Avengers: Infinity War

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlatt Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


There’s a certain narrative that studios like to spin when a high-profile movie, oftentimes a comic book blockbuster, underperforms. If the movie in question has taken a beating in the critical consensus, studios like to dismiss the validity of the criticism by claiming that they “made it for the fans”. This is a garbage argument; not only is it an attempt by Hollywood to fabricate a divide between critics and fans to ensure that they aren’t held accountable for making mediocre movies that fail to resonate with audiences, it makes no sense from a purely economic perspective. It falsely suggests that the studio has no interest in pulling a larger crowd from beyond the core fanbase and maximising their profits. This is one of the reasons why I find Infinity War to be such an interesting case in the evolution of the blockbuster, because I think it is the exception that proves the rule. After their ten year campaign to build as large and inclusive a fanbase as possible, the MCU have released a title that appeals directly to them and that only works if you’ve seen and enjoyed all (well… most) of the eighteen films that came before. This is truly a movie that was made for the fans.

Therefore, even though I’ve criticised some of the Marvel movies in the past for neglecting to tell entirely self-contained stories, I don’t think it’s fair to hold this film to the same standard. Infinity War is a crossover event of unprecedented proportions; it is the culmination of all that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built in the last decade and it fuses all of their flagship characters into a single narrative. There is so much to bring together and so much happening in this movie that expecting it to slow down for those who have not watched the preceding titles in order to bring them up to speed on all the characters and their histories strikes me as ludicrous a notion as it would be for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Game of Thrones Season Eight. Eighteen movies is a big ask for anyone who isn’t a fan of the franchise and that’s why I don’t think the studio was under any illusion that they were making this movie for anybody outside of the fanbase, which by this point has grown large enough to justify an investment on this scale. For those non-fans who feel that they must see this film all the same, I honestly don’t know what they expect to get out of it. Infinity War is a film that knows exactly who it was made for and for them it’s going to work very well indeed.

The film is 160 minutes long and it hits the ground running. There is so much action condensed in the runtime and so many big moments throughout that pretty much every detail feels like a potential spoiler. On the broadest possible level, the plot is about the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) in his quest to collect the six Infinity Stones with his gauntlet. Only when he’s acquired all six will he be able to realise his goal of wiping out half of the universe’s populace, his solution to the problem of galactic depletion and imbalance. Standing in his way are the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Helping them along the way are such previous allies and adversaries as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and such newcomers as Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Guardians of the Galaxy as led by Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). What follows is an epic and devastating conflict, an earth-shattering spectacle on the scale of an opera or a Greek tragedy. Worlds are destroyed, lives are ruined, tears are shed, and heroes are killed.

The film wisely makes Thanos, the one major character who has not received any substantial character development in any of the previous films, its main focus. We follow him on his apocalyptic journey across the galaxy and, in large part due to Brolin’s remarkably forceful yet quiet performance, we learn to both fear and yet pity him in what he sees as a calling rather than a desire. Unlike the Joker and most other comic book villains who absolutely relish their evilness, Thanos is more like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He isn’t evil because he wants to be or was made to be but because he feels like that he has to be, as if he cannot see any other way and has resigned himself. He has the devotion and conviction of a religious zealot but also the calm and solemnity of a disciplined military leader. He attends to his mission with ruthless single-mindedness; he has no interest in trying to convince or bargain with anyone, what he must do is simply what has to happen and he will destroy all who stand in his way without a second thought. You hate him because of how merciless and cruel he is but there’s an air of inconsolable loneliness and trepidation about him that Brolin conveys superbly without overplaying. His strength and powers are absolute and there is no doubting that he is the biblical reckoning that many of the characters have been dreading all this time.

The inevitable downside of featuring an ensemble this large in a narrative that is somewhat constricted by the limitations of linear cause-and-effect storytelling is that there’s only so much screen time and dialogue it can dole out between the dozens of characters that it must juggle. Some of this is compensated by the fact that we’ve already seen these characters in their stories and can immediately identify them, so most of them can more or less get straight down to business. Homecoming has already established the mentor/trainee relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, the Thor movies have already laid the groundwork for Thor’s PTSD, and Guardians of the Galaxy has already made clear to us Gamora’s and Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) history with Thanos. However there are other characters and plot threads that must take a backseat in order to make room for these stories. Steve Rogers gets a couple dozen lines, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, who had a romance in Age of Ultron, barely get a meaningful exchange, and there are some rather important characters such as Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) who could almost be considered glorified extras.

One of the pleasures of the crossover though is that we do get to see some great mixing and matching between the characters without pre-existing relationships. The combination of the ultra masculine Thor and the insecure Peter Quill allows for an amusing back-and-forth and Thor also gets to bond with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) with whom he shares more in common than you might think. Stark and Strange are acquainted and find that their identically obnoxious personalities clash, there’s a surprise appearance by the villain of a previous film who makes for an interesting contrast with Thanos, and there are some brief exchanges during the climatic battle that make for some great laughs. However I do wish the Russo Brothers had made more of an effort to combine the heroes’ differing abilities and styles in the action scenes the way they did so well in Civil War. Apart from one moment where Natasha, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) work together to take down a foe and another where a plan to subdue Thanos almost works, I can’t remember any other notable instances of a character combination leading to an action set-piece that would not be possible in any other MCU film. Instead it mostly comes to down to individual heroes doing their own solo stuff in turn.

On that note, the action doesn’t really feel all that distinctive from what we’ve seen in other movies, especially not after Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther which were both made by directors with such distinct personalities and styles. Here it’s mostly shaky camerawork and quick-fire editing just like in any other blockbuster while the less action-packed scenes are framed rather generically with hardly any risky moves or striking flourishes to help the most impactful moments hit that little bit harder. There are some moments that stand out such as a wipe that cleverly reveals a scene to be an illusion conjured by Thanos and the use of slow motion during the climax to highlight the Avengers’ last-ditch desperation, but the filmmaking mostly feels routine and by-the-numbers. The most notable exception though is the ending which delivers a gut-punch with the exact right amount of shock and severity to catch you off guard even if you know intellectually in your head that what’s happening cannot possibly be permanent or irreversible (as tends to be the case with most cliffhangers). It’s a move that goes a step further than The Empire Strikes Back by not offering you that glimmer of hope at the end to leave you feeling elated and optimistic. Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke learns that the bad guy is his father and has his hand cut off, Vader is triumphant, cut to black. All you’re left with is that feeling of desolation and failure.

For most fans of Marvel, Infinity War is exactly what they want it to be. It brings together all the iconic characters they’ve grown to love (sans a couple whose absences are quickly explained in a throwaway sentence), pits them against the single greatest foe that any of them have ever faced, and delivers some good action, comedy, and surprises along the way. It’s not perfect and it’s not the most creative, clever, or compelling movie they’ve ever made, but it delivers. For me what really makes this film stand out among its predecessors is the combination of Thanos’ arc with Josh Brolin’s performance. He took a villain who has been built up big time despite his previous underwhelming appearances and added so much terror and humanity (aided by the best use of CGI on a character since Gollum) that you cannot help but be swept away by his crusade. Even though you can probably more or less predict how the story will progress, there’s still that agonising sense of dread gnawing away at you with each step that brings Thanos closer to bringing his plan to fruition. He’s the rare type of villain who is at his most intimidating when quiet and who demonstrates an unexpected capacity for respect and empathy when battling his enemies. He’s the one it’s all been leading to and he was worth the wait.

★★★★

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Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★

Urban Hymn

Cast: Letitia Wright, Shirley Henderson, Isabella Laughland, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Writer: Nick Moorcroft


When I saw this film being screened at the Glasgow Film Festival there was a Q&A afterwards with the director Michael Caton-Jones and some of the film’s stars. During this Q&A a point was raised by an audience member about how British cinema has often told the stories of outsiders and provided voices for those who often went unheard. Such is the subject of Urban Hymn. The young offenders featured in this film are amongst those who are often written off by society. Due to the hard lives they’ve lived, they carry much anger and animosity that they are unable to express in a healthy way. Their actions therefore inspire hostility and rejection when what they need is compassion and understanding. Without anybody to help them and to believe in them, they are doomed to pursue paths of indifference and self-destruction. This is why their stories need to be told.

Following the 2011 UK summer riots Kate Linton (Shirley Henderson) gets a job as a social worker for troubled children in a home. Two of the girls there are Jamie Harrison (Letitia Wright) and Leanne Dixon (Isabella Laughland), both of whom act out against their carers. They spend their nights drinking, doing drugs and committing crimes that frequently get them into trouble with the police. While Leanne, the more aggressive of the two, serves a term for one of these crimes, Kate takes the opportunity to try and reach out to Jamie. After hearing her sing and learning of her passion for music, Kate invites Jamie to try out for the community choir. Having become a part of something that actually makes her happy and where she is praised and accepted by others, Jamie starts working to commit herself towards a brighter future. Her friendship with Leanne however threatens to destroy whatever chance she might have.

I think my main issue with this film is that I’ve seen it before. It tells the story of a troubled youth from a tough background who possesses a talent that allows him or her to find inspiration and fulfilment. However, unlike Good Will Hunting or Billy Elliot, this story belongs to a girl and is refreshing because of it. Her perspective allows the film to tell this story in a different way which doesn’t feel tired or routine. The familiar beats are all still there but they haven’t been worn-out because the story now belongs to a character we haven’t seen before. Jamie has the same aggressive temperament as many of the characters depicted in these kinds of stories but also shows herself to be caring and protective of the children sharing the home with her. When one boy gets attacked by a bully, she steps right in and intervenes. When one girl comes into her room after having a bad dream, she lets her stay in her bed. She also remains steadfastly loyal to Leanne, even when she brings out the worst in her and holds her back from reaching her potential.

Although this film is Jamie’s first and foremost, Kate also has a story to tell. She has known tragedy in her life and helping these children is her way of dealing with it. When she discovers that Jamie is gifted with a beautiful singing voice and learns more about her background, she takes it upon herself to help her realise her potential and to help open the doors that Jamie always thought were closed to her. Again, it’s a story that’s been done but still manages to feel fresh in large part due to Henderson’s sublime performance. Leanne is by far the film’s most singular character. This is a character who doesn’t have the trust or the self-worth to believe that she can make a better life for herself. She has resigned herself to a life of neglect, rejection and incarceration and so has given up caring what happens to her. The one thing she does care about is her friendship with Jamie and refuses to let anything come between them. Laughland is absolutely ferocious in this role.

While the film did feel familiar to me it still had enough charm to draw me in and engage me. The film also manages to convey a sense of authenticity through the setting of the 2011 riots, a cameo by Billy Bragg as himself and most of all through these authentic characters and the believable performances of the actors playing them. Best of all is the music which provides Jamie with moments of true happiness, belonging and freedom. Her journey and growth as a character is the heart of this story and Letitia Wright sells every single second of it. During this Q&A she spoke about how this film is somebody’s story which was why it was so important to her to give as honest a performance as she could. Urban Hymn is a touching and honest film with a story that, while familiar, is nevertheless moving.

★★★★