[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War]
This past weekend, the biggest concern facing film writers toiling away in the pop cultural discourse’s vast salt mines is the overwhelming fear that our critical skills have grown irrelevant in the face of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios’ latest superhero event. Stress on the word “biggest:” the sheer size of Infinity War — a film that pits the genocidal Titan Thanos (the characteristically impressive Josh Brolin) against a cast of almost a hundred, including the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and more — has left many reviewers feeling overwhelmed. Overcrowding and bloat are common concerns, as Washington City Paper‘s Alan Zilberman writes: “The biggest challenge facing screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, along with directors Anthony and Joe Russo, is that there are so many characters it’s difficult to make sure they all get their due.”
Some critics argue that Infinity War’s more-is-more style is a superficial feint that over-compensates for a fundamental lack of appropriately bigger ideas. The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott notes “that the ascendance of Marvel (and of other, not quite as universal entities like it) has narrowed the parameters of criticism. I’m supposed to tell you, in this review, how much fun you’ll have at Infinity War. (Yes, you will have some. Will you have enough? Almost.) But I’ve probably already gone too far in trying to think about what it means.”
Other writers argue that the gigundo scope of Infinity War‘s narrative necessarily demands a bolder style, like RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz: “Infinity War faced so many challenges, many of them unique to this particular project, that it’s a small miracle that it works at all. On some level, it feels ungrateful to ask a movie that already does the impossible to do it with more panache. But what are superhero movies without panache really good for? If there was ever a moment to swing for the fences, it was this one.”
Fans of mainstream superhero comics know that none of these creative short-comings are unique to this specific project. If this is an imaginative crisis, it’s one that’s been brewing for decades, arguably ever since Marvel and DC Comics started making worlds-rending event titles their de rigeur business model following the success of formative titles like Marvel’s milestone 1973 Avengers/Defenders War crossover and DC’s oft-copied Crisis on Infinite Earths. Now, almost all of the Big Two’s mainstream superhero titles cross-over on a needlessly regular basis. Franchises continually reset with new first issues in a short-term-successful, long-term-harmful attempt at hooking new readers. And characters routinely betray each other, die meaningless deaths, and then resurrect in a matter of years, if not months. This is the fault of popular but vapid titles like Marvel’s Heroes Reborn — a ’90s title that rebooted the entire Marvel Universe for a hot second until God-like child Franklin Richards’s returned everything back to “normal” with a St. Elsewhere-style twist of fate — and Final Crisis, DC’s big, dumb 2005 title wherein a clone of Superboy goes berserk and tries bring order to the universe by killing untold imaginary secondary characters, thereby making him the only superhero left standing. Now, there is no room for closure or resolution in comics’ crisis-economics-intensive marketplace: there is only Infinity War.
One way that Marvel and the Russos have tried (and sometimes succeeded) to give viewers the impression that Infinity War is their biggest film yet is by filming their 160-minute spectacular with IMAX cameras. The Russos previously used IMAX cameras to film Captain America: Civil War‘s airport runway throwdown, a set piece which feels like a dry-run for Infinity War’s battle scenes. And Black Panther, Marvel’s biggest hit to date, was retro-fitted so that it could be screened in IMAX (ie: it wasn’t shot with IMAX cameras, but it was post-converted to the screen’s size and specifications). This is a welcome step in the right direction, though hardly a bold one given how often this bigger-lens/bigger-action mentality is often used in modern superhero comics.
In this context, individual comics panels are said to have “cinematic” qualities if they give viewers the impression that they’re literally seeing time pass before their eyes (almost like a lousy, mostly empty flipbook). First, a three-panel page of a meteor as it’s about to crash-land (panel one: a twinkle in the sky; panel two: twinkle becomes big enough to make out — it’s a meteor; panel three: brace for impact!) then a two-page spread of said meteor as it blows up real good. In the comics industry, bigger is not only presumed to be better: it’s just a stepping stone to the next biggest, most epic thing to come.
But the Russos cover scenes more than they direct them. Infinity War‘s hundreds-strong battle sequences are the best proof: scores of computer-generated monsters scrabble across the plains of Wakanda to meet King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), M’Baku (Winston Duke), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and their respective (but united!) armies. These scenes are frustrating because, as in the Russos’ two prior Captain America films, there’s some good-enough action choreography on display here. Fans will probably enjoy these scenes for the care and attention put into performers’ heroic poses and dance-like maneuvers. But critics (this writer included) may point out that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen due to the quaking, unstable nature of the cameras’ physical movements.
The camera’s presence is always conspicuous, partly because of how expensive IMAX cameras are, but mostly because, like many modern action filmmakers, the Russos often goose action scenes by jiggling their cameras to match the frenetic motion on camera. It’s a cheap trick, one that distracts from the fact that it takes more production time (and therefore more production money) to put the camera down and functionally capture the motion of action on screen. There’s a reason why writer/director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) pre-emptively jokes, in interviews, about the hard time he gives his bloody, but visually spectacular films’ choreographers and cinematographers: Zahler demands more from his collaborators and is unusually committed to the idea that body parts should be visible within the camera’s frame whenever they’re being brutally dismantled.
Infinity War is obviously a different kind of film, but the question remains: why are you giving viewers the impression of movement instead of impressing them with precise movements? Or maybe a better way to put it is: why are you expanding the size of your camera’s frame if you aren’t also filling it in an equally thoughtful way?
There are a lot of expository dialogue scenes in Infinity War, several of which have to convey the emotionally draining toll of a pseudo-dark film where characters are constantly telling each other, “You must kill me before he kills me,” or, “I must kill myself before he kills us,” and, “I want to die, please let’s all kill me before he indiscriminately kills other people.” The best of these scenes are the ones that require the most pre-visualization (ie: they were story-boarded to within an inch of their lives because they require a lot of computer-generated imagery). Case in point: the scene where Thanos shields a younger version of his adopted daughter Gamora (Ariana Greenblatt) from the sight of his troops massacring her planet’s inhabitants. This is a mostly well-blocked little moment, partly because it revolves around information that’s being visually withheld rather than information that’s being needlessly thrust into our faces. We join Gamora in focusing (through medium close-ups) on a “perfectly-balanced,” two-sided pen knife that Thanos holds on one finger while his troops, in the distant background, go about their bloody business.
Contrast this sequence with the many over-the-shoulder shots of characters talking. These images look flat-out ugly on a real, multi-story-tall IMAX screen (I saw the film at New York’s Lincoln Square, whose IMAX screen is 80 feet tall, and 100 feet wide). This is especially true when a now-adult Gamora (Zoe Saldana) tries to get characteristically punch-drunk boyfriend Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) to sober up long enough to consider killing her if the going gets tough (spoiler alert: it does). The mind struggles to make this intimate scene more coherent.
But there’s only so much visual information on the screen to support this futile endeavor. Many of Infinity War’s basic conversations scenes are shot in a basic shot/reverse shot-style. So when one actor is talking, her/his face occupies one half of the screen, and when the other person is talking, the other half of the screen is occupied by his/her face or body. Unfortunately, the Russos often fill their camera’s enormous frame with a secondary character’s out-of-focus back or head, so half of the screen is usually filled with nothing more cinematic than a blurry, multi-story-tall noggin, or a humongous shoulder blade.
I don’t share Zilberman’s expectation that viewers will come away from Infinity War “[feeling] cheated, like the movie spit in their eye, and it may take some serious soul-searching to figure out why that is.” I do, however, agree with Scott when he says that “The noisy, bloated spectacles of combat were surely the most expensive parts of the movie, but the money seems less like an imaginative tool than a substitute for genuine imagination.” And Seitz really hits the nail on the head when he, in his sympathetically mixed review, writes that “[the Russos] use the camera in an expressive or poetic way so rarely that when they do bust out a heartfelt flourish […] it’s as if somebody had briefly sparked a dull wedding reception to life by going out on the dance floor and demanding a song with a backbeat.”
But all of these questions and criticisms aren’t new. Comics fans have been either shouting them down, or repeating them for what feels like a, uh, uh, really long time. What matters now is whether or not the next big budget spectacular will be assembled with more care than Infinity War. Because more is surely on the way as box office records are already being decimated. More can be more, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Russos and their peers picked up a copy of Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and learned how to make the framing of a scene serve a character or narrative-based function? That may sound like a Pollyannaish request, but the book’s called Making Movies for a reason: it doesn’t matter what type of film you’re making–the fundamental principles still apply.