Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

Superheroes In Peril

Chadwick Boseman, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Sebastian Stan in Avengers: Infinity War. (Marvel Studios)

Will I lose all of my credibility as a professional hater of superhero movies if I say that I rather liked Marvel’s Infinity War, the ne plus ultra (well, until the sequel) of modern superhero blockbusters? The movie clocks in at 160 minutes, it features an uncountable number of superheroes in various costumes, breastplates, and eyepatches, it has the most extravagant versions of the usual special-effects-driven throwdowns, the most insane version of the usual insane-villain-plot-to-destroy-the-universe, and — this being Marvel rather than DC — a lot of quips and deadpan and sarcasm even as the fate of half the universe is hanging in the balance.

But then even describing Infinity War as a movie is probably a mistake. As I’m hardly the first to point out, the Marvel approach to superhero franchising has resembled the style of serial television in which stand-alone stories coexist with the development of a larger mythology, which is somewhere in the background of all the movies but dominates only when it comes time to bring the gang together. If the last year’s Marvel outings, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, were effective stand-alone episodes, Infinity War is a culmination of the mythological arc, the film that all the Avengers team-ups were building toward, and as such it’s more like an overstuffed television season finale than a self-contained motion picture. If you’re just now joining the story, in other words, don’t bother; if you want character development and scene-setting, look earlier. What we have here is just one long final act.

I expect this to make Infinity War easier than other Marvel movies to critique, since the final acts of superhero movies, and especially the ones that come off the Marvel assembly line, tend to inspire a dreary sense of déjà vu, as the same battle royale between invulnerable superhumans plays out against the same CGI backdrop time and again.

But Infinity War actually solves, if only within its own ample confines, two of the genre’s usual problems: the tedium of the battles between people who may not technically be invulnerable but never get even a little bit hurt until the narrative requires it, and the recurring lameness of Marvel’s supervillains.

Yes, these bad guys have been getting better in recent movies — it helps when you have Michael B. Jordan and Michael Keaton playing them — but for a gazillion-dollar franchise that prides itself on providing consistent entertainment, it’s extraordinary how many Marvel movies can’t even come up with a decent psychological motivation or an entertaining scenery-chewing monologue for their world-domination-seeking villains.

From the prior glimpses we’d gotten of Thanos, the huge and purple computer-generated version of Josh Brolin who is the heavy in Infinity War, I figured he might be another snooze, especially since his master plan is so ridiculously dumb: He’s a cosmic Malthusian bent on arresting intergalactic population growth by wiping out exactly half of the sentient life in the universe, a stroke of pan-species genocide that would save the cosmos from exceeding its carrying capacity for . . . well, the time it took for that cut-in-half population to reproduce itself a couple of times, which is to say not very long at all.

Why Thanos doesn’t take the less murderous but more effective tack of just sterilizing his victims instead is never quite explained; presumably the magical “infinity stones” he spent the movie collecting could conjure up a Children of Men scenario as easily as a trillion-being wipeout. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy having a villain whose worldview is straight out of the “Paul Ehrlich Plays the Classics” catalogue. But a low-level Planned Parenthood executive could come up with a more effective evil plan than his.

Which makes it all the more impressive that Brolin, working beneath the CGI, sells the character anyway. His Thanos is a monomaniac but a very human one, grieving over a world that died because it didn’t listen to his doomsaying, locked in the terrible pathos of the true fanatic, mixing mournfulness and mordant humor as he tries to do something that, by his lights, is no different from what the Avengers do in every other Marvel movie: In his mind, he’s not destroying the universe; no less than Iron Man or Captain America or Thor or the Hulk, he’s saving it.

And all those famous names and a host of lesser ones are insufficient to the task of stopping him. The best thing about Infinity War is realizing that in fact there are some limits on what kind of damage the Avengers and their epigones can survive, as Thanos cuts like a scythe through a population of superheroes whose common invulnerability had long since passed from impressive to tedious. Watching the patented Robert Downey Jr. smirk wiped off Tony Stark’s face, watching self-assurance turn to consternation or worse for the three Chrises (Pratt as Star-Lord, Evans as Captain America, and the greatest of them, Hemsworth, as the almighty Thor), watching a subset of these cocksure demigods actually die, at least pending future time-altering developments . . . yes, that’s my kind of superhero movie.

Now I just have to avoid seeing the sequel.

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