Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

*spoilers below!*

Where to begin?  Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of nineteen films and ten years work on the MCU.  It’s had the biggest opening weekend in history and made $1billion in 11 days.

Curious then that in many ways, this film shouldn’t work.  The plot is mad, there are too many characters to keep track of, and the story is still only half finished.

And yet…

You cannot judge this as a standalone film, because it simply isn’t one.  At this point, if you haven’t seen most of the Marvel movies, you’re going to miss out on so much of what this film has to offer.  And if you haven’t seen any of them, you may as well not bother with this at all.  But anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the story so far is in for a real treat.

The looming menace of Thanos the Destroyer finally comes to the fore, as our antagonist tears across the universe looking for the Infinity Stones.  These little gems possess astonishing power, and anyone who gathers all six will be able to remake creation itself.  Which is a problem, because Thanos has a mad scheme to restore ‘balance’ by destroying half of all life in the universe.  Our scattered heroes gather forces to stop him, but will they be able to? And at what cost?

The first thing you notice is the sheer number of characters – look how mad that poster is! The film is packed to the gills, yet it’s incredibly efficient.  The dialogue sparkles, and a lot of work is done by simply putting these disparate people in a room together.   Thor meeting the Guardians is pure gold. Hilarious, but also tells you a lot about who they are. Quill’s insecurity and immaturity both reveal themselves and hint at his later, massive screw up.  Thor is shattered but determined.  Drax is adorable.  The meeting of Tony and Dr Strange is also a high point, as the two biggest egos on earth collide. Okoye reigns supreme, though.  She only has about six lines, yet every one is a zinger, and her loyal, focussed, practical personality shines through.

It’s rare for a film to handle the broad strokes and yet still keep an eye for the details.  There’s a lot of big space stuff here, and it all looks marvellous: a forge powered by a neutron star, the ruined splendour of Titan, a haunting and desolate Vormir.  The earth-bound locations are brilliant too, and the battle of Wakanda was particularly stirring.  Yet it’s the little moments that linger:  Tony telling Peter he’s an Avenger now,  Cap introducing himself to Groot,  Thor’s triumphant return to Earth.  By turns funny, sweet, sad, or just awesome it’s these tiny sparks that hold up the story, and keep it real.

With so much on its plate, the film still maintains a lovely sense of pace and rhythm, with shifts in tone handled beautifully.  It shows an awareness of just how silly it all is, ‘He’s from space.  He came to steal a rock from a wizard.’ and has plenty of laugh out loud moments (Okoye’s look when the Banner-bot trips was a particular highlight).  There’s also a real sense of urgency, as our rag tag heroes scramble to get it together against the increasingly powerful Thanos .  Yet, the film avoids feeling overstuffed, despite all the frantic running around, because it gives itself time to breathe.  Those quieter emotional exchanges keep us involved, and quietly build up to that gut punch of an ending.

Character development is both a strength and a weakness.  Across the film itself, growth is hard to find, as there just isn’t time.  This is where looking at the big picture is rewarded, because when you consider how much people have changed since we first encountered them, you really do feel that you’re seeing the culmination of something special.  Decisions have real weight because we know what these guys have been though to get here.   Thor, once so unthinkingly destructive and arrogant is now humbled and humanised by loss, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the universe.  Cocksure Tony is now an unwilling father figure and all too aware of how badly outgunned he is.  He flits around desperately trying to fathom out new allies and past feuds in order to offer some tangible resistance to Thanos.  His kit is as nifty as ever, but he looks so tired! Even Banner is struggling, trying to convey the seriousness of the incoming threat as Hulk refuses (quite sensibly) to even put in an appearance.

I could go on.  Not a scene nor a word is wasted in this more than two and half hour movie.  It’s clear that over the past 10 years, everyone involved in the Marvel movies has really honed their craft.  This is a film that knows what it’s doing, and how it fits into an over-arching scheme.  I did worry that with so much riding on it, things might all feel a bit mechanical; hitting all the right notes, but without the charm of the earlier films.  So I was really pleased to see that the story was not afraid to take risks.  It avoids making Thanos a one-note villain, instead allowing his motivation and relationship with his daughters to come through.  It also shows itself willing to make real changes as previously impervious characters are placed in real peril.  Not to mention that ending!  How many blockbusters end with a universe-encompassing genocide?  It’s bold, to say the least.  And every heart in the cinema cracked at Peter’s last words.

Or are they last words?  We’ve only seen the first half of the story, after all, and time travel is possible…

What did you think?  Did you predict where the Soul Stone would be?  Do you think the deaths are permanent?  How are you killing time ‘til Infinity Gauntlet is released?  As always, let me know!

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The Sandman Vol. 1 (Preludes and Nocturnes), Neil Gaiman

An occultist in Edwardian England attempts to call forth and imprison Death in order to become immortal.  Instead, he lands himself with Death’s little brother, Morpheus – Lord of Dreams- and neither of them are too happy about it.  Initially published as eight separate issues, this is the first collection in The Sandman series, arguably one of the most successful and influential graphic novels ever written.  With very little knowledge of the form, and no expectations whatsoever, I dived straight in- and was delighted.

What struck me first was the collections’ unusual structure.  Obviously, each issue has its own story arc, but each one also acts as a chapter in the larger narrative structure of the collection.  And while the collection itself ended with a resolution of sorts, I was intrigued to learn more about how this first collection fitted into the overall Sandman story, as well as how this structuring would dictate plot and characterisation.

Right from the off, The Sandman is very concerned with stories and the power of stories.  Dreams are the source of imagination, and inspiration, and aspiration.  Dreams are not bounded by space or time.  The ideas and stories that dreams gestate don’t just consider where we are and where we come from, but where we can go.  Morpheus states that he is the true power in Hell, because ‘what power would Hell have if those imprisoned [t]here were not able to dream of heaven?’  But dreams by themselves are not enough to sustain existence or effect change in the universe.  Dreams are just the start, they must be acted on, made use of, if they are to have any power.  People literally dream their lives away here, with a strong parallel drawn with drug abuse.  But dreams are a rejection of the established order of things.  Dreams are the start of change.  By the end of this collection, Morpheus himself learns that change is not only inevitable, but necessary.

There are diverse influences at work here, including references to Greek and Norse mythology, tropes from literature, quotes from Shakespeare, characters from the Bible and the DC universe.  There is a giddiness to this range of references which is both erudite and charming.  It’s cheeky and a bit mad, but it works.  The stories too show an impressive variety, from a fresh yet familiar vision of hell, to a modern horror set entirely in a US diner.  While they each stand alone, I found myself rattling through each story, eager to discover what Morpheus would encounter next.

While the shifts in tone and setting can be a little disorientating, there was a wonderful sense of possibility, a gleeful disregard for any pre-established order here that was really quite exhilarating.  Perhaps this is more common in graphic novels/comics, than in novels, so it could merely be my ignorance talking, but I thought it was bold and, invariably, well handled.  I particularly enjoyed Morpheus’ encounter with grumpy detective John Constantine.

Characterisation was also solid.  The Lord of Dreams is a gloomy soul – understandable perhaps, after 70 years in prison – whereas Death is sparky and warm.  There’s a lovely exchange between them where she wonders why people find her so terrifying- after all, dreaming is surely more dreadful than dying? While Morpheus is very much the focus, we do get pleasing little snippets from some of those he encounters.   Cain and Abel – brilliantly twisted, doomed to play out the oldest story again and again until the end of time. Constantine makes a wry little greeting to London before he sets off to work.  An old man asks for time to say the Shma before Death wings him away.  Not because he was particularly religious, but because his Dad told him to.  People find comfort in the familiar, I suppose.

The art work was excellent.  I particularly enjoyed the cover pages by Dave McKean, but there were plenty of striking images from Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg.  Satan looks like Tilda Swinton with bat wings, and Morpheus himself bears a striking resemblance to Gaiman.  It may seem obvious, but I enjoyed how the construction of the images gave a real sense of movement and personality to the characters, and added to the momentum of the story.  So the deranged Dr. John Dee is often half hidden in shadow, isolated or uncomfortably framed.  When Morpheus interrogates the Maiden, Mother and Crone, their answers roll down the page, not across, forcing you to slow down and consider the answers.  It’s both efficient and effective – saying so much without saying anything at all.

The story structure itself also works well, leaving you with the best of both worlds:  the pleasing resolution of Morpheus regaining his autonomy, and the desire to see what he gets up to next.  The Lord of Dreams has completed his quest and regained his former strength.  But he has been forever altered by the experience, and travelled through a vast and glorious, and partly ruined universe, which establishes an expectation of further adventures.  And as Morpheus eventually meets up with his sister Death, there is also the suggestion that we may in future encounter the rest of the Endless…

Smart, warm and irreverent, this first collection is a brilliant introduction to both The Sandman saga and the world of graphic novels.   I’ve already ordered the next collection in the series – surely there’s no higher praise than that.

What did you think- is The Sandman as good as they say?  Have I made any glaring omissions?  Are you a graphic novel fan- any suggested reading for me?  Do let me know.