Frankly, there’s never been a movie like Avengers: Infinity War.
From one point of view it’s just the third movie in its series, after Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
But more accurately you could look at it as Part 19 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But the MCU, as it’s known, is actually made up of 10 different movie titles or franchises: not just the Avengers, but series like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy, plus standalone movies (so far) like Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Dr. Strange and Black Panther. Infinity War could rightly be considered the direct sequel of at least four of those series, and a legitimate follow-on to all of them, except maybe for Ant-Man.
As such it boasts a huge number of “main” characters, or at least “major” characters who have a significant participation. I count 26 “good guys” who are super-powered, specially skilled, or trained fighters who play some sort of active role in the conflict (and that doesn’t count a few other familiar cameos). All of them were major players in one or more previous films…which means that none of them really required any significant character development in this one.
The exception of course is the villain of the piece–Thanos himself, who up to this point has just been a looming presence in the MCU, not a genuine character. It’s his journey that we end up following here–he’s really the “hero” of the story. Too bad his goal is to kill half of everybody. (But he’s not because he’s a bad guy, apparently, but because he thinks it’s the only way to be nice to the other half…the half he doesn’t want to kill.)
Also, this is a film which ends at the halfway point in the story, or at least before the traditional victory that we would normally expect to see from such a tale, and that we fully expect is coming in some fashion or another in the movie’s follow-on in May 2019.
All this makes Infinity War a strange piece of work, and a bit hard to give a normal sort of commentary on. You might even be tempted to say that because of all this it’s not really a normal movie at all, as we’ve come to think of it. And while on some level that’s true, on another it still is an actual movie–it’s released under a single title, I paid for a ticket to go and see it, and it even has one of those MPAA release numbers at the end (although I’ll be darned if I can find that information on the internet).
And so how does the movie stand up, this bizarre animal that is Avengers: Infinity War?
In many ways, surprisingly well.
I mean, first of all, it impressively boasts a clear storyline which is actually pretty simple to understand: Thanos wants to gather these magic stones to do something terrible, they’re hidden all over the place, and heroes are trying to stop him because that’s what heroes do when they find someone out to do something terrible.
And the movie unfolds this plot in a way that is really easy to follow. There are so many characters going through parallel plotlines, but each person and place is introduced organically, in a way that seems natural and justified. And while some characters get less attention than others, nobody gets lost.
I even attended the movie with someone who only had a passing familiarity with the MCU–this friend asked me before we went in what the connection was between the Marvel movies and the Avengers. And while he didn’t know who everybody was (he didn’t recognize the Guardians of the Galaxy at all) he was never confused.
And while there’s not an emphasis on the character development of the heroes, that’s not to say there’s none. Both Iron Man and Gamora (from the Guardians of the Galaxy) get some good stuff, as does Star-Lord, and Vision and Scarlet Witch are all of a sudden all lovey-dovey with each other. But it’s really Thanos that gets most of our attention.
We learn that he genuinely believes it’s for everyone’s good that he wipe out half life, even if he’s arrived at this conclusion simply because his own world got overcrowded, and then grouchy when no one listened to him. Upon this flimsy platform, we get the events of this movie (and a bunch of the MCU before this, apparently).
But in spite of his clearly deluded position, he has a bit of a pitiable quality to him. He believes so strongly in the rightness of his ideas, and sees himself as being so self-sacrificial in his pursuit of them, that we can’t help but to view him with a level of sympathy. Josh Brolin gives a good performance which helps to keep the film surprisingly grounded.
Of course, Thanos is also massively powerful, the most physically threatening villain Marvel has ever given us. That makes him memorable and scary, even though his strength levels seem to fluctuate as the story requires (in one scene, he easily out-punches the Hulk, but in another, Captain America takes an unguarded blow to the face without showing much damage).
Thanks to that power, and to Thanos’ large supply of minions, we get loads of great fight scenes, which of course is Marvel has always done so well. More than that, directors Anthony and Joe Russo don’t just deliver on the punching and shooting, but on crafting sequences that make the heroes look amazing. Indeed, what the movie lacks in character development it makes up for in character showcasing. I mean, you don’t really learn anything new about Thor, but he’s awesome in this movie–noble, heroic and funny (Chris Hemsworth continues to shine after the character’s rebranding in his previous outing, Thor Ragnarok). And Captain America isn’t actually on screen very much, but of course he’s fun to watch in action. And Peter Quill is funny, and Spider-Man is plucky, and Black Panther is noble, and so on. Everyone gets a moment or two. Indeed, Thanos has four primary “assistant villains” who are all pretty intimidating, and their eventual defeats gives our heroes plenty of chances to shine.
At the same time, there are a couple of moments of heroic stupidity in the movie. Most of the Guardians charge rashly into battle at one point or another. None of that matters too much except for the bit with Star-Lord, who legitimately sabotages the Avengers’ most likely potential victory because of his lack of self-control. And then there are no less than three (count ’em, three!) scenes where people give up locations of Infinity Stones to Thanos to prevent the torture or death of others. Of course the sentiment is appreciated but the repetitive nature of the storybeats is tiring. In a film that’s really all about Thanos inevitably getting each of these Stones, it would have been nice to work a bit harder at avoiding that. Poetically, all three people who do this end up dying, but all three of the people they did it for end up surviving.
Most annoying of all (well, it’s an even split with the Star-Lord thing I mentioned) is that at the end, when Thor delivers the killing blow to Thanos, he doesn’t actually kill him right away (or I don’t know, cut off his hand or something), but rather he leaves him alive long enough to say a zinger line, and then do what he’s been threatening to do all along. Sure, it had to happen for the story, but it could have been directed in a way to make Thor not look foolish for letting it happen.
Which brings us to the movie’s ending, and the fact that it is not completely satisfying.
I don’t mean that it’s bad, as it isn’t, necessarily. It’s just that we know for all sorts of reasons that this downer of all downer of an ending (the villain has succeeded in all his intentions, the heroes have failed in all of theirs, and half the universe has perished as a result) is not going to be the final state of affairs of the MCU. We know that we haven’t seen the last of Spider-Man, Black Panther or Star-Lord. We know that somehow, there will be a measure of victory which will rise from the ashes (and we have hints that it probably involved the arrival of Captain Marvel and something about the one timeline that Dr. Strange saw, and so on).
But we haven’t had the privilege of seeing any of that yet. For now, we’re just at a huge low point in the story. When the eventual more traditional ending arrives, the story here will probably be more fulfilling. Rather than just an unexpected and heavy ending, we’ll see it as the darkest of all dark moments which helped make the light of the later victory seem all the brighter.
Now, there’s a reason such victories are traditional–they’re satisfying. I don’t come into superhero stories just to be overwhelmed with hopelessness and fear. I want to hold onto hope, even when things are dark and depressing–hope that eventually the tide will turn, that people will be saved, that evil will be crippled. That’s the story that I’m really looking forward to seeing, where the heroes rise up and take back what’s been lost. And in this case, I’m looking for that effort to be spear-headed by a group who are more or less the original Avengers team (since Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, the Hulk and probably Hawkeye are all still alive), even if that turnaround comes at a terrible price (so it doesn’t seem too easy).
Until then, I can’t say I fully enjoyed Infinity War, although most of my problems are just nit-picks. But the movie left me hanging…but in a way that makes me hopeful When Avengers 4 hits the screen (whatever it’s called), I’m hoping I’ll see the two movies as one, fantastic mountain-sized epic, and that the whole thing will fully cement itself as one of the greatest superhero stories ever told. It’s got the potential for it.