by Derek May:
YIN: Avengers: Infinity War
I think it’s important to keep in mind that nothing like this has ever happened before. Nineteen movies over ten years, all building up to a single, major payoff while still allowing each individual film to hold its own identity while serving the larger scope. Sure there have been franchises that have gone on longer (e.g Bond) or those that have told sweeping arcs (Star Wars), but never have we seen such focused continuity over such a relatively short span, retaining nearly all its cast members—major and minor—and, most impressively, maintaining such an astoundingly high level of quality over that period. I certainly haven’t loved every Marvel film (I still cringe just thinking about Iron Man 2!), but even at its worst, this cinematic franchise remains unprecedented. So now that it’s all come to a head, has it pulled off the impossible?
Yes. Hell yes.
I’m not going to spoil anything here, that would be too massive a disservice to film and fans alike, but I can say that Infinity War certainly lives up to the hype and expectation, delivering on just about every level possible. Is it perfect? No. There are some legitimate quibbles, but they are ultimately far outweighed by the excellence of the whole.
Let’s start with the big purple elephant in the room: the villain. If there’s been on consistent criticism of Marvel movies over the past decade it’s its lack of strong villains. To their credit though, they’ve listened carefully to the feedback and made the necessary course corrections of late. While Loki was often the sole bright spot amongst Whiplashes, Mandarins, and Ultrons, lately we’ve seen a sharp uptick with the likes of Vulture and Kilmonger. But the one baddie we’ve been waiting on is literally the biggest of them all—Thanos. And wow, does he deliver. What we get is not only a strong and powerful performance from Josh Brolin (soon to be seen in my other favorite non-MCU franchise Deadpool!) providing a hefty, believable dose of menace and overwhelming will to succeed, but also a surprisingly touching and empathetic layer of emotion. Like all great villains, Thanos truly believes he’s doing the right thing, that his actions are a benefit to the universe, and he pities those who can’t see it. He understands the price such actions extract, and is not just willing to pay it, but willing to endure the pain of that cost for the rest of his life. As much as we want our heroes to defeat him, we also have enough understanding to feel sorrow at his misguidance and pity at what must eventually be his fate. As much fun as it is to see our motley crew of champions unite onscreen, the movie simply could not work unless Thanos is truly worthy of such a confluence. Fortunately, and somewhat unbelievably, he is. He’s a true threat, while being a true character. In a movie full of scene stealers, it may not be an exaggeration to say he steals the film. How’s that for villainy?
On the other side we have our squad of do-gooders ready to step up and save the universe. A film sporting this many cast members simply couldn’t function at the outset if we just threw then all into the same room, so it was both smart and practical for directors Joe and Anthony Russo to split them up into teams. Practicalities aside, this is still a risk, as not every matchup may work, but once again they seem to have pulled magic out of both the most likely and unlikely of pairings. If you’ve seen any pictures, posters, or t-shirts, you pretty much know who sides with who, so it’s not a revelation here to talk about some of these matchings. Let’s start with Doctor Strange and Iron Man. Since his solo film, everyone’s talked about the obvious personality similarities between Strange and Stark, so it was a stroke of genius to get these two together as soon as possible and see how the comparisons truly hold up. The dynamic between the two illustrates that it is their similarities as much as their differences that is the source of much clever banter and ribbing. It also serves not only to carry the story but also one of the major themes of the MCU that just because heroes team up doesn’t mean they are on the same side. And of course, Stark spends plenty of time with his young sidekick Spiderman, continuing their father/son relationship so brilliantly established in Spiderman: Homecoming. Young Spidey is wonderful as the hero ready and willing to step up, but whose enthusiasm clouds his comprehension of the dangers at hand.
One of the most unlikely groupings has to be Thor with Rocket and Groot. They are on their own side mission to stop Thanos, albeit for far different reasons. But the personalities inexplicably gel. The lighter Thor we saw in Ragnarok remains, though heavily tinged now with the pain of loss, affording Hemsworth of the best scenes he’s delivered in the past decade, full of wrought emotion and vulnerability. Rocket also picks up on the development he earned through the course of Guardians 2, irascible as ever but a little more empathetic and willing to actually embrace his better nature. Groot, while seemingly saddled with one-note teenage apathy, has a small but well-realized arc into heroics that happily elevates him to purpose though keeps him well shy of his scene-stealing past.
What may or may not be the biggest emotional surprise in the film is the confrontation between Gamora and Thanos. We knew this was coming to a head, but what really was going to happen when these two came face to face again was anyone’s guess. It’s hard to say I’m “happy” with how it turns out given how it actually does turn out, but “painfully satisfying” may be the best description. It’s honest, and brings both characters well-earned depth that really raises the stakes of the film as well as shaking everything to the core.
In one way or another, Thanos affects everyone in the film, including Quill facing some impossible choices, T-Challa having to defend his country and his world, Vision on the run, risking his very existence and his budding romance with Scarlet Witch established in Civil War, and the surprising dynamic between Hulk and Banner which has continued its evolution in a way I think no one could have foreseen. And really, that’s one of the most impressive successes of this film: over the past ten years, showcasing either single installments or multiple sequels, each of the characters has changed. And none of those changes have been ignored or forgotten. While each character remains true to themselves at their core, these aren’t just action figures dropped into a set piece. They are ever-changing people. And none of the past, may it be progressions or transgressions, have been forgotten. But that’s ok, because we still have a movie to go, and the Russos obviously have plenty of conflict left to mine in the next installment.
What that next film will be is anyone’s guess. Given the way this one ends and the MCU films that have already been announced, we can put two and two together and safely assume that some of what happens in Infinity War may not be set in stone. There are a few threads from previous films that have yet to be tied up, both story- and relationship-wise. While the producers may be loathe to think of Avengers 3 & 4 as two parts of the same whole, as of now I think we have no choice but to do just that. While Infinity War can stand alone, it cannot stand apart, and it’s gonna be one damn-long year to find out how this all will resolve, and what and who ends up surviving the chaos.
YANG: Tragedy Girls
If you’re a fan of clever dark comedies such as Heathers, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, or John Dies at the End, you’ll likely fall in love with this little gem of an indie. The recipe is a hodgepodge of genre mashups including comedy, horror, social satire, and even romance. Not an easy task to pull off, but somehow director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre succeeds in effortlessly blending these disparate sensibilities into a unique commentary on the youthful obsession with online fame and the dangers of modern apathy.
Comic movie aficionados may experience a giddy thrill in seeing Deadpool’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) teaming up with young X-Men Storm (Alexandra Shipp). And given the sparkling chemistry between the two, if we don’t get a buddy-teamup at some point in the future it’ll truly be a crime. But for now we’ll happily enjoy these two talented young thespians pair up as the duo behind the fictional “Tragedy Girls” online blog, which has been detailing a string of grisly murders across a small Midwest town. The twist, however, hits us right away as we learn these girls aren’t just reporting the murders… they’re helping commit them!
In a world where just about everyone has a blog, feed, channel, or profile desperate to draw in as many followers and re-followers as possible in order to boost themselves to fame and glory across the globe, competition for attention spans can be killer. And that’s exactly the extreme that MacIntyre brilliantly expounds on here, with our two “heroines” understanding in no uncertain terms that without endlessly salacious, provocative content, they will simply wither back into obscurity; a fate worse than death. And as the death toll rises to ever-bloodier heights, we get yet another layer of subversive commentary as MacIntyre turns the horror genre on its head by having the police and media actually rationalize this string of bizarre deaths as mere accidents. In a genre that characteristically has everyone immediately jumping to serial killer conclusions, it’s a brilliant and hilarious turn to have every cry, “Meh.”
Naturally, that can’t last forever—the girls make sure of that. And as they send the town to a boil and begin to summit the blog-o-sphere, we begin to delve deeper and deeper into the relationship and motivations between Hildebrand’s Sadie and Shipp’s McKayla. This is really where special props must be given, since the spectacle of murderous mayhem is all well and good, but without characters to care about, it’s easy for a film to quickly crumble into tedium. But both stars are so engaging, and the characters so well-defined, that we indeed find ourselves sympathizing, and even rooting for, our little psychopaths. In the grand tradition of Hannibal and Dexter, the girls ingratiate themselves to us with their sheer zeal and plucky determination. Compound that with some lovable growing pains and missteps along the way and we’ll happy follow these young ladies down their maniacal rabbit hole.
But the heart of the film resides in the truly loving bond between Sadie and McKayla. Their platonic but deeply passionate connection evokes a classic romantic comedy trope, with the girls seemingly on cloud nine, hand-in-bloody-hand until internal and external forces tear them apart, and only their realization that together they can overcome anything do they finally resolve to reunite and bring their final vision to light. If that sounds a bit hokey, then that’s exactly the point. MacIntyre really threads the line, never going too far into farce or absurdity, keeping both the gory mayhem as well as the saccharine love story just shy of trite. Much of this is due to the performances, not only of our two leads but of the entire cast, who all appear to be having an absolute blast.
Like social media, horror films are practically a dime a dozen, and more often than not aren’t worth the time or trouble. Equally true, without an epic hook and likable subjects, we’re quick to simply move on to the next offering. Tragedy Girls gets this in a refreshingly unique way, and with a sort of meta-level insight, delivers a film that is both the message and the medium.