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REVIEW DEUX Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

A few more thoughts about Avengers: Infinity War after seeing it for the second time last night …

Okay, before we start, it was a lot of fun seeing it with a large audience. The first time I saw the film – last Wednesday – was in a much smaller theatre, with only around twenty people. Last night’s screening was a standard cinema, almost completely full with nearer to three hundred people. And it was really enjoyable to sit back and relax, and take in how much the people around me were enjoying the film – from the guy at the front who happily cried out “what the fuck” when Red Skull showed up on Vormir, to smatterings of applause when Thor arrives in Wakanda, to the audible gasp when Tony gets stabbed toward the end of the battle on Titan, the audience reactions added something to my own enjoyment of the film.

Though, I’ll be honest, I’m glad this was at my second screening, not my first.

My second watch through revealed something interesting about the structure and pace of the film. This was front of mind anyway: in their review on The Watch podcast, hosts Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald mentioned how the first two acts felt like a series of short stories in each of the various locations.

The film is definitely structured this way – we start with a lengthy scene aboard the Asgardian refugee ship, then head to New York for an extended sequence – Banner arrives, Strange recruits Stark, Obsidian and Maw arrive, Maw escapes with Strange pursued by Stark and Spidey – then we’re back out in space with the Guardians Of The Galaxy for another lengthy sequence in which they meet Thor, then we head to Scotland to catch up with Vision and Scarlet Witch, and on it goes.

The thing I noticed last night, though, is that while the early parts of the film take their time catching us up on each group of characters, on the story they have to tell, and setting up the rest of the film in each location, it felt like the amount of time spent in each place shortened over the second half of the film.

Or to put it another way, the pace of the film – the frequency of cuts from scene to scene – quickens as the stakes intensify. As the action builds and the story starts to take on real weight, and as the heroes start to fight back against Thanos and his forces, we start bouncing between scenes more and more quickly, until that final scene, which takes its sweet time repeatedly driving a dagger into our hearts.

It’s a clever way to keep the audience involved, keep us feeling like we can’t quite get a foothold in the story. And it is pulled off in near-perfect fashion: though the action is taking place in three locations – Wakanda, Titan and Nidavellir (as an aside, I thought Avengers: Infinity War was much more a spiritual sequel to Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 and Thor: Ragnarok than it was to Captain America: Civil War, which was what I feel like the Russo Brothers implied) – you never feel lost and you always feel like you know what is happening.

Amazingly, considering it contains about a million characters, Avengers: Infinity War might be the most coherent film in Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, or at least in the last couple of years.

I was also struck by an element of the story that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. Well, I mean, I think I did notice it the first time around but – and this is why repeat viewings are great – I don’t know that I saw the connection.

So, follow me for a second here (and this part is extremely spoilery): during the course of the film, multiple characters are faced with a choice between sacrificing someone to achieve their goal, or simply not succeeding in their mission. And it feels like several characters whiff on this decision: Loki can’t stand by as Thanos destroys Thor, Quill refuses to shoot Gamora after she is grabbed by Thanos, Gamora can’t take the torture being inflicted on her adopted sister Nebula, Strange can’t sacrifice Stark to protect the time stone (more on that shortly), and even Scarlet Witch hesitates to take down Vision, only committing to it after Thanos himself arrives on the battlefield and presents and clear threat.

In fact, the only person with the will to sacrifice another is Thanos himself. Sure, Quill eventually took a shot at Gamora, Strange let Stark get almost-mortally stabbed, and Scarlet Witch destroys the mind stone. But they all hesitated. Thanos, on the other hand, is presented with a choice: kill Gamora in order to acquire the soul stone, or fail in his mission, and he doesn’t hesitate. As soon as he is presented with the choice, it is clear what is going to happen, even as Gamora laughs in his face.

Now, earlier in the film, our heroes use the phrase “we don’t trade lives” a couple of times; I believe Cap is the first character to mention it. And it reminded me of that beautiful Maori proverb: “He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata” – what is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

And that is the difference between Thanos and our heroes: they care about people and he does not. Thanos presents his solution – wiping out half the population of the universe – as solving the problem of declining resources, but he really just doesn’t care about the people. He is trying to solve a real problem, but his solution is driven by a lack of compassion.

I know what you’re thinking: “yeah, we know”. But the thing is, this continues something that started in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the release of The Avengers in 2012. Following that film, audiences began to turn against the idea of cities being destroyed, civilians being killed en masse, and the general population filling the ‘collateral damage’ role.

Since that point, the folks at Marvel Studios have made a point of having their heroes put the public first – whether that is evacuating the city of Sokovia in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, having Spider-Man steer a plane into an abandoned beach, or having Thor focus on getting the people of Asgard away from his battle with Hela. I just thought it was nice to see that consistency continue, even though you could argue the story has outgrown those kind of concerns.

Before I go, just a quick note on Doctor Strange handing over the time stone in exchange for Tony Stark’s life. Earlier in the film, Strange explicitly tells Stark that he will not hesitate to let Stark (or Spider-Man) die in order to protect the time stone, then at the end of the battle on Titan, he explicitly exchanges the stone for Stark’s life. A surface read of this would indicate that he, like Gamora and Quill and Loki, couldn’t sit by and watch somebody die when he could do something about it.

However, I subscribe to this theory: between the two exchanges I mentioned, Strange uses the time stone to look at potential future outcomes – a staggering 14,000,605 of them, in fact – and saw only one in which the heroes came out on top. And knowing what he knows, he hands over the time stone after saying he absolutely would not do so. So the theory is that Strange knows that the one positive outcome either required Thanos to collect all the stones and complete his plan, or required Tony Stark to be alive. I would suggest it is the latter, since the former doesn’t necessarily require Stark.

As I mentioned in my first review, I called the ending one of the boldest in superhero film history. Whatever happens in Avengers 4 (coming in May 2019), I would wager two things: the vanished heroes – Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Falcon, Bucky, etc – will be back by the final act, and it will be thanks to the work of one Mr Tony Stark.

And it is still going to be a long year.

Avengers: Infinity War is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; it stars (deep breath) Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Pom Klementieff, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt, and the voices of Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Carrie Coon and Josh Brolin. It is in cinemas now, clearly.

MOVIE REVIEW Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

Hey, no, seriously, don’t even think of reading this before you watch it.

People are going to talk about that ending for a whole year.

This is my main takeaway after watching Avengers: Infinity War. It may be the most visually stunning film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it may be packed with fantastic character moments and performances, and it may have set the standard for action scenes in superhero movies for years to come. But people are going to talk about that ending for a whole year.

We pick up the action immediately after the post-credits scene from Thor: Ragnarok, with the Asgardian refugee ship under attack from Thanos and the Black Order, his quartet of extra-terrestrial thugs; the big purple villain is on a mission to collect all six of the infinity stones so that he can wipe out half the population of the universe. Thanos despatches the Asgardians – including fan favourites Heimdall and Loki – and grabs the blue space stone, but not before Banner/Hulk whisks away to Earth.

Now in his Banner form, he arrives at Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Santorum and warns Strange, Wong and Tony Stark about Thanos’ impending arrival. Two members of the Black Order arrive in New York to obtain the green time stone – being held inside Strange’s magical necklace, the Eye Of Agamotto – and manage to make off with Strange, with Iron Man and Spider-Man in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, the Guardians of The Galaxy respond to the Asgardians rescue beacon and meet up with Thor, who takes Rocket and Groot off to create a weapon capable of killing Thanos. The remaining Guardians head to Knowhere to try and stop Thanos from acquiring the red reality stone from The Collector, not realising it is a trap so that Thanos can capture Gamora, the only person who knows the location of the orange soul stone.

Thanos sacrifices Gamora to acquire the orange soul stone, while Iron Man and Spider-Man save Strange and crash on Thanos’ home planet of Titan, just in time to catch up with Star-Lord, Drax and Mantis. The six new friends quickly make a plan to defeat Thanos, who arrives in short order. Thanos beats the hell out of all of them, even crashing a moon into the planet, before acquiring the green time stone from Strange and absconding to Earth.

While all this is happening, Banner has warned the remaining Avengers – including Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon and War Machine – and they collect Vision and Scarlet Witch, then head to Wakanda together to try and save Vision, knowing that Thanos’ goons are on their way to acquire the final yellow mind stone. A huge battle ensues and our heroes look to be on the back foot, before Thor arrives and swings things back in the Avengers’ favour.

But all of that doesn’t really matter because Avengers: Infinity War boasts one of the most audacious – and genuinely stunning – endings in recent blockbuster history. In a nutshell: Thanos arrives in Wakanda, fights our heroes and prevails, then acquires the final stone by killing Vision and snaps his fingers (as predicted earlier by Gamora). The final scene is an extended sequence in which more than half our heroes turn into a cloud of dust and vanish.

It is a heavy-hitting and heart-breaking sequence full of gut-wrenching moments – Peter Parker fighting back tears as he utters “I don’t want to go”, Groot fearfully crying out his infamous line, Tony sitting on Titan covered in the dust left by his young protégé – that left me absolutely stunned. The audience in my screening was dead silent. A few people sobbed.

And then the credits rolled. Brutal.

It’s a scene custom-built to leave the audience hanging for the next twelve months. And I don’t know how many-thousand articles of speculation I’ll read before the next film comes out. Heck, every lengthy conversation I’ve had about the film since I saw it has focused on the ending, and what it means for the universe going forward: how it will play into things like Ant-Man & The Wasp or Agents of SHIELD, how it will be dealt with in Avengers 4, how many (if any) of the deaths will stick.

My gut instinct is not many, if any. It sure looks like Loki, Gamora and Vision might be done, but given some of the names who disappeared in the final scene – including a handful who are confirmed to headline future movies, like Black Panther and Spider-Man – it is hard not to think that Avengers 4 (currently untitled) will deal with the remaining heroes’ attempts to reverse what Thanos did when he snapped his fingers.

And it is kind of a shame, I guess. The ending, as fantastic as it was, only hit so hard because of the build-up, and because of the great character beats we’d just seen for the past two hours or so. Almost every major MCU character of note appears here, meaning the film is packed to the brim with cracking lines of dialogue and team-ups you wouldn’t even think of.

If you want Steve Rogers meeting Groot, or Star-Lord and Spider-Man jumping through Doctor Strange portals and landing hits on Thanos, or Bucky picking up Rocket and using him as a second gun, or Okoye suggesting opening a Starbucks to Black Panther, or Tony telling Banner “dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards”, you’ve got it.

Iron Man, Thor and Spider-Man are three of the characters who come off best in all of this – especially Stark, whose fears-coming-true approach to this universal threat, and his new power set courtesy of a new nanotech suit, make him one of the most riveting characters in the film. Spider-Man gets a suit upgrade as well, which leads to some of the most jaw-dropping action scenes in the film. And Hemsworth turns in some of his best work – in any film – as he seeks vengeance for the death of his people; a mid-film scene in which he discusses his grief with Rocket is one of the films most moving.

But the MVP here is Thanos; it isn’t a stretch to say that everybody else is a supporting character in this movie about Thanos. Whether he is taking the space stone off Thor, or intimidating the Guardians on Knowhere, or telling Tony that “I hope they remember you” on Titan, or making quick work of the forces in Wakanda, Thanos – as portrayed by Josh Brolin – is absolutely riveting, every bit the universal threat and unstoppable force of nature he was advertised to be.

It isn’t all perfect. The story does jump around a lot, and a lot of characters are underserved; Captain America, Black Widow and Black Panther are three who get relatively little to do here. And I suspect this film is the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that will require seeing some, if not all, of the films preceding it. I’d say it is completely inaccessible to new fans.

But when it works, it works perfectly. The Russo Brothers have put together a film that deftly balances over two dozen major characters and nearly half a dozen plotlines, even if it doesn’t always work perfectly, and leaves the audience hanging with one of the boldest endings in superhero film history.

It’s going to be a long year.

Avengers: Infinity War is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; it stars (deep breath) Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Pom Klementieff, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt, and the voices of Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Carrie Coon and Josh Brolin. It is in cinemas now, clearly.

REVIEW Black Panther (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I consider Black Panther a triumph, one of the best origin stories the film series has produced, packed with engaging and enjoyable characters, and boasting a story that deftly balances comic-book action and political machinations to create something wholly unique in the MCU.

As a fan of the comic books on which it is based, and particularly the most recent run by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I consider Black Panther a triumph on every level, utilising what I love best about the character – his internal conflict between what is best for his people and what is best for the world, and his shoot-last approach; see more on that below – to bring him to life in a way that very few of the other MCU films have managed.

But most of all, I consider Black Panther a triumph because this is a film that isn’t for me.

Not necessarily, at least. And I feel a little uncomfortable even venturing into the territory of race because of what it means, on all sides. I’m just trying to say that I was proud to go into a theatre, and watch, and love – LOVE – a film that was made to celebrate a man, a people, a race, that does not look like me.

Or to put it another way: this film obviously means much more to people of colour than I could ever understand. Last night, I went into a sold-out movie theatre, packed to the brim with Maori and Pacific Island men, women and children. And they cheered and clapped all the way through the film. They saw themselves on screen, portrayed in a way that people of colour are so rarely shown, celebrating culture in a way that is so rarely shown.

I mean, I’ve never cheered at a white superhero. I guess I’m kind of blaise about them by now.

None of that is to say that I felt discluded or left out. To the contrary. And this is the thing that I notice about films that are truly representative: when you go and see a film that is primarily about white people, they are invariably middle-upper class, and invariably having white people problems. Even characters that are not white are having the same issues. They are reduced to the social norms of the white people in the film.

But you go to a see a film that offers true social representation, that is about an ethnic or racial group that is not white – those films are always about something much more resonant, much more universal.

I don’t know what it is like to be oppressed in the way that black people have been, and are, racially oppressed in the United States, but I can start to understand and I can empathise. I haven’t been forced to persevere through anything like what black people – or, really, any racial group that has suffered through slavery or colonisation – have been through, but I get it. I understand, even if just in the smallest of ways. I can empathise.

It seems a contentious thing to say, but white people do enjoy a position of privilege. And you can’t always see it clearly in today’s society. We’ve deluded ourselves into believing it doesn’t really exist. “I have friends who are Maori, and I work with a Fijian, I’m not better off than them.”

But I’ve nevered cheered for a white superhero simply because one finally exists.

Black Panther is a triumph on so many levels. It is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the comics, particularly the Christopher Priest run on the character from 1998 to 2003. Ryan Coogler gets T’Challa in the same way I do: this is a man who values culture and tradition first, who is a politician before anything else, who approaches violence as a last resort, and who is trying to be a good man – and you really get that in both Coogler’s writing and Chadwick Boseman’s performance. This is a very nuanced character who appears fully-formed on the screen.

T’Challa comes up against an antagonist who is almost as complete as he is. Michael B Jordan takes Erik Killmonger and makes him sympathetic in a way that few Marvel Cinematic Universe villains have managed. Sure, a lot of that is possible because we’re so well versed in how this universe works. But a lot of credit, again, goes to Coogler: the character of Killmonger is complex, but easy to understand, and you kind of start to side with him a litttle bit.

I also have to give a shout-out to the supporting cast, too. Andy Serkis does some great work as Ulysses Klaue – last seen  during Avengers: Age Of Ultron – but the real stars here are Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira, who play T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri and the head of the Dora Milaje, Okoye, respectively. These two steal every scene they are in, and I can’t wait to see them explored further in Avengers: Infinity War and beyond.

Oh, and stay till the end of the credits for a well-earned cameo.

All in all, Black Panther is a true success in blockbuster film-making – and, I hope, a financial success that starts to swing the tide in Hollywood. And I can’t wait to see it again.

Black Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler, from a script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis. It is in cinemas now.

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