More like Infinity Snore, right folks?

Infinity War is a protracted third act which quickly and cheaply cashes in the often excellent groundwork of the previous installments. 

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(SPOILERS)

Avengers: Infinity War lives and dies by its ending. Talking about Infinity War without discussing details about how it all shakes out is tantamount to just spouting niceties about the very nice beards everyone in the movie has, and not just because the ending is legitimately worth talking about (take that as a big giant SPOILER WARNING). Infinity War is constructed in such a way that the ending is the ONLY thing worth talking about, with the previous two hours simply barreling towards the end without really doing anything in themselves. Sure, you can say that about any story to an extent, but Infinity War is a protracted third act which quickly and cheaply cashes in the often excellent groundwork of the previous installments.

Take the trials of Thor in Ragnarok, which I didn’t love but did have an honest-to-goodness arc with meaningful consequences. Infinity War undoes all of it within the first ten minutes. Thor goes on to be one of the better-served characters in Infinity War, thanks to an inspired pairing with Rocket Raccoon, at least before being shipped off to hang out with a kinda-terrible Peter Dinklage in search of a tertiary MacGuffin.

Perhaps most infuriatingly, take the conclusion of Gamora’s storyline. Infinity War is decentralized enough that the character who can best claim to be the “main” character is probably Thanos. To the credit of the movie, Thanos is actually a really good villain (creeping at the edges of the Top Five for the MCU), with clear motivations and a bit of humanity to him. Sure, he’s an abusive genocidal maniac, but he’s coming at it from a place of concern and pain, without quite as much ego as might be expected from his giant gold armor, and with an endearing affinity for bubbles. But when Gamora’s big moments in Infinity War happen with her as a supporting character in Thanos’ story rather than the other way around, it cheapens her development in her own films. Not to mention that the deadly rules for obtaining the Soul Gem transparently play out as if they were originally labelled “INSERT DRAMA HERE” on the script outline.

But for all these faults, Infinity War often succeeds at spectacle. Aside from the mentioned Thor/Rocket dynamic, Doctor Strange is an infinitely more interesting character bounced against Tony Stark than he was in his own movie. Thanos’ henchmen are a memorable crew, particularly the slinky Ebony Maw. After wearing a bit thin in Guardians 2, Drax once again runs away with the whole damn movie every time he shows up here. And, for a brief fleeting moment, I was overjoyed at the thought of never seeing Bucky ever again.

So here’s where we get to the ending. It’s an incredibly bold move on paper, immensely changing the status quo, but immediately cheapens itself by going too far. The Avengers are in need of thinning, as Thanos and much of the audience would agree on, but trying to convince an audience that you’ll completely kill at least three highly profitable franchises is a stretch. It’s an ending that exists only to be undone, and while a final moment between Parker and Stark is touching in the moment, its emotional enormity is overshadowed by the logistical probability of it actually sticking. Infinity War and next year’s Avengers 4 were originally billed as Part 1 and Part 2, and the ending here makes it clear that Infinity War never had a single intention on standing alone. While, as a crossover spectacle, that’s fine, it also leaves Infinity War without anything to be about itself. It’s a 150-minute third act that’s missing any semblance of a conclusion.

C

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Zoe Saldana, and Josh Brolin
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

Infinity War MVP Rankings

  1. Thor
  2. Drax
  3. Ebony Maw
  4. Thanos
  5. Gamora
  6. Spiderman
  7. Rocket
  8. Hulk
  9. Scarlet Witch
  10. Proxima Midnight

Black Panther gets slightly undone by the Marvel house style

The villains get the better end of the charisma stick, leaving a bit of a hole at the center.

In Spiderman Homecoming, the far-and-away best scene of the film was staged as a conversation with the villain peering over his shoulder and the hero in the back seat. I remember really liking the Vulture costume design and the high-school setting being a fair bit of fun, but the movie’s lasting legacy in my mind is that nervy little conversation, which feels very much of a piece with director Jon Watts’ previous film, Cop CarGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. II was better as a whole, but its strongest moments still clearly harken to the semi-gross-out subversion of James Gunn’s previous films, such as SlitherThor: Ragnarok was at its best when Taika Waititi was allowed to throw in things like an overly polite Kiwi rock monster straight out of What We Do in the ShadowsIron Man 3 shined when Shane Black got to do his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang thing and let Robert Downey Jr. be a grinch around Christmas, and the most memorable moment from The Avengers was a very Joss Whedon-esque gag about shawarma.

Each director brought a very specific talent to the Marvel films, but notably, few of them had a background in big-budget action movies, skewing towards indie comedy, horror, and suspense. Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, has two dramas under his belt, the humanistic Fruitvale Station and the triumphant Creed. Perhaps its no surprise then that some of its most memorable moments are its quietest, whether they take place in an apartment in Oakland or the birch-laden lookout of a hermit king. What’s a bit surprising is the detail and world-building that Coogler puts in, making a film that with a wholly original aesthetic to the other Marvel films, a sort of Afrofuturistic James Bond vibe. Unfortunately, the fall back to Earth stings all the more because of it, and Black Panther winds up less than the sum of its parts with a tiring and overcrowded third act.

It’s a superhero movie, I recognize that fights come with the territory. But Black Panther is so stock full of fantastic creations on its periphery that any break for some action feels like a distraction. Take Coogler mainstay Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, who is absolutely a top-tier villain thanks to a performance that gives more than the final cut gives back to him. Killmonger’s philosophy is one of rage and justice, and one that would have benefited from more screen time. Killmonger as a character didn’t just leave me wanting more, but really left me feeling like he should have had at least equal focus as Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. Indeed, oddly for a Marvel movie, the villains get the better end of the charisma stick here, especially once Andy Serkis’ endlessly enjoyable Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “CLAW”) is thrown into the mix. While Letitia Wright nearly runs away with the whole damn movie as T’Challa’s younger sister, functioning as sort of a Wakandan Q, the heroes just don’t garner the same level of interest, leaving a bit of a hole at the center.

In a bit of a mirror to Thor RagnarokBlack Panther explicitly questions the ramifications of colonialism and privilege of a history of power, and while it follows through on it significantly better than its predecessor, it still loses a lot of its thrust by concluding with large-scale brawl. It strives pointlessly to give every character a capping moment when only T’Challa and Killmonger needed one (why Martin Freeman’s CIA agent factors in at all to the ending is beyond me). Like the sweeping one-take marvel of a fight in Creed, Coogler is best at staging fights in a close-up one-to-one scale, faltering when the scale gets bigger (a one-take casino fight uses its extra space and ends comes away feels entirely artificial). Weirdly, Black Panther very clearly could have told a strong, personal story with a strong political message, but even without the intrusion of infinity stones and Benedict Cumberbatch cameos, cramming in the Marvel house style keeps it from reaching its potential.

C+

Black Panther (2018)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Michael B. Jordan
Rotten Tomatoes (97%)

The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Vol. 2 is the rare MCU film that feels more like a creator’s vision than a brand obligation, even more so than its predecessor.

Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in 2014. It was something that introduced the more sci-fi elements, yes, but also something that broke the superhero fatigue, at least temporarily. Sure, there have been Marvel moments that feel unique: Thor 2‘s climactic subway chase taking on a Bug Bunny-esque madcap style, The Winter Soldier‘s surveillance paranoia. But Guardians of the Galaxy felt more like Star Wars than Iron Man 4, taking a ragtag crew and letting them hop around a universe that had no restraint in reality, or even preconceived mythology given their relative obscurity to figures like Thor. And everything clicked for it, from its well-tuned cast that benefited from just-pre-superstardom surprise turns from Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, its colorfully constructed universe, its memorable quasi-irreverent soundtrack, and the instantly iconic Groot.

When the marketing cycle for Vol. 2 started, there was immediately reason for concern. Not because these elements were missing, but because the trailers seemed to lean into these elements incredibly hard. Liked Drax being obtuse? We’ll focus the first clip released of precisely that. That Baby Groot dance everyone loved at the end of the first? You bet he’s going to be everywhere in trailers being all adorable and stuff. Looking for ’80s hits? We’ll release the soundtrack in a bag of Dorito’s to make sure you hear them. Looking for references to Night Rider? Fuck it, we’ll have David Hasselhoff on the soundtrack. For something that was a breath of fresh air three years ago, everything looked pretty stale.

It’s no surprise that Vol. 2 delivers on these items, for good and for bad. What does come as a surprise is that, rather than build on the previous film to make a tighter experience, Vol. 2 is a much looser film, both stylistically and plot-wise, than maybe any other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It very much feels like the Marvel execs put their complete faith in director James Gunn, as the DNA of his previous films Super and especially Slither is all over Vol. 2Vol. 2 is nearly a best-case scenario in giving a genre auteur a whole bunch of money and telling him to have fun, and as a result Vol. 2 wears influences from Star Wars (obviously) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hilariously inventing and immediately exploiting the rules of its universe) to The Thing (magnificently nearing body horror more than once). Taika Watiti’s Thor Ragnarok has a chance of pulling a similar trick soon, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers clearly had his fingerprints all over it, but Vol. 2 is the rare MCU film that feels more like a creator’s vision than a brand obligation, even more so than its predecessor. In a way, it feels more like Darkman than Iron Man, which at this point is a very good thing.

As for the old characters, there it is a bit more mixed. Drax is probably the biggest victim of sequel fatigue, as the surprise of discovering that character’s quirks was a big part of the pleasure in the first. There are no new dimensions to Drax here, so the gags involving him simply aren’t as surprising. Baby Groot, on the other hand, is an absolute treasure. Sure, he’s adorable, and the kids in the audience loved him, but he’s often used as a vehicle for considerably darker humour than expected. As for the others, Gamora is generally a bit wasted, and Quill is a bit less of a wise-ass thanks to his position in the plot, but Michael Rooker’s Yondu is brought back to great effect, and Rocket Raccoon is still a lot of fun. On the new front, Kurt Russell’s Ego is a slithery presence, oozing that old-school cool in fitting with the 80s stylings. Considering the general failure of MCU villains to make any impression, Russell is top-tier. Even the secondary villains, a race of genetically engineered bourgeoisie, are a ton of fun and would have been interesting enough to carry their own movie if called upon to.

Plotwise, Vol. 2 is focused on family, especially the bond between fathers/father-figures and sons, but extending to sibling relationships and, of course, teams. While there’s plenty of boilerplate talk about the Guardians being one big family, the film overall nicely focuses on relationships between two people, putting together as many combos as possible and examining their familial stance. Sure, Quill/Gamora comes back up, and Quill/Ego is all over the trailers, but the film finds some depth in the bipartite relationships between Quill, Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon, even giving Yondu a father figure of his own, and further explores the Gamora/Nebula sisterhood to surprising effect. Yes, it does boil down to a dastardly plot eventually, but it avoids magicla MacGuffins like infinity stones or whatever and ties its developments into actual, believable character interactions.

But more than anything else, Vol. 2 is stock full of a few deliriously fun setpieces. The final battle goes on for about ten minutes longer than it should have, but the opening scene beautifully sets up a major battle only to have it occur out of focus in the background, while a fight involving Yondu, Rocket, and a horde of space pirates can only be described as a beautiful composed spree of violence. Throughout these sequences, Vol. 2 is willing to be completely cartoony, which weirdly makes it a standout among superhero movies. It takes risks, and is sure to dismissed as dumb by some, but it entertains in ways that are novel for a film of this budget and scale. It successfully transplants low-budget cult-horror visuals and ideas to the biggest budget scale there is, and is by a huge margin the best future midnight-movie in the MCU. Bring on Volume 3.

A-

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Michael Rooker
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

  • Line of the film that literally no one else laughed at: “We got a whole box of hands back there.”

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange

It’s more silly than Strange, really.

The Marvel movies that exist slightly outside of the Avengers orbit have a bit of a tricky situation on their hands. They’re given much more freedom, and are less restricted by existing storylines, allowing us the intergalactic funk of Guardians of the Galaxy. However, their style can’t be too extreme, or else they’ll clash when they inevitably join the rest of the squad, as seen in the drab approach Ant-Man took to the material. Ant-Man may have benefited from a bit more crazy behind the camera, but Doctor Strange, the newest addition to the MCU lineup, cleverly gets around this by building the crazy right into the structure of its world. The style of the special effects is like nothing you would see in Thor or Iron Man, but it’s not presented as a trick of the camera; by allowing some batshit crazy magical powers, batshit crazy visual tricks still fit the house style. Unfortunately, while the fantastical moments are far-and-away the best reason to see the movie, they necessitate a deeply silly mythology, and greatly outshine the least interesting cast of characters in any major MCU release outside of maybe The Incredible Hulk.

Donning the cape is Benedict Cumberbatch, who essentially plays the role he seems to always play as an effortlessly competent and talented individual with contempt for those who can’t perform at his level (he insulting calls someone a “Bachelors degree” at one point). It recalls his Sherlock, obviously, but also Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who similarly started off full of hubris and has seemingly boundless intelligence just because. But where Downey’s sardonic Stark is lovably self-deprecating, Cumberbatch’s Strange is infuriatingly smug. Where Stark applied knowledge he gained from his engineering background in his superhero persona, Strange is simply adept at wizardry and neurosurgery because he’s brilliant. It feels very much like a Chosen One kind of story, and while his ego is shot down often by Rachel McAdams’ love interest and Tilda Swinton’s guru, his natural competence flies directly in the face of those criticisms. He does brilliantly all while being a self-absorbed elitist narcissist about it, without the charisma to offset it (Cumberbatch’s natural charm is majorly blunted by his forced and completely unnecessary American accent).

There’s little in the rest of the story to really add much interest. Swinton’s The Ancient One is perhaps the sole bright spot, a fantastically designed character who is granted the movie’s sole moving moment, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s fellow sorceror Mordo is underserved, Rachel McAdams is given a thankless role, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is an unfortunate addition to Marvel’s trend of uninteresting villains. A lot of this can maybe be attributed to how arbitrary the rules of the universe seem to be constructed. This is a world full of sorcerors, sure, but the extent of their powers is never clearly defined. The advancement of the plot relies often on one-upmanship and lines like “they’re more powerful in this realm”, more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than Harry Potter. Hands are waved around and sparks fly for particular reason, and it’s more difficult to just go with than a giant green anger totem or a patroitic supersoldier for whatever reason. It’s just too silly, like something two kids would come up with bored in a backyard. Sometimes, this works; Strange’s cape has a personality akin to the magic carpet in Aladdin, and is appropriately endearing. Sometimes its just stupid. As a particularly egregious example, a lot is made of separating the body and soul as “astral projections”. While this leads to the aforementioned tender moment between Strange and the Ancient One, it also leads to an absurd ghost battle that serves no purpose other than making sure five minutes don’t go by without some action.

After the requisite training portion of the film, it really does kick into a non-stop action mode, in not necessarily the best way. After a great opening scene, it stops dead for about an hour, and then dives headfirst into the conclusion. By the time the movie arrives at the final showdown, it feels like the act-two break is still to come. The bloodless mysticism and senseless competence of Strange keep the action scenes from having real stakes, but Doctor Strange is creative enough with its special effects and design to make these scenes the far-and-away saving grace of the movie. Cities fold, floors and ceilings tile out into fractals, and the flow of time is allowed to play out differently in the background and foreground action. It’s nothing absolutely daring, and it wears it’s debt to The Matrix, Inception, and Cyriak (of Cows & Cows & Cows fame) on its sleeve, but it still has capacity to dazzle. I’m not sure if it’ll still dazzle on a small screen, but while the effects don’t make up for the lack of investment, they’re certainly the key selling point for seeing it on a big screen in 3D.

C

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Doctor Strange (2016)
Dir. Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Tilda Swinton
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)