Pacing and editing in Infinity War

I can’t believe I am nearing the end of my Marvel journey. Although I am ready for more diversity in the movies I watch, my little project of watching and reviewing Marvel movies has been such fun. I didn’t immediately review a few movies towards the end and wasn’t very good about posting all reviews before Endgame released. And while I wish I had been better about that, distance from this project has made me better at understanding the nature of Marvel movies. A number of film nerds, particularly those who have read comic books, don’t like the formulaic nature of Marvel movies. I didn’t really mind that, especially because I was trying to understand the genre and dissect different elements in the movie. But now (after 23 movies!) I appreciate a movie like Infinity War much more for breaking the formula and giving the viewer a roller coaster ride.

Writing a film with over twenty protagonists is no easy task. Don’t expect to understand all or even a few of them by the end of this film if you are not familiar with the Marvel universe already. Infinity War is one of two Marvel movies that doesn’t work as a standalone film. I hadn’t watched Guardians of the Galaxy when I first saw Infinity War. I doubt I had watched Ragnarok. And I remember not enjoying the movie and wondering what the hype was all about. Oh, how wrong I was! Once I was familiar with the characters, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its run time.

What struck me most about Infinity War (other than the ability to weave multiple stories into one mega-narrative) was the pacing of this film. Infinity War starts with full force. There is no time to get settled in and take stock of what is happening either for the audience or for our protagonists. This conveys a sense of urgency that lingers for the entirety of the film. Everyone just has to react to the situation in front of them. In this fast-paced movie our favourite superheroes seem to be in a constant state of struggle, with their heads just above the water. As a viewer, I have seen them struggle in previous films but they have always come out on top. This time, their victories are small, and come with a sense of desperation. As if there is another fire just waiting to be put out. For instance, we see Ironman, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange struggling to protect the Time Stone aboard Maw’s spaceship. While together they are able to match up to the far more powerful Maw, there is no time to relax or take a breath. The film cuts to Scotland where Vision is attacked and it is up to Wanda – and later, Cap, Falcon and Black Widow – to protect him. The audience is now exposed to another action sequence within minutes of the first. The non-stop action distinguishes Infinity War from the films that have come before it.

This kind of pacing – short, intense action sequences ending in small victories before moving on to the next challenge – is also instrumental in subverting audience expectations and making the film’s climax shocking. This is because, after a while I got used to the fast pace and small victories in the film. Furthermore, the superheroes, though down on their luck, don’t seem defeated. I mean, Thor took the power of a star to make Stormbreaker, arrived in Wakanda like an absolute badass and struck Thanos in the heart. So, when Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the population of the universe, with the superheroes scattered and defeated in different parts of the universe, I was left more than a little stunned. This is the first time that the heroes have failed in their mission.

Apart from the pacing, film is made so that the sense of shock lingers on right until the post-credit scene. Thanos’ snap doesn’t cut to a black screen followed by credits. We see our favourite superheroes turn to dust. We see Ironman’s horrified expression (and we share that horror) when we hear Spidey say, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good… I don’t want to die.” We see resignation on the faces of the survivors when they realise they have failed, and that their failure has wiped out half of all life in the universe. They, along with everyone else, have lost people they loved. This is further compounded by the next scene, wherein we see Thanos retire like he said he would. We see him alone, calm, walking through empty green fields, believing he did the right thing and that the universe was grateful to him. That genocide was his mercy to the universe. That wordless scene, seemingly calm in its setting, makes the end even more eerie. Furthermore, I think the credits make it such that we cannot snap out of that feeling soon. So far, MCU movies have half the credits shown in a stylised manner with fun music to accompany it. Not this film. The film’s grim tone is carried forward through the design of its credits – a black screen with formal font. The film manages to show what Doctor Strange says after handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, namely, “we’re in the endgame now.”

To me, the form of the film is what made Infinity War special. It helped me understand how constructing a scene and editing can help steer the viewer’s emotions and expectations. Most of my reviews so far have been focused on writing and character development. Perhaps because I am only beginning to understand filmmaking as an art. I think this film is my cue to pay closer attention to editing and understanding the elements that go into constructing a scene.

Before I sign off, I must make a note about Thor’s character in this film. I think it is safe to say that of all the superheroes, Thor gets the strongest part in the film. A lot of that, I think, is owing to how the character was written in Ragnarok. At the beginning of this film, we have a character who has found himself but lost everything of worth to him. Thanos kills all the Asgardians aboard the spaceship along with his best friend, Heimdall and his brother, Loki. The Russo brothers do a fantastic job in using Thor’s arc in Ragnarok as a base and taking the character forward. He is still funny in this movie. But we can see that it is more to cover up his pain than anything. The scene between Thor and Rocket on the way to Nidavellir conveys this perfectly. Thor jokes about losing every person he ever loved. The scene is funny but also horrifying. With a realisation of his power, and nothing to live for except revenge, Thor comes the closest to defeating Thanos. The viewer, in turn, wants to see Thor come out on top as the towering hero. His entry in Wakanda is epic. But it isn’t only because of the stylised entry and his blow with the Stormbreaker. It is because of a close understanding of character and careful writing to carry him forward.

Before Endgame, Infinity War was probably the boldest movie in the MCU. It is no easy task to write a coherent, compelling story that follows narratives and characters across 18 movies and then present that story convincingly to a hungry audience. But Infinity War manages to deliver an entertainer that turns the Marvel formula on its head without relying on clichés (perhaps because it doesn’t rely on clichés). So, do yourself a favour, and watch this movie (or watch it again). Ponder on the journey it takes you through. You will not be disappointed.

Advertisements

Captain America: The Winter Solider – Exploring the Limits of Neorealism

This Captain America movie? So much better than the one before it. Captain America’s character is written so that it fits in with the Idea of America. But in this film, rather than being self-righteous, America is being self-critical and cautious. This prevents the character from becoming a stereotype, and makes him rounded. As a result, he responds much more organically to the story which is what makes the film memorable. Captain America is working for SHIELD now, an international security organisation. When SHIELD is compromised, its Director, Nick Fury, approaches the Captain to help save the organisation’s secrets and thwart any attempt at mischief. The rest of the movie is about the Captain assembling a team to uncover the traitors within SHIELD.

I guess the only infuriating thing about the film was that Captain America didn’t take the one order Fury gave him, and what circumstances suggested he follow – don’t trust anyone. Instead he proceeds to form a team with Black Widow, Falcon and Agent Maria Hill in order to save the Earth. However, I think it would have been nearly impossible to have a Captain America movie otherwise. After all, the Captain does need an army he can lead. But this film went beyond the image of Captain America and explored the person behind the costume. Captain America was designed to fight the battles of the state without question. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, can ask tough questions (even to those in power). In addition to demonstrating that he’s more than a pawn, Captain America exposes the problem with a purely neorealist understanding of security.

Neorealism, in the most reductive sense, suggests that the natural order of the world is anarchy. And power is the currency of international relations. States, in order to survive, must strive to procure as much power as possible. Power, in the case, is measured by military superiority. So, the most powerful state in the international system is one with the most powerful military capability.

How does this relate to Captain America, you ask? Well, as Secretary of State, Alexander Pierce admits that he and Fury share a realist understanding of the world. That it is necessary to remain ready to fight at all times, even if that means pre-emptively striking potential enemy targets. In this case, the struggle for power is only not between states but against alien threats as well. To that effect, Fury commissioned three helicarriers with hundreds of jets capable of striking hostile forces. A neorealist understanding of international relations would laud such policy. But the Captain recognises this policy for what it is – the powerful holding a gun to everyone’s heads and calling it security.

Amassing weapons indiscriminately, ironically, can have adverse implications for security, as the film goes on to show. HYDRA, previously the deep science division of the Nazis, which later morphed into a worldwide terrorist organisation, had infiltrated SHIELD, and planned to use the weapons to kill millions of people and restore order to what they considered anarchy. Captain America’s solution was not only to foil HYDRA’s plans, but to dismantle the structures (albeit to a small extent) that subscribe to neorealist understandings of power. He calls for the dismantling of SHIELD to increase transparency and reduce temptation to develop advanced weapons programmes.

Captain America’s image promotes a much more positive Idea of America. This America is interested in cooperation and transparency, rather than amassing power. It stands against any party using power to bully the rest of the world, even in face of unimaginable threats. That endears the audience to the character and what he represents. Add to that a well-written story, and you’ve got yourself a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Captain America and the Idea of America

At the very outset, let me start by stating that Captain America is probably my least favourite superhero. He is too overly patriotic and too old fashioned for me, and his fighting prowess doesn’t do much to make up for his personality. That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is actually a good movie. Set in the early 1940s, Captain America is an experiment by the US government to develop a supersoldier in order to help win World War II. The period and setting of the plot explain the patriotism and the predominance of male characters. This stopped me from rolling my eyes and actually concentrating on the protagonist.

Captain America has all the trimmings of a traditional superhero, but he is different in one crucial aspect – the character was written as a part of US propaganda during World War II and hasn’t been able to shake off the remnants of propaganda since. This is because Captain America isn’t just another superhero or even just a great soldier. He represents the Idea of America. He is the image of the US that the latter wants to portray to the world. And the writers have kept this in mind while constructing the character for the film. Georg Lofflmann, a professor of US Foreign Policy and American Politics at the University of Warwick, has expressed this idea in his PhD thesis, “The Fractured Consensus: How competing visions of grand strategy challenge the geopolitical identity of American leadership under the Obama presidency.” He argues, “Captain America [in his costume of stars and stripes] doesn’t just fight for America, he also is America (emphasis mine).” Therefore, a close observation of the movie can help us get some insight into how the US wishes to be seen in the world.

Let us start with Captain America’s origins. Steve Rogers is the literal embodiment of the American Dream. Before he became Captain America, Rogers was just another kid from Brooklyn. He wasn’t born with Tony Stark’s privilege or didn’t grow up with Black Widow’s training. He certainly wasn’t a god like Thor. Rogers was written as a man who believed that he had the ability to become whatever he wanted if only he went after it and worked hard enough – the literal definition of the American Dream. In the film his passion and perseverance turn a scrawny kid into the light-haired, light-eyed supersoldier who had the potential to win the war for the US.

Next, let us look at the supporting cast. When he realises that he needs to assemble an army to fight the Nazis, particularly to defeat their deep science division, Hydra. The Captain’s army comprises of people of different nationalities, cultures and races. People who otherwise would have been treated as refugees, having just been freed from an enemy camp. But Captain America takes them all under his wing and they become a part of his team. The banding together of different peoples is a metaphor for the US being a melting pot of different cultures domestically, and a capable leader of different nations internationally. These are both images that the US wants to project about itself (at least in part), and the film does that effectively.

Lastly, Captain America’s superpowers are an explanation for American exceptionalism, the idea that the US is not like every other country in the world. The idea, according to Lofflmann stresses the “singularity, superiority and essentiality of the United States in the international system.” Captain America has his powers because he got injected with a serum, but the serum only amplified what was already true of Rogers, that he was a good man and a strong soldier. The same serum when injected in the body of America’s enemies turns them into monsters, like Red Skull, the principal antagonist of the film. Captain America’s powers are therefore a justification for maintaining American military superiority because it perpetuates the idea that the US has the values to handle power, unlike its enemies that will only use power for destruction.

So where does that leave us? Clearly propaganda cannot be separated from Captain America. What will be interesting to watch in subsequent films (particularly after this viewing and analysis) will be how the character who is the personification of America interacts with other characters with different motivations. In the films that follow, I will be paying particular attention to this factor.