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 to beat the bad guy. 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. 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.

Thanos is the main character of this movie, and the dramatic and emotional arcs revolve around him.
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Thor Ragnarok poster

The Marvel movies have always been very light-hearted and fun, leaning heavily on humor and wit to keep the audience's attention during the slow dialogue bits. Thor: Ragnarok seems to take things to a new level though -- at least, outside of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Ragnarok comes off as almost a full-blown comedy. It's good. It works well. I just hope that this doesn't become a new de facto template for future Marvel movies, as it would eventually run itself very dry.

That being said, the Marvel films have definitely shown signs of growth after Avengers: Age of Ultron. The plot doesn't revolve around a magic MacGuffin, and it's not even really a revenge story. The bad guy just wants to conquer Asgard because she's an ambitious bitch who wants power. There's a little bit of a vengeance angle, as she's obviously mad at Odin and Asgard for imprisoning her. But Odin's dead before she even shows up, so she basically just shows up and says "kneel before me or be destroyed." Hela is kind of bland. I wish they'd done more with the Planet Hulk stuff instead -- maybe even making Hulk be the bad guy?

I also initially struggled to find any sort of core, unifying theme, and walked out of the movie not quite sure what it was supposed to have been about. The overarching theme seems to be that Thor doesn't need the hammer to be powerful, but isn't that just retreading the core lesson that he learned in the first movie? Besides, the whole "the power was in you all along" thing only comes up at one point mid-way through the movie, and then Anthony Hopkins' Odin shows up at the very end to just tell Thor that he doesn't need the hammer. It felt like a bit of a copout.

Ragnarok has no compunctions about shaking up the status quo.

But I don't think the Dumbo storyline is actually the point here. I think the point is the movie's fatalistic (yet still, somehow, upbeat) ending. Despite the tongue-in-cheek, comical tone, this movie does nothing if not completely disregard that status quo. True to the movie's namesake, the end of the world actually does happen this time around! Asgard (along with the Rainbow Bridge) is destroyed, Odin is dead, The Asgardian army has been massacred, Mjolnir is destroyed, Bruce Banner is [supposedly] irreversibly transformed into the Hulk, and so on...

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When I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, I said that "the Marvel cinematic universe may be starting to collapse under its own weight". I probably should have said that "it's starting to buckle under its own weight", since Marvel is still a ways off from anything that resembles collapse. That movie also got better upon repeat viewings, but I feel much the same about the recently-released Doctor Strange. In much the same way that I had suspected that Suicide Squad must have taken place years (or decades) prior to Dawn of Justice, I had also assumed that Doctor Strange must have occurred (at least partly) prior to the events of the first Avengers movie.

The story of Doctor Strange is, after all, essentially a Doubting Thomas story. That would be fine if Doctor Strange were a stand-alone movie, but a Doubting Thomas story is a really difficult thing to buy into within the Marvel cinematic universe. By the beginning of the movie, Stephen Strange (who lives in New York) must surely be aware of (and possibly have first-hand experience with) superhumans since the events of the first Avengers movie. In a world in which the literal Norse God of Thunder Thor has descended from the mystical plane of Asgard, to team up with a gamma-powered Hulk and a super soldier frozen since World War II, to defend New York from an inter-dimensional alien invasion, can you really be all that skeptical of astral projection, alternate dimensions, or even blatant magic?

Avengers Tower in Doctor Strange
Avengers Tower is clearly visible.

If Doctor Strange's car accident and physical therapy took place long before the events of the first Avengers, then this skepticism would be excusable. If Strange spent years at Kamar Taj learning magic, while oblivious to the events of the Avengers movies, Winter Soldier, and Civil War, then that would be a satisfactory explanation for his ignorance. But I don't think that's the case. Doctor Strange was tight-lipped when it came to references to the other Marvel movies (potentially for this very reason), but Avengers Tower still shows up in the skyline, and I'm pretty sure there were references to the other super heroes in the first half of the movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Strange gets a phone call asking if he'd be willing to treat an Air Force colonel who broke his spine in experimental armor. This must surely be a reference to Rhodes' accident in Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
Strange is asked if he'd be willing to treat Colonel Rhodes after injuries sustained in Civil War.

Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but buy-in is important in fantastical movies like this. But it's hard to buy into Stephen Strange, and it certainly doesn't help that he's an abrasive ass hole and isn't very likeable at the start of the movie...

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X-Men: Apocalypse

There's a bit in X-Men: Apocalypse in which Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee are walking out of a theater after seeing Return of the Jedi. Cyclops and Jubilee are arguing about whether Empire was better than Star Wars, and Jean remarks that "we can all agree that the third one is always the worst". This, of course is a jab at X-Men 3: the Last Stand, which I'm sure we can all agree is still the worst of the X-Men movies. It's also the first one that Bryan Singer didn't direct. But what might - or might not - be lost on Singer and his writers is the little bit of irony that Apocalypse is also the third movie in a series: the prequel series that started with X-Men: First Class.

X-2 and Days of Future Past remain the standout excellent films in this particular franchise. I don't think that Apocalypse ever degrades quite to the train wreck that was The Last Stand - not even close. But it does fall victim to some of the same traps that The Last Stand fell into: namely that it perhaps tried to fit too many stories into one, and doesn't tell any one of them particularly well. Much like The Last Stand, this one even starts to fall on its face when it goes into "Dark Pheonix" territory. Thankfully, they avoided turning that into a major plot thread though...

Perhaps the clumsiest storyline here was the Four Horsemen themselves. As per the comics, Apocalypse must recruit four powerful mutants, amplify their powers, and then use them as his own personal bodyguards. Other than Magneto, these characters' introductions and development all had to be rushed through. It seems a bit ironic that in these movies, it always seems to be the characters that we're most familiar with who get the most set-up and exposition; while the new characters receive little-or-no explanation or development. I never really bought into these horsemen though, or why they would be willing to help this obvious villain. I get that he tricked some of them with promises that he would "save humanity from itself", and he earned some loyalty with others by healing them and making them stronger, and that he used Magneto's grief and anger to his advantage, but the moment his plans started shifting away from "destroying corrupt systems and governments" towards outright "destroy the world", I just couldn't believe that none of the others batted an eye! Was there some kind of mind control going on as well? But he doesn't have mind control powers; that's why he wants Professor X.

X-Men: Apocalypse - four horsemen
Aside from Magneto, The Four Horsemen felt undeveloped and lacking in motivation.

Maybe if the movie could have established that Apocalypse had somehow brainwashed them, then I'd be more willing to accept it...

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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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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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