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“Avengers: Infinity War” is the ultimate showdown the MCU deserves

With near 40 characters, dozens of sideplots and a ten-year buildup spanning over a 15 films, it seemed as though Marvel’s “Infinity War” would be a colossal mess. It’s amazing therefore that not only is “Infinity War” not a disaster, it tells a great story that deftly weaves together everything special about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sets up a killer finale.

The film focuses on Thanos (Josh Brolin), a warlord who seeks to wipe out half the universe with the use of the Infinity gauntlet which he can wield when he discovers all 6 Infinity stones which have appeared sporadically throughout the Marvel Universe up to now. As each Marvel character from Iron Man to Dr. Strange to the Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor to Black Panther comes to grips with his plan, various scenarios emerge to try and stop him before he harnesses the ultimate weapon in pursuit of a psychotic quest. Even that may not be enough.

Thanos serves as the protagonist. He becomes one of Marvel’s best villains to date, joining Loki and Killmonger as fully realized characters with sympathetic agendas and interesting personalities. The fact that he is not a simple evil monster bent on world domination, but has an interesting take on how to save the universe, gives him an interesting ethical quest. He’s empathetic and terrifying.

Anthony and Joe Russo deserve a great deal of credit for finding a way to balance all of the characters while making sure that no one feels thrown in. Each storyline builds in progression to the climax, creating a tapestry of plots around the theme of sacrifice. What will it take to save the world? Your life? Your lover’s life? Your soul? It’s a dark, emotional story, something far deeper than anything the MCU has ever done before. We’re now passed the simple good guy vs. bad guy plot. We’re delving into deep human nature.

In a way, it’s similar to a “Lord of the Rings” film or “Game of Thrones” as Marvel has pushed each of their characters to the final breaking point. It feels like an ending of sorts and that gives the film added heft. This feels like the send off we deserve.

*SPOILERS BELOW* DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM

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Many will state that this is only half a film, but it is not. The protagonist is Thanos, and he goes from having a goal to achieving a goal, end of story. We all know another film is coming, but the Avengers finally have their “Empire Strikes Back” down ending necessary to really test their mettle. The next film should be connected but feel distinct as it’s own entry.

There are a few storylines that need to conclude, specifically the Tony Stark and Steve Rogers plot. These two have been at it over different ideologies since the first “Avengers” film. “Civil War” officially broke them apart and now the need to destroy Thanos will bring them together. Tony has been trying to avert cataclysm since the beginning, always looking for a way out. Might that mean he and Steve need to recognize the need for self-sacrifice together? Tony and Pepper Potts as well are nearing the end of their drama. Will they get to have a happy ending with a family or will Tony sacrifice himself for Pepper’s future?

Also needing a conclusion are Bruce Banner and Black Widow. Their romance has lost steam over the years, but now they must determine whether or not they can make it work.

Thor seems to have most of his character arc wrapped up after “Ragnarok” by inheriting the responsibility of becoming king, but perhaps he will explore the nature of revenge in the final film. Rocket surviving hints that he will continue to be a foil for the god of thunder.

And of course, the next film will be a continuation of Thanos’ story. After proclaiming he has lost everything, he has still achieved his goal. Whether he is happy or not with the result will determine his future actions. Logic dictates that he will safeguard the Infinity gauntlet at all costs, meaning that the Avengers will be dictating the action. But with reality itself malleable, perhaps madness may overcome the titan, testing his will. Things could, and should, get mighty trippy.

One thing that was lacking from “Infinity War” was a direct ideological confrontation against Thanos. The next film should firmly introduce what the Avengers stand for and how that vision is different than Thanos’ genocidal fanaticism. This will ultimately show what the Avengers stand for and serve as the overall moral of the entire saga. In tying with the previous films, it will likely involve the need to stand together as a team and the value of every person.

One can not help but think back to Vision and Ultron’s conversation at the end of “Age of Ultron.” Vision mused about mankind’s shortcomings and Ultron reminded him that they’re doomed. Vision agreed, but that there was grace in their shortcomings. That speaks to the ending of “Infinity War.” Now comes the need for Earth’s mightiest heroes to show that though they may be defeatable, their ideals aren’t.

At the end of the film, it is hinted that Captain Marvel may be part of the solution against Thanos, but this plot has some inherent danger attached to it. The Avengers can not win with a deus ex machina where a magical being comes in and saves them. The victory must come from them.

And we all know that death is not a certainty in superhero films. Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy are not really gone. They have further films still to do. We know they’ll be back. It’s just important that when they do come back, the effect of death is not minimized. Characters can not come and go without consequence or else the films will become a muddled mess without stakes. All future deaths will simply be viewed as empty because we’ll just wait for their return. It’ll be tricky for the Russos to navigate that return without cheapening the film’s power.

As the penultimate film of the first MCU iteration, “Infinity War” does a great job of setting up the final film. The saving of the universe is at stake as well as deep themes of personal loss, sacrifice and revenge. It’ll be a long wait till next year to see how it all turns out.

 

 

 

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“Spider-Man: Homecoming” a fun adventure

Tom Holland is now the third Spider-Man in the last 11 years, startling evidence of how mismanaged the character has been under Sony’s stewardship. But thankfully, with the webslinger integrated into the MCU, Holland has now established himself as perhaps the best iteration of the character.

Directed by Jon Watts, “Homecoming” features Peter Parker trying to prove himself to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to become worthy of admission into the Avengers. Stark however, just views Peter as a kid who needs a good bit of seasoning before taking that leap. Peter suffers normal high school troubles: bullies, teen angst, girl issues, after school activities and supervillains. When he discovers a group of thugs selling highly-dangerous alien technology weapons on the black market led by the Vulture (Michael Keaton), he tries to track them down and prove he is a worthy superhero.

The film focuses on a very clear storyline and doesn’t waver too much from that. It’s a relief to see such an intimate story in this age of superhero-city destruction. It’s really just about Peter discovering that he shouldn’t try to grow up too fast. That’s it.

The actors are all good, and the characters are charming. As a fan of the comics and the old cartoon TV show, it’s the closest that iteration of Spider-Man has ever made it to the big screen.

It’s almost a shame that the film is bogged down a bit by the need to incorporate it into the MCU with Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau’s characters not really serving the story that well. But if that’s the price to get some creative ingenuity into the Spider-Man films again, then so be it.

Some of the action scenes are not exactly groundbreaking and the character journey is nothing you haven’t seen before, but there are a few twists and turns that keep it interesting. And it’s not another origin story. We don’t have to go through Uncle Ben dying and Peter learning how to use his powers and what great responsibility mean. It’s just a movie about a kid trying to prove himself and realizing he’s not ready. With superheroes.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ a strong entry in MCU

It seems as though a new superhero movie is coming out every few weeks. Most of them pass by and out of memory just as quickly as they came, but there are a few superhero films that stand above the rest, that peak more interest than the normal reboot/sequel, and fans had circled “Civil War” on their calendar ever since it was announced.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the film features Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) struggling to keep the Avengers together as the government cracks down on their exploits as civilian casualties pile up. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of registering with the United Nations and the proposed Sokovia accord, but Steve is not sure. When his friend Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a terrorist plot, the Avengers fracture between those siding with Captain America and maintaining their independence and those siding with Iron Man and starting public accountability.

Some of the action scenes are a bit nauseating as shaky cam takes over in place of actual dynamic action, but the set piece between the two rival teams of superheroes is one of the greatest in any superhero film; fun, interesting, action-packed and dramatic.

Marvel has always had a problem with maintaining dramatic stakes in its films. They are not going to kill off Iron Man or Captain America (they are worth billions of dollars) so how do you keep a movie engaging when there is literally no chance of your heroes biting the bullet? “Civil War” solves this issue by focusing on the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man. The characters may not die, but the relationship between them may come apart and the audience is kept interested by focusing on how Steve Rogers and Tony Stark develop as friends, turn enemies and how they will ultimately end.

Captain America is not a complex character. It is difficult to give him an internal dilemma and once he makes his decision in “Civil War”, there is not a lot going on internally. This is a detriment, but not a fatal one for the film. His actions serve as a counterpoint and seeing how far he is willing to go to maintain his friendship with Bucky and his independence is engaging enough.

And no MCU film has quite gone to the lengths of digging deep into the character’s soul a la Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy. Doubtless this is to keep the audience as wide as possible, but there are moments for “Civil War” to go a bit deeper, especially with Iron Man in particular. With Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) out of his life, guilt plaguing him and his best friend leading a resistance against him, the film suggests the depths of his sorrow, but could go even deeper, perhaps hinting at his alcoholism as it does in the comics. It is a wasted opportunity to build some escalating themes into his character.

For those who enjoy the MCU films, “Captain America: Civil War” will be an enjoyable experience, one of the best of entries alongside “Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But for those who have issues with the previous MCU films, those issues (lack of deep character revelations, franchise-building, cluttering narratives, uninteresting villains- though that is better in this film) will find more to complain about to some degree.

But kudos to the studio for making “Civil War” more than just another superhero film. There’s heart, fun and dynamism here.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ a mediocre adventure

After the first Avengers (2012) film, expectations for the second outing by director and writer Joss Whedon were sky-high. There was no way anyone could fulfill such promises. And Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) does not. That does not detract from a fun movie-going experience, but the film suffers from an overabundance of character obligations and franchise building.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), eager to disband the Avengers and create a weapon that will truly save the world forever more, rashly builds the artificial intelligence system known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader). However, the design is flawed, and the now-sentient being seeks to destroy the world in order to save it from the scourge known as humanity. Fashioning himself a new metallic body and allying himself with newcomers Quicksilver (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), he begins on a quest to destroy the Avengers and complete his mission. Only Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Iron Man can stop him.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe will never rival Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) for artistic grandeur or the X-Men film’s sociological themes, but it does create very sympathetic, internally flawed characters that audiences latch onto. No one goes to a Marvel film for the plot. They go to see their favorite heroes like Iron Man, Thor, Hulk or Black Widow. It is the joy of watching those characters interact with each other and work through their dilemmas, both internally and externally, that brings people to the theater and then combining that with some great action scenes.

But in looking at the whole of the film, there are a great number of flaws. The character of Ultron feels rushed and more emphasis could have been given to him over the course of the story. Handling so many characters each with their own story arc proves to be problematic at times. You can’t really relate to them since so much is going on. No sooner do you start to have a Captain America scene then we are rushed to an Quicksilver scene. The film is too similar to the original Avengers movie and needed to go deeper into the characters rather than repeat the lessons of a previous adventure.

If watching a film by Godard is the equivalent of eating fine French cuisine, watching a Marvel film is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet at a chain restaurant. It fills you up, tastes good, is very familiar and gives you a communal experience with friends and family. These films are not meant to be cinematic masterpieces, but high-concept escapism, and Age of Ultron delivers that. The formula needs to change for future adventures however, before things start to feel stale.