’t anyone’s favorite. I know because Hawkeye actually was my favorite growing up, and he ain’t even cracking my top 10 in his MCU capacity.

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Sorry, bud, but you got the giant megablockbuster franchise you
 wanted, instead of the smaller Netflix Series you deserved

Captain America and Black Panther don’t get a lot to do outside the big fight, but their supporting casts/settings get enough love that they still feel fairly central.  And even if they hadn’t, just the shot of the two of them sprinting out ahead of the line as the army charges into battle is enough to cement their stature within this pantheon.  So on balance, it doesn’t matter much if you are a particular partisan for the Iron Man or Guardians or Thor or Dr. Strange or Captain America or Spiderman or Black Panther subfranchise, or even if you just really love the Hulk or Vision or Scarlet Witch, you have no reason to feel slighted by IW. That alone is simply phenomenal, even after ten years of these movies adding plate after spinning plate without a hitch.

What sells that, and this entire endeavor, is the miraculous impeccability of the casting across dozens and dozens of roles.  When you have a megamovie with 45 important characters and the biggest casting missteps could credibly be considered to include Don Cheadle (who is great being his affable self, but imo never quite sells Rhodes as a military man) and Carrie Coon (who is the best actress working in my books, but wasted in a henching capacity), that's simply incredible.  Okay, the actual weak link is probably the perfectly serviceable Sebastian Stan, but the point stands.  The cast of the MCU is a legitimate wonder of the modern world, and the Russos have proven so masterful at shifting the Rubik's Cube of characters into new, wildly entertaining configurations that they are able to constantly, unobtrusively scratch the itch that lies at the heart of our infatuation with franchise filmmaking – to provide the comfort of the familiar, but also surprise us with it.  Stark and Spiderman are a proven combo at this point, and we could have guessed that he and Strange would be fun together. But who would have thought Rocket and Thor would yield such great results?  That we would get a great moment between Captain America and Groot?  Stark and Wong?  Starlord and Thor, or Rocket and Bucky(‘s arm)?  
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Of the many things that crack me up about this character, none compare to imagining the DC
Studios folks periodically being overcome with jealousy that Marvel has the  kleptomaniac
space raccoon to lean on while they struggle to make their sexy Aquaman movie work.

At this point, none of the work the actors are doing with these characters is exactly revelatory, with the possible exception of Josh Brolin as Thanos.  He still looks exceedingly goofy, but the performance is remarkable for its subtlety.  Somehow the translation from the page removed all the cruelty from the characterization without lessening the megalomania or evil, which if you can figure out how that even works, please explain it to me.  But it does, and turns what had been probably the biggest flaw in the entire MCU fabric into one of the best villains in the genre. I'll still take Killmonger and Loki ahead of him, but that he's even in the race is incredible after the wet fart of his initial teases.  Brolin and Zoe Saldana deserve the most credit for stapling the absolute absurdity of the plot to something approaching an emotional core.

But the movie is packed to the gills with others doing fantastic, if quick, work. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany do a hell of a job selling a ridiculous relationship that raises all sorts of odd anatomical questions, and was also mostly developed off screen.  Bettany in particular continues to ground the most outlandish piece of this universe in understated strength and grace, while Dave Bautista remains the improbable comedic MVP of the entire franchise, and sneakily strong on the dramatic end to boot. Chris Hemsworth has been playing Thor impeccably for years, but I never expected anything as affecting as when he is recounting all he has lost, in very short order, to the foul-mouthed cartoon raccoon. The way he goes through the paces of his trademark bravado, but with all the joy hollowed out of it, brings to mind the old actor adage about the way to convincingly play drunk is to be trying to act sober and failing.  It’s funny (“Well, he’s never fought me twice”), and a handy catch-up for the audience that hasn’t boned up on his subfranchise recently, and quietly heartbreaking, which are two adjectives that I never would have thought to apply to the character.  Thor was always my least favorite Avenger on the page by a wide margin, but Hemsworth has edged him up to close to my tops on screen, which without slighting some very deft writing by the Russos and Taika Waititi, is mostly down to old fashioned movie star magic.

On a similar tip, it’s gotten very easy to take Downey Jr. for granted, but somehow he is far from phoning it after a decade of these big, corporate green-screen-aploozas.  My best guess is that the ever-expanding cast of superstars to play with is enough to counteract the boredom from playing the same character for literally the tenth time.  But who knows really, maybe he’s just an uber-professional, so long as the barges full of money are being dumped on the beaches of his private archipelago. In any case, watching his performance in IW, I was struck by how his signature characters are so slick and motor-mouthed that all he has to do is shut up momentarily and we intuit just how hard they are working not to lose it entirely.  You can see it at Strange’s house as he realizes his greatest nightmares are coming true, or with his wordless gulping after getting impaled by Thanos.  


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Then on the other end of the subtlety spectrum, there is Tom Holland’s (apparently improvised) death scene.  For all the reasons I pontificated about up top, I started out yawning my way through the final sequence, but when he started pleading and apologizing as this teenage kid felt his life slip away, it hit like a ton of bricks.  Which is my reaction to the entire film in miniature. I can identify every single reason that none of this should mean anything at all, but after a decade and 20 movies with this incredible cast, it’s impossible not to get swept up as they perform the living hell out of the nonsense.

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