What defines a ‘must-see’ movie? And does ‘Infinity War’ make the cut?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/what-defines-a-must-see
BYby Ann Hornaday
May 10
From left, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Wong in “Avengers: Infinity War.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios/AP)
From left, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Wong in “Avengers: Infinity War.” (Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios/AP)

What defines a must-see movie?

The question became more than abstract this week when I faced a discomfiting truth. When a family emergency prevented me from seeing media previews of “Avengers: Infinity War,” I necessarily opted out of reviewing it. Even as mostly positive reviews poured in, followed by record-setting box-office figures, time-consuming domestic responsibilities trumped going out to the multiplex.

But now I’m home, back to normal (and, I’m happy to say, my ailing relative is rapidly on the mend). And I find that I have no desire to see “Infinity War,” despite the blandishments of critical and public praise.

This isn’t going to be a screed against the comic-book-industrial-complex that mainstream American movies have become, although no one can observe superhero domination without some degree of ambivalence, if not outright exhaustion. For the most part, I’ve been a fan of the Avengers movies, especially the stand-alone films centering on individual protagonists. Each has refined its own particular look, voice, tone and aesthetic to make the somberly retro atmospherics of the Captain America films utterly distinguishable from, say, the irreverent pastiche of the Thor series.

Generally well-written and cast with actors with serious dramatic and comedic chops, the Marvel universe of the Avengers and their foes has been superbly well-served, both by the stewardship of Disney and the individual writers and directors who have helped the franchise avoid staleness and self-seriousness, even as it approaches its 20th installment.

This has nothing to do with quality or with prejudging: I fully expect to enjoy “Infinity War” when I finally see it. So why am I resisting its irresistible vortex? What are those ineffable X-factors that go into creating a desire so overwhelming that not seeing a movie is tantamount to not living one’s best life?

Sheer volume is one issue: As with most superhero series, the overstuffed, gangs-all-here mash-ups are far longer, baggier and busier than the more fleet and streamlined stand-alones. I still have more vivid memories of 2008’s “Iron Man,” the revelatory adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. that got the whole ball rolling, than the two “Avengers” team-ups that appeared in 2012 and 2015, respectively. The dangers of a never-ending story is that a fair number of its chapters will be filler.

But even the most dutiful exercise in the management of sprawling serials can be substantive enough — both narratively and aesthetically — to transcend their roles in the larger whole to become imperative viewing as both pop-culture events and paradigm shifts: Witness “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther,” which imbued their respective origin stories with enough new ideas to qualify as genuinely groundbreaking, whether it was proving that a female superhero could carry a movie with as much assurance and charisma as a man, or that world-building norms based on African traditions, textures and perspectives are unquestionably universal in their reach and resonance.

Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” are undoubtedly must-see movies: To ignore them would have been to opt out of the conversational zeitgeist, declare sociocultural illiteracy, surrender one’s own claim to relevance. The same could be said for “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s sleeper hit from 2017, which tiptoed into theaters with minimal hype and became a self-made phenomenon, its themes of assimilation, racism and liberal hypocrisy aligning perfectly with its era of “woke” smugness and black lives that are over-policed, both literally and figuratively.

Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out.” (Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures) Tye Sheridan in “Ready Player One.” (Warner Bros. Pictures/AP)

As a horror film, “Get Out” exemplified not just a must-see movie, but also a must-see genre: Studios have always tried to lure viewers into theaters with ballyhoo, shock-ending gimmicks and supersize spectacle, but scary films are one of the few sure things left, their jump scares and sense of impending dread enhanced by being shared in a dark room with strangers (a principle proved most recently by the smash hit “A Quiet Place”).

Of course, the cognoscenti have their own versions of must-see films. The Cannes Film Festival, which got underway this week, acts as just such a tastemaker, identifying the year’s most important films from around the globe and inviting them to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. But the most galvanizing films of last year’s Cannes notably showed out of main competition. Two of the best, “The Rider” and “Let the Sunshine In,” were directed by women, which might explain how they were overlooked by the Cannes programmers. Arriving amid lively critiques of women’s roles on and off the screen in the entertainment industry, they earn must-see status if only as examples of the female gaze in action.

But mere topicality isn’t enough for a movie to qualify as must-see: Last year such fine films as “Detroit,” “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” and “LBJ” sought “must-see” status on the basis of being unusually attuned to our current era, with mostly disappointing results. However timely, even the best-crafted piece of cinema isn’t guaranteed to be artful or illuminating — or just plain entertaining — enough for average filmgoers to choose it as one of five or six movies they’ll see in a calendar year. (In terms of urgency, provocation and seamless artistry, this season’s must-see movie arguably isn’t a conventional movie at all, but Donald Glover’s” electrifying performance video for “This Is America.”)

The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s portrait of newspaper publisher Katharine Graham standing up to an overweening American president, a modest exception to the curse of highly touted topicality, a movie rushed into production as an of-the-moment cautionary tale of the Trump era that wound up being released just as the national conversation about sexism at the workplace was ramping up. Add a glorious performance by Meryl Streep, a seasoned supporting cast (including Tom Hanks), Spielberg seemingly infallible instincts for making a talky and arcane story propulsive, funny and emotionally engaging, and you have a movie that is just as imperative for its constituency as Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” has been for his global, younger audience.

Both “The Post” and “Ready Player One” turned out to be required viewing because of how they chimed with their times, whether in subject matter or, in the case of “Ready Player One,” a world built around the emerging visual language of virtual reality and immersive video games. In both cases, you had to be there. I might well say the same once I’ve seen “Avengers: Infinity War,” but I suspect that, in the midst of its sound, fury, crowded battle scenes and shocking deaths I’ll already be looking forward a must-see movie by another name: The new “Ant-Man” arrives in July. And I’m here for it.