It’s tough to form an opinion on Avengers: Infinity War. As the culmination of 10 years and 18 movies of building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s more of an event than a film, certainly the most anticipated movie of the year, and probably the most hyped since Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Everything has been building to this, a chance for all (or most) of the characters we’ve come to know and love so far to come together to face the villain that’s been teased since the first Avengers movie. Of course, we’ve been through this before in 2012, though on a smaller scale, with that first joining of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but things have grown so much since then. The scale of Infinity War is such that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that you’re still watching a movie, and a movie that just happens to be the first of two Avengers films a year apart which were filmed back-to-back. Occasionally, Infinity War forgets that, itself, getting lost to exposition or action that feels more like setup for the future rather than its own moviegoing experience. It hops from moment to moment with a feeling of inevitability, as though this was the predestined conclusion rather than a natural or organic culmination of everything that came before. But oh, those inevitable moments are still spectacular, thrilling, funny, and emotional, and when people look back on this Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, Infinity War will be one of the defining pieces of the grand whole.
Infinity War may have “Avengers” as part of the title, but the movie really belongs to Thanos. Thanos, a hulking purple alien from the planet Titan, has popped up in a handful of Marvel films in either cameos or as a behind-the-scenes power, but now he gets to step out into the light as the “Big Bad” of the MCU thus far. Thanos is after the six Infinity Stones, colorful magical rocks dating back to the beginning of time, which control various aspects of the universe such as time, space, or reality. We’ve seen some of these before, including the orb that everyone was after in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and the gem that sits in the middle of Vision’s forehead. Thanos wants to unite all of the Infinity Stones in a golden gauntlet which will give him almost unlimited power and control over the universe. What he wants to do with that power, and why he has set out on this path are two of the questions the movie explores, but which would probably count as spoilers so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. But Thanos is the character around whom Infinity War revolves, his quest for the Stones, particularly those on Earth, is what leads him, his army, and his powerful minions into conflict with the Avengers, and in a movie with so many heroes he is the one who ends up with the most screentime.
This is still an Avengers movie, however, and it’s crammed more full of Marvel heroes than anything we’ve seen so far. Infinity War picks up the dangling threads from the many previous, varied MCU movies. The Avengers are still broken up, with Steve Rogers and his team still fugitives following the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter Parker is still New York’s friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man, not knowing that Doctor Strange guards the Sanctum Sanctorum in another part of the city. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are back together following the ending of Spider-Man: Homecoming, while Thor, Loki, and Bruce Banner make their way to Earth aboard a spaceship full of Asgardian refugees after Ragnarok. King T’Challa works on opening Wakanda up to the world, and the Guardians of the Galaxy are off doing their thing while teenaged Groot whines in the back and plays videogames. Thanos will finally bring this scattered heroes together, or at least bring certain groups together in ways we haven’t seen before, as they rush to foil Thanos’s plan in a series of showdowns with a variety of foes.
Now on their third outing as Marvel directors, following the two Captain America sequels, Winter Soldier and Civil War, the Russo Brothers have shown themselves to be adept at handling the myriad requirements of directing a superhero movie. Their action sequences dwarf the climactic airport showdown in Civil War, and vary enough in style and size to keep the battles interesting and distinct, all while keeping the comedy light and allowing the emotional moments time to breathe. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, working on their fifth Marvel movie after the three Captain America films and Thor: The Dark World, largely redeem themselves in my eyes for their missteps in Civil War. This time out they don’t feel the need to alter characters in order to set up various confrontations as they did last time around, and they admirably juggle an enormous cast of characters so that everyone feels like they have something to contribute. Every now and then a moment falls flat, as though they’re trying too hard to match the widely varying tone of the movies that came before, particularly with characters they haven’t worked with as much, but overall our familiar heroes feel right, which is an important achievement in a film of this size.
Of course, it helps that the Marvel team has assembled such a talented and willing cast over the past decade. Almost everyone you’d expect to see makes an appearance, and it’s clear that after all this time no one knows these characters better than the actors who play them. In addition to the sheer star power on display, these professionals can take a throwaway line or an unscripted look and turn it into something hilarious or meaningful. It’s a joy to watch them play off each other, especially in new and surprising pairings and team-ups, none of which I’ll spoil for you. The new additions to the team work really well alongside the old hands, but with this many characters sharing the screen it’s inevitable that some of our heroes will have less to do than others. Everyone who makes an appearance gets a moment or two to shine, but few get any sort of arc at all. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark probably get the most room to stretch their comedic and dramatic muscles, and they carry a couple of the story’s legs and deliver some of its most emotional passages, while Tom Holland continues to be a standout as Peter Parker, whose enthusiasm is infectious no matter how dire the circumstances.
Still, despite delivering many great and memorable moments, one could easily be forgiven for feeling like Infinity War is more event than movie. The fact is that Marvel effectively painted itself into a corner over the last decade, and this is what they were building toward with every Thanos cameo and Infinity Stone appearance, and Infinity War is the inevitable culmination of that buildup. On the one hand, this is pretty much the only path that was available for Marvel to take, but that means that the story feels sort of obvious. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that everything feels planned within an inch of its life to the point where things occasionally feel like a bit of slog. This is especially true when viewing Infinity War in the larger context of Marvel’s plans and announcements, alongside even the shallowest look at comic book history. I never read comics, and I knew nothing about Thanos beyond his name when he was first introduced to the MCU, but a cursory Google search combined with awareness of the movie world meant that Infinity War unfolded almost exactly how I had guessed it would.
It may seem unfair to critique a movie based on events beyond the screen, but at the same time these movies, by design, don’t exist in a vacuum. Marvel’s interconnected storytelling across ten or more franchises demands an awareness of the world they’re building, but that’s a double-edged sword. When Infinity War was first announced it was called Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1, with next year’s Avengers film called Part 2. Marvel wisely dropped the “Part 1” from the title, given the way that tactic has been run into the ground by Harry Potter, The Hunger games, and Twilight, but the fact remains public that this film is just half of a planned story, filmed back-to-back, with the second half due out in twelve months, no matter what the title of that film turns out to be. There’s an Ant-Man sequel coming in two months, and Captain Marvel due out two months before the next Avengers movie, while sequels to Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy have also been officially announced. Then there are all of the discussions about contract lengths and negotiations, actors announcing that this pair of Avengers movies will be their last or that they’d be happy to make more. The fact is that while Infinity War is its own movie it also carries the weight of these outside factors, fairly or unfairly, which serve to remove some of the drama and suspense by pointing our expectations in certain directions, even if only subconsciously.
The other aspect of the double-edged sword is that Infinity War relies heavily on the viewer’s knowledge of what’s come in 18 movies before. That can be an excellent bonus for the filmmakers, because it removes some of the heavily lifting required in getting the audience up to speed. Characters don’t have to be reintroduced, powers don’t have to be reexplained, relationships don’t have to be resummarized, and its simply expected that you will know who or what or where a particular person, object, or place is. It frees up the film to have more action, more comedy, more plot, and more emotion, but it places a large burden on the audience. To some people this will feel like a reward for being an invested fan who has watched these movies repeatedly over the years and feels a deep connection to the characters. But to others it might have raised the hurdle so high as to make the film unenjoyable. Infinity War has been compared to the season finale of a TV series (although it’s technically more like the penultimate episode, with next year’s unnamed “Part 2” the finale), and theoretically no one would expect to watch a TV finale and understand it without having watched the rest of the series. That may be indeed be an accurate way of looking at the Marvel movies, but it ignores some rather necessary context. Heavily-serialized television is still a relative newcomer to the world of TV (beyond long-running soap operas). Serialized shows may seem ubiquitous and even expected now, but less than two decades ago, before easy access to DVRs and long before streaming series, most shows were only mildly serialized. Some will likely applaud Marvel for following the TV approach in pushing movies to catch up to the sorts of TV offerings that have caused movie theater revenues to drop. But many people still expect a different experience from movies, particularly older moviegoers who don’t have a desire to keep up with 18 movies over 10 years. If the argument is going to be that people should expect to have seen all of the movies before Infinity War than it must be clear what is being asked of people. At $10 a ticket, a moviegoer would have to have spent $180 at the theater before even buying a ticket to Infinity War, seeing sequels in franchises they might not even be interested in. And then they’re expected to remember that the Aether from Thor: The Dark World was left with the Collector in the post-credits scene of that film five years ago in order to fully appreciate this latest outing. It’s a heavy burden to place on an audience, and I don’t think it’s an unfair criticism to level at the film and Marvel generally, even while acknowledging that the grand history of these movies gives weight and emotion to this moviegoing experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of casual moviegoers were as overwhelmed by Infinity War as my parents were, who have seen a good number of Marvel films but certainly not all. Televsion-style filmmaking may be the next big thing, and it definitely has its advantages from a storytelling perspective, but it’s inevitably going to leave some people behind and I believe that’s a genuine shame. Movies are supposed to bring us together, and excluding people because they’re not devoted enough to a particular storytelling endeavor seems like a dangerous path to be headed down.
I guess the point I’m getting at is that never has a movie felt more like a cog in a machine than Infinity War. It’s a beautiful, fun, exciting, funny, and emotional cog, but it still feels like a cog, turned by the cogs before it and setting the cogs after it in motion. I’ve long been a defender of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and genuinely love most of the films. I’m a passionate fan of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, joined Netflix just for the Marvel shows (and Gilmore Girls), and I even watched every episode of Inhumans. I love the interconnectedness of it all, and I especially love how so many different kinds of artists get to play around in this shared universe which has the potential to bring its weight and importance to bear behind works that might otherwise not get the attention they deserve. The really good Marvel works have been wonderful in all kinds of different ways, be they revolutionary (Black Panther), unexpected (Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Vol. 2), perfectly balanced (Thor: Ragnarok), or simply visually creative (Doctor Strange). But the very best of them have been about something. Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Jessica Jones, and Black Panther all have themes they want to explore, beyond what we’ve come to expect from superhero shows and movies. All of the Marvel movies and shows give us a look at what it means to be a hero, and how that answer is differs from person to person, but the best ones give us more, whether that’s commentary on the current state of the world, a deep dive into societal or personal issues for our characters, or a look at larger themes. Infinity War has no room for that, even as it relies on the work that other cogs in the machine have done in that regard. It exists to give us spectacle, to wring emotion from our connections to these characters, and to set up the pieces for the next film. The result is a movie that is broadly very moving, but not very deeply moving.
In spite of how it may sound, I really enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War. It’s honestly about as good a movie as it could have been, given the circumstances surrounding it. I may have a few quibbles about the movie specifically, but on the whole it is a hell of a ride, and it’s thrilling to see all of these beloved characters together at last. It’s so much bigger than anything that has come before it, but there’s a very human side to the spectacle that keeps things balanced. In Thanos it has one of the better Marvel villains, whose motivations are interesting and who is compelling to watch. It has a lot of laughs, plenty of heroic moments to make your heart swell, and it brings some tears as well. And, uniquely in a Marvel Universe where death is never lasting or permanent, it forces our characters to deal with the realities of death and loss, even if it may only be for a little while. But it’s also incomplete, overly mechanical, and possibly too big to allow it to be truly and deeply interesting. It did its job, setting the stage for a Part 2 that promises to be more dynamic, creative, and unexpected, and it set that stage with style. And while my opinion on Infinity War may go up once its story is completed next year, for now we’ll just have to wait and hope that the filmmakers have left the best for last.