For better or worse, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is PART 1 of the super, ultra, mega comic book crossover we were promised (SPOILERS)

Lots of things to say and not much time to say it.

Did anyone NEED to know what I thought about Avengers: Infinity War? Well, no…

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Infinity War represents the first part in a two part, 4+ hour mega-movie, the second chapter of which will come out next summer. It’s basically everything we were promised in that it is MASSIVE, MASSIVE comic book crossover event writ large on the big screen.

If you’re burnt out on the Marvel films or superhero movies in general, you are not the demo for this. Like…don’t go see it if you haven’t really bothered with a good portion of these movies. That’s not me being condescending. That’s me saving you time. Go watch at least…most of them, then come back.

I pity the person that’s maybe just seen a couple of these movies or none whatsoever that landed on this for their weekend viewing. And I’m definitely not advocating this movie cater to any novices. If anything, it represents the reward for 10 years of dedicated viewing.

Now, I’m not going to be giving out what I’d consider a movie review. Now, that’d only be possible if we were talking about a traditional movie. No, I’ll be writing this akin to more of a free-thought blog, something so douchey I just punched myself for writing it.

[WARNING, WARNING WARNING: I’ve opted to include SOME spoilers in this review. I don’t do this too often anymore so there’s not too much in the way of me caring about walking on eggshells anymore. However, I will do all of you that haven’t had a chance to catch movie yet a curtesy and place this SPOILER advisory right at the jump. Spoilers throughout. This. This right here is your warning. You have been warned.]

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The plot:

“As the Avengers and their allies have continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, a new danger has emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos. A despot of intergalactic infamy, his goal is to collect all six Infinity Stones, artifacts of unimaginable power, and use them to inflict his twisted will on all of reality. Everything the Avengers have fought for has led up to this moment – the fate of Earth and existence itself has never been more uncertain.” – Marvel

The review: 

It’s damn near impossible to review this thing as a movie, because in many, MANY ways it’s not really a movie. Sure, technically yes it is a movie but I’d liken it more to the first genuine event we’ve seen from Marvel’s decade-long endeavor.

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There’s not really any sort of act structure to build upon outside of the this being the first half and a two-part whole and there’s approximately 40 to 50 ESTABLISHED characters all vying for screen time. Looking back to 2012, Joss Whedon’s 6-member Avengers film seems almost quaint. That means I can’t really touch on the things I’d normally touch on in terms of performances or direction or writing, because there’s just too much. Just know: it’s well-acted (with the time each actor is allotted), it’s well directed and as far as the script? It’s a miracle this thing didn’t end up the catastrophic mess it seemed destined for. It’s coherent, largely engaging and very, very entertaining. That’s a win in my book.

My brain is almost at war with itself in how I took this all in. I’ve been an avid comic book reader for the best part of my 26 years, so the shatter-shot scope of a massive crossover event is pretty digestible. I could picture in my head more than once while watching this exact moments that would serve as the end of individual issues if this came in comic form. The other part of my brain, that appreciates well-structured films, is kind of tired to the whole “MULTI-PART EPIC” formula that’s kind of come to dictate major franchises. Now this has less to do with Marvel (who remains unparrelled in regards to their respective cinematic world-building) and more to do with just general fatigue. Right now, Marvel’s been knocking it out of the park with their largely director-driven, tonally unique solo ventures lately (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther) to such a degree that there hasn’t been much in the way of interest (ON MY PART) necessarily to head back to formula.

I can’t really critique this movie on the fact that not many of the characters are given much in the way of development because that’s what the past 18 movies have all been in the service of. Some of them were more successful than others, but we [the ones that have watched every single one of these movies] basically have a keen understanding of every player on the table coming into Infinity War, save Thanos. This is something that’s been touched on in about EVERY SINGLE FREAKING REVIEW OF THIS MOVIE that I’ve read so I’m not going to dwell on it. It’s just not a surprise to see a majority of these character be treated as more of set dressing as opposed to real characters with wants and motivations but that’s not wholly surprising and generally kind of what this sort of story calls for anyway.

So as a movie, I don’t really know how to qualify this. As an event though, Infinity War is unrivaled. I can’t even think of something that comes even remotely close to this. To have a movie that’s as massive as this and have it not only avoid being a clusterfuck but also comprehensible AND enjoyable is nothing short of outstanding.

The plot is at once really busy while also being exceedingly simple. We have 5 Infinity Stones (the MacGuffins to the Marvel Universe). They are spread across the galaxy…well, kind of. Two are on Earth. Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants them so he can wipe out half of all life in the universe in the interest of population control.

Basically every surviving character in the MCU stands between him and his goal. A friend likened this to the ‘biggest game of keep-away in the history of the universe.”

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The main draw here is, as is the case with any crossover of this size, is the interactions among each and every character Marvel has spent a decade introducing us to now. There’s a certain, tangible satisfaction in seeing/hearing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange call Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark a douchebag as they banter back-and-forth. Same goes with Chris Pratt’s Starlord being really intimidated by / jealous of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Or when Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Danai Gurira’s Okoye work in tandem to dispatch one of Thano’s goons. Or how about Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) duel wielding both a machine gun and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper)?

It’s stuff like that that really makes my hair stand on end and really appreciate all of this work Marvel’s put into this juggernaut. It certainly doesn’t justify making some of their movie’s flat out commercials for things to come (Age of Ultron, anyone?) but I still appreciate the coordination, particularly when it wasn’t as obvious.

We’ve spent the past 10 years getting to know all of these characters and to see many meet for the first time or at the very least reunite (which makes up about 60% of the movie) is something that I can unabashedly consider a plus.

Color me surprised just how much of a success Thanos is a character (not nearly as much of a success as Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger in the previous Marvel outing but I digress), something I was not expecting in the least. Too often in Marvel films do villains get lost in the shuffle. Hell, I’d go so far as to say he’s the star of the movie.

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There’s a significant amount of ground covered between him and Gamora. So much so that I’d consider them the overall leads of the movie. (The other would Thor given he, along with the aforementioned two, have the most in the way of what I’d consider an arc.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I found him sympathetic (his plan makes very little sense under the loosest scrutiny), but his motives were much more engaging than your standard “I want to rule the universe” or “I want everyone to die” paint-by-numbers bad guy. We get a mini-father/daughter arc here providing some depth where one wouldn’t automatically expect to find it, carrying on the recent tradition Marvel’s instituted on putting complicated parent/kid dynamics onscreen so Tyler almost cries (or does cry in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2)….

As a minor nitpick, I will admit that his genuine love for his adopted daughter came as much as surprise to me as it did for Gamora. It’s because there’s no dramatically reason for him to love her. Sure we see them interact and he TELLS her that he loves her. We even get a flashback. But kind of just an example of the writers constructing emotion (something I’m going to harp on in a bit) rather than, you know, a story because we don’t have time for that in this 2 hour and 45 minute mega-blockbuster with SO MANY FREAKING CHARACTERS where efficiency is the key.

You might as well just play a certain Will Smith classic to get the point across…

Now let’s get into “movie brain” for a bit…

The opening of Infinity War is pretty effective on paper. We kill off a couple of established characters (1 beloved, the other…well, was there) and settle a question that would have lingered in our minds all movie long (It’s Hulk-related).The simple dramatic intent of all of this is to shout at the audience, “We’ll kill anyone this time! The stakes are higher than ever before!” i.e. the stakes are now, you know, real.

For so long now, Marvel’s teased Thanos as the “biggest baddest of all,” and that’s what the first opening moments of Infinity War is dead set on confirming. It may sound a bit silly to say that “legitimate tension” is a wholly new factor in these movies, but it really is. Now that Marvel’s finally, finally, FINALLY loosening its reigns, the universe finally gets to have some, honest-to-gods stakes. All it took was just introducing the stakes of death to sort of make this like a normal movie.

I mean, you’ve seen a movie before, right? Death, in narratives, is often used to garner some sort of emotion quickly and easily. Think back on like any action movie ever. Sure, it can make us fear and emote FOR the characters, but the simple, basic fact is that death only matters when it matters TO the characters. And perhaps more importantly, when that death serves to have some kind of impact on the character AND the story.

Agent Coulson’s death works so well in The Avengers not only because it’s surprising (in that Joss Whedon sort of way that seems random and baiting at first but generally has a a point….(sniffles)….Wash). It’s because this beat ends up being the rallying call to get the characters to change their self-centered behavior, put aside differences, and come to one another’s aid. Like all stories worth their weight, it can all be boiled down to cause, effect, and consequence.

So bravo, Marvel, for actually introducing some stakes….oh, shit…wait a minute…I just remembered the ending…

This leads into kind of like my “big” problem with this whole thing. Thor: Ragnarok went on and on about Asgard being a people, not a place, and the power of the refugee story. Beautifully so, I might add. Except now all of Asgard, save Thor, is dead. It’s not even the simple fact that they’re dead. It’s the fact that this narrative steamrolls over that last one like it didn’t really matter or even a really important thing to acknowledge in the end. Thor mourns Asgard, sure. But that lesson is never referred to…at all. He failed between then and now and we didn’t get to see it because that doesn’t really serve the purpose of this movie. (This happens again early in the film when we see Tony has the arc-reactor or some version of it in his chest again…even though him taking it out was BASICALLY THE ENTIRE POINT OF IRON MAN 3.) That’d be just kind of annoying, but then something else happens within the last few moments of the film.

Once Thanos snapped his fingers (a moment that happens really quickly, which I really liked; I can only assume this led to a lot of gasps in a lot of theaters), I got pretty damn excited. It’s one of the most iconic moments in comic book history after all. The bad guy wins and half of the universe is lost. Now, not-so-secretly, I was hoping the movie would just end with this moment and let us speculate about who would be gone in the next act. That doesn’t happen, and we see the aftermath immediately because I ASSUME that would have been too shocking?

Anyway it soon becomes a guessing game of who is going to “bite it,” and wouldn’t you know? It’s Spider-Man, Black Panther, most of the Guardians and several LARGELY tertiary. It’s at this point, you kind of see the strings…particularly if you’ve ever read a comic book.

It’s at this precise moment the beautiful interconnectedness of these movies begins to wrap back around and bite itself in the ass. There will be another Black Panther movie. Spider-Man’s not going away any time soon. James Gunn’s gone on the record as saying he’s got at least a Vol 3 in him.

It’s a similar tactic to Coulson’s death in Avengers in that it places the core cast of heroes on the proverbial ropes before they find a way to bring back their friends in the next chapter. I feel emotion in seeing Peter Parker, a scared kid, dissolve into ash in helpless Tony Stark’s arms. But it’s kind of just boils down to a exercise of cognitive dissonance. We LITERALLY see Vision die once in the form of a heroic sacrifice at the hands of his beloved, only to then be brought back seconds later and killed again. Death and consequence can be undone with the snap of a finger now.

If you’re going to kill half the population in the universe, then kill them. Right now these other SEEMINGLY tertiary characters are “dead,” but, like dramatically-speaking, they may as well just have been kidnapped or stuck in some other dimension. So kind of falls back to a “one step forward, two steps back” situation in my mind.

It harkens back to my biggest problem with the MCU as a whole: Nobody ever seems to learn a goddamn thing (with some key exceptions) in these things because there’s hardly any consequence to anything because it’s all become a comic book by this point and that’s great but also bad and I’m so conflicted at this point.

What is a consequence of Peter’s actions in Homecoming? Well…he gets his suit taken away? Oh, but he stops the Vulture so he can have it back. It’s even better now.

It’s a problem you see AGAIN and AGAIN in these movies. Tony builds an evil A.I. in Age of Ultron. He’s supposed to learn something to the effect of “violence begets violence” given he built it out of fear of the coming storm. But he doesn’t really suffer any great loss. Jarvis comes back in the form of Vision. And speaking of, he solves his problem by LITERALLY doing the same thing by creating Vision.

Captain America: Civil War? The movie that was sold as completely about consequences? Steve leaves Tony a cell phone so he can call him whenever he needs him at the end so everything is basically okay. The only consequence amounted to a slight moment of awkwardness in this movie where Tony didn’t want to make the call right away (or couldn’t because of the plot) so someone else did. That’s literally it. THAT’S LITERALLY IT. Even Rhody’s injury in Civil War is glazed over because he can still walk around with robot legs and continue being War Machine.

Things still need to matter, you guys, if not for the universe as a whole than for the characters that live in it. Movies NEED to still create change and meaning within their runtime. Passing it off as “Just wait until the next one” only gets you so fucking far. It’s for these reasons Captain America: Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 stand shoulder to shoulder as my two favorite entries thus far. Both feel massive (the latter on a psychological/emotional level, the former on both an emotional and universe-wide level) and include actual change for all of their characters….well, except Drax (Dave Bautista) but Drax is perfect and must never, ever change who he is. (Something I’m happy to report is just as evident in Infinity War.)

We know that a good portion of these characters will be back. Sure, there will be some sacrifices along the way (and I’m eager to see who will fall “for real” next time) but there’s such a loss in weight in the stakes that opening attempted to build.

In my adolescence, none of these things would have mattered to me. I would have ignored all of these things. I would have taken this movie at face-value and it must be emphasized again and again and again: there’s a lot to love about this movie (and many other Marvel Studios’ films) at face-value.

I still enjoy all of these movies (I hope that much is clear) and I still really love reading comics, but I’m not longer that teenager whose brain was buzzing when Nick Fury showed up at the end of Iron Man. I like feeling satisfied when I leave a movie, rather than entertained and promised satisfaction “next time.”

Ironically, Disney is now literally giving us live-action comic books (the only thing I really ever wanted as a teenager) and I’m not sure if that’s really what I want anymore. Is this the kind of irony Alanis Morissette was singing about?

I am very interested, invested in seeing how this chapter of the MCU closes next year (another win for this movie) and where it goes afterward. Tony Stark is with Nebula, abandoned on some desolate planet. Rocket Raccoon is the only remaining Guardian of the Galaxy, as the surviving Earth-side Avengers attempt to piece together what just happened and where to go from here.

I’m 100% curious to see how Marvel A) brings back (I presume a majority) of the characters wiped out in this one and B) clears off the board for good in all in Part II.

I’m not even sure where I could place it given it is so highly dependent on the second half which I (and the rest of the world) have yet to see. So I hesitate to say, yeah this was amazing or bad because it’s not a finished movie in that the remainder is coming next year and I need to see if they stick the landing.

Maybe, suffice to say, I was thoroughly entertained by this…experience. It was a lot of fun (well, for the most part…this is a movie centered around genocide after all) and the sum total of all this work truly pays off, I mean, up to this point. I guess in theory they could drop the ball in part two, but I highly doubt it given Marvel’s track record up to this point. It’s quite insane to be almost 20 movies in now and having no real terrible movies in their fold. Just varied shades of memorability. Sure, it highlighted basically my glaring, maddening problem with these movies but I look past that (to the best of my ability) in the name of being entertained.

So bring on Part 2, Marvel. And who knows, maybe this time they’ll prove that they can make things actually MEAN something for the universe as a whole.

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‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.