Movie audiences were all pleasantly surprised when the ensemble cast of Avengers all came together to make a pretty damned good movie. There was genuine anxiety regarding whether that movie could possibly successfully bring four movies' worth of superheroes together into a single movie, and manage to give everybody enough valuable screen time to make the whole thing work. Similarly, there was considerably anxiety regarding whether or not Marvel could double-down and pull off an ensemble of ensembles for the mega-crossover Infinity War. But at this point, I think we've all moved past any expectation that Marvel will screw up, and we all just assume that they're going to find a way to magically make it all work.

I had to wait a couple weeks to find out. I had planned to see the movie the Monday after release and have this review out two weeks ago, but fate conspired against that. Towards the end of the trailers, somebody pulled the fire alarm in the building, forcing the theater to evacuate. It was a false alarm, but by the time they let everyone back in, it was too late and the movie wouldn't be over in time to pick up the kids from KidsQuest before they closed for the night. Ah well. My girlfriend finally got sick of having to hush her students whenever they started talking about the movie, so she dragged me out to the theater earlier this week.

The sheer volume of characters, content, and punches here does make Infinity War one of the more unbalanced of Marvel's movies. It is after all, weaving a complex tapestry of superhero action, science fiction, and magical fantasy, and there's virtually no set-up or development for the characters. This movie is all climax all the time. It's probably the first Marvel movie that really requires that you have seen most of the lead-up material. There simply isn't enough time here to introduce who everyone is and what their deal is. If you haven't seen at least one film featuring each character, you'll likely be lost with regard to who they are. Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, and Ragnarok are pretty much essential prerequisite viewing. You can skip Ant Man though, as he's conspicuously absent from this particular compilation piece.

Infinity War is an ensemble of ensembles.

This movie would probably fail miserably if it were a typical super-hero movie focused around the heroes and their struggle (and failure) to beat the bad guy. Marvel knows well enough to not try to replicate The Empire Strikes Back. Instead, Infinity War is much more about the bad guy. Thanos is pretty much the main character here, and a great deal of time and effort is paid to trying to make him as relatable and understandable of a villain as possible. He is characterized with nuance, he's clever, he's ruthless, and he's consistent in his goals and ambition. Whether or not you sympathize with his point of view will, of course, depend on where you stand on the topic of universal genocide. Josh Brolin's Thanos does, however, have some pretty definitive swagger and charisma. His CG monstrosity has a lot of screen presence. It's too bad that the CG isn't always completely convincing though.

Because the bad guy is basically the main character (and protagonist), the entire narrative arc of the movie is almost the inverse of what you'd usually expect. The bad guys show up to create the dramatic stakes and sense of threat with aplomb, as expected. But instead of the rising action being a series of setbacks for the heroes with a climactic victory at the end, the heroes seem to come together and get everything mostly under control for the middle act of the movie, only to have it all go to shit when the climax arrives. Instead of the good guys losing in the end, the movie is framed as the bad guy wins in the end -- a subtle, but significant difference!

Thanos is the main character of this movie, and the dramatic and emotional arcs revolve around him.
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Captain America: Civil War poster

Why is this a "Captain America" movie? Why couldn't Marvel just call this "Avengers: Civil War" or "Marvel: Civil War"? This movie is just as much about Tony Stark as it is about Captain America, and the entire ensemble (minus a Hulk and plus a Spider-Man and Black Panther) is present.

Speaking of Spider-Man, let's get this out of the way right from the start. His presence felt like completely contrived fan service and the tonal shift that he brings kind of hurts the movie. He's pulled out of nowhere for no good reason so that he can participate in the big, fun battle royale; and then he's sent home when it's over and has absolutely no relevance to the movie's plot or themes. Tony Stark has no idea that Cap has recruited Ant Man, and I'm not even sure if he was aware that Hawkeye had broken Scarlet Witch out of the compound yet. Shouldn't Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Black Panther, and Vision have been enough to take down Captain America, Falcon, and Bucky? Did he really think he needed to recruit an innocent, un-involved person and put him at risk?

That being said, this is the best combination of Spider-Man and Peter Parker that has been presented in live-action film to date. I do miss the New York accent of Andrew Garfield and the picture-perfect spider-suit from Amazing Spider-Man 2 (though I like the colors in Civil War better), and I think that the Sam Raimi films had the best supporting cast (outside of McGuire, Dunst, and Franco), but virtually everything about Civil War's Spider-Man was great.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
Despite the lack of a New York accent, this is probably the best film of portrayal of Peter Parker and Spider-Man.

Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand

So how does the rest of the movie do?

It kind of reminds me of Serenity (the film follow-up to the series Firefly). Both the Firefly series and the preceeding Marvel films have all been very light-hearted, fun, and energetic. They've been full of charismatic, witty characters, genuine emotion, and exciting action. But Serenity and Civil War are much more brooding. The characters don't really get along, they all seem tired, there's less wit, and much of their charisma is lost. Even characters that we may have loved before now seem somewhat dull and might not be very fun to watch.

The action is still great, the characters are still fine, and there's still some humor and wit in the dialogue. But it feels like the soul that Marvel has built up for its universe has been sucked out. The darker themes of the plot aren't even necessarily the problem here. After all, I loved Winter Soldier (and really regret that I never wrote a review of it), and that movie had a darker edge to it. But it also deviated from the established formula and showed creativity and cleverness that the other Marvel movies didn't have. It felt more like a James Bond or Jason Bourne spy-thriller than the typical Marvel comic book movie, and that was great! Similarly, Ant Man (which I also regret not reviewing) felt more like a criminal heist movie, which was also great! Both felt unique enough that they transcended the tropes and McGuffins that they relied upon.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
The characters have less energy and charisma about them.

Civil War, on the other hand, falls back on many of the formulaic tropes that the Marvel films were based on. It's another revenge and McGuffin plot. The McGuffin just happens to be a person this time around, and the entire second half of the movie could have been avoided if the characters would have just let each other talk. It's this formulaic model that conflicts with the dour tone and actually leads to large chunks of the movie actually feeling boring. And much like Age of Ultron before it, this movie feels a bit too bloated for its own good. I'd much rather have seen more screen time and development for Black Panther, and no Spider-Man at all...

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