Avengers: Infinity War Review

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The Russo Brothers have used the term “heist” to describe what Avengers: Infinity War looks like. Indeed, there are feelings of a race against the clock as the heroes try and stop the mad titan Thanos from acquiring all the Infinity Stones. Like the best heist films, the films moves at an expert pace with characters one enjoys watching. Of course, Infinity War is more than a heist movie. It is the culmination of 10 years of film making. It all began in 2008’s Iron Man, when Nick Fury walked from out of the shadows to tell Tony Stark, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger initiative.” From there, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became one of the most notable franchises in the history of film.

Infinity War grabs almost all the major characters -the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man- and puts them in a universe-shaking situation. Few films have combined so many characters in a connected continuity. One of the earliest examples is 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, which grabbed all the famous kaiju at that point for a world-shaking story. Infinity War however is built upon 18 movies. Everything begins to culminate here. With so many characters running around, it would be difficult to keep the picture from collapsing under its own weight. The Russo Brothers have proved masterful with an ensemble cast, as seen two years ago in Captain America: Civil War. While Infinity War doesn’t exceed Civil War or The Russo Brothers’ other MCU film, The Winter Solider, Infinity War is nonetheless a crowning achievement in entertainment.

You might hear the complaint that most of the characters aren’t fleshed out in this movie. That would be a foolish complaint however, because Infinity War features many characters whom have appeared multiple times. We know who these characters are already, so there’s no need to spend too much time on deepening their personas. The Russo Brothers do not make this film accessible for newcomers; it doesn’t have to be. The story is the culmination of a plot that began in The Avengers. With that said, the film does amazingly manage to continue character arcs seen in previous movies, which is a feat in itself. The dynamic between Tony and Pepper is touched upon, and the romance between Peter Quill and Gamora is brought to a center focus in a couple of spots.

With so many characters, many would think it inevitable that some would get the shaft. But the Russo Brothers manage to give every character a moment to shine. Even when it does feel like a major character is missing for awhile, when he/she does return to the screen, it’s a notable appearance. For a primary example of this, after Steve Rogers has his entrance (one of the most crowd-pleasing moments of the film) and a couple of other small appearances, there’s this long stretch of the runtime where he’s missing. But when when the movie does return to him, it’s good stuff.

Chris Evans’ portrayal of Captain America was fantastic in Civil War, and it’s tempting to say his portrayal here exceeds it. Cap has always been a serious character, but here there’s truly no sense of irony or comedy coming from him in Infinity War. Two scenes come to mind to highlight this portrayal. A little early on, Cap tells Thunderbolt Ross that he will fight Ross if the latter chooses to stand in his way. (One can see Cap’s internal anger with the Sokovia Accords here, and his alienation with the government.) Later, as the war against Thanos’ forces is about break out, we see Cap (alongside T’Challa and Black Widow) talking with Proxima Midnight of Thanos’ Black Order. As Cap stands firm, and says that what the Black Order wants is not going to happen, there’s such a great nobility coming from Cap. Evans really shows that Cap is the greatest of all the heroes in every scene he’s in.

Because the MCU began with Iron Man, it makes sense that Tony would get a substantial amount of screen time. Robert Downy Jr. is given the usual sarcastic dialogue, but there’s an engaging seriousness to Tony’s character arc. We see early on that he cares for his future with Pepper, and later when he knows that the universe really is at stake. There’s a scene late in the movie when he’s shouting to Star-Lord not to give into rage. It’s brief, but it does the best in showing Tony’s passion in wanting to put a stop to Thanos. Speaking of Tony shouting at Quill, one of the highlights of Infinity War was seeing characters whom have never interacted together. Tony’s dialogue with Dr. Strange was fun, and Thor alongside Rocket Raccoon was a humorous dynamic. Thor was great in this movie too. One of the most powerful scenes was when he volunteered into what was dubbed “suicide” in order to buy enough time near the climax  of the film.

Two major highlights are Thanos and Gamora. This is by far Zoe Saldana’s most compelling portrayal of Gamora. This is because she has a very emotional character arc that runs through a good chunk of the movie. She being the daughter of Thanos made for a fascinating dynamic. Every scene with Gamora and Thanos was five star quality. There’s anger, and sadness in Gamora that shows when she is discussing Thanos, whether it be with Quill, or the Titan himself. Gamora is a character haunted by her parentage. Out of all the heroes, she might have been the most compelling. One of the most powerful scenes was the flashback of when Gamora, as a little girl, was taken in by Thanos. The writing in that sequence was wonderful.

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This brings us to the Titan himself. The MCU has had a problem with villains. Quite a few of them – Malekith, Darren Cross, Killian – come off as one-note and forgettable. Thanos is neither one-note nor forgettable. Thanos’ goal is to erase half the universe’s population. But it is not because he’s “bad” in the sense of just killing for the fun of it, but because he’s attempting to bring an equilibrium to the universe. He states at one point during the film that there is a finite amount of resources in the universe, so one must have the will to do what needs to be done, and in his mind, the thing to do is to get rid of half the population.

Perhaps the best sequence explaining his reasoning is when he relates his backstory to Dr. Strange, showing that his planet was once a paradise. But, there were too many people and not enough resources. So, Thanos’ told the elders his plan: wipe out half the planet’s people. He was deemed mad, but in the end, the planet died. In his mind, Thanos was proven right. Because of that, there is an unwavering conviction that drives him. Thanos is the most compelling antagonist in a comic book film since Heath Ledger’s the Joker from The Dark Knight.

There are of course other characters whom have not been mentioned, most of them good. Spider-Man is mostly engaging. Like in Civil War, where he brought up The Empire Strikes Back for an analogy of a plan of attack, he uses his pop culture knowledge again here for a fun sequence. Another brief, but excellent exchange of dialogue was between Spidey and Quill, discussing Footloose as the so called best movie of all time. Speaking of Quill, Star-Lord is fun for the most part. His exchange with Tony, “Let’s talk about this plan of yours. I think it’s good, except it sucks” was good. There is a scene later in the film that many might groan at. One can argue that Quill was being human, but with the high stakes and everything happening, it came off as more annoying than anything. Meanwhile, teenage Groot gets one compelling scene late in the film, but that’s it; everything else that comes before makes the viewer wonder why the much more compelling adult Groot isn’t back yet.

T’Challa was a highlight. Chadwick Boseman commands every scene he’s in as the Black Panther. There’s passion from T’Challa as he demonstrates his ability to lead. This is evident in the buildup to the big war sequence against Thanos’ army. Quite a few other characters appear, such as Bucky and M’Baku. They aren’t given many notable scenes, but contribute in the scenes there are in. Scarlet Witch is engaging, and her new relationship with Vision is interesting. Their dynamic takes a center focus in the climax, and it was well done emotionally. The Black Order, while not given much of a character arc, served their purpose well enough as servants believing Thanos to be enacting a righteous cause.

There is one character that sadly detracts to the story, so much so that he really took it out of the viewer in almost every scene he’s in. That character is Bruce Banner. It would be good to briefly touch upon the history here. In 2008’s The Inedible Hulk, Banner was played by Edward Norton. It was a solid performance, but Norton did not return for The Avengers, and was replaced by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo proved to be a fantastic replacement. He had charisma, and it seemed like his dynamic with Hulk was at its peak; Banner proudly states, “I’m always angry,” in that he’s able to bring out the Hulk at will. That was reversed out of nowhere in Age of Ultron, where there was this melodramatic character arc of him not being able to control the Hulk anymore. Bruce reappears in Thor: Ragnarok, and is little more than a comedic character, meanwhile the Hulk has an annoying child-like persona. But at least Hulk fought when it counted and felt important to the conflict. That doesn’t happen in Infinity War.

After the opening sequence, Hulk doesn’t return, and refuses to come out, despite Banner telling him to. Banner is mostly a comic relief character, delivering unbelievable lines and just detracting from the overall atmosphere. His (and Hulk’s) portrayal is so bad, the thought, “What were they thinking?” crosses one’s mind. Banner doesn’t contribute much to the story, and Hulk comes across as weak. It’s a sad time for Hulk fans.

There is a lot of great action in this film. A lot of is divided into a few different set pieces. Everyone will have their favorite team-up battle, but every battle brought something to the table in terms of pure comic book fun. The war sequence at Wakanda was appropriately intense, and the characters’ stand against Thanos was both epic, and emotional. Who can forget Cap giving it his all as he tries to hold back Thanos? Granted, there isn’t a singular action sequence that can match up against the famous airport battle in Civil War. But to be fair, it is hard to top that one. No one should be disappointed with the action, because every character gets to be a part of it. The actual build-up to the action scenes are also excellent. Early on, a Black Order ship touches down on New York City, and chaos ensures. The scenes of people running, and Tony walking outside to see what’s happening, were some of the best parts of the film.

Like other MCU films, Infinity War has scenes whose goal is to generate laughter from the audience. Most of it is fine, and flows naturally. (As opposed to unnaturally in Thor: The Dark World.) The humor is rarely overdrawn (aside from Banner scenes), with only one scene in particular taking it out of the viewer, where Drax on the ship apparently has mastered the art of standing still. But overall, Infinity War’s tone is almost always consistent. The soundtrack is what you would expect from this type of blockbuster. While technically generic, the themes nonetheless work for the scenes and help to make them extra important. One notable theme is the usage of violin in the final part of the opening scene, as Thanos acquires one of the Infinity Stones. The violin helps to elevate the scene to one of a poetic nature.

The Verdict

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Infinity War has an ensemble cast of fantastic characters, and a compelling antagonist. The story features a universe in peril, and big action scenes. It is the definition of a comic book made into a production. There are so many moments throughout that will get a smile out of the viewer. It’s a well paced story with a unique heist element. Not everything is perfect. The character of Bruce Banner is continually mishandled, and his dynamic with Hulk was painful to watch. The humor is mostly good. All in all, there’s too much to like in this movie, and it makes sure to leave viewers clamoring for the fourth Avengers movie.

9/10

Thor: Ragnarok Review

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On August of 1962, Journey Into Mystery #83 released on the newsstands. That issue is legendary because, according to the cover, it stars “the most exciting super-hero of all time!” That hero is the mighty Thor. From that issue, Thor would become one of Marvel’s biggest characters, appearing in his own ongoing series and as a founding member of the Avengers. Thor was well known to comic fans, but not very well known with the general public, as with other Marvel characters that weren’t Spider-Man or Hulk. That changed when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, making Iron Man a household name and eventually Thor as well in 2011.

The God of Thunder now joins Iron Man and Captain America with a third film. The Thor films are fun, but not examples of quality storytelling. (I’m still wondering what the thought process was with Erik Selvig in The Dark World.) So it wouldn’t be hard for Ragnarok to pass its predecessors. It goes far beyond that however: Ragnarok is an immensely entertaining film. Director Taika Waititi delivers one of the best Marvel movies to date.

The film opens up with narration from the God of Thunder himself as he’s tied up. It turns out he let himself be captured so he can get to the fire demon known as Surtur. This opening sequence defines the MCU in a nutshell: good fun. That can be a negative thing when taken to the extreme. (That was the case in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.) But Ragnarok rarely takes its lighthearted nature too far. The opening scene felt like something straight out of a comic book. It’s a treat to see Thor do battle with Surtur, the demon’s minions, and eventually a dragon. The story continues when Thor finds out Loki has been impersonating Odin. It turns out Odin is on Earth, and with a little help from Dr. Strange (the entire sequence with Strange was short, but very memorable) the brothers find their father. Sadly, Hela, the Goddess of Death, emerges soon after.

Hela’s arrival was exciting, and that’s mainly thanks to the atmosphere, costume design, and of course Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the character. Hela’s much marketed scene of her breaking Mjolnir was a game changer and cemented her as a menace like no other. Loki calls for a bridge escape and Hela follows, causing things to go out of whack. Thor lands on a planet named Sakaar while Hela looks to take over Asgard.

Let’s talk about Thor’s time at Sakaar, which comprises the middle act of the film. The gladiator setting was unique and had quite a few memorable characters. Valkyrie’s plotline was one of the most engaging. It’s an interesting development when Thor realizes she’s Asgardian, and later when Loki forces her to remember her past of Hela killing her comrades. Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of the Grandmaster has charismatic flare, such as in the scene when he vaporized his own cousin. (As gross as it was, Thor’s reaction was a little hard to believe however.) Finally, Korg was fun, and he thankfully got to appear in the climax.

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has come a long way since 2011. In this film he talks about being a hero quite often. I wasn’t sold on Hemsworth in previous films, but here he’s excellent. What’s interesting is that a major part of his development is how he fights without his hammer in the climax. It’s always an interesting concept when a character’s primary weapon is destroyed/taken away. Next, as seen heavily in the marketing, the Hulk is featured as a major character. Mark Ruffalo took on the role starting in The Avengers, where he was excellent. Since then, Marvel has pushed a character arc on Bruce Banner/the Hulk, starting in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hasn’t worked.

Bruce Banner was a man sure of himself and in control of the Hulk in The Avengers. Then for some unexplained reason in the sequel, that development went away and Hulk was back to being uncontrollable. In Ragnarok, Banner isn’t in control when Hulk appears. Hulk’s mind is small compared to Banner’s, and as a result, Hulk comes off as childlike. This leads to some funny scenes, but Hulk isn’t too engaging as a character. (It would have been more interesting to see a Hulk more like from the show Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.) This is not to say the Hulk wasn’t fun to have around. The gladiator battle sequence against Thor was one of the film’s highlights. Bruce Banner also appears, and has a few humorous scenes. But like in Age of Ultron, he isn’t as engaging as his appearance in the first Avengers.

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The Marvel films are typically good, but the antagonists can sometimes be mediocre. Examples include Darren Cross from Ant-Man, Malekith from The Dark World, among others. Hela is one of the Marvel villains that can thankfully be called “great.” As already stated earlier, her emergence is genuinely menacing. Cate Blanchett brings grandeur to her portrayal as she tells Thor and Loki to kneel before their queen. Hela continues to be a highlight, as she arrives in Asgard and begins to take over. Her backstory is fascinating. In fact, it’s so fascinating, that it was a missed opportunity to not show some of it in flashback. This could have been useful in the late middle act. There’s this long stretch with Thor on Sakaar with no scenes of Hela that could have benefited with a flashback showing her time with Odin.

As for other characters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is once again a lot of fun. One never 100% knows which side he’s on. He and Thor work really well together, such as when they team up late in the middle act. Odin doesn’t appear too much, but when he does, one can expect a scene of authority. Viewers learn intriguing backstory about Odin’s past with Hela, giving more dimension to his character. (It’s truly a shame there wasn’t a big flashback sequence.) Skurge goes through a character arc as he becomes the reluctant Executioner for Hela. It’s easy to see what the film was going for, but Scurge never came off as sympathetic or engaging.

One of the best aspects of this film is its pacing. The film never hits a boring moment, which is thanks to the excellent action and fun characters. From the opening sequence to the showdown with Hela, the film has quite a few exciting action pieces. I’ve already mentioned Hulk versus Thor in the ring, but it deserves a second shout out for being a particularly fun sequence. The soundtrack is Marvel’s strongest since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Ragnarok’s music is stylistic and makes excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies to date. It never slows down and the storyline is engaging. This is thanks in large part to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hela. The Goddess of Death commands the scene every time she’s on screen. Thor is also great. His mission is to get back to Asgard, but he’s stranded on an unknown planet. This makes for an interesting middle act. Hulk is a fun inclusion that never steals the show away from the title character. As a whole, most of the characters bring something to the table. Ragnarok is an exciting film.

9/10