How many superheroes can you fit in a single movie? This is the light bulb-like question that the Russo brothers’ latest Marvel Studios extravaganza provokes. With so much star wattage to harness, isn’t the film bound to short circuit sooner or later? The answer, thankfully, is no. Infinity War is a wildly ambitious and entertaining ride in which good old-fashioned teamwork just about carries the day, even if the odds are (as Doctor Strange tells us) over 14 million to one against.
One hundred and forty-nine minutes long, this is a sprawling affair with multiple changes of locations and many overlapping plot lines. Its momentum rarely slips.
The basic plot is simple enough. The evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) is about to wreak destruction on the world. “If he gets all the infinity stones, he can do it with a snap of his fingers,” we are warned of his capacity for destruction. The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy are playing tag team to stop him. The hitch is that Thanos is so much stronger than they are. The Hulk is like putty in his hands. Thor can barely lay a hammer on him. Even Doctor Strange’s spells don’t have much effect.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wrote a biopic about British comedian Peter Sellers before they started scripting Marvel movies. This might explain the surrealist, slightly goonish strain of humour running throughout the film. Even with the fate of the universe at stake, Steve Rogers (no longer in Captain America guise) and Star-Lord still find time to compare beards. Spider-Man (the ever-engaging Tom Holland) wants to talk about Footloose and Alien.
Thor can’t help mistaking Rocket the Racoon for a rabbit. During a brief interlude in the Old Town of Edinburgh, where Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) tussle with followers of Thanos, you can’t help but notice the prominence of the sign for the fast food joint which offers deep fried kebabs. (At least, there aren’t any haggis jokes.)
It helps that the superheroes are played by such skilled comedic actors. Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch are like a pair of catty housewives as Iron Man and Doctor Strange. Each wants to outdo the other. Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is self-conscious that he might not be quite as good-looking or as husky voiced as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. As global destruction looms, Iron Man is still receiving scolding telephone calls from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) telling him not to miss their 8.30pm dinner reservation. Groot and Drax The Destroyer engage in their usual scene-stealing antics. Bruce Banner struggles like a man with a bad case of constipation to force out his inner Hulk. We see Peter Dinklage as a giant with no hands.
The film throws in continual comic references to its own superhero overload. “Who the hell are you guys?” the Guardians will ask the Avengers. The protagonists will confess that they can’t remember each other’s names.
All the comic joshing doesn’t take away from often awe-inspiring special effects. We are treated to thundering galactic fight sequences, accompanied by Wagnerian music, and some eerie scenes in which characters appear to turn to dust in front of our eyes. The film finds time for romantic interludes too. Vision and Scarlet Witch are besotted with one another as are Star-Lord and the beautiful, green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
Thanos is a genuinely intimidating villain, cunning, cruel, very vicious and with an immense physical presence. His motivation for his cosmic power grab is a little hard to fathom, though. He is very clear that he doesn’t want to destroy all of humanity, only 50 per cent of it, and that might be because a little Malthus-like culling would be to the benefit of the survivors. Like every other character in the Marvel universe, he has an infinitely complicated and troubled family life. Brolin brings a certain pathos and ambiguity to the role, which is not what you expect at all.
Screen time isn’t evenly shared. Presumably on the basis that it isn’t very long ago that he had a film of his own, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther appears fleetingly (but the best battle scene takes place in his kingdom of Wakanda), Tom Hiddleston’s Loki registers as strongly as ever – but is only given a few minutes in which to do so. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow isn’t on screen for long either.
The real Marvel about Infinity War is that even after two and a half hours, it leaves us wanting more. The sequel is due out next summer and there is little danger of superhero fatigue setting in before then.
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