Fan Watches Infinity War 100 Times

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part two of our look at Avengers: Infinity War: confused action, and a cliffhanger that asks, “Who are the Avengers?”)

[Read part one of our giant look at Avengers: Infinity War here]

The first big action scene in Avengers: Infinity War unfolds when Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong) rendezvous in Manhattan. It’s a fun excursion filled with setups about Infinity Stones, character decisions and the plot at large. Though by swiftly ensuring all civilians are out of the picture (unlike The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, where they were a constant presence), the scene is robbed of immediate stakes beyond the Stones themselves. Our heroes simply battle on empty streets.

The Avengers, in theory, fight to protect innocent people. But by failing in to dramatize this — both on Earth and elsewhere — the film misses a vital opportunity to contrast the Avengers’ actions with those of Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his henchmen (the nefarious Black Order), whose collective mission is genocide.

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The Battle On Titan

In New York, Tony Stark flies out the gate with his most advanced technology yet. His fluid nanotech suit conjures an entire arsenal of weapons, indecipherable from magic. It’s a treat to discover, and since Stark plays all his cards within the film’s first hour, it sets up his desperation while battling Thanos on Titan.  

This battle, wherein Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Stark, Doctor Strange and the Guardians fight an uber-powered Thanos has moments of dazzling spectacle. However, the Avengers’ plan prior to Thanos’ arrival isn’t made clear in the narrative. The result is characters haphazardly attacking the villain and trying to pull off a Gauntlet heist that we, the audience, aren’t made privy to beyond the vagaries of “defeat Thanos.” That is, until Doctor Strange instructs his cape to prevent Thanos from closing his fist, several minutes into the scene (Though, the other characters’ goals remain uncertain until Thanos is apprehended).

In contrast, the climactic battles of both prior Avengers films featured clearly defined objectives and physical geographies. This imbued each action beat its own weight and momentum. The consequences of even minor failures were clear in the moment; in The Avengers, the aliens had to be contained to a defined perimeter, lest the invasion go global before the portal could be closed. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, stopping Ultron’s drones from reaching the city’s center was imperative, to prevent them from blowing up Sokovia before its citizens were rescued. Whereas in Avengers: Infinity War, in which Thanos can’t enact his plan until he has all six Infinity Stones, the moment-to-moment stakes and goals are only clarified after each action beat has passed (owed, in part, to the abilities of each Stone being ill-defined).

The Titan scene begins with our foreknowledge that the characters are hiding. There’s little doubt that Thanos isn’t the protagonist or point-of-view character, so we ought not to be surprised by the assault. But each Avengers’ physical relationship to Thanos isn’t framed until they attack him, after which they zip off-screen, not to be seen again until they attack him once more. Assemble these action beats in any order, and the result is nearly identical.

This revolving-door problem rears its head in Wakanda too.

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The Battle In Wakanda

There are only eight minutes between the Wakanda battle kicking off and the Avengers reaching their low-point (with other scenes in between), necessitating Thor’s arrival during what feels like a climactic escalation. As soon as Thor shows up, he decimates the surrounding aliens with his newly acquired powers, and yells “Bring me Thanos!” A few seconds later, the film cuts to a closeup of Thanos arriving through one of his portals. However, it then pulls back to reveal he’s on Titan, rather than Earth. A minor oddity in the grand scheme of things, though one with a confused correlation, causality and spatial awareness, and a decision emblematic of the film’s slapdash scene-to-scene editing — especially since visual effects company Weta Digital had worked more visual information for this scene, the use of which would’ve offered greater narrative clarity:

This moment of Thanos arriving seemingly offers more exciting, more immediate drama, before the deflating realization that Thor and Thanos have not, in fact, crossed paths. And while it isn’t as disorienting upon re-watch, the timing still feels awkward, especially since Thor’s arrival on Earth is one of the film’s most (and only) rousing moments. It’s even marked by the Avengers’ signature musical theme.

Instead of any payoff to Thor’s tragic arc while the iron is still hot (he’s just nearly killed himself forging a new axe), or even any subversion of what feels like Thor’s moment of victory, the film continues to wheel-spin. It delays its drama by having Thor — after his incredible power-up and initial strike — unmemorably plough through floating alien ships, shot with little sense of scale. In the meantime, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the other Avengers punch and shoot at alien hordes.

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Orienting Action

The battle on Titan feels inventive for a handful of moments. Doctor Strange conjures butterflies and mirror dimensions, while Thanos attacks with bats and black holes. It’s a fitting visual contrast between two characters willing to sacrifice people for Infinity Stones, each for opposing reasons. But the scene soon resumes the standard kicking and punching, divorced from character. This issue manifests tenfold in the Wakanda battle, which has little sense of geography, even though the Avengers’ purpose is protecting The Vision (Paul Bettany) and his Mind Stone at the city’s center.

The Avengers either fight in sweeping landscape shots of indecipherable CGI blobs, or in closeups of punching, both of which fail to orient them in time and place. Even as they punch in tight shots, neither the characters immediately around them, nor the geography in the background, conveys the simple information of where they are, or how far the aliens have progressed.

The heroes and villains’ proximity to the city, and thus their proximity to The Vision, is vital, since he holds the last piece of the Infinity Gauntlet. Instead, the scene is robbed of the tension it ought to have. The action beats never stray from interchangeable shooting and fisticuffs; a far cry from the story-centric extensions of character in The Avengers’ climactic battle.

There’s little causality between moments in the Wakanda fight. It’s mayhemic, but not in a way that builds tension. Once The Vision enters the battlefield, and once Thanos arrives soon after, there’s no indication of where any of the other Avengers are in relation to these characters, or where the fight even takes place.

You’d be forgiven for assuming this climax occurs in the forest outside Wakanda’s dome. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll notice it unfolding at the foot of Wakanda’s palace, where The Vision was being guarded (he subsequently tumbled from its window). This is tough to follow at first, and it isn’t a minor detail either; one forest is where the aliens began advancing from, while the other was their end goal. The scene, therefore, isn’t even able to convey the degree to which the Avengers have lost or won, something that ought to be readily apparent just by glancing at a battle scene.

The Avengers enter this climactic sequence one by one, whether to protect The Vision from Corvus Glaive, or to fight an arriving Thanos. But like the battle on Titan, these moments are self-contained. They’re action beats in isolation; the tension is limited to who’s standing in front of Thanos in a given moment, rather than heroes having to beat a ticking clock and make their way into this battle from a distance.

The film brings together dozens of characters, but they cease to exist the minute they aren’t on screen. This problem often extends to how they’re characterized; some depend on assumptions based on prior films, while newer additions are barely introduced at all.  

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