In the “old days,” some films, for various reasons, were called critic-proof. That could mean that it didn’t matter what the critics would say, it would still be financially successful. It also meant that some films seemed impervious to any serious critical analysis, as they somehow inhabited a rarified place where regular analysis and critical review were as unable to connect with the film as a rubber band would be to knock down an invading spacecraft.
Avengers: Infinity War is the newest of those films. On its way to becoming one of the top moneymaking films of all time, and still dominating the box office, the film is something of a juggernaut (no pun intended) that is somehow separate from the world of cinema. This is a marketing triumph, a franchise culmination of sorts, a social event, and a cultural moment. It’s also a movie, though that can be lost in the noise and the hype.
The disappointment in viewing the film through one of those lenses is that this is a pretty good movie. There are a myriad of approaches to saying that, and I must set out my terms. A pretty good movie here is an entertaining film that solves the problems set out before it. As with the first (recent) Avengers film (https://film-prof.com/2012/05/14/the-avengers/), the great success of this filmic collection of superheroes is how it addresses its many challenges. I don’t think its challenges were to present a thoughtful treatise on the human condition or present a cogent critique of the modern political landscape. This, like the Star Wars universe or that of the LOTR trilogy, inhabits a universe only tangentially related to the one in which most of us live (I tip my hat in equal parts respect and dismay at those who tend to live in said universe). In spite of its many, many, many plot and logic holes (even considering the make-believe world we’re speaking of here), the film succeeds because it meets and solves its challenges well.
The biggest of those challenges isn’t the plot. Literal-minded folks need not apply, nor attend. For heaven’s sake, it’s a world where a raccoon speaks, a twig plays video games, a blond god survives innumerable deadly situations—oh, never mind. The main problem is how to present as many of the Marvel characters as possible in a way that we as viewers can connect with. The film does so with imagination, wit, and occasional feeling.
First, it gives its heroes as much time to connect with the viewer and the other superheroes as they can. Some admittedly come and go at too quick a pace, but the major players are fleshed out well enough to remind the viewer of their identity, their personality, and their powers. [Nota bene: I’m not a big Marvel fan, I don’t know all the players, and I don’t geek out at these films.) Some of the old is kept, and most of the new works. The old includes Iron Man’s snark, in abundant display here, as is his intelligence. It includes Spider-Man’s naiveté and sweet nature, and Gamora’s fierceness and tenderness. It includes Captain America’s cool and Thor’s lumbering bravery and entitlement. I could go on and on.
What’s new is even better. Dr. Strange is the only one able to go one-on-one with Iron Man, and watching Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch face off is worth the price of admission. Just as delightful is how the film handles Thor’s arrival on Peter Quill’s (Star Lord’s) spaceship. The respect and adulation the crew gives to Thor is funny enough; Quill’s immature reaction to it is classic. The one-liners throughout are also genuinely funny and work in their context better than many a funny line does in other films.
In some ways, like Thor: Ragnarok, the film is one of the funniest of the year. Having Peter Dinklage play a giant is only one of the film’s great moments. Having Quill’s team completely ignore him and pass him while he’s giving the clenched-fist “hold it” signal is another. At the same time, the film is surprising (even shocking) in whom it kills off, and then is moving and touching in moments that are unexpected. There is a kind of “father-daughter moment” that is first poignant, and then startling. The end features certain “departures,” shall we say, that include a surprisingly emotional and open-hearted exchange between Spider-Man and Iron Man that pulls the film into a depth and seriousness that harkens back a century to Chaplin’s ability to make us laugh, and then turn around on a dime to make us cry.
One of the strongest elements of the best of these more recent films is the complete commitment to the character that the actors provide. There is no winking to the camera, no pulling back into a star persona. The commitment to the reality of the character is as real as the five actors nominated in the four main acting categories at the Oscars every year. Some of these actors have been nominated in the past for those other films. Their talent is no less on display here. Certainly one that needs to be called out is Josh Brolin (another Oscar nominee, for Milk) whose career path has been fascinating to watch. Here he plays the villain—a great one at that—with all the power, anger, evil, and vulnerability of the great villains of the past. He’s only beginning to come into his own as an actor.
For the geek, there are certainly holes that one could drive a truck through. The trip to Wakanda feels as shoe-horned into the film as it probably was. There are probably too many fight scenes. But the film moves with energy and enough logic (within the confines of its universe and its possibilities) to keep the viewer engaged, and it ends (is there anyone left who doesn’t know this?) on a shocking note of devastation and plot irresolution. What a great creative risk! We feel full and we are left hanging at the same time. Yes, it’s “just” a superhero film, but it’s well-written, well shot, briskly paced, very well acted, and occasionally brave artistically.
Note: It’s been fun reading reviews from those striving to bring this film into their own socio-political or traditionally cinematic perspectives. To them I say: The film is outside of your world, so don’t try to evaluate it on those terms. You’ll miss the point. This film has other goals, and they are more than making money and entertaining. Take the time to respect it, and you’ll understand.