During the opening scenes, in which the stakes of Avengers: Infinity War are immediately established, I couldn’t help but reflect upon just how far Marvel Studios has come. Despite everything executives may say it’s impossible to believe that anyone could have imagined this level of success ten years ago when the then-C-list superhero Iron Man debuted on screens only weeks before Dark Knight shattered commercial and critical records for superhero films. Nonetheless, in addition to introducing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man foretold a Marvel formula which still works so well now: off-beat directors (often coming from comedies), lower tier movie stars, quirky humor, splashy effects and, of course, post-credits scenes. I still remember seeing Samuel L. Jackson appear unannounced as Nick Fury, a cameo that lead to me frantically explaining to my non-comics friends who Fury was and what the Avengers were and what this could mean and and and and…
And here we are; ten years, eighteen films, five franchises, three phases, dozens of television shows, billions of dollars, and a handful of forgettable villains have all lead to this point. What at first seemed impossible was now playing out right in front of my eyes. It seemed only right to appreciate the care and effort taken to create a singular, coherent cinematic universe – something that hadn’t been done before and, arguably, hasn’t been equaled since – before it’s torn about piece by piece. You gotta hand it to Kevin Feige, Joe and Anthony Russo, and all the rest of the heads at Marvel Studios, they aren’t afraid to take chances and make big changes. After Infinity War, whatever’s left could look vastly different from what I reflected upon as this capstone of Marvel’s first decade appeared before me.
(Note: In the interest of avoiding spoilers there are many, many things not addressed in this review. Hopefully the overall quality of the film comes through rather than specific points of its story.)
Picking up almost immediately after the mid-credits scene of Thor: Ragnarok, which I criticized for being so light and so enjoyable that the film blunted the emotional wallop of its considerable darkness and death toll, Infinity War wastes no time breaking from last year’s 70’s science fiction inspired romp. While there is still a touch of humor in how some of the characters speak and act, this is not a typical free-wheeling Marvel opening, nor is it a splashy, consequences-free action piece. Infinity War spends its very first scene setting the dire tone that permeates almost every moment of its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime and introducing plot threads that not only play into the conclusion of this film but will undoubtedly bleed into the as-of-yet untitled Avengers 4. Sure, trailers and behind the scenes videos may give us an idea where this journey takes us, but by the time the Infinity War title card appears on screen, we’ve already hit a few unexpected bumps on our way there, and, at this point, we’ve barely even left the garage.
Of course, Ragnarok is not the only major factor in where we are at the beginning of Infinity War. Doctor Strange, Spiderman: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 all influence the starting positions of our various heroes, but Captain America: Civil War rightly holds the most importance. Although there is some question as to why Steve Rogers, Sam Watson, Wanda Maximoff and others seem to be roaming freely once more, the icy relationship between Cap and Tony Stark which that films informs much of what transpires here become major touchstones in the events of Infinity War. Perhaps even more than its plot points, Civil War as the previous Russo Brothers’ film, has a clear influence on how Infinity War is told. Whereas Civil War was a Captain America movie, allowing its characters to weave through dependent upon how they impacted Cap’s particular narrative, which in turn deprived certain characters of both screen time and development, Infinity War, as an Avengers film, weaves its story around the characters themselves. The result is that while there may not be a splash-page scene like Civil War‘s airport showdown, but most of the individual scenes, especially in the beginning when different groupings are independent of each other, feel like single issues of a line-wide comic book crossover. After Age of Ultron felt over-stuffed, there were concerns that an even larger story with even more characters would leave many of them forgotten. Thankfully, with few exceptions most of the characters who do appear on screen are given some level of character development… most. Some fans will be disappointed that so-and-so was only on for a couple of minutes or blah-blah wasn’t there at all, but if nothing else there’s a very high likelihood that those people will appear in the next film.
In fact, treatment of character is one of the major strengths of Infinity War, which is a testament not only to Marvel’s writers and actors but to Joe and Anthony Russo’s knack for somehow making these disparate groups and figures feel authentic to themselves. Much of the film’s early fun – and there is in fact a lot of fun even in the dire tone – is found in seeing various franchise figures bounce off each other. Different as they are, watching Tony Stark and Stephen Strange volley snarky comments seems only natural, while Peter Quill attempting to out-regal Thor is unexpected but totally in line with who we know these characters to be, and lead to major payoffs later in the narrative. It’s actually in these early, at times even superfluously humorous scenes, that Infinity War feels like it may not be the earth-shattering event expected. One would think that Stark and Strange would work harder to stop half of life being wiped from the universe. Perhaps unleash that army of Iron Man suits, or use some of those ancient magical artifacts, rather than simply run out into the streets of Manhattan to combat two members of the Black Order. Yet here again is where one of Infinity War‘s greatest strengths is seen. By beginning small, or as small as a story can be when there are dozens of heroes running about trying to prevent mass slaughter, there is room for the film to ramp up, getting bigger and bigger and more dire with every new development so that by the end, when the fights promised by the trailers and teasers come, the film genuinely feels gigantic. There may not be the intense focus of a solo or even a small team film, but what the movies lacks in intimacy it more than accounts for in intensity. If the airport fight of Civil War was a splash page, the final act of Infinity War is a double gate-fold connected from the inside back cover of a dozen different titles. It’s that huge.
Yet none of this, none at all, works if not for one thing: Thanos.
One of the major criticisms over the last ten years of Marvel films has been the franchise’s villains. From Obadiah Stane to Ronan the Accuser, or even to longtime arch villains like Red Skull and The Mandarin, Marvel’s baddies have often felt more like CSI-style criminals of the week than major threats, with two of the best being the most recent in Black Panther‘s Erik Killmonger and Ulysses Klaue. Thanos, however, has been built up as an entirely different caliber of bad guy. He does not disappoint. Not only is Thanos a threat worthy of the Earthiest Mighty’s Heroes plus about fifteen others, he receives more development than any other character in the entire film. In many ways, Infinity War is a Thanos movie rather than an Avengers one. Clearly taking a cue from Killmonger, the Russo’s invest a considerable amount of screen time delving into Thanos’s motivation, enough so that, as with Kilmonger again, the Mad Titan perhaps doesn’t seem so mad. Sure, he has slaughtered millions, and plans to slaughter trillions more, he’s indiscriminant in who he kills and is a force of absolute chaos masquerading as order, but depending on how one looks at the issue, his reasoning is sound. More importantly, he believes it. The greatest villains are those who believe themselves righteous, and Thanos has always been a great villain. (It should be said here, I attempted to read the original Infinity Gauntlet comic book series when it was first released in 1991, and I quit after the first issue. The concept of killing half of all life in the universe was too massive and too disturbing for me to handle. There is some of that here.) It helps that Josh Brolin’s vocal performance, combined with amazing animation, from the way Thanos moves with weight or has little hairs on his forearms, make the character feel entirely too real, more than Brolin in body paint and prosthetics would have. Although a distant second in both screen time and quality, Ebony Maw stands out among the members of the Black Order as the most interesting and fully realized of the new characters. Sadly though, as the film wears on the effects seem to get progressively worse, particularly in Peter Dinklage almost never filmed with anyone else in the shot and the effects of the (as shown in the trailers) battle in Wakanda, eventually looking as though the budget had run out and the producers resorted to very obvious overlays to finish. There other flaws in Infinity War, and tons of plot points to nitpick about but, honestly, a film this big, this ambitious, with so much build-up and so much riding on its quality shouldn’t be anywhere near this good. It’s damn near unimaginable.
There is so much to unpack in Infinity War that even six hours after leaving the theater, I still haven’t had the chance to ponder it all. It’s the only thing I want to talk about. Sadly, at this point talking about even the first few minutes with anyone would lead to them covering their ears and yelling “NO SPOILERS!” Instead, I’ll end my review with this: When Marvel Studios debuted Iron Man ten years ago no one, not even the heads of Marvel themselves, could have imagined the scope and success of their films. As fans we hoped, we speculated, and we supported. And here we all are, taking this ride together. We should all take a moment to reflect on how long we waited to see our favorite superheroes on screen, the false starts and failures, how far we’ve come in this vast experiment in serialized storytelling, how much fun we’ve had with these characters and creators, (how envious we are for professionally being a part of these films), and just how wonderful this entire cinematic journey has been… because it’s still gonna be one long, agonizing year waiting to see how it finally ends.