Review: Avengers: Infinity War (The Russo Brothers, 2018)
In his review of the latest in the Marvel-backed behemoths to embark upon an all-out assault against our eardrums, wallets and box office records, BBC Radio Five Live and Observer film critic Mark Kermode described Avengers: Infinity War (The Russo Brothers, 2018) as a having a fundamental problem stemming from a “fundamental lack of consequence”. This, from a movie that takes place across multiple galaxies, deals with a villain hell bent on wiping out half the universe’s population and, in the process of doing so, leaves a trail of destruction across planets, kingdoms and franchises. The culmination of a story arc ten years in the making, Avengers: Infinity War is a move with cross-franchise implications that demands a seemingly galactic level of prior narrative investment for audiences to even understand the opening reel. The movie is, if anything hysterical, about its desire to be a film with consequences, and yet has prompted a strangely apathetic response from audience members who see it as a symptom of the fatigue and creative stagnation of the Hollywood film industry. What, then, might prompt comments such as those offered by Kermode as to why the film perhaps feels so inconsequential, despite its being so consequential to both the past and future of Hollywood’s production slate.
The issue with Avengers: Infinity War (which I liked overall, but not enough to get particularly enthusiastic about it) stems not from its desire to be about something, but to be about absolutely everything. It is a film that does not just reach for the stars in terms of its narrative or thematic ambition. It takes the stars, throws a giant purple CGI monster at it, and then gets that CGI monster to be seemingly quite well-versed in the consequentialist school of ethical philosophy. Throwing each Marvel superhero into a series of tortuous choices between saving the one’s they love versus saving the world, the movie constantly bombards its audience with opportunities to ruminate on why all this space-fighting, blast-jumping and (on occasion) hammer-forging actually matters.
This speaks to a certain concern the film has that lies at the heart of fantasy fiction in general. As numerous scholars, including David Sandner have pointed out, fantasy as both a commercial category and a storytelling impulse claims its identity by departing from something rather than stepping into anything else (2004). It leaves reality behind, but where it actually goes is anybody’s guess. Theorists have attempted to articulate the substance of fantasy after it seeks speaking about reality, describing the genre as a step into ‘wonder’, ‘the beyond’, ‘transcendence’ or ‘the marvellous’ (Manlove, 1975; Irwin; 1976; Swinfen 1984). Often, though, what these terms actually amount to is an attempt to describe something about fantasy’s fundamental absence rather than presence. The genre seeks to convince in the unconvincing, present the unpresentable, and yet still be graspable, comprehensible and above all else meaningful to its audiences. It is rather hard to consider the ethical implications in choosing to save a green space alien from the clutches of another space alien by giving up your one chance in destroying a set of magical stones that disrupt the entire fabric of the space-time continuum. I find it difficult enough reflecting on the morality of my own coffee purchasing habits as I worry about the environmental impact of my flat white.
The way all these ethical dilemmas are enacted onscreen does not help either. This film is drenched in CGI. These observations are not made in order to subscribe to some tired cliché espousing the lack of value in CGI animation as a potent mode of artistic expression in contemporary Hollywood. If anything, I am more convinced than ever that the next generation of filmmakers will need to be more at home with the possibilities afforded through CGI technology than they are working within the existing opportunities afforded through traditional celluloid. However, CGI does have a fundamental physical absence buried at the heart of its very existence as a technology: it is doesn’t actually exist. You can’t touch it. You can’t feel it. You can’t smell it. And, yet, Hollywood seems obsessed with using it as if we could, striving for what Stephen Prince refers to as a perceptual realism in its imagery (1996, 27-37). For me, the strongest moments of CGI effects over the last decade have been blockbusters which embrace the inherent abstracting nature of the new mode of animation conducted entire through digital pixels, screens and software. Moments in films like Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) or Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) where physical reality disperses, dissipates, bends and stretches onscreen points to a way in which CGI can be meaningful on its own terms as a device that achieves what so many app designers are referring to as a truly augmented approach to reality. What we get in Avengers: Infinity War is instead a bamboozling array of techno-explosions. But the net effect is not a world unhinged, altered and made elastic through the expressive capability of CGI technology, but a feeling of absence. When a film loses touch with the physical realm and cannot offer anything as an alternative, it ceases to be felt.
With all that being said, it is remarkable how much a film with this sheer weight of fantastic presence can claim to be about anything. Both commercial and narrative forces seek to jettison this thing off into the stratosphere and beyond. Yet, the film does utilise its larger-than-life subject matter and visual style to offer audiences moment of emotional weight and, dare I say, consequence. There is just not enough of them. And the things are that are good will likely not be around this time next year regardless. Like the delete button on a computer, the narrative will do its best to effortlessly magic them away.
Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
Manlove, C.N., Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
Prince, Stephen, “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory”, Film Quarterly vol. 49, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 27-37.
Sandner, David, “Introduction” to Fantastic Literature: Critical Reader (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).
Swinfen, Ann, In Defence of Fantasy: A Study of the Genre in English and American Literature since 1945 (London: Routledge, 1984).