Image Credit to Digital Spy
Avengers: Infinity War is one of the biggest cinematic events ever. After ten years and eighteen pictures, Disney’s Marvel Studios has brought together seventy beloved superheroes, given them a seemingly unstoppable enemy, and have developed a storyline in which the universe is legitimately at stake. Sadly, the film has been entrusted to two directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, who are regressing as artists. They’ve turned in a visual disaster. No MCU film has ever been so poorly lit, shot, or edited.
The Russo brothers’ sloppiness becomes apparent in the picture’s opening. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Thomas Hiddleston), and Heimdall (Idris Elba) do battle with the big bad guy, Thanos (Josh Brolin), and his minions in space. In order to match the fight’s setting and also signal that Infinity War will have a more upsetting, less cheery tone than the MCU’s recent lighthearted and colorful Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the Russos light the battle so that most of the screen is dark and drained of color. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to actually see what’s happening; differentiating between bodies, faces, and objects turns out to be an arduous process. Even when color is infused (such as at the sequence’s end) it looks drab and dreadful. It’s difficult to imagine worse methods the Russos could’ve employed to immediately alienate someone from escaping into Infinity War’s story.
So what is the story? Like most MCU villains, Thanos has an understandable motivation, but monstrous methods to fulfill his aims. Having seen his planet, Titan, destroyed, Thanos believes the universe’s population must be curbed so beings can exist peacefully and harmoniously with the galaxy’s resources. He decides, then, to wipe out half of every planet’s living organisms. To support his genocidal desires, he hunts for six infinity stones, which, when assembled, give their bearer the power to do whatever he wishes. Sensing the grave threat Thanos poses, heroes from the MCU, such as the core Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumerbatch), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), try to stop him. Their efforts often involve splitting up established groups, forming new ones, and either taking the fight to Thanos or his minions on other worlds or fortifying areas on Earth so they can stave him off when he attacks.
An angry debate has unfolded in film criticism and social media about the merits of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s storytelling approach. On one side exist critics, such as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who lament how the film doesn’t bother reintroducing characters or reestablishing their relationships instead presuming “that viewers have seen all the preceding films in the Marvel series” and “thought about them afterward.” On the other side exist mostly fans (and a few critics) who feel like the comic book studio has made a daring, ambitious, artistic, “400 million dollar experimental anti-film disguised as a superhero movie” by forgoing such backstory repetition and clarification. Both positions seem needlessly extreme. After eighteen successful pictures in the franchise, half of which finished in the Top Five Highest Grossing of their year, it’s fair for Markus and McFeely to assume audiences have enough familiarity with this universe and these figures that Infinity War need not stop whenever two superheroes meet for the first time.
However, Avengers: Infinity War features too many moments highlighting characters’ defining relationships for it to be considered a groundbreaking experiment. Viewers get to watch early scenes involving pairings, such as Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), that exist mainly to remind audiences of the emotional stakes these characters face. In other words, the film recycles pre-existing character bonds to illustrate that these figures all have someone who cares for them and will grieve if they die. And just in case you missed this, the picture reinforces these key connections repeatedly during big events, like when a character embarks on a mission or seems to be on the verge of death.
Such repetition and emphasis threatens to bog the movie down, to torpedo excitement and momentum. Luckily, Markus and McFeely avoid fulfilling these scenes’ cloying potential by skillfully relying on the MCU’s trademark banter, mixing laughs and emotions so neither overwhelms viewers. More importantly, the cast’s members seem up to the task of embodying these characters’ feelings. They, for the umpteenth time in this franchise, get you to see these larger-than-life superheroes as flawed, insecure humans. Downey Jr. as Stark, Olsen as Scarlett Witch, and Hemsworth as Thor deserve particular praise in this respect.
Depressingly, the screenplay and cast’s delights end up having to stabilize the Russos’ train-wreck. The lighting issues aren’t isolated to Infinity War’s intro; every scene not in daylight requires eyes to strain, distracting from the action or drama. But the scenes taking place in bright sunshine aren’t much better; they reveal the Russo’s deficiencies in terms of camera placement. Nearly every scene features a handful of shots in which the camera is too close or too far from what it is filming. Often, it is impossible to emotionally process a significant event because there isn’t enough information on screen to do so. Just as often it’s difficult to focus on a moment’s emotion because there is competing information grabbing your attention in the background or at the margins of a shot. The Russo brothers’ shoddiness with the camera becomes most apparent when the audience is asked to empathize with Thanos. The poor camera placement means it is either challenging to witness his facial expressions, which are necessary to feel with him or it is embarrassingly clear how limited the motion-capture and effects work is at conveying those expressions naturally.
Still, the main proof of the Russos’ ineptness cannot be found in their cinematography, but in how they edit Infinity War’s action. The Russos continue Marvel’s criticized style of cutting nearly every time two things crash, bash, or bump into each other. Nearly each time someone lands a punch, cut. Nearly each time a person hits an object, cut. Nearly each time a projectile connects with a target, cut. Ultimately, this editing drains ferocity and physicality from the film. The work’s action scenes feel light, weightless, and lifeless.
When Marvel hired the Russo brothers to direct Infinity War, they probably hoped for a pair of safe hands that would not screw up the most significant film of the MCU franchise. In that sense and only that sense, the duo succeeded. They didn’t get in the way of this grand production; they made sure everything went smoothly, the film reached theaters on its scheduled date to millions of hyped-up fans, and Marvel nabbed the Biggest Opening Weekend of All-Time. However, by the standards of what makes a good work of art, a good blockbuster, the two have completely failed. They’ve begun with a good script and solid cast and gone downwards, submerging the film in a state of mediocrity with bad lighting, camera placement, and editing. Avengers: Infinity War might be the ugliest epic spectacle ever made.