Total Commitment, by Tyler Smith

25 Apr

Six years ago, at the end of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe promised to become even bigger than it already was. By briefly teasing the eventual appearance of cosmic villain Thanos, they alluded to one of the biggest events in comic book history, The Infinity Gauntlet. Remembering the tragic events of that series, I found myself wondering just how far the MCU was willing to go. With Avengers: Infinity War, I finally have my answer. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, this film is every bit as enjoyable, daring, and vital as any superhero movie in history. It needed to take the genre to a new level of hopelessness, committing to genuine life and death stakes. And, while it may not feature the mass death of the comic book series, its fatalistic tone is everything that I was hoping for.

The story is simple; doubly so due to its saturation in our culture over the last several years. The villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) seeks to collect the six Infinity Stones, which will give him godlike powers. As he crisscrosses the universe to find them, he comes into contact with every Marvel hero – and a few villains – that we’ve been introduced to so far. The heroes soon realize the stakes of Thanos’ quest, and band together to stop him.

For many, the primary draw of the film will be this banding together of our heroes. And it’s easy to see why. The idea of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor sharing the screen with Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Starlord, Spider-Man, Gamora, Groot, Rocket, and others is exciting. It’s hard not to marvel at the sheer bigness of this event, as this huge collection of movie stars and character actors all put aside personal vanity and ego in order to contribute to the larger ensemble.

I realize that’s a bold claim, but there can’t have been much promise for most of these actors; no real chance to break out and flesh out their characters. For some, their appearance in the film amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. And yet there they are, in the middle of the action, because the audience would have missed them if they were gone. It may sound strange to express admiration for people getting massive paychecks for minimal work, but I appreciate their continued commitment to this universe. In the comics, the inclusion of a character only required an artist to draw it. In film, it’s a lot more complicated, but the end result is worth it.

Of course, the other draw for Infinity War will be its action. With so much at stake, such a huge cast, and a tremendously capable heavy, the battle sequences would need to be appropriately epic. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about this aspect of the film, as I did not much care for the action in the Russo Brothers’ previous entry in the series, Captain America: Civil War. I found the action in that film to be bland, flat, and safe.

Thankfully, there is none of that here. The action is brutal and unrelenting, much like the central figure of the conflict. Where I felt like the heroes were pulling their punches in Civil War (which makes thematic sense, but didn’t make for compelling drama), nobody is holding back here. Even when the attacks by the heroes are coordinated and flawlessly executed, it doesn’t feel overly-choreographed. Instead, many of the sequences were breathlessly realized, and often over in a flash, leaving the audience to wonder how the heroes are going to prevail against such insurmountable odds.

Speaking of those odds, a vital element of this film is Thanos himself. With a roster this large aligned against him, Thanos had to be more than just formidable; he had to have tangible depth and menace. This was always going to be an uphill battle, but is doubly so when we consider Marvel’s villain problem. With a few notable exceptions, the heavies in these films rarely broke beyond two dimensions. This is especially true of the cosmic villains. Was anybody particularly struck by the charisma of Ronan the Accuser or the complexity of Malekith the Dark Elf? With the exception of Loki (who would eventually become overused in the franchise), these villains just laid there on the screen, waiting to be forgotten.

For Thanos to work, it would require a series of bold choices by the actor, combined with virtually flawless animation, as the character is completely computer-generated. The animation is there, as I always believed that Thanos was in the same physical space as the flesh-and-blood actors. And, thankfully, Josh Brolin is more than up to the task of realizing the character. For the last ten years, Brolin has been one of our most vibrant character actors, with a kind of electrical energy that always draws the eye. He can bring levity to drama and weight to comedy, all while projecting an unpredictability that has served him well in films like Milk, Inherent Vice, Sicario, and No Country for Old Men. As Thanos, Brolin makes the choice to play down the character’s madness, choosing instead to play it with complete conviction. Thanos desires to bring balance to the universe, believing this to be the best thing for it. He believes he is doing a noble thing; something that nobody else is willing or able to do. This kind of focus could have played as one note, but Brolin infuses it with a sort of grief. Thanos knows that to do what he desires will cause tremendous hurting in the universe, but has long since gotten over his inner conflict about it. Instead, he approaches his goal as a parent needing to punish their child; unexcited, but resolved. And yet while remaining largely unemotional, the character is still immensely watchable. It is a remarkable performance.

The resolve of Thanos makes him an immovable object that our heroes must try to either destroy or circumvent. It requires creative thinking and self sacrifice. These elements deepen a film that could have simply been a roll call of likable movie characters. As we see each hero struggle with the importance of the coming battle, the film becomes less of a delightful pop culture event and more of a narrative inevitability; the dreadful culmination of everything we’ve seen up to this point. In some ways, he could be seen as a kind of reckoning, as our heroes have seldom dealt with the kind of failure that Thanos promises.

Avengers: Infinity War could have been an overstuffed mess; the obligatory-but-passionless payoff to an earlier setup in the series. It could have been an exercise in self-satisfaction, with Marvel patting itself on the back for ten years of hits. Instead, the Russo Brothers have crafted a film every bit as challenging and exhilarating as its story required. As somebody for whom the original Infinity Gauntlet comic book series was a pivotal moment of childhood, this film could only have been a letdown; an opportunity to introduce some real fatalism into the universe, but a likely copout. Much to my surprise, though, the directors committed to their concept, creating a blockbuster cinematic experience guaranteed to shock and inspire audiences. It is a genuine achievement.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply