Has any film series in history pursued the ‘more of everything’ and ‘bigger is better’ ethos as vigorously as the Avengers franchise? The latest installment, Avengers: Infinity War, heralds the arrival of 19 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in 10 years. Their running times are epic blow-outs, the latest ballooning into an elephantine 160 minutes. Working from a script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that is less written than stage managed and more like a shopping list than drama, its co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo squeeze in 76 comic book characters, mistaking quality for quantity.
None are well-written. Most evoke memories of previous films in which their adventures were treated with a little, (sometimes a lot) more care. From its introductory moments, the new instalment is onerous and heavy-handed. We catch up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his goth brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as they confront the almighty, maniacally pious baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin). He espouses the familiar, villainous philosophy that genocide and/or the end of the world is ethically justified, and physically resembles what Mickey Rourke would look like if he consumed the toxin in Rampage that inflates wild animals to the size of small buildings.
The directors’ devotion to asinine spectacle is exhausting: a constant, loveless exchange of boilerplate effects, packaged as the world’s longest show reel.
The metal glove on the villain’s left hand contains colourful stones that give him incredible powers – as well as fabulous jewellery – glistening like rocks from Candy Crush. Thanos is the closest thing Infinity War has to a protagonist, given there are so many costumed crusaders gunning for the spotlight. This male-centric line-up includes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper).
The backstories are virtually non-existent and the characterisations thin; this is like a soap opera where you’re supposed to remember previous episodes. The superheroes are rolled out, usually more than one at a time, to trigger their respective special effects – i.e. web-slinging from Spider-Man, orange balls of light from Dr. Strange, and lasers and gadgets from Iron-Man. The combat sequences have the sole purpose of creating more combat sequences; there is no sense of progress. The directors’ devotion to asinine spectacle is exhausting; a constant, loveless exchange of boilerplate effects, packaged as the world’s longest show reel, with hat-tipping and franchise cross-pollination at an all-time high.
In his book Blockbuster, critic Tom Shone memorably argued that it is cliché for a cinephile to pick the work of, say, Martin Scorsese as their favourite films. Far braver, he said, to recognise the greatness of box office mega-hits. Shone had a point but time has not been kind to his thesis. The top three blockbusters of 1973, for example, mentioned in the book’s first chapter, were bona fide classics The Exorcist, The Sting and American Graffiti. The top three blockbusters of 1975 were Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Although the book contemplated films as late as the early noughties, there is no question the things we associate with that titular ‘b’ word have profoundly changed. We belong to a different era of blockbuster in which lethargic and unoriginal marquee titles are synonymous with multinational asset management. In this context, Infinity War feels like both a low and a high point. It is a celebration of mediocrity on a scale the cinema has never seen before.
The occasional whooping and cheering at Infinity War’s Australian premiere said less about the film than the sect-like manner with which audiences have been cultivated.
Instead of interesting camera movement and arrangements of space, audiences get squiggly bolts of light and flair-less combat scenes. One punch counts the same as five, or ten, or 50 – just more empty bangs in a cacophony of smoke and thunder. Instead of a single well-drawn character, there are 76 sketch outlines. Instead of one coherent storyline, we have a narrative experience that doubles as 100 commercials for other movies, and one great big advertisement for itself (i.e. the next instalment). Beneath everything is the suggestion that more means better, and the people who suppose otherwise are hoity-toity killjoys.
The occasional whooping and cheering at Infinity War’s Australian premiere from a crowd that applauded events such as the introduction of a shiny new weapon and the return of a character from a prolonged absence, said less about the film than the sect-like manner with which audiences have been cultivated. The studios have convinced them, among other things, to fling aside the very concept of an ending, let alone a satisfying one – and always to accept the film on terms dictated by the producers.
Avengers: Infinity War isn’t a movie: it’s advertising and brand management on an unprecedented scale.
Black Panther had scope and mythology. Thor: Ragnarok had stadium style spectacle. Iron Man had attitude. Ant-Man was fun. None of these films were great, nor were they completely devoid of merit. Infinity War tries to cram in everything and comes up with nothing: no flavour, no style, no joy. The writers apply highlighter pen to one-liners machine-tooled to lighten the mood, feeding into an unshakable feeling that we are experiencing artistic license by way of an algorithm.
Viewers will say to each other ‘please don’t spoil the twists!’, believing the studio will play fair when it comes to story revelations. They won’t. We were warned of this four decades ago, in Superman, when Christopher Reeve span the earth backwards to reverse time. It’s still the most pathetic superhero movie ending of them all, though the fact that it was an ending seems almost commendable after watching the Russo brothers’ incorrigible, ‘stay tuned’ cash grab.
Avengers: Infinity War isn’t a movie: it’s advertising and brand management on an unprecedented scale. In a couple of decades time, audiences will struggle to remember the title, let alone any distinguishing features. A good story? Interesting characters? Cinematic style? ‘Ha!’, the producers chuckle, examining the ledgers. Just give us your money, be grateful for what you get, and keep coming back for more.