I plan on publishing re-edited versions of some of my DVDActive.com Blu-ray reviews more or less as they originally appeared. These will not always coincide with the podcasting genre theme of the month.
As the Avengers and their allies have continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, a new danger has emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos. A despot of intergalactic infamy, his goal is to collect all six Infinity Stones (artifacts of unimaginable power) and use them to inflict his twisted will on all of reality. Everything the Avengers have fought for has led up to this moment - the fate of Earth and existence itself has never been more uncertain. (From Marvel’s official synopsis)
Warning: There will be unspecified spoilers throughout this review.
I don’t have a lot of offer concerning Avengers: Infinity War that you haven’t already read or discussed with your friends, but I do know my way around a Thanos story. So, since he’s essentially the film’s main character, I’ll start here. Thanos hard to “do correctly” without the benefit of a pre-Infinity lead-up (the character existed for about two decades before he sought out the Infinity Gems) and an inner monologue. In the comics, he developed slowly into one of the most complex and, more importantly, morally ambiguous superhero/villains of all time. His own sense of self-doubt – not the heroics of hundreds of superpowered Earthlings – was his undoing in the comic book series Infinity Gauntlet (pub: 1991). After losing, he ended up helping the good guys defeat a greater evil, yet, along the galactic road trip of repentance that followed, his innate and anarchic curiosity caused him to unleash even more universe-shattering calamities. Recently, he has started to revert back into the egomaniacal, power-mad dictator that creator Jim Starling first envisioned, though rarely without an inkling of his duality. In the worst case scenarios, he has been portrayed as a grunting strong guy, much like as his appearance on the latest incarnation of the Avengers cartoon series (Avengers Assemble, 2013-2018).
As a fan (i.e., someone whose opinion may not be trustworthy in the greater scheme of a stand-alone cinematic universe), I feared that this, coupled with the concise timeframe the writers had to develop him, meant Movie Thanos would be another cookie-cutter baddie with dull motivations, like Malaketh (the dark elf from Thor: The Dark World who really hated Asgard), Laufey (the ice giant from the first Thor who really hated Asgard), or Ronan (the Kree from Guardians of the Galaxy who really hated Asgard Xandar). While he's not yet the “good one day, bad the next” layer cake seen in the best Marvel books, this is very nearly the ideal blockbuster movie version of the Mad Titan. Josh Brolin’s Thanos isn’t a full-bore nihilist who is in love with the physical and spiritual embodiment of Death, as he is in those original Thanos Quest (1990) and Infinity Gauntlet, and Infinity War (1992) comics (writer Jason Aaron’s newer Thanos Rising series  revealed that the character’s persistent advances were not entirely unwelcome and that Death had basically seduced him into annihilating his entire planet during his awkward teen years). Instead, he’s kind of a malevolent, insanely egotistical altruist, who either truly believes his genocidal plan is the only way to save the universe or is using it as justification to commit an immeasurably evil act. Knowing what we know about his comic counterpart, it’s probably a mix of the two.
Thanos’ esoteric evil isn’t the only huge challenge facing the Infinity War filmmakers, it’s just the most interesting one. Most of the problems are logistical – i.e. the sheer volume of characters, the distance separating those characters, and the converging storylines established by the other movies. From this standpoint, the Russos are at a nearly insurmountable disadvantage. The limitations of a feature film runtime alone keep them from telling a story and reiterating more than the most basic reiteration of what happened on the last ‘episode’ of the MCU. From scene to scene, they’re forced to choose between narrative, character development, rationalizing the plot mechanics, staging action, and placating the audience’s insatiable appetite for seeing their favorite superheroes teaming up. The fact that it works as often as it does is nearly a miracle and a testament to Marvel’s trust in mainstream filmgoers, who, as it turns out, don’t need their hands held through serialized sci-fi fantasies.
The Infinity Stones don't fit very well in the confines of a mainstream blockbuster, either, especially once they’ve outlived their usefulness as franchise-connecting MacGuffins. In the comics, whoever wields the Gauntlet is effectively invincible. Reality bends to their whims and the actual effect is abstract; both in terms of concept and imagery. The Russos have taken that power down a bit without robbing the Stones of their threat. They cleverly turn the Gauntlet into a tool with a physical function. For example, Thanos must clench his fist to perform certain tasks, which gives the heroes a glimmer of hope to stop him. In addition, the Stones’ effects, though sometimes surreal, are usually quite frightening. As a result, the filmmakers largely avoid the tired superhero movie cliche of destruction porn. Watching buildings crumbled by tidal waves, as occurs in the comic, wouldn't only be tasteless to a certain degree, but aesthetically boring (do note, however, that artist George Pérez took the time to portray Trump Tower being demolished almost three decades before it was relevant to do so). Given that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) and Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) already literally drove this type of imagery into the ground several years ago, it’s extraordinary that Infinity War treated its audience to such an intimate and quiet version of universal annihilation.
The lasting impact of Infinity War’s shock ending isn’t only attributed to its lack of bombast – it’s also a matter of the Russos maintaining a low-key distressing tone throughout what could’ve easily been a campy lark. Levity is an important part of the Marvel formula, so there are jokes, but the driving threat rarely subsides. This is particularly vital, given the quantity of arcs and interactions required for such a large ensemble. As long as the narrative is moving and the tone is consistent, there's little time for the seams show or suspensions of disbelief to be challenged. Some of the most blatant plotting workarounds, such as separating characters into groups, can be forgiven simply because they keep Infinity War from turning into the cluttered battle montage it easily could've been. For example, Thor, Rocket, and Groot ultimately have no bearing on the outcome of the story (I mean, arguably none of the heroes do, but that's beside the point), yet they get to be a unique part if it by not being confined to Earth or Titan, like the other heroes. Might trading their adventure for more time with Hulk, Captain America, and/or Black Widow make Infinity War a better movie? Maybe, but these scenes help broaden the scope of the universe and end in a thrilling battlefield reveal. Again, the filmmakers had to sacrifice traditional storytelling for the sake of scope, so I’m willing to judge the results in terms of parts – especially when it turned out that those thrilling moments were distracting us from a downright haunting endgame (note that I ended the review like this way before I knew the title of the follow up).
Going into Infinity War, I had moderate faith that the Russos could pull off an interesting story and intriguing characters, but I was concerned with their lack of aesthetic prowess. Their raw, handheld style, which was perfectly suited to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), compacted the scale of Captain America: Civil War’s (2016) flashier superhero action. Infinity War surpasses expectations in terms of its colorful cosmic imagery, but it falls a bit short of the spectacular splash panels seen in decades of intergalactic battle on the comics page, largely due to the ‘grounded’ qualities of cinematographer Trent Opaloch’s photography. These stylistic instincts are not entirely problematic – in fact, they help inflate the impact of the hand-to-hand combat and establish scale – but the shaky-cam coupled with tight, scope widescreen framing, obscures an awful lot of the action. According to specs, Infinity War was shot using Arri Alexa’s IMAX digital cameras and the IMAX version of the movie was cropped at 1.90:1. Frankly, that aspect ratio makes a lot more sense to me. The extra vertical information probably could’ve corrected the lack of head and foot room that bothered me so much when I saw the film in non-IMAX theaters (please see the first screen cap as an example of what I’m talking about and let me know if the problem abated when framed at 1.90:1 in the comments).
More or less every issue I have with the look of this 1080p Blu-ray transfer, which is perpetually cropped at a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, ties back to what the film looked like in theaters. In terms of broad details, fine textures, and a near-complete lack of compression artifacts, the image quality is just about perfect. The gradations are smooth when needed, but also appropriately limited by the filmmakers’ use of pulled focus and anamorphic lenses. The hardest edges are pristine without any notable haloes and the softer edges have a pillowy, slightly grainy, film-like quality to them. Color quality is rich, thanks to all of the bright costumes, non-traditional skin hues, and fact that every location is coded with a different palette. Tones are crisp and consistent and, despite the slight desaturation implemented as part of that grounded Russo look, important colour elements (like glowing Infinity Gems, energy beams, cosmic explosions, et cetera) a quite vivid. The diffused, smokey quality of some of the backdrops likely could’ve caused blocking issues, but I noticed no awkward step effect or blobby blends.
Infinity War is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound and its quality matches other multi-million dollar sci-fi/action tentpoles. Everything you’re looking for in a demo disc is here (assuming you aren’t demoing an Atmos or DTS:X track, I guess), from wide dynamic ranges to delicate incidental effects and ear-blasting explosions. Dialogue is well centered and clear, directional cues are big and busy, and the sound designers have great fun blending the various characters’ trademark power noises during battle scenes. I assume that Marvel brass is aware of the valid criticism that their films tend to have rather generic soundtracks, because they’ve really stepped it up with their last three films. Mark Mothersbaugh gave Thor: Ragnarok (2017) a spacey electronic vibe, Ludwig Göransson & Kendrick Lamar infused Black Panther (2018) with African and hip-hop elements, and, now, Alan Silvestri has returned to an Avengers property (after skipping Age of Ultron) to give the heroes a proper classical treatment, complete with memorable melodies and effective ambience. When present, the music tends to be the loudest thing on the track, besides important dialogue, of course, and the deepest tones get a nice boost from the LFE track.
Commentary with directors Anthony & Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely – The Russos and their writer counterparts spend a lot of this tightly-packed track discussing various logistics, be they technical or story related. I’m especially impressed with the way the writers remark on the simplicity of the character arcs and basic plot, which I think is an important piece of this puzzle to acknowledge, especially in this day and age of needlessly overplotted franchise blockbusters. As often happens during this type of track, momentum is slowed when the commentators try to credit and congratulate as many collaborators as possible, but these moments are rarely awkward.
Strange Alchemy (5:08, HD) – The first of four fluffy, EPK-like featurettes is a mixed retrospective of the Avengers series and the process of bringing together multiple franchises’ worth of characters.
The Mad Titan (6:34, HD) – An exploration of Thanos as he has appeared throughout the MCU, Josh Brolin’s portrayal, and some of the special effects processes.
Beyond the Battle: Titan (9:36, HD) – A look behind-the-scenes of the showdown between Thanos and a handful of Avengers & Guardians on the remains of Titan with emphasis on soundstage work, previz, stunts, and special effects.
Beyond the Battle: Wakanda (10:58, HD) – A second massive battle breakdown, this time covering the climactic war in Wakanda (which was actually shot in Georgia). This final featurette also wraps up the behind-the-scenes and looks towards Avengers 4 (edit: Endgame).
Four deleted/extended scenes (10:13) – There are a few nice character beats here (especially between Thanos and Gamora), but no big plot points that’ll clue us in to how the remaining heroes will save the day next movie.
Gag reel (2:05)
If you activate the digital copy code included with the disc, you can also watch a director’s roundtable including the Russos, Ryan Coogler, Jon Favrau, Peyton Reed, James Gunn, and Joss Whedon. Taika Waititi also makes a special appearance via Facetime on an iPad (32:50, HD).
Avengers: Infinity War really shouldn’t work. There’s too much story, too many characters, too much fanservice, too much too much. But it does work. Its narrative/structural weaknesses are largely forgivable, because the filmmakers have put so much care into the areas they deemed important. These specifically included the things that are most difficult to adapt from the comics page, such as Thanos’ personality, the scale of the galactic battlefield, and the straight-faced approach to inherently silly subject matter. Viewing it on this new Blu-ray, I’ve discovered that It also has good re-watch value, which makes me hopeful that next years as yet untitled follow-up will wrap things up in a satisfying manner. This disc obviously looks and sounds nearly perfect, but the extras are disappointing, as has been the case for most Marvel/Disney releases. Perhaps they’ll find a reason to include more deleted footage on a future release.
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